Posts Tagged ‘racism’

“Cultural appropriation” (A Trump-free blog post)

June 17, 2017

A white author can’t write about a character who’s black.* A white artist cannot depict a black civil rights victim. And nobody’s allowed to argue otherwise.

It’s called “cultural appropriation” and it’s the newest gambit of politically correct grievance agitprop, sticking its finger in the eye of freedom of expression. As usual, it’s not enough for these totalitarians to argue their position. No, contrary opinions must be silenced and even punished.

Hal Niedzviecki was forced out as editor of the Canadian Writers’ Union magazine after defending the right of white authors to create characters from minority or indigenous backgrounds.

Protest against “Scaffold”

New York’s Whitney Museum created a storm for exhibiting Dana Schutz’s painting of the mutilated body of Emmett Till, murdered by Mississippi racists in 1955, an image that propelled the civil rights movement. British artist Hannah Black** organized a petition for the painting’s destruction. And sculptor Sam Durant was browbeaten into destroying his own piece, “Scaffold,” honoring some Native Americans unjustly executed in 1862.

Is book burning next? At least they can’t burn my blog. (Maybe they’ll attack it with malware.)

The idea is that such “cultural appropriation” is racist. It’s no defense that the white artist was actually memorializing a victim of racism. Nobody can, from the standpoint of white privilege.

And “cultural appropriation” connotes theft. They’re saying Emmett Till belongs to blacks alone; no one else is entitled to him. As if a painting of him deprives blacks of something. As if a black character in a novel somehow robs black culture, pillages it. It’s akin to the belief, encouraged by certain religions, that being photographed steals one’s soul.

At one time, we had minstrel shows, Jemimas, and Sambos. Maybe that was “cultural appropriation,” mocking, demeaning, dehumanizing people. And maybe if that Emmett Till picture was painted by a Klansman, that would be different. But surely we’re not talking about anything of that kind now.

At one time, when segregation reigned, and black culture was walled off from white society, the cry was for integration, to break down those ugly barriers. Now they’re being rebuilt, from the other side. And students whose grandparents marched for the right to join whites in schools now demand to segregate themselves.

Yes, the issue is racism. That’s what the cry of “cultural appropriation” is.

In fact, “cultural appropriation” is a good thing. It breaks down barriers and opens doors. Cross-fertilization among cultures makes all of them richer and better. And it’s harder to have racist feelings against someone if they’re seen as part of your own culture rather than as “the other.” Pogroms, lynchings, ethnic cleansing, genocides, all result from people being otherized.

* I use this word as the best among bad choices. “African-American” doesn’t apply to all “people of color.” And the latter, besides being linguistically clumsy, is hardly removed from “colored people,” which those so described once found quite offensive. “Brown” might be more descriptively accurate but no doubt some would profess to find that somehow offensive too.

** Apparently her actual name.

Why so many blacks in ads?

May 8, 2017

One morning at breakfast I said to my wife, “Does T.J. Maxx especially cater to blacks?”

“Not that I know of. Why?”

“Well, they have a big ad in the paper showing two black women.”

“That’s not unusual. Lots of ads do that.”

“Yes, that’s what I’m noticing. Why do you suppose they do that?”

We are often told that America is still a fundamentally racist society. Not all, or even most, Trump voters are racist. But his campaign did push racist buttons, and racial resentments and anxieties did play a big role. A lot of less educated working class whites were voting against minorities – with a feeling they’re getting more than their due (to the detriment of those whites), and that a less white America is a worse America.

Yet since I noticed that T.J. Maxx ad, I’ve made a point of tallying blacks in ads and commercials. And in fact they are way overrepresented, relative to their 13+% population share. I even saw one TV ad with a white couple whose child looked kind of black. Of course, if you show a bunch of folks, you want to include some minorities. But what about ads with only one or two people, like T.J. Maxx’s? Let me offer a theory.

If this were indeed a racist society, where white people basically dislike, resent, and shun blacks, presumably no business would want to feature blacks in its ads. The purpose of advertising is to make a brand attractive. Advertisers must calculate that black faces actually do that.

Of course, the blacks shown in (modern) ads are not disadvantaged stereotypes; far from it, they are instead middle class people, speaking plain middle class English (not ethnic dialect), shown in typical middle class activities.

