Casual Racism 101: “Race Changing” and 30 Rock

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Being a problematic, flawed, and contradictory human being, I will freely admit that I watch and am entertained by certain popular shows I would never describe as critically conscious or racially progressive. I’m not sure that any such show exists on television. I will also admit that 30 Rock does not fall into the entertainment category because I am personally biased against finding it endearing. Yes, The Office tried to get away with a peripheral character in Blackface as part of a “Christmas tradition” in the holiday episode of their current season. No, this does not get a pass because I’ve been a fan of the show for six years. So while I acknowledge that the shows I happen to like are equally deserving of the same scrutiny and criticism, they are not the subject of this particular post.

Last week the “stars” of 30 Rock appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to reflect on their seventh and final season. And one might ask: why watch the interview if you don’t like the show? Please refer to paragraph one, sentence one. I was watching Late Night because ‘I hearty Jimmy,’ and I watched most of the interview with the 30 Rock cast because I was curious to see if they would address the multiple spectacles of racist humor and uses of Blackface on the show—if even for a moment.

And the moment came.

When it was Jane Krakowski’s turn to share her favorite clip from the series, the actor who “portrays” a self-obsessed actor chose a clip prominently featuring her own character, Jenna Maroney. Most importantly, this was an opportunity to publicly downplay and ignore the two instances (that I know of) where she appeared in Blackface on the show; instead, she used the interview as an opportunity to publicly showcase it. Her introduction began something like this: “Well, once we established that Jenna was totally insane, we could get away with anything.” This is no excuse to disguise racist humor, in my opinion, but I momentarily hoped she was laying the groundwork for a follow-up commentary on their moral opposition to racism and some explanation of Blackface as “social satire.” I wouldn’t cosign this as a justification for Blackface from a sitcom, but that wasn’t even the justification she tried to make. A series of homophobic and transphobic remarks linking her character’s “insanity” to her “gender changing” for an xmas party costume were all that followed.

The clip played. On the left is Jenna’s “shman” (Will Forte) dressed as Natalie Portman in Black Swan, and on the right is Jenna in Blackface as Pittsburgh Steelers athlete Lynn Swan, completing their couples costume of “two black swans.”

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Jane Krakowski would only address the fact that her character had temporarily assumed a different gender identity, and made absolutely no mention of the fact that she was also dressing up as Black. It was when Krakowski described her character as participating in “gender changing” that Tina Fey casually interrupted her a few moments later to add “and race changing,” which I translated as her white code words for Blackface. No one called it what it is, reminding me of the phrase coined by Toni Morrison: “racetalk,” or the “explicit insertion into everyday life of racial signs and symbols that have no meaning other than pressing African-Americans to the lowest level of the racial hierarchy.” To me, this exemplifies the marriage of white liberalism and political correctness. A show like 30 Rock can celebrate feminist subplots and liberal politics while still reinforcing dehumanizing racial tropes and employing casual racism under the banner of “irony.” And when they use very clear and unequivocal Blackface, symbolic language disguises it as “race changing.”

Historical amnesia and neutrality in entertainment allow whites to be “pioneers” all over again, thereby enabling discussions of racist humor to be either congratulatory or effectively mundane and placating. I also sense a desire to treat the use of Blackface as courageous, edgy, and worthy of the highest recognition, as Robert Downey Jr.’s Oscar nomination for his Blackface role in Tropic Thunder would attest. When an equation is drawn between Jenna Maroney’s “gender changing” and “race changing,” this wrongly suggests these politics and identities are interchangeable, if not identical—something straight/cis/white folks are neither qualified nor entitled to decide. Drawing this equation also suggests that conservative boundaries are being liberally pushed when a white woman dresses up like a Black man and sings a song next to a white male dressed as a white woman. So this display of transphobia and racism (treating trans and Black identities as comic costumes) are casually transformed into harmless entertainment and white folks can continue the fantasy that we are pushing our own prejudiced boundaries.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (co-author of Racism Without Racists and White Out: The Continuing Significance of Racism) has identified a “new racism” in the US as a subtle, subversive, and often casual racism that has become more commonplace than the overt, hostile, and explicit racism of previous decades. Don’t get excited—this does not mean the hostile and the explicit have vanished and been completely replaced. He is talking about public discourses of white liberalism where issues involving race are whitewashed and/or “sugarcoated” to avoid the accusation of racism. So if Tina Fey can sugarcoat Blackface as some kind of random/everyday “race changing,” she can avoid accountability for the very specific, historical, and racist meaning of this recycled comedy.

