Tag Archives: Race and ethnicity

Why stereotypes need to die, cont’d: Hollywood and African men

Brilliant:

Andrew Revkin adds:

The tendency to focus on the grim side of any issue, or group, goes far beyond the movies, of course. […] The bottom line, for me, is that there is a great opportunity for nonprofit groups, university communication and journalism programs and creative individuals to step in to the gap left by Hollywood and the media and find ways to tell the up side of the human story. This is one such attempt. What else is out there?

(via The NY Times)

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Why stereotypes need to die, cont’d: “Do I look suspicious?”

In the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin, the men of Howard University have put together a compelling video that challenges racial profiling and reminds us of its lethal consequences:

On a related note: In a previous post on “identity beyond ethnicity,” I’d written about Touré and the notion of post-blackness, questioning whether there’s any limit to the infinite flexibility of “racial” identity — whether, in an age when skin color doesn’t limit our desires, abilities, interests, and ambitions, being “black” (or any other color) means anything at all. But clearly it still does. Touré’s recent essay for Time, “How to Stay Alive While Being Black,” makes it clear to me that choosing your own identity is only half of the equation; the other half is how people see you — and how your reaction to their perception also shapes who you are:

You will have to make allowances for other people’s racism. That’s part of the burden of being black. We can be defiant and dead or smart and alive. I’m not saying you can’t wear what you want, but your clothes are a red herring. They’ll blame it on your hoodie or your jeans when the real reason they decided you were a criminal is that you’re black. Of course, you know better. Racism is about reminding you that you are less human, less valuable, less worthy, less beautiful, less intelligent. It’s about prejudging you as violent, fearsome, a threat. Some people will take that prejudice and try to force their will on you to make sure you feel like a second-class citizen and to make certain you get back to the lower-class place they think you’re trying to escape. The best way to counter them involves not your fists but your mind. You know your value to the world and how terrific you are. If you never forget that, they can’t damage your spirit. The best revenge is surviving and living well.

What does it mean to be a black man? It means that no matter what kind of human being you are, you can still be shot dead because of the color of your skin, the hoodie you happen to wear, and the prejudices of all the bigots around you whose existence you can’t afford to deny.

The day we put all this bullshit behind us can’t come fast enough.

(h/t Feministing)
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Update: A heartbreaking take from David Brothers:

Martin’s story — all of these stories — is a reminder. It’s a reminder that you have so little control over your life that who you are doesn’t actually matter. All that matters is what other people can make you into. You’re not a person, not in the end. You’re just a thing to be used and discarded, no matter how good of a guy you were, no matter how cute your daughter is, they’re going to find something on you and that’s going to be that. Sorry, but Mister Charlie needs grist for the mill. […]

And it’s racism. All of it. It is unquestionably, objectively racism. It’s not some guy going out to lynch nigras for looking at white women, but that’s not the entirety of what racism is. Racism is a system. Racism is a way of thinking. Racism is subconscious. Racism is an entire country being trained to suspect an entire race of being shifty, lazy, or suspicious by default. I have to prove that I’m not a threat? How about I make America prove it doesn’t want to murder me, since there’s way more precedent for that than some skinny kid being a savage. If I have my hood up and I’m not smiling because I’m having a bad day, I’m a threat, someone to make you clutch your purse or hug your girl closer. I’m a thug? C’mon son. I’m just having a bad day in the big city. Get real. You’ve been trained to see brown skin and go to “Threat!” first instead of “Person!” You’ve been brainwashed. […]

The experience of being black in America is one of being constantly reminded that you are black in America, with all the drama that comes from it. The preferred term online amongst… whoever for black people is People of Color, or POC. I hate it, because yo, first, everyone has color, and second, how about you don’t define me in opposition to somebody else? I feel like that should be a basic human right. The right to not be not-White. It’s basic things like that that are what I mean. I can’t escape the fact that I’m black and have built-in baggage, even if I wanted to.

The whole thing is very much worth a read.

(via Let’s Be Friends Again, via Tor.com)

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Miscellany, and an apology for long silence

I’ve been away from this blog recently, trying to devote some more time to fiction writing (but not yet quite comfortable enough to talk about that personal creative process, as I know others do). Working on this blog has been, and continues to be, an interesting writing experience — but a reactive one, a curatorial process of finding and commenting on cool things that others have said or done. It’s rewarding to be plugged in to the cultural conversation on the net, adding my humble two cents; but it’s been a while since I’ve made something of my own, and that’s something I’d like to spend a little more time doing. If you’ve been following my posts, I’m very grateful for your time and attention. I’ll try to keep it up as best I can.

Meanwhile, some things of interest:

1) Gregory Benford writes about the future of space exploration, arguing that the time has come for NASA to give way to commerce-driven space initiatives. Neil deGrasse Tyson (whom my family and I just saw giving a brilliant talk at the American Museum of Natural History) offers a different take on NASA and the vital importance of government funding for exploration. (Tyson videos have been popping up all over YouTube recently, eloquently presenting and sometimes re-editing his arguments: some choice ones here and especially here.)

