Thus revealed, the creature buried its nose in the tire-tilled soil...
February 28, 2004
Much clarification. :)
Category: Serious

In hindsight, I'm thinking I should've called that last post "mein kampf". 🙂

Wendy writes some of her thoughts on "race" in response to my previous post (click there or scroll down, as necessary), so read those first if you haven't already. While hopefully this post would be an interesting and illuminating solo read, I write it with intent to clarify the views I put forward in last night's offering. It seems that I've already been misunderstood in one instance, so I'm worried that the anecdotal elements confound my point (which is often the case with arguments). Hence the clarificatory entry.

In response to the post and another e-mail I wrote (which echoed the views put forth in the latter half, though perhaps more clearly), a correspondent wrote back in an offended tone, seemingly criticizing me for calling attention to certain words. (In her case, it was the terms "black" and "white"; with respect to the former, she notes that she would have used "African-American" had she known I would take offense.) Moreover, she noted that it might not have been an issue at all, had I not been the one to breach the subject in the first place.

I wrote back:

Maybe my tone's off -- I apologize. I don't mean to attack you. Do I think that you understand the issue at hand as well as I do? No, and I think that the language you use conveys that -- so yes, in a very real sense it does come down to word choice, because different words have different meanings... -- but I don't entirely blame you for it. It's not something most people think about. Ideally, they wouldn't have to. ...

Yes, I did bring it up. It's not a topic I like bringing up, for reasons that you highlight. I don't think skin color is a very relevant or important characteristic at all, but by bringing up "race" I place it front and center. But I bring it forward to reject it, not to emphasize it. I don't think that ignoring it will work, because it's still quite active, implicitly speaking, in the words we use to describe other people. Though we may mean nothing by it, the terms themselves carry implicit assumptions along with them. So ignoring "race" isn't enough -- we have to actively reject it and not just employ different words, but mean different things when we use them. Saying "African-American" wouldn't solve the difficulty either.

Indeed, there seems to be an almost inherent confusion regarding "racial" terms. I made reference to it in the previous entry:

Pick a "racial" term. Most people will answer that it means simply "skin color" -- but then consider that if you reduce it to that, almost all of the statements in which it is used will immediately be rendered deeply stupid, if not nonsensical. ... Such terms signify identification with a particular culture, with particular experiences, practices, and with a particular way of thinking -- such that I don't even think it's possible to call anyone "black" or "white" (etc.) without implicitly making a number of assumptions about that person that you have no right to make.

Wendy also notes the confusion in her latest post. She writes:

The point I was starting to make is that I think when Wes and his mom discuss "race," they are talking past each other. They are defining race differently. Wes views black (note the lowercase b) as skin color, whereas his mom views Black as a culture. Wes realizes this and takes note of it...

Not only do I refer to it with a lowercase "b", I frame the word in quotes every time I use it. Why? As said, "race" is a false concept, such that even in mentioning it we must simultaneously reject it, lest we lend credence to it. So I place the word in quotes to highlight the illusory nature of it. I frame the word in quotes to illustrate my utter contempt for it. I spit the word from my mouth and spit on it afterwards as a reminder, so that when it reaches you we'll both know the true nature of it.

Regarding my mother, I should preface my reply to that comment by noting that my mother is not, nor has she ever been, a very coherent (or responsible) thinker. I do think that she implicitly views it as a culture, but she seems to makes no distinction between culture and skin color, nor does she seem to realize that the latter does not entail the former -- and no amount of argument or example will make her see that. If my living example does not highlight the difficulty for her, I don't know what will.

My mother is quick to point out that I used to watch BET on occasion, but fails to recognize that I was never the cultural caricature she seems to think I was (or wants me to be). When I had my "epiphany" in the summer of 2001, it was hardly a struggle for me to follow through with my pledge -- it was fairly easy for me to strike it from my viewing schedule. It's not like I grew up watching it -- we only got cable in the last month, and the presence of BET in the house to have exacerbated the conflict between my mother and myself even further -- and in college there were, in truth, other channels that I really would rather have been watching (Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, the History Channel, etc.). And while I did watch "black" shows on network television, I never really cared that much about them -- and honestly speaking, don't remember them very well at all. Take a look around Scary-Crayon -- you don't see me paying tribute to "black" television anywhere, but the Ninja Turtles are all over the goddamned place. And as far as music goes, during the summer of 2001 I also happened to borrow a number of music CDs from an acquaintance, and after listening to Tori Amos and Poe for a bit, I thought, "Why the hell have I been listening to this other stuff for so long?" I never really identified with what it said. In truth I always found most of it to be pretty vulgar -- and given my increasing concern with ethics and morality, per my philosophical inquiries, my distaste for it was increasing rapidly. And then I saw what it did to my children. But this "new" music had more substance, more artistic merit, and more unique qualities to it -- so there's no surprise that I embraced it without hesitation. Even making the mental/verbal improvements were not too difficult, because I never stood ardently behind what I said.