Creators and writers can only project so far: they can try to make it seem as if the racism and racist humor of their characters are disconnected fictions without any basis in reality, but characters like Jenna Maroney are not improvised—she and her Blackface are consciously created and actively written. The characters on a show might be “insane,” but behind every crazy character is a calculating and moderately sane writer. I don’t care if writers are dropping acid and taking body shots, teams that write for hit shows on mega networks make critical decisions, approve content, and get their shit together eventually. And 30 Rock is one of the most, if not the most, celebrated and awarded television comedies in the history of television comedies. This is more proof for the point that something that was once explicitly hostile and gratuitously demeaning in previous decades (Blackface) can be transformed into a subtle, neutral, and sugarcoated version of the original in the contemporary moment. Tina Fey can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.

—DD

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On Azealia Banks and White Gay Cis Male Privilege

Originally posted on The Crunk Feminist Collective:

Guest Post by Edward Ndopu

Azealia Banks

Rapper Azealia Banks

Recently, the media has exploded with news of a Twitter battle between rapper Azealia Banks and gossip blogger Perez Hilton. After Hilton inserted himself in an altercation between Banks and fellow female rapper Angel Haze, taking Haze’s side, Banks denounced him as a “messy faggot”. She then went on to say that she used the word to describe “any male who acts like a female”. Rumours have since abounded that Banks is being dropped from her record label as a result of her speaking out against Hilton. Rather than taking sides, I believe it is most important for us to examine the context within which this media escalation has happened. Instead of writing off Azealia Banks, herself a queer woman, as homophobic, we should instead be exploring the femmephobia and racialized sexism at play in the public’s response to this debacle.

The…

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Asked & Answered: Django Unchained

Below in bold are a series of questions I received late last night via email regarding the post I wrote on Django Unchained. Answers will follow.

Where does a writer’s license to imagine things other than their life begin? Must all works be non-fiction in first person? In that case can we ever talk about slavery at all?

This discussion is not so broad as to include all works of writing in their various forms, it is intentionally limited to the direct subject matter: a specific piece of fiction concerning a specific narrative. I question the assumption of total freedom and license in storytelling when its forms are very specialized, regulated, and inscribed with the power dynamics of race. I’m not exactly sure who “we” are in this scenario, but it would stand to reason that you are referring to white people. Saying it is disrespectful and unjustified for a white director to make a movie from the perspective of a slave and his path of imagined vengeance is not the same as saying “white people can never talk about slavery at all.” There is a big difference, and these statements should not be used interchangeably. However, the institution of slavery was not fiction, and a “first person narrative” of the slave experience does not exist if it is written by a white person. A writer’s “license to imagine things other than their life” began hundreds of years ago, and it should end any time this license grants those who have not experienced racial oppression to use it as a point of entertainment and campy gore. To suggest racial oppression is neutral content easily accessible and comprehensible to white writers, is to suggest the historical wounds and material consequences of racial oppression can be severed from this content under the pretext of “art.” I would call this violence, not art.

There’s not a single PoC that has the experience of being a slave. It surely is a huge leap to even pretend to remember what that was like, no matter what ancestral memory has been passed down or culturally exists. It’s been well over a hundred years. Surely, someone should be able to represent or remember it. Where do you draw the line?

I would ask you to take notice of these assumptions: “it surely is a huge leap to even pretend to know what that was like,” and “surely someone should be able to represent it.” So the assumption is that Black folks have no oral traditions and histories that keep this legacy alive, and the implied argument is that Black people in the contemporary moment have no legitimate connection to their own history because it happened hundreds of years ago. Please see Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon for a much more involved perspective on the endurance of slavery that I will not be addressing here. Black folks (from the era of slavery to the present moment) have already been writing their own stories and producing their own knowledge. If you dare to suggest POC have no contemporary experiences of slavery “no matter what ancestral memory” exists, then I question why Tarantino isn’t subjected to the same level of scrutiny—someone who has absolutely zero frame of reference or memory regarding that side of history. I draw the line at the argument that POC can’t logically associate with their histories, but white artists can. If you think it is a “huge leap” for Black people to relate to their own ancestors, then what kind of biblical leap is a white male taking when he thinks he can represent, remember, and/or relate to their ancestors? This is when a vague and mysterious “someone” who “should be able to represent and remember” inevitably translates to “a white person who should be able to write stories about POC.”