2) A fascinating talk by author Neal Stephenson on our society’s increasing inability to get big stuff done, and why it’s important to revive that sense of ambition and possibility.

3) Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie has a must-read essay on “The Storytellers of Empire,” asking America why “Your soldiers will come to our lands, but your novelists won’t.” She makes a compelling argument for empathy, connection, and identity beyond ethnicity: “The moment you say, a male American writer can’t write about a female Pakistani, you are saying, Don’t tell those stories. Worse, you’re saying, as an American male you can’t understand a Pakistani woman. She is enigmatic, inscrutable, unknowable. She’s other. Leave her and her nation to its Otherness. Write them out of your history.”

4) NPR host Bob Mondello points to a science fiction story by E.M. Forster, “The Machine Stops,” that eerily predicts our (sterile?) virtual culture, our overreliance on technology, and what that says about who we are.

5) Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova asks: “what if we engineered […] selective attention purposefully and aligned it with our emotional and mental well-being?” She calls our attention to Ruth Kaiser and the Spontaneous Smiley Project, which invites us to see — and photograph — the smiley-face configurations that are literally everywhere around us. Kaiser makes the case for optimism on her blog, and quotes some inspiring Dr. Seuss passages as well. You can also watch her TED talk here.

And now I’m off. Have a great day, wherever you are. Go make something beautiful. Make someone smile.

(Photo via Do Something)

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True patriotism, cont’d

From the chapter “We Are Quintessential Americans” in Touré’s book Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?:

Many people told me they sense in Black Americans an urge to reject America before it rejects us. I understand that. It makes perfect sense as a reaction to the past. Blacks have had insurrection in our blood because we’ve felt America’s power and hypocrisies pressing down on our necks. But is that reject-America-before-it-rejects-us ethos the most pragmatic answer for our future? Is the pessimism inherent in that ethos valuable? […]

We are American. And we are so American that rejecting this country means rejecting part of ourselves. A person who hates their family must also hate themselves, for they will surely manifest family traits. That’s a migraine-inducing sort of double-consciousness. “I don’t have hatred for white people,” Paul Mooney said, “because then I would have to hate myself.” Being an American who cannot fully love America means you cannot fully love yourself. “I gotta love these white brothers and sisters,” Cornel West said. “Even though I’ve seen some real sick ones. Gotta learn how to embrace ’em. And inspire ’em to be better.”

It may feel dangerous to love America but we must have faith. America’s story is still unfolding, its character is still forming. It’s a young nation, it’s like a teenager among nations, and we must retain hope that it will continue to mature because giving up on it is giving up on part of ourselves.

Previous thoughts on patriotism here.

(Image via Civil Rights Movement Veterans)

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“When you remove the burden of representation, as an artist you get wings”: Touré on post-blackness

Cultural critic Touré, author of Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?, has a fascinating conversation with Soundcheck host John Schaefer about the increasingly fluid relationship between identity and race (something I occasionally try to get at in my own series of posts on identity beyond ethnicity). I was particularly struck by his critique of the notion of authenticity (“Keep It Real Is a Prison” is a chapter title from his book), and by how he strategizes to get around others’ preconceptions:

I’ve had moments […] where people are coming at me saying things that are racist: “You can’t do such-and-such story because you’re black.” Not even in so many words, but I know what they’re saying and they know what they’re saying. And if I jump up and say, “Hey, that’s racist, I’m going to overturn your table now,” well, that’s fantastic, but you’ll never work at that magazine or that television station again. But if you find a more subtle way of coming around the flank and attacking them from the back, then you can get in and you can succeed, and you can get to do the story and prove that you are greater than their expectations.

Sound advice.

The whole interview is very much worth a listen. Touré and Schaefer discuss Henry Louis Gates’ assertion that “if there are forty million black Americans, then there are forty million ways to be black”; the evolution of hip-hop — and the expansion of its emotional palette — as a reflection of the evolution of cultural and racial identity; the provocative shape-shifting of the Dave Chappelle Show (with excerpts from the hilarious racial draft skit); the “culture-jamming” of artists like Kehinde Wiley and musicians like Santogold/Santigold; and more.

As I’ve written before, rejecting the expectation of being a spokesman for one’s tribe is liberating; in Touré’s words, “When you remove the burden of representation, as an artist you get wings.” He calls for “stretching the potential of identity to infinity,” and argues that “anybody can perform blackness any way they want to.” I do wonder how far he’s willing to take that notion; if we are to reject imposed identities and instead choose for ourselves who we are, does that mean that non-blacks can perform blackness too? Schaefer, for example, brings up the early-80s hip-hop producers Double Dee and Steinski, apparently assumed to be “kids from the South Bronx” until they turned out to be “older white guys who worked on Madison Avenue.” And I’m reminded of Tom Piazza’s defense of Gillian Welch and her right to play Appalachian music without being from the region herself: “the question is whether it works, whether it rings true, not whether you have an inherited visa to enter that territory.”