And while these ads don’t specifically target black customers, they certainly don’t target less educated working class Trumpites. That’s not at all the consumer demographic advertisers want to reach; those people are just disregarded. Instead, for a lot of ads, the target audience is better educated, more affluent and, especially, younger consumers. (Indeed, the content of some ads today must baffle older Archie Bunker viewers. Some baffle even me.) That yuppie demographic is where the consumer-spending money is. And for them, blackness is actually attractive; connoting coolness, hipness, with-it-ness, knowing what’s going on. Not inferior but superior. And to this demographic, an America fully integrating blacks is a better America. Putting them in ads hence creates a positive buzz.

Yet this is just one more way in which America is dividing into two very different cultures inhabiting the same body politic. How long can this split personality endure?

Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman”

December 15, 2015
Then . . .

Then . . .

You author a lone book that’s a huge cultural icon, then never write another word and basically submerge for over 50 years. That’s Harper Lee’s tale. And so it was a bombshell when another book finally surfaced.

To Kill a Mockingbird was a heck of a good story, with great characters, and of course a powerful message.

. . . now

. . . now

Published at the civil rights movement’s nascence, it was, for its time, remarkably open and compelling about southern race relations. Hence its impact.

Go Set a Watchman is a sequel of sorts, though it was actually written first. Lee’s putting it aside at the time, to write a different book instead (though still a “race” book), was inspired. Mockingbird is a great book. Watchman is not.

In it, Scout has grown into 26-year-old Jean Louise, living in New York, returning to Alabama around 1955, to visit her ailing father Atticus, now 72.

Then . . .

Then . . .

The bombshell was not just the book’s existence, but that Atticus Finch – Mockingbird’s great moral hero – was a racist. (Though we must remember he’s fictional, and not necessarily the same character in both books. He was given a reversed evolution, from the man of Watchman to the earlier and better man of Mockingbird.)*

. . . now

. . . now

His racism isn’t just incidental to Watchman, it’s the book’s hub. It’s a bombshell to Jean Louise herself, when she witnesses Atticus participating in a “citizens council”** meeting and abetting the vilest racist talk. To a New Yorker now, this is culture shock, she freaks out, and curses out her dad. But helped by emollience (and a literal slap in the face) from his eccentric but lovable and wise brother, she winds up (spoiler alert) reconciled, more or less. And that’s the book.

Its set-piece racist ranting, and Jean Louise’s set-piece reactions thereto, seemed canned and didactic – violating (unlike Mockingbird) the cardinal writing rule, don’t tell, show.

And the efforts of Atticus and his brother, to make Jean Louise see things from their point of view, just aren’t very convincing. We get the old trope that the civil war was not really about slavery, so much as states’ rights and people fighting for their tribe, their personal identity. (There’s a grain of truth in the latter, inasmuch as few southern whites owned slaves. Yet still, no slavery, no war.) And of course whites hating outsiders, who don’t know their situation, telling them what to do. And the customary denigrations of blacks’ readiness for full citizenship – but whose fault was that?

I thought Jean Louise’s riposte that the South should have a “Be kind to the niggers week” was a killer, spotlighting that for all the excuses and rationalizations, southern whites acted just plain horrible to blacks. Yet Atticus and his brother are still sympathetically portrayed; and, perhaps trying to make more plausible her eventual stand-down, the author has Jean Louise herself berate the Supreme Court’s Brown decision, as violating the Tenth Amendment*** – which I found simply bizarre.

In the end, it was hard to tell what exactly Lee was trying to say. Maybe merely that southern whites, though dead wrong, were understandable human beings. Or maybe she just couldn’t let Jean Louise turn her back on her father.

images-3The 1954 Brown ruling was, as the book does illuminate, a watershed. Until then, a stasis persisted; now it was like a frozen river suddenly thawing. One can in fact see things from Atticus’s point of view, and understand how southern whites felt, to have their whole world, in which they’d been comfortable, all their eternal verities, being changed on them. I’d like to think I would have had an enlightened outlook. But if you grow up immersed in a culture, you internalize its fundamental assumptions, and questioning them is hard and unusual. It took a few years in New York for Jean Louise’s enlightenment.