It’s because of racism and white supremacy that narratives told by white folks are privileged over narratives POC have been telling for centuries. And I wonder…  who can draw the line between an appropriate and inappropriate amount of time to pass before communities’ tragedies become subject to an imaginary public domain?

Is it solely based on race? Does research or knowledge play a part? Who gets enfranchised into the cultural memory conversation? Are perspectives from non-slaves totally useless and worthless? Should we ignore abolitionists (however problematic they were) or what went on personally and historically for conflicted people like Jefferson? Does that have no use?

So what if I draw the line at race? Why is this so controversial and questionable? Is it only “legitimate” if I draw the line at “research and knowledge”? Drawing the line at race equally involves research and knowledge. I am skeptical whenever anyone suggests that living legacies of gruesome atrocities can easily be understood (then written about) just by going to the library and opening a book. Learning is one thing, appropriating an experience to invent a prolonged and hideously violent fantasy in the service of a director’s career is another. This collection of inquiries also relies on the assumption that the consequences of slavery (segregation, disproportionate imprisonment, white supremacy) no longer exist in this country and everyone has fully recovered. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, has documented and explained how there are more Black men imprisoned today than there were enslaved in the Antebellum South. No one is entitled to make the decision for all Black people that their mourning period is over, their history is beyond them, and white people get to tell their stories because of points A and B. Discussions about abolitionists have no use in this particular context because Quentin Tarantino is not an abolitionist and we are not talking about a narrative written by or about one.

Should television shows not feature bankers, or mobsters, or civil rights leaders because the experience of being one is ineffable and non-transmittable? The logical conclusion of your argument potentially blows up and destroys the value of every artistic representation based on the ideas that 1) writers can’t know anything they haven’t directly lived 2) the chief value of art (or a chief value of art) is how it is mimetic. Especially when it comes to a historical film.

First of all, it is intellectually dishonest to carelessly compare chattel slaves to the characters of “bankers” and “mobsters” (then throw in “civil rights leaders” for the sake of political correctness—which television shows have ever featured civil rights leaders?). That their experiences might be “ineffable and non-transmittable” was never my point or my argument: bankers and mobsters, even though their theatrical depictions may have been based on actual figures, are not oppressed identities. It is not the same to imagine a wealthy mobster who desires guns and prostitutes, as it is to imagine an oppressed slave who desires liberation and vengeance; in that context, one has power and the other does not, one is a character and the other is not. With the over-representation of white literature and the demonstrated ability of white authors to write endless narratives about white experiences, I don’t see how it is unthinkable to resolve that white authors have enough content to explore. Ultimately, the “chief value” of art is a highly subjective and debatable topic, and if rightfully observing how whiteness and racism have dominated storytelling (in all popular forms in the US) destroys the “chief value of art,” then so be it and so much the better. If this “chief value” dictates that white writers have the right (as Tarantino said) to writer whatever they want, then this means the “chief value” of art is disenfranchising the voices of POC.

Who owns history? Is it just the persecuted groups or the groups viewed as persecuted? Or is it based on blood? Do Chinese nationals have no right to talk about or set a drama in 18th century London? There has to be some level on which all history is owned by everyone, if people understand the bounds. It gets really silly when that’s brought to an extreme as well.

The victors own history. That’s kind of the point. If I look at this situation critically, I see a white writer who is re-enforcing the legacy of ownership by treating slaves, slavery, and this history as his creative property. Do his “rights” and “demands” as a writer take precedence over the rights POC have to storytelling and self-determination? I would say no, and I would also say the “creative freedom” of white writers has been taking precedence over the creative/cultural productions of POC for many hundreds of years. When I consider the fact that the whole of mainstream textbook and knowledge production in the US (including, but not limited to, our entire system of education) has been a franchise of white authors and white history, I am amazed when someone takes offense at the suggestion that even a sliver of the space whiteness occupies should be relinquished so POC can tell their own histories. History is based on a number of things, and I can’t claim to know all of them, but I do know that the histories of oppressed groups and the histories of groups in power are not interchangeable, nor are they identical.

