August 15, 2010

"Don't NAACP Me"

Been thinking about race today. First, while listening to an NPR show (Here and Now), heard a great interview with Dr. Marybeth Gasman about her experiences as a white professor who studies African American studies and the fact that she finds that whites ask questions about blacks that they would not ask a black professor. Very interesting stuff. Here and Now introduced the segment with the story about Dr. Laura deciding that she could say the "n" word as many times as she wanted because, that is what you hear from black rappers on HBO all the time.

I really didn't know that Dr. Laura was still on the air. Her ignorance on this issue was as clear as her ignorance on, well, just about every other issue. White privilege blinds so many people. They can't even see the issue of race clearly, because, while they understand that racism is wrong, they somehow think that it is mostly an issue of the past.

Dr. Gasman (with a real PhD in her field, as opposed to Dr. Laura's in an unrelated field) addressed many of these issues in a very cogent and thoughtful way. The most shocking for me, besides the common and rather ignorant question of "why would a white person study African American studies" was a white person who said that he didn't "get" why African American boys might find Obama's election empowering.

Seriously, dude? I can't think of a better example of white privilege than that--that white males can't even consider that every other President looks more like them than any black youth, yet they can't see the disconnect.

As many have noted, the problem with America right now is that there are no racists--or that is how it is framed. Racism has been redefined in many minds to the virulent Klan member shouting epithets. As a well-behaved white person, I am supposed to believe I am above racism? So many of my friends seem to think they are. I am less convinced--both of their racial consciousness and my own. I see my own racism when my mind goes to stereotypes when I see someone of color. I know that when my brain wants to be surprised at the well-spoken African American woman at the store, or when that same brain reaches for the door lock when I see that large hispanic male at the corner.

My sense is that most conservatives, and most Americans, just want to jump past the race conversation. They really don't want to look at how race has framed our entire history. It has always called to mind Seinfeld's Kramer when he decided to stop talking. His vow of silence ended a few seconds later when he hit his knee, but he responded, "starting now!"

Most conservatives want to erase the past, or lump it all into some bad story they don't want to read. Racism, then, becomes a thing only of the past rather than something we all struggle with. We should, in their thinking, live in a color-blind world where race is meaningless, as if the entire history of our country doesn't reveal that as a lie.

I think most whites in this country better start thinking about race, because in the next 50 years they are going to learn to live a different existence--as a minority. Perhaps their fear comes from the realization that for most of our history, whites in America didn't treat minorities very well, and they fear that when it is their turn, they will be treated as the minorities of the past. I don't think that is true, but all the more reason to be curious about other cultures and applaud those who work to break down barriers.

Think of that the next time you see a Tea Partier with a "send Obama back to Africa" sign, or watch Sarah Palin speak on the mosque in New York. Or perhaps we should remember a verse from the Christian Bible about treating others as you would want to be treated.


Cold In Laramie said...

I find this interesting on many levels. Perhaps not coincidentally, Dr. Laura announced she was leaving the airwaves. Good riddance. Anyway, I am floored that some people do not see the relationship between power and language. The term "nigger" has a long history and it is connected to the creation, implementation and perpetuation of African American slavery, Jim Crow laws and other forms of social domination. As a white person, claiming the right to use the word "nigger" on the airwaves or in everyday conversation, is tantamount to claiming the right to disempower African Americans in contemporary society. When spoken by a white person, it evokes painful memories of historical events that affect people in their lives today.

Moreover, decrying the fact that some African Americans use the term, or, maybe more precisely, derivations of the word, is disingenuous and disempowering. I say derivation because not all use the term "nigger," some use slang. While in high school, one of my favorite rap groups was N.W.A. - "Niggaz With Attitude." Note, it is not "Niggers With Attitude" but "Niggaz." A slight difference, yes, but I think a significant one. Anyway, back to my main point about power. For one, Dr. Laura and others prevent African Americans using any kind of language to empower themselves. They deny the ability of African American people to manipulate and change language to seek an empowering message. This is odd because Dr. Laura is seeking to empower herself and other people by using the term. Also, Dr. Laura ignores the critics of those who use the term. Richard Pryor, for instance, commonly used the term on stage. After going to Africa, however, he decided to stop using the word, although he let it slip once in awhile. She then takes a segment of ethnic group and applies those attitudes and ideas to all members of that ethnic group. Um, nothing racist about that [he said sarcastically].

What do you think Streak?

Streak said...

No, I am with you, CIL. The desire to use that word is, as you say, a complete denial of history, and part of that desire to erase the past and start from scratch AND assume that the power plane is level.

What is more, this is part of the conservative effort to shift the issue of race right back on the groups that have received the most racism over the last 400+ years.

I am very glad to see Dr. Laura off the air. I think she has been an idiot on radio for far too long. Here is hoping that Sarah Palin follows her into retirement. Hah.