Tuesday, November 11, 2008

racial discomfort, black authenticity, and Barack Obama

I find this kind of attitude absolutely understandable, and I'm sympathetic to the people who feel that way. We live in a culture where discussion of race, for more people, is a matter of great emotional danger, fraught with visions of slips of the tongue, unintended innuendos, or the unintentional invocation of noxious racial codes. Talking about race does have real social risk, and people accordingly feel leery of diving in to racial dialogues-- even at the expense of eschewing the natural and proper notes of congratulations for black America in these unprecedented times.

Personally, I work hard not to be wary. It's not some mark of virtue or piousness on my part, and it isn't a product of some certainty that I don't have any racist attitudes within me. (Indeed, my own check against personal racism is to remain open to the possible that I hold attitudes that are racially insensitive.) So it's not like I'm trying to elevate myself in saying that I'm unafraid to engage some of these questions. It's just that I am on record as saying that the key to a more effective racial dialogue is dialing down these tensions, and if I'm going to live up to that attitude I had better say what I feel. People of conscience shouldn't be prevented from saying their mind because of vague worries about racial insensitivity, and if it turns out that they do say something somewhat untoward, while not intending to or holding racial animus, well... labeling them a racist and casting them out of polite society is about the worst way we could foster a more righteous, humane racial dialogue.

So let me say, by all means, congratulations, black America. How could that be condescending? Black people were explicitly forbidden from holding those kinds of seats of power for centuries and effectively prohibited from doing so for decades after. Surely, the elevation of someone to the highest office in our country, from a group of people who have been so disenfranchised and so oppressed for so long, is cause for unapologetic and unembarrassed cheer. I think people are too invested in the idea of the symbolic victory, and not realizing enough the pragmatic victory. Symbols of oppression are bad. Actual, physical, legal oppression is worse. That has been overcome, as thoroughly as the symbolic oppression has, and that is even more appropriate for celebration.

The trick for us as a multiracial polity is not to fall into the seductive notion that our racial problems are all behind us, or that we have now "transcended race," anymore than a victory by a woman candidate would have meant that we have "transcended sex." We continue to have race, we continue to have racism, both emotional and institutional, and we continue to have a great duty to fight both. The fact that a black man can be elected president doesn't change the fact that one can still be denied a job because of the color of his skin, or called the n-word, or similar.

I am also not afraid to say that there are changes that need to be made in the black community, by the black community, particularly among black men. Crime and fatherlessness are huge problems within the American black community. Denying that out of a fear of being racially insensitive is foolish and self-defeating. Drug abuse, criminality and absentee fathers are large problems in every racial community, of course. It would be racist, I think, if I said that all black men are guilty of these problems, or if I suggested that these problems are inherent to blackness. But the fact remains, and it is a fact, that there is a substantial problem in the American black community with criminality, with drug abuse and drug dealing, and with fatherlessness-- and of course, these are not unconnected phenomena. What makes these problems particularly intractable is that there is of course a large slice of popular culture that cheerleads thug lifestyle and criminality in the black community.

The problem with opposing all of this has always been black authenticity. In the face of a society bent on oppression and degradation, black people understandably became very invested in the idea of black consciousness, and black authenticity. Oppressed people create extremely robust and alive cultural institutions; witness the continue vivacity and strength of Jewish culture and tradition, despite millennia of oppression. These institutions and forms of artistic expression become very important for the maintenance of personal and communal dignity in the face of the casual degradation of a racist society. Art, though, thrives on the real, and so many black entertainers have made big impressions (and lots of money) through tales of drug dealing and violence, which were and are disproportionately represented among black men. So as these tropes became assimilated into black culture, black authenticity became caught up in ideas of crime and drugs and thug culture.