Here are some resources that informed/educated the responses above (in addition to those already mentioned):

The Black Jacobins by C.L.R. James
Beloved
by Toni Morrison
Roots
by Alex Haley
The Souls of Black Folk
by W.E.B. DuBois
Our Nig
by Harriet E. Wilson
Finding Sojourner’s Truth: Race, Gender, and the Institution of Property
by Cheryl Harris
Whiteness as Property
also by Cheryl Harris

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Whiteness Unchained: When a National Shame Becomes Camp

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Only recently did I learn of the longstanding feud between Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino. This was a result of internet research I did after seeing a preview for Tarantino’s new movie Django Unchained, and after a dear friend sent me a link to Lee’s refusal to see the movie because it was “disrespectful” to his ancestors. As much as I agree with him intellectually, I can’t agree on the basis of having ancestors in common. In the social legacy of whiteness, there exists a privileged position of detachment from the pain of chattel slavery that renders this a historical event, rather than a historical experience with generational meaning. In the US, there is no understanding in white consciousness of being dehumanized as chattel. Slavery is not my history, heroic Blackness is not my identity, and any form of fictionalized vengeance that combines the two is not my story to tell. Quentin Tarantino has a different opinion:

“As a writer, I demand the right to write any character in the world that I want to write. And to say that I can’t do that because I’m white … that is racist.”

He made these remarks in 1997 in response to criticisms from Spike Lee at the time, but they read as if they were said yesterday. I finally went to see the movie (which was as exciting as going to the doctor), but I’ll address one piece of whiteness at a time.

This is what I wondered at 3 AM with Tarantino’s defense still as fresh as a pile of shit in my mind: so anyone can speak on… anything they want? How many conferences on obstetrics and gynecology would doctors attend if they were conducted by plumbers? Who asks their barber or hairdresser to explain organic chemistry? Who gets their legal advice from a veterinarian? These qualifications seem to warrant higher levels of respect in their differentiation, and in the demand that only the experienced and knowledgeable represent themselves. Credibility and poetic license are reserved, however, and given without question to the white tradition of producing anthropological studies or creative fantasies about the non-white “other.” This would be the lesser-known genre Tarantino has been exploiting for most of his career.

Samuel L. Jackson in a Blues Brothers suit carrying a wallet branded with “Badass Motherfucker” is a character. That is recycled and revised Blaxploitation fiction. However, a Black couple separated by slavery and beaten by members of the KKK are not the creative property of Quentin Tarantino. These “characters” are based on historical facts and lived experiences of racist violence. When I think of famous Black filmmakers in Hollywood, I struggle to think beyond Spike Lee and Tyler Perry; when I think of famous white filmmakers in Hollywood, I struggle to keep track. This structural inequity and white supremacy in US show business makes Tarantino’s accusation of (reverse) racism highly untenable. The fact that one of these precious few Black filmmakers dared to challenge the racism of a white director’s movies, one of the few in Hollywood who could tell a story like Django Unchained without racism and be entitled to tell it, makes Tarantino’s accusation deplorable and ridiculous.

Even a movie supposedly centered around a slave turned bounty hunter in pursuit of revenge is a movie that stars white people with Black people in supporting roles. And to be accurate, slavery is reduced to nothing more than a geographical backdrop, social scenery, and circumstantial setting for a signature Tarantino parody—this time using a Spaghetti Western formula. But there was something about selling this as a Western that confused me. I had no trouble comprehending the references in the throwback “Wild West” font of the opening credits, the desert-like landscape, and John Wayne outlaw music. However for the rest of the movie, audiences were apparently meant to believe a Western was taking place in the… Antebellum South?

I got a sickening feeling after the movie spent its ten minutes in Texas and shifted to southern plantations, that the era of chattel slavery was chosen because it provided new opportunities for Tarantino to explore/exploit gratuitous violence. And I’m not talking about the many white people whose heads were blown through and whose dicks were shot off, or the projectile blood from any number of body parts exploding like a can of red paint on the receiving end of a shotgun. This is all typical for a Tarantino flick. I’m talking about the two mandingo slaves who fight to the death in Calvin Candie’s parlor, ending with both men covered in blood and the victor not only clawing his victim’s eyes out by hand, but also smashing his face with a hammer. I’m talking about the slave who is attacked and torn to death by a pack of vicious dogs, a punishment ordered by Calvin Candie. I’m talking about Jamie Foxx as Django hanging naked from his ankles almost visibly castrated by a white slaver with an orange-hot blade, and Kerry Washington as his wife Broomhilda whipped and nearly bashed in the head with a hammer by Calvin Candie. As it turns out, the institution of slavery was not violent and/or awful enough, but must be saturated with a series of humiliations and atrocities in its storytelling.