Unknown-2Even before the change could unfold, the mere threat of it made people change their behavior. The change among blacks was already becoming visible, and disturbing, to whites. They responded not by trying to meet change half way, but rather with a heightened belligerence to stave it off. Whereas before, they didn’t even need to think about race matters, now they did. images-4It was like a fault line in the Earth with two tectonic plates pushed up against each other, immobilized by constrained tension for eons, until finally it bursts with an earthquake.

That was the moment in time whose beginning Watchman captures. Had it been published when written, in the mid-50s, this would have been a very brave and provocative book, since nobody else was then confronting the race issue quite so squarely in literature. Indeed, what seems didactic now would have been a shock then.

The moment passed. The tide could not be held back, perhaps because most Southerners were in fact – as most human beings are – basically reasonable people. The cultural change, over what was really a relatively short time, was immense. Remember this when someone tells you people can’t change.

True, we still have racial issues today; but not like then. Today’s are the relatively feeble aftershocks of an earthquake; the reverberations of a Big Bang.

Mockingbird’s narrative is hardly present in Watchman even as backstory. The rape case is barely mentioned – with Robinson acquitted, unlike in Mockingbird.

** Often called white citizens councils, these organizations sprang up in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education to defend segregation.

*** “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

 

Stop the Hate Speech

January 29, 2015

American political discourse “is ugly, as civility has been replaced by bitter reactive battles,” laments Michael Werner in a recent issue of The Humanist magazine. Then he says, “we have to expose the hidden racism that permeates political discourse.” And later he queries how we can “bend the needle towards mutual understanding.”

UnknownHere’s a suggestion: stop calling people racists.

Our politics has indeed been poisoned by zealots seeing opponents as not just wrong but wicked. Both sides are guilty – but the left far more than the right. The same issue of The Humanist also had an excerpt from David Niose’s book on how to combat the right. Typically, like authors Thomas Frank and George Lakoff, whose books I’ve reviewed, Niose sees the political right as basically just shilling for, and manipulated by, “corporate interests.” Lakoff actually believes corporate profits are what conservatives mainly care about. Frank thinks they want the poor kept poor; indeed, want more people poor. And Niose, like Michael Werner, plays the race card: he calls racism the “underlying catalyst” and “at the roots” of modern American conservatism.

I’ve noted lab experiments showing most people unconsciously do react to racial cues. imagesHowever, call me starry-eyed, but the vast majority of Americans, in their conscious minds and hearts, harbor racial goodwill. Those who do not – the real racists – are a small minority of losers at the margins of society. To throw around phrases like “hidden racism that permeates political discourse,” or to tar the political leanings of half the country as rooted in racism, is irresponsible smear-mongering. It’s hate speech.*

Speaking of which, Paul Rapp is a lawyer and columnist for a local alternative newspaper.

Lying, pathetic, pandering, etc. . . and of course racist?

Lying, pathetic, pandering, etc. . . and of course racist?

Writing about “net neutrality,” which Senator Cruz (I’m no fan) called the “Obamacare of the Internet,” Rapp said this “reveals Ted Cruz as a lying, pathetic, pandering, cowardly, racist, fascist little douchebag, an embarrassment to us all.” More recently Rapp labeled John McCain a “doddering old traitor.” (Who’s the embarrassment?)

I don’t consider myself “conservative” or “on the right” in today’s American political taxonomy. But I think I understand that viewpoint. Whereas its popularity flummoxes writers like Frank, Lakoff, and Niose. Were conservatism truly the stinkpot they imagine, its political success might indeed be baffling. However, these guys are clueless about what really makes conservatives tick; they’re blinded by their stereotyping, demonizing caricatures.

Unknown-1A better understanding is found in Jonathan Haidt’s excellent book, The Righteous Mind. His analysis shows conservatives aren’t less moralistic than liberals; in fact, they use a larger moral palette. Tellingly, Haidt reports on questionnaire studies, where liberals were instructed to answer as though they were conservatives, and vice versa. Conservatives did quite well at predicting liberal responses; but liberals failed miserably at guessing what conservatives would say. images-1That’s because they really do see conservatives as grotesquely uncaring and selfish. They can’t seem to imagine that maybe, just maybe, the political right is motivated not by racism, or greed, or “corporate interests,” but, rather, sincere beliefs about what is truly best for all of society.

* We’re told relentlessly that opposition to Obama is, at its core, all about his race. Would a white Democrat with the same policies have gotten less pushback? Was the left’s hatred for Bush 43 any less intense than the right’s for Obama?