Tuesday, October 17

Are you white? Just asking.

with thanks to entry level Sara for the image


I know, that's an extremely provocative question. But bear with me. [Full disclosure: Blue Gal is decidedly pink all over, burns a little too easily, and does not wear a bathing suit in public.]

I've been thinking about the attention being given to that 300 million Americans number and all the talk about how America is no longer majority "white" and is getting "browner" all the time, and how the race-hatred against Hispanics is only the latest in our nation's long history of suspecting the "outsider."

I recently read an article (it's on page 23 of this pdf file if you're interested) which introduced me to the concept of Critical Race Theory. If you want to tell me I've had my head in the sand for years having never heard of this before, go ahead, I'm STILL on Mommy-track and I don't give a rat's butt.

Critical Race Theory holds that racist behavior is not an aberration but normal practice. The theory suggests that elites only act against racist behavior when it serves their own purposes; that race is a social, not biological, construct; and that characteristics ascribed to a particular race change based on the needs of the ruling class. For example, according to this theory, during the era of plantation slavery African Americans were characterized as “carefree” and “childlike” in order to rationalize enslavement. Now, however, black Americans are characterized as “menacing” and “threatening” in order to justify current socio-economic policies.


"Socio-economic policies" like pulling over drivers for "DWB" -- Driving While Black. If Critical Race Theory is accurate, then the cultural majority is rationalizing the public policies endorsed by that majority, by portraying other races with generalities, i.e. if you're black, you are likely a criminal, if you're Arab, you are likely a terrorist, if you're Hispanic, you are likely an illegal.

Oh. That's what they are saying.

I did a little internet research and actually found an academic website discussing what "whiteness" means. All the bullshit meters went off in my head simultaneously, but I kept reading. And I kept thinking about that whole "race is a social, not biological, construct" thing.

Because you see, today, the cultural majority would say that Italians, Germans, most Jews (it depends) and the Irish fall under the grand category of White America. But listen up people. There was a time in the past two-hundred-and-thirty-year history of this nation when that was not the case. Benjamin Franklin complained in a letter about the influx of Germans and how they were not, and could never be, true Americans. Teddy Roosevelt decried the influx of high-birthrate southern Europeans (egad, Catholic too!) and that "white" America was committing "race suicide" by not matching them baby for baby. And during our Civil War and after, the Irish were used to load dynamite onto ships because slaves were too valuable to be used in a job where you could blow up any minute.

Where I take Critical Race Theory from here is that it is only a matter of time until the cultural majority, whether because they are totally outnumbered or because the economic clout of the Hispanic majority makes it in the best interest of the dominant to do so, simply accepts Mexican-Americans as white. Much will depend, I think, on whether the Hispanic community decides on the whole to cling to their language, specifically and as a badge of cultural honor. I think that the ecomomic pressure to use the official language of the internet is too great, and English will be the fire under the melting pot, but I could be wrong.

If I may adopt a gross generalization of my own? Americans never take the long view and rarely look down the family tree to see their own outsider origins.

And the elephant in the room is what this says about African Americans. I think that is the point. Without getting too bogged down in pseudo-intellectual theory (which still sets off the bullshit meters in my head and always will) we need to ask the question about Blacks and the American illusion of the melting pot. It's a big question, especially for us liberals, some of whom want to sing Kumbaya and believe that racial equality is a goal we can work toward. I'm not saying it isn't. But if we don't listen to what Blacks other than Oprah have to say about this, we're not going to get very far. I agree with Bill Clinton that addressing racial and ethnic conflict is as important to our future as tackling global warming and poverty. This pink chick's not gonna let the race issue drop.

15 comments:

  1. I am one of the whiteset white folks I know, based on what I know about our family history, which, thanks to my late father, is actually quite a bit. I am also, sad to say, burdened with a numer of extraordinarily racist family members (none too close, thank goodness), and I love to have that genetic test done to show, maybe, a little Lenni Lenape blood or whatever mixed in, just to shut them up.

    Critical Race Theory is fascinating to me, and, if you put aside the "pseudo-intellectual bs" part of it (academics CAN learn to write in a way that the rest of us CAN understand; they just choose not to), it makes a lot of sense. You've covered it here in a nice little nutshell. It's an area where, as a social studies-teacher-to-be, I want to read more.

    I highly recommend How the Irish Became Whiteby Noel Ignatiev, which I read a long time ago when it first came out (1996). It kind of introduced me to the subject. Very interesting stuff.

    And we do need to have this conversation. The bad guys are doing their darnest to keep us seperated and suspicious. We need to stop them.

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  2. Did I say that? I meant "whitest."

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  3. Totally burns-easily white European here (but with enough smouldering eastern european heritage to make me mysterious). And BG, you'd totally ace a class on critical race theory--you nailed it, in a nutshell.

    FWIW, Quakerdave, the academy is moving toward writing more clearly and less jargon-y.

    This discussion reminds me of a t-shirt I saw on a woman of color at an academic conference I just attended. Her shirt read, "got privilege?" Genotype = power.