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All I can say about Leonardo Dicaprio’s performance as Calvin Candie is that it made him less of a convincing actor and more of a convincing racist. He was a little bit too believable for me, and by that I mean the slave master stole the show from the slave.

The comic camp created around this national shame is expressed and made sympathetic through many exchanges of witty banter and Tarantino’s tendency to make heinous villains handsome, charming, and/or funny. A hooded white militia spends at least five minutes having a *hilarious* argument about one of their wives insufficiently cutting the eye-holes in the white “bags” on their heads. Although no one in the movie explicitly called them the KKK, they wore symbolic hoods and made a brief allusion to attacks in their “full regalia.” An opportunity to make the most excessive, outrageous, and overdone scene involving the KKK in their “full regalia,” and Tarantino didn’t take it. He made a subtle hint at these things that younger or less informed people in the audience might not notice. He made these characters look like simple vigilantes on horseback with cheap pillowcases on their heads. Yet when Django is given the “freedom” to purchase his own “valet” uniform, he emerges from the store with a white bow at his chin, a blue satin coat to match his blue satin trousers, silk stockings, and buckled shoes—an entirely unexplained transformation. Multiple comic spectacles are made of Black characters and the brutality of the violence they suffer, but the KKK only give a quick mention of their “regalia.”

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That is not Tarantino’s style; he doesn’t deal with any subject matter delicately, discreetly, sensitively, conscientiously, or with subtlety. Yet the KKK were somewhat disguised and miraculously escaped his confrontational and sensationalist plagiarism.

I could never imagine the diverse experiences Black folks might have when/if they see this movie, nor can I, as a white person, legitimately or personally take offense to the use of the N word. I can only comment on the extent to which I became more convinced the instances of the N word outnumbered the lines of dialogue Black characters had in the movie. After hearing the word fifty times, I stopped counting. Kerry Washington spoke less than ten times in two hours and forty five minutes. She is seen being ruthlessly whipped and branded as an object of abuse, or as a figment of Django’s imagination, until her physical form is finally produced when she is dragged naked and screaming from Calvin Candie’s “hot box”—a box in direct sunlight, mostly buried underground, and locked from the outside. Any other Black women who appear on screen are speechless, disoriented, or helpless. Django, whose name is the title of the movie and his vengeance the focus, spends 90% of the story saying next to nothing. Ultimately, this was an exploration of the white villain versus the white hero. And, oh yeah, a slave gets his wife and his freedom in the end.

There are two white heroes in Django Unchained. Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is the compassionate white bounty hunter who heroically dictates the terms of Django’s service and his freedom—an emphasis on white kindness and generosity, which I would say is the least important narrative to privilege in a movie about slavery. Schultz is, after all, the star and the one who avenges the slaves by killing Calvin Candie in the end. He was so overcome by his disgust for Candie’s racism that he just couldn’t help himself. After this climactic assassination, the last few moments where Django kills the rest of the white people in the movie and Calvin Candie’s “House Negro” (Samuel L. Jackson) seem like an afterthought. Django is given his moment only after Schultz has had his. The second white hero, Tarantino himself, delivers his version of victory, justice, and power to slaves by giving a happy ending to Django and Broomhilda.

This is the question I always have whenever filmmakers practice racism by appropriating stories from/inventing stories about POC: if this is a fantasy, if this is creative fiction, then why is racial oppression an inevitable and nonnegotiable reality? It seems the facts of white supremacy must remain true to life when any number of ridiculous things—a German bounty hunter disguising himself as a dentist, or a white woman writing the memoirs of Black maids—are unlimited in their fabrication. These fantasies are about good white people who grant some form of freedom to unusually talented characters of color, lending more attention to the Great Emancipator Complex than to well-developed and substantive roles for POC. As long as audiences are somewhat comforted by this, and equally entertained, one of the most gruesome tragedies in human history can be easily converted into a disgraceful and campy bloodbath. It is a filmmaker’s “right” to do so.