Back in September, for instance, I went for a ride with a neighbor of mine whom I've known since he moved into the neighborhood when I was in the sixth grade. Admittedly, we've drifted apart in recent years, and lately when we get together I don't have a whole lot to say to him, and usually I end up just tagging along in silence, listening to him and his friends discuss various topics, and making a brief yet insightful (I hope) comment from time to time. On this occasion I was seated in the backseat of the car, gazing listlessly out the window, as he and a friend of his were talking about some of the people they knew. The friend mentioned a girl of his acquaintance -- whom he said was something of an intellectual (I doubt it ;)) -- and noted that I might "like" her.

I merely nodded and made no reply, but then my neighbor added, "Nah, man -- he don't like white girls."

I turned from the window and said, "Excuse me?"

My neighbor replied, "You know, man."

"I could care less about skin color."

"That's not what you used to say," he said.

At length, I said, "That was my parents talking."

And here he took his eyes from the road and turned to face me (hopefully we were at a red light at the time) and looked me over for a moment -- almost as if he were seeing me for the first time, or reevaluating what he'd seen before. Then he nodded and said, "Yeah. I always wondered where that came from."

Hopefully the cut to the anecdote didn't confuse you, but here's the moral of the story: Anyone who really knows me will tell you that "my culture" -- if I even have such a thing -- is not, nor has it ever been, the "black" culture. I have never identified with it, nor have I ever been an ardent spokesperson for it. I make no claims to "heritage" or "history" -- I could care less about my heritage, and my history began in 1981, on October 4, when I was born in Aurora, Colorado. And unless my writing has some tangible influence on some group of people, or society as a whole, such that it makes sense to say that my spirit lives on, my history will end with my death. That doesn't bother me, but perhaps it highlights a reason that people continue to uphold the "black" culture, and to demand that others carry on the tradition simply because of their skin color. These people don't want the attitudes of their ancestors -- and themselves -- to be forgotten, so they press them upon their children. My mother has often said that some of the major reasons she married my father was because he was "black" and would be a "good provider." She has often told me that her aim in giving birth to me was "to raise a decent black man." Skin color means much more than that to them -- to them, it is a symbol of "race", with all of its inherent implications. And they would hate for it to be reduced to just skin color, because then it would be rendered meaningless -- as it should be. And maybe if people stopped emphasizing it so much, it would become a non-issue such to the point that "interracial" marriages would eventually see the eradication of noteworthy differences in skin color -- and all that they associate with it.

Very possibly, they fear extinction. I remember a conversation with one girl who asserted that she would never marry a person of another "race" -- because if everyone did it, that would be the eventual outcome. "And wouldn't it be horrible," she said, "if everyone looked the same?"

I looked her in the eye and told her, "No." I went on to say, "Does that entail that they'd all think the same?" And of course I don't think it does.

These people who talk of "diversity" fail to realize that we all think differently, not as a function of the color of our skin, but as a function of our being individuals. Regardless of how "similar" our experiences have been, they have all been markedly different -- because they happened here, and to me, and not there, and to you -- and "different" experience may share more similarities than they appear to on the surface. For example, in recent years my mother has cursed me for my actions and behavior -- saying to me, "Your ass is black...act like it!" -- which is not that different from, say, the son of a great womanizer, upon expressing a devotion to chastity, being told, "Your ass is descended from the Supreme Pimp Daddy...act like it!" But no matter how similar or dissimilar our experiences are, there's no guarantee that we'll respond to them in the same way. But note that I am not saying that all responses are appropriate, or are to be valued equally -- if that were the case, then even diversity of ideas would be meaningless, and there would be no need for dialogue.

Even if my mother were to sit down and describe in detail the experiences that underlie her views -- she has talked about them some; for the most part they center around "how she was raised" rather than any traumatic acts of racism against her person (and she herself has done far worse to me than anything she has ever told me happened to her) -- that would not constitute an argument in support of her views. As I've told her before, she'd have to argue that it is desirable and good that people define themselves and others with respect to the color of their skin -- which is what it comes down to, since I think that "racial" cultures are necessarily dependent upon the concept of "race". And I don't think that a good argument to that effect can ever be made.