It’s an interesting question; Touré is exploring the notion of being rooted in but not constrained by blackness — a notion I’m very much in favor of, for all ethnicities — but if, as he suggests, we expand “the potential of identity to infinity,” is such an identity meaningful at all? (Chappelle’s skit really explodes that idea very subversively, I think.) In a promotional video for his book, Touré explains how blacks can shift between different “dimensions of blackness” depending on what the situation calls for, but perhaps he’s not pushing it far enough. If we are the ones who choose how to define ourselves, and how to carry ourselves in accordance with our definitions — if, in other words, we choose the meaning of who we are — then perhaps the meaning of blackness, or Asianness, or Mexicanness, or whatever, is (refreshingly? gloriously?) arbitrary. If something can mean whatever we want it to mean, maybe it inherently means nothing at all. And maybe that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Maybe all we are, in the end, is human.

(Image: “Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II (Michael Jackson)” by Kehinde Wiley)

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Why stereotypes need to die, cont’d

Because sometimes what you think is a dirty racist look isn’t really a dirty racist look at all:

I feel like people don’t give this country enough credit to show truly how embracing of people it really is.

[…] Last year, we were driving down the highway in Georgia and we found this Confederate flag shop and we pulled inside and we saw these three guys sitting outside giving us this dirty look, right in the heart of southern Georgia. I stepped out of the car and as soon as I stepped out these guys were like “Hey! Welcome! Make yourself at home! Great weather today, isn’t it?” And we had this great conversation.

And here I was thinking that these guys were gonna be prejudiced towards me, but I was actually the one being prejudiced towards them, thinking that they were racist or bigoted and backward, that kind of thing. Granted, this was a Confederate place, we all know the history of the Confederacy. These guys were very kind to us, and I can only hold them accountable for how they were treating us.

So this whole idea of what is the cultural baggage that I bring to the table […] was something that I was reflecting on a lot — this whole idea of […] how I am perceiving other people that view me as opposed to what is actually happening in reality.

That’s Aman Ali — co-creator, with Bassam Tariq, of the video project “30 Mosques in 30 Days” — telling The Takeaway host Celeste Headlee what he thinks of a new Pew study showing that Muslim-Americans are more optimistic about America than the general population, despite the very real hardships and discrimination they experience. And what caught my attention was the point Ali raises, which in my opinion isn’t raised often enough: that sometimes, sometimes, we perceive prejudice where none exists. That’s something that, as a minority, I’ve been guilty of myself; it’s taken me a while to realize that an argument or frosty relationship can’t always be blamed on the imagined bigotry of the other party. Sometimes it’s not about race. And sometimes it’s my fault.

Yes, racism remains a real problem in America — less open and virulent than in times past, but a serious problem still. Yes, it’s important to have debates over what is racist and what is not (see, for instance, the conversations around whether The Help, a movie that criticizes racism, unwittingly engages in racism itself). And yes, it’s important to listen to minorities when we describe our perceptions and experiences, to make sure we have the space and time to air our views without being dismissed or drowned out by dominant white perspectives.

But I think it’s just as important to remember that we are none of us infallible saints. And the color of my skin alone doesn’t automatically make my views correct, any more than it invalidates the thoughtful, well-considered opinion of someone who happens to be white. The conversation is what’s important — and in a grownup conversation, everybody has a turn, and everybody listens.

Sometimes we need to recognize and call out prejudice not just in others, not just “in society,” but in ourselves. And that’s true no matter what color we are.

(Photo via Arabian Business)

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On identity beyond ethnicity (and other boundaries), cont’d: Tom Piazza on music, empathy, and the limits of “authenticity”

In an NPR interview, Tom Piazza discusses his collection of essays Devil Sent the Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America. He points out that country music singer Jimmy Rodgers “crossed a lot of lines that, I think, at that time in our culture in the 1920s, were probably generally seen as being … less porous than he thought they were. He took it on himself to pick freely from the traditions not just of Anglo-American balladry, railroad songs, Western songs, but also from African-American blues, and he did it very convincingly.”

And he discusses Bob Dylan, who of course is a musical and cultural chameleon who didn’t (and doesn’t) have “a whole lot of respect for other people’s ideas of where the boundaries were supposed to come down.”

But Piazza puts it best when he reads an excerpt from an essay considering whether Gillian Welch — NY-born, LA-raised, with early forays into goth and psychedelic surf — can perform old-time country “authentically,” and whether it matters*:

It seems to me that it takes an extreme poverty of imagination to propose, implicitly or explicitly, that people can write only about their personal experience (or, worse, about the experiences peculiar to their ethnic/gender/regional/national group). It takes poverty of imagination, and hostility to the idea of the free human spirit. Any hope one might have left for a society like ours depends on the constant assertion of the possibility of that kind of empathy. Of course, as an artist, the further from your personal experience you try to reach, the more effort, intuition, honesty, humility, and/or luck it takes. The further you reach, the easier it is to do something that doesn’t work, doesn’t ring true. But the question is whether it works, whether it rings true, not whether you have an inherited visa to enter that territory.

Listen to the whole thing here. More thoughts on identity beyond boundaries here.

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*Update: I’ve replaced my original transcript of the edited interview with the actual passage from the book, which I’ve since bought and enjoyed.

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