—DD

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Reflections on Sandy Hook: Violent Masculinity and the Mental Illness of white Privilege

Whenever major stories hit the news, there are seismic waves of instant coverage and facebook opinions that collide in a perfect internet storm that keeps me distracted and somewhat furious for hours. Countless people compete for the most profound commentary, the most controversial analyses, and the most hard-hitting opinions as quickly as possible whether they are directly connected to the story or not. After watching this go down for several days, I wanted to take some time to reflect on the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. This is not a post about gun control, the breakdown of social services, or “bad parenting.” This post will not contribute to the very valid discourses that interrogate the excessive media attention given to violence in privileged white spaces where events like this “just don’t happen.” This is a not post that is specifically limited to the exact details of what happened in Connecticut. This post is about two of the ugliest social diseases ever created in the history of humankind: male and white supremacy.

What I find to be suspect about so many of the reports I’ve read is the tendency to bury, or otherwise ignore altogether, the highly significant fact that the Sandy Hook shooter also murdered his own mother during the killings. In fact, most of the victims were women and, yes, most of the victims where white. I don’t personally think this warrants a scathing critique of President Obama’s tearful hypocrisy, nor do I think this warrants the argument that mental illness should be the real focus of Sandy Hook discussions–even if racism can be dismissed as the killer’s motivation in this case. I think because the victims of this shooting were mostly white and mostly women, evaluating and complicating the identity of white male killers becomes all the more important despite how counter-intuitive this may seem. Men with white skin have been killing POC for centuries, true, but when their victims share their skin color it doesn’t make the killers any less privileged as male or any less privileged as white.

I am not a parent and that much should be made clear, but this does not prevent me from sympathizing with the parents who brutally lost their children and the father who lost a son and a wife in the same day. I read a blog entry on the Huffington Post a friend of mine had shared on facebook, making a plea for understanding and forgiveness when it comes to the often repeated desire to holistically blame parents for the violence of their children. Written by a mother as a contribution to mental illness discussions that inevitably saturate the nation after mass killings committed by white men, she speaks extensively about the fear of her own son, then offers this bit of information:

According to Mother Jones, since 1982, 61 mass murders involving firearms have occurred throughout the country. Of these, 43 of the killers were white males, and only one was a woman. Mother Jones focused on whether the killers obtained their guns legally (most did). But this highly visible sign of mental illness should lead us to consider how many people in the U.S. live in fear, like I do.

What I find most interesting about this admittedly heartfelt and complicated entry is the mother’s admission that no doctors have officially diagnosed her son, but he is on heavy duty anti-psychotics to control his “rage.” Once again, I am not a parent, nor am I a medical professional. The only “scientist” I can somewhat claim to be is a “social” one. But this is where I get skeptical: when atrocities and/or crimes perpetrated largely by white men become subject to a consequential rush to create a crisis around mental illness and isolate the solution as an exclusively medical one. If it is legitimate to suggest that rage and mother-hating from white male teenagers is a basis for the widespread prescribing of serious narcotics, then why is it illegitimate to suggest this same rage and mother-hating is a basis for honest and critical examinations of white and male supremacy? The former will make pharmaceutical companies a fortune, the latter will not.

When whites have been conditioned to equate violence with communities and people of color, we are quick to respond with disbelief when this same violence not only occurs in our communities, but is perpetrated by one of our own. The white male (TM) is a constructed model of power, success, and–most of all–rational thought. As a result, it is not a stretch to imagine that an exception to this rule must be diagnosed as defective, pathological, and most certainly abnormal. Forget about the individual that is President Obama, and wonder more at the broader social hypocrisy that sympathizes with white killers and immediately demonizes killers and/or victims of color. But this is especially painful because it involves children, right? Remember when an 11 year-old Black girl (name still under protection of anonymity) was gang-raped by several men in Texas in 2010? Was the media trend one of overwhelming sympathy and understanding? Or did a major news publication get itself embroiled in a shit storm for indicting the character of the young girl based on her tendency to “dress beyond her age”? It is acceptable to question the racial and gender identities of people and women of color in the US, but it is wholly unacceptable to subject white male killers to the same critical lens.

In a recent essay on the Sandy Hook shootings, Tim Wise denied that there was something about whiteness that causes homicide. No, I don’t think there is some kind of whiteness gene that makes certain white men lose their shit and kill people, but is it really that ridiculous to make a connection between whiteness and violence? How high on white supremacy were the Nazis, the KKK, and any other white male vigilante militias who intentionally carried out lynchings, bombings, and, yes, mass murders? Maybe whiteness is the illness here–not the genetic pigmentation that decides skin tone, but the social and structural environments that dictate how sympathetic and privileged white folks will be. Maybe white privilege and patriarchy (cultural & structural, domestic & private) is what teaches white men insane levels of entitlement and inconsolable rage as a logical reaction whenever they are denied what they think they deserve or are treated in a way they think they don’t deserve to be treated?