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  4. Hispanic-Americans have not, up to this point, banded together and demanded equal rights as African-Americans did in the 60s and 70s. If and when they ever do, then they will cling to their own ethnic identity and refuse to assimilate.

    What Hispanics lack right now is a sense of common purpose and a unified message. They have no Civil Rights Movement or Martin Luther King to rally behind so they are pretty fragmented at the moment.

    And I don't know if true racial equality is ever possible in America. It would be possible if America's population and/or really ANYTHING about us stayed the same. The fact that we are so heterogenous in so many ways and always have been makes it so that there will always be this process of having to identify "the other".

    Who's to say in 100 years what the next ethnic group to immigrate over here will be. And who's to say what the population dynamics will be at that point in time.

    As for me? I'm the pretty typical American--a mutt of Western European ethnic groups with some Eastern European thrown in for good measure.

    The problem with African-Americans is that the average ordinary black person is not at all Oprah. Many aspire to be Oprah but there is a perception that she has sold out and "become white". And then there are some who refuse to sell out and reject the whole notion of whiteness. That's the divide.

    But it's really no different than anyone rising up from poverty and choosing to cloth himself/herself in the identity of affluence, while forgetting your roots. Seems to me as though we need to remember where we came from but still try to improve ourselves in the process.

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  5. Quakerdave et al., I think the term we are looking for is "whitey-est." Ha!

    And yeah, it really bothers me that a segment of the African American population sees what many other "immigrant" groups (and sure, you're not an immmigrant if your people were dragged over here in a slave ship) have seen as the ticket up in America: education and adopting the standards of the dominant. Somehow that's "becoming white" which somebody ought to tell Cornell West. I don't know how to combat that sense of sell-out.

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  6. BlueGal, I still think your the best. And discussing race certainly confirms that point. And critical race theory is quite helpful in some matters, but really has rested as primarily as an academic movement and has barely morphed into a political movement. And as someone who sat in Cornel West's class back in 1987 at Yale, he definitely isn't a sell out because he's brilliant, but rather because he shows up in Matrix films and uses his brilliance to promote Cornel West as spokesman for the disenfranchised, rather then formulating measures to make the disentranchised less so.

    But to be honest, African Americans en masse have been so seduced by a corporate defined and marketed image of themselves that they have actually abandoned their historical culture. It is quite well known that even before African Americans believed in the Democratic Party, they believed that education is the way towards upward mobility. But the economic opportunities afforded by gangsta rap and illicit drug sales, truly has transformed the culture to take pride in its distinctiveness through this subculture, especially as there are few other media channels other than through athletics that offer more glimpses of the diversity of the African American community. Hence, those who are well educated and prosperous have to silently tolerate the (re)definition of the entire culture by an underclass, especially as the middle and upper classes don't really have other music to dance to, and the Cosby show has been off the air for quite a while now.

    Hispanics are rightfully divided, largely because of the diversity of cultures and backgrounds from which they hail. And obviously there is a big difference in a fundamental starting point for people who come to the US looking for economic opportunity and political freedoms, and may be more grateful towards that country, and tolerant about not receiving its benefits, than an uprooted people who feel deprived of benefits to which they are rightfully entitled.

    The simple reality, however, is that in this era of great criminality race will play less important role than ever before. For now it is not simply blacks, and other brown or yellow people who will be denied participation in the franchise, but many people repulsed by the swift drift to fascism of the Bush cabal. And sure, blacks will continue to fill up jails at every step of the criminal justice ladder as before, but that is nothing new. But is it quite clear that the broad sweep of criminality will not simply be based on race or even class, but thoughtcrime. Ask Lynne Stewart if she feels persecuted because of her blackness or poverty. She will not be the last.

    And, in fact, the severity of the situation will not hit home to most Americans until after the election, when despite wide margins of distain for Republicans they will "still manage to maintain control." Katrina, Iraq, Gore, Kerry, WMD, the return of the Taliban, Osama, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, wiretaps, North Korea, Foley, and habeas corpus (did I fail to mention 911?), haven't been enough to wake up most Americans. But in November when people realize that the democracy has died, then they might realize an even more strange sensation that may offer the possibility of catalyzing the mobilization necessary to work towards real change:

    We're all niggers.

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  7. Anonymous8:17 PM

    In the immortal words of Will Rogers, I'm an Indian but I'm white enough that you shouldn't trust me. This is a great topic, and one I was thinking of blogging about. One of the most specious arguments of the "Beware the Brown Horde!" crowd is their sudden concern about "overpopulation." It's laughable, because when overpopulation was first becoming a serious issue in the 70's, these were the same people that ridiculed the whole Malthusian notion. The more people the better, claimed the conservatives. I clearly recall an article (if only i could remember the author) from the late 80's claiming that the Earth could easily sustain 40 BILLION people!!! It's only now, when the increased population has a slightly darker hue, that they are concerned about the "environmental impact" of "too many people."

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  8. Anonymous8:23 PM

    "What Hispanics lack right now is a sense of common purpose and a unified message. They have no Civil Rights Movement or Martin Luther King to rally behind so they are pretty fragmented at the moment."