I once read an article on the subject in which someone who voiced a position similar to mine was met with the following response: "Why do you want to take my identity from me?" Similarly, a few weeks ago I saw an episode of Montel in which one of the guests -- who was apparently "mixed" -- had never met her father, and thus was never certain of her "race". Montel addressed the audience thusly: "Can you imagine what it's like to grow up without an identity?"

To them, I reply: If your identity is dependent upon the color of your skin and a history in which you did not take part, then you have no identity.

But if people really do intend to refer to culture when they use terms like "black" and "white", then, provided they do it consistently, that may be very helpful in removing a great deal of the confusion surrounding the issue. But then they'd also have to be prepared to divorce the term from skin color, and stop making judgments about people upon a glance, since skin color doesn't necessarily say anything about what culture a particular person endorses. Along those lines, in "E-mails & Diversity & Assumptions -- Oh My!", I wrote: don?t learn about that by looking at the color of someone?s skin or by seeking cultural meaning in a checked box that didn?t ask about culture to begin with. You find out about cultural diversity -- as something that actually has some relevant connection to a person?s beliefs, interests, personality and so forth -- the same way you find out about any other sort of personal diversity. You don?t make assumptions, you ask questions. ... Certainly it?s valid to assume that people with the "same" cultural background and identity have shared similar experiences. But it isn?t valid to make assumptions about a person?s cultural background or identity -- that person?s group identification -- based on the color of that person?s skin.

Being clear and consistent with respect to the use of our terms, however, would do little to remedy the difficulties tangential to these matters. I must also add that I am not a cultural relativist. I do not believe that all cultures are equal, and certainly not that all cultures are equally beneficial. And I submit that any culture that would require a mother to tell her eight-year-old son, "If you marry a white girl, I won't be at the wedding," and that encourages third grade girls to drop to the floor and perform hoochie-koochie dances, that culture needs to be reformed -- or done away with entirely. And certainly if the elements dependent upon "race" -- as skin color -- cannot be excised from the culture, then that culture needs to die. There is no other way to save the children.

But in the meantime, if "black", for instance, really refers to culture, then my mother's free to use it to refer to herself and her friends -- but she should leave me out of it, and simply call me "Brandon" (my family calls me by my first name, though, perhaps for that reason, I've grown increasingly less fond of it over the years). Everyone else should be content to call me "Wes". Or a writer of incredibly lengthy blog posts, or a weirdo with a strange obsession with Suuupa Tatorusu, etc. But "black" doesn't appropriately describe anything about me.

Here I'm reminded of a discussion I once had at a political party meeting at Yale. It somewhat mirrored one of those exchanges you'll see in a particular kind of drama -- perhaps a modern, high-society retelling of Shakespeare's "Othello" -- where a group of wealthy socialites is discussing an issue and one of them makes a potentially "racist" comment. The person will often turn to the sole "minority" member of the group and add, without missing a beat, "Of course, Othello, I wasn't talking about you." And here Othello will often become offended and make a scene.

My reaction, however, was quite different -- though, granted, the comment wasn't made in such a haughty, nonchalant matter, and the conversation was explicitly devoted to this subject. I had just highlighted, as I have now, the confusion with respect to the application of "racial" terms, and one of the interlocutors added that she used such terms to refer to culture. "For instance," she said, "I don't view you as being 'black' at all." In response, I looked into her eyes for a moment -- I was at a loss for words -- and then, I smiled. Perhaps she was lying, but I'm convinced that she really meant what she said.

I related the account to an acquaintance later. He responded emphatically, "You should've been pissed! She was saying that she views you as 'white'!"

I thought about that for a moment, and then said pointedly, "I don't think so -- I think she meant to say that she views me as an individual. But even if what you say is true, it's proof enough that skin color needn't dictate how a person is defined."

To close, let's go back to Wendy. Referring to an article by Bob Blauner, she writes, "His White students view racism as color're not supposed to point out that someone is black, you're just supposed to 'look past' that (as if it's a flaw or something)." With respect to the latter part of that statement, I'd say that rather than casually looking past it -- "as if it were a flaw" -- one should look above it, because it is meaningless. Or one should look through it -- because it has no substance -- and instead try to apprehend the character of an individual. Concern yourself not with the skin, the flesh, or the bones: Look to the soul.

(Though with our society's excessive emphasis on physical appearances, I can see why people would treat it as a flaw. For more on that subject, read my recent post entitled "Teen Titans, Go!" Also includes a poem. :))

Comments? Questions? Responses? Send 'em in!

-posted by Wes | 3:33 pm | Comments (0)
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