There is always something more reasonable to blame than whiteness.

Although I don’t deny the legitimacy of mental health issues, I’m not buying that as the only explanation in multiple cases of distinct and premeditated patterns (some might say histories) of behavior. I wonder whose definition of mental illness is being used when these mass killers are revealed to be white men with little or no anger management who are otherwise coherent, calculating, and aware of what they are doing. As fucked up and far-fetched as they are, manifestos and detailed plans are often left behind after these killers take their own lives. A repeated mental illness defense, in my opinion, makes it easier to dismiss violence as the work of “crazy” individuals instead of understanding it as something that has always pervaded cultures of whiteness in the US. Why is mental illness a national crisis that desperately needs to be remedied only when white men murder? After colonization, after Indigenous genocide, after chattel slavery, after lynching, after Oklahoma City, after Columbine, after Oak Creek… why is anyone still surprised when white men murder?

When something like this happens, I think of all the privilege not only white folks maintain, but also the massive amounts of privilege US citizens (and Westerners in general) continue to enjoy. I remember the times I have been cussed out by wealthy white women while working as a cashier after making some small error with their purchase. I think of the screaming matches I have witnessed over material goods and political opinions in retail stores, the irate tantrums white folks have thrown over long lines, missed orders at coffee shops, and the wrong burritos on their plates.  I think of how ego-driven and hyper-masculine mainstream US culture is, where violent white males are routinely celebrated as heroic outlaws and gun-toting badasses. Sure, I appreciate the humor from folks like David Sirota who wonders why it isn’t time to racially profile white men in this country, but I wonder what might happen if white society decided it was time to try something like this instead…

What if we stopped teaching each other how special and superior whiteness is–children and adults alike. What if we dismantled and discontinued the idea that we are the best people who deserve nothing but the best while living in the best country on Earth. What if we stopped giving lenient or abbreviated punishments to white collar criminals and white criminals in general. What if we abolished policies and practices in employment, education, and housing that perpetuate social inequities and oppression. What if we used a humane sense of limits to re-frame the “rights” and “freedom” that entitle us to do whatever we want and express our rage however we want. What if we educated our men to have unconditional respect for women and people of all gender identities whether they are relatives, strangers, next door, down the street, or in another country. What if we refused to see violence as something that exists only in communities of color, and made it completely unglamorous and unsympathetic at the hands of white men.

What if.

–DD

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Let’s Talk About: the Comments Made by Morgan Freeman

Before I even get into this: If Black followers would like to comment on internalized oppression or POC practicing whiteness, then I wholeheartedly welcome it. I, however, as a white person do not have the right, reason, need, or lived experience to speak on such matters. Personally, I see a crucial distinction between acknowledging this phenomenon and actively battling it. I’m not taking Morgan Freeman to task directly because this is not my battle and it is not my job, nor is it the job of any white person to school POC on their ideas of race. I cringe every time I see Tim Wise on twitter going after POC for practicing white supremacy, because, quite frankly, he just comes off as racist. I firmly believe these specific discussions and confrontations belong in the communities they directly involve.

A dear Brazilian friend of mine who I met through political organizing last year messaged me this morning and told me this video of Morgan Freeman’s comments was going around on Brazilian facebook pages in response to a “Black Consciousness Week” held at the end of November in Brazil. Aside from making some excellent criticisms about the white middle class reception to this video, he also said he’d like to see a discussion on this topic engaged on the blog. I was inclined to agree, but I was more so skeptical and cautious as to how I would approach this issue. I personally believe silence is not a solution to race and racism, but I can only speak to this belief through my experience of white privilege. These comments have been circulating for some time, and as much as I think they serve as one good example of exactly what happens when people refuse to talk about race, I think there is more danger in terms of white folks righteously savoring the reflection of their own ideas in the spoken words of POC.

Everyone knows Morgan Freeman is not the only Black person on the planet, right? More importantly, everyone knows that he isn’t the only person of color on the planet, nor was he unanimously appointed to speak for all Black people… right?

I think whites might want to hesitate before we uphold the idea that dialogues on race and racism should stop because a single individual says they should, especially if we think this then gives us the license to say “a Black person said it should stop. SO THERE.” As my friend put it, there is no reason for whites (wherever they are) to defend this kind of argument as being universally valid simply because