    Cesar Chavez? MALDEF? United Farm Workers? The GI Forum and the La Raza Unida Party here in Texas? Henry B. Gonzales? I will agree that Hispanics don't (yet) exercise political power commensurate with their numbers, but that's mainly a function of a relatively young population, a low voter turnout rate and a significant number who cannot vote because they aren't citizens.

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  9. The Local Crank,

    What I meant by that statement was that I don't see a cross-cultural icon like MLK in the mainstream. EVERYONE knows who MLK is; few people who know about Cesar Chavez et al.

    What gave rise to the Civil Rights Movement, by the way? (rhetorical question) Can we chalk it up to just a group of determined, charismatic leaders? Was it a product of the times? Who else had a hand in getting it off the ground? Did a group of wealthy white liberals get it going?

    And why, why, why...can't we be united in a sense of purpose to put together another great movement that will further equality?

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  10. Can someone define "vapid?"

    Woman like a man.

    The first thing I try to do is type the word verification, before I even attempt to comment. It solves a lot of problems on down the line.

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  11. Just don't bad mouth Al Sharpton, too much, in my presence. That's all I ask.

    Emphasis on "too much."


    Word Verification is so fucking discriminantory -- it's like having to type an elf mantra. How's a fucking Irish giant supposed to tackle that?

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  12. It's all just slip-stream for those with musical taste.
    Lova ya, Blue Gal.. meet me back over at Shakes. I have a rendezvous.

    Jeez, why don't the fucking French protest the abuse of their language by fools an d keyboar ds
    like m e. v o l c a n o ... song called.

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  13. always interested11:51 PM

    Today I drove into work and heard on the news that GWB had signed the legislation that distinguishes, for prosecution under the law, between those who have American citizenship and those who don't. This is a hard day. Later, I heard on the news an American lawyer say that this legislation will most certainly be challenged in Supreme Court. Things look better. In the morning, I remembered being in Toronto, after Robert Kennedy was assassinated, and hearing church bells ring out "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" and thinking today, it's time we heard that again. Then, I looked a couple of things up. GWB wasn't being original, nor do I think he meant the same thing (or his writers didn't)when he said at his January, 2005 inauguration, what Abraham Lincoln wrote in a letter to Henry Pierce in 1859, "Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, can not long retain it." On an upbeat, this British and European descended woman, with First Nations people (in the U.S. would be called American Indians) in her extended family, would like to say to all of you what Martin Luther King, Jr., said in his "I have a dream" speech: "...let freedom ring"... so that "we will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!' "

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  14. “Blue Gal is decidedly pink all over, burns a little too easily, and does not wear a bathing suit in public.”
    As a self-acknowledged old reprobate I can’t resist a naughty remark: So, is Blue Gal a skinny-dipper?

    To be serious now, race seems to be a huge and divisive issue in Montgomery, Al even years after the strife of the days of MLK and the civil rights movement. Most of the white residents I know readily acknowledge racial equality and count blacks among their friends and associates, but the racial flames seem to be kept alive daily by a number of vocally strident blacks who seem to be consumed with hatred for whites and even for blacks who accept whites. I wish I knew the answer to this problem. One day I heard the well-known attorney Jere Beasley say that the problem can only be solved by changing one heart at a time. He may be right.

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  15. Sorry to say that there IS no biological basis for the concept of "race" (this is PROVABLE). Race is based on a really, really, REALLY poor understanding of genetics. There is only a HUMAN race (otherwise, we simply wouldn't be able to inter-breed; and we know that despite the greatest fears of our for-fathers--- we DO....).

    Having said that there is no biological basis for "race", there IS a bological component to your heritage. And a social component, too (yeah, even if you're adopted - it's SHORT, but it's there). So you HAVE a biological heritage (you might describe it as an "ethnicity"), which might include DARK hair, brown eyes, width of your forhead, the shape or your nose, the shape of your earlobes, jaw, lips, color of skin, etc.... a constellation of features that might put you into a recognizable category associated with a region of the world (except, of course, in america, where everything is so blended that you can take NOTHING for granted about your "ethnic" heritage)....

    So "race" turns out to be ONLY a "social" concept, and a really rickety one at that. I don't agree that "those in power" somehow control the stereotypes... the powerful thing about the stereotype is that EVERYONE (everyone except those being stereotyped) buys into the stereotype. And even the stereotyped folks REACT to the stereotype... But it IS true that the stereotype is used to define behaviors of the "typical" individual in the stereotyped group (even if no actual individual displays those behaviors)....

    There has ALWAYS been a fear on the part of the "richer folk" of the "poorer folk". And how easy it is when you can define the "poorer folk" by some simple physical or audible charecteristic. So by just looking at someone or listening to them, you can tell if you should be afraid of that person or not. (poorer folk don't generally automatically fear the richer folk, except they might fear what the soldiers of the richer folk - the police, perhaps -might do)....

    So how do you tell those with something to lose (the better off folk) that they should not be afraid of the much-less-better off folk (those who are percieved as having "nothing to lose")? Come up with an answer to THAT particular puzzle, and you just might be able to bring peace to the middle east. (hint: this is NOT an easy problem).

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