Well, look. I recognize and respect the need for authenticity. It's not possible for me, as a white person, to fully understand black investment in black authenticity and realness. Such a thing is too deeply a part of really understanding that collective experience for me to really grok it. But I say with some confidence: whatever value authenticity has, if authenticity is really the prime culprit behind black criminality, black fatherlessness... it's not worth it. It's not worth the price black America has paid. I remain sympathetic for the need for authenticity, but not at such expense.

Of course, things aren't that simple. Many, of course, would chafe at the notion that being "authentically black" involves criminality or fecklessness. (I would point out, though, that this remains a stubbornly held belief among certain strata of the black community.) What we need is to change the perception of what constitutes authentic blackness. Certainly, the endemic problems in black communities have many more sources than this simplistic reading would suggest. Indeed, I've argued long and hard that to say that the problems of the black community are solely or even predominately the fault of black people is unfair and unhelpful; there really are continued disadvantages to being so deeply oppressed for so long, and the poverty that a disproportionately large number of black Americans are in is both a major contributor to these problems and still largely an artifact of the history of slavery and Jim Crow.

All of this is largely boilerplate, of course. My point is only that we are all of us invested in the process of racial conciliation, and that if we allow worries about being insensitive or condescending or trite or whatever to keep us from saying what needs to be said about race, and about the Obama victory, we have allowed racial reconciliation to become a self-defeating caricature. I appreciate and listen to the people like Ross who express discomfort with some of these sentiments. But they have to be expressed nonetheless, and we equally have to be honest and open about the continuing problems within black America. If nothing else, the Obama presidency presents an opportunity to reflect on how far we have come, how far we have to go, and what people of good conscience can say and do to support the continue project of black ascension. We're all bound up in it, which means we all benefit from talking about it, even if-- especially if-- what some of us say isn't always true, or right, or fair, or productive. Including the stuff I say.

Update: By the way... that Barack Obama, he's an articulate guy. Yes, I said it. He's articulate, and well spoken. The fact that calling a black person articulate has become a racial code with unfortunate associations doesn't change the fact that Obama knows how to speak, and is an assured and talented orator. This is the sort of thing that I don't quite understand, or at least don't share. If you yourself don't intend it as some back-handed putdown, as damning with faint praise, and if you're self-aware and understand the reason for the negative connotations-- what could be of offense?


Anonymous said...

There are other words to express the same meaning as articulate that are not racially coded, so why pick the one that risks giving offense? Just because you do not personally intend to invoke its racial baggage does not mean that baggage doesn't exist. Maybe you think we should make a collective decision to reclaim words from their discriminatory past, but I think it's too easy for those the word is not aimed at to draw a line under it. Take the word "gypped", for instance. It's based on a derogatory stereotype of gypsies, but I don't think anyone using the word today (at least in North America) intends any such slur. Lots of people use it. But I have a friend who's descended from gypsies, and that word upsets her. So I, for one, don't use it - and I make a point of telling other friends who do use it to be aware of its potential to hurt. I just think that words are powerful, and that it's important to be aware of the nuances of the language that you use. You want to pick the words that carry the implications that you do intend - and you can't just ignore the coding that you don't like. Perhaps over time that coding will gradually shift - and maybe your attitude is a vital part of that evolution - but for the moment, you have to be aware that you risk offending or hurting others. Whether that's through their oversensitivity or your insensitivity is probably a matter of perspective, but I just don't see the use of the word articulate as being worth it all. Try "eloquent" instead.

paul said...

The word 'articulate' was of offense when Biden said it, because he (innocently/accidentally) couched it in terms of "the first black guy in the public arena who's really clean and articulate ..."

Anonymous said...

If you yourself don't intend it as some back-handed putdown, as damning with faint praise, and if you're self-aware and understand the reason for the negative connotations-- what could be of offense?

Between you and me, this is great and I think he's articulate, too. HOWEVER, intention is impossible to ascertain and yet, people still attempt to discern it. Moreover, there are large groups of people who will always, always, always interpret your comment to have the worse possible meaning because they ascribe bad intent. So, we're back where we're started and don't you dare call him 'articulate'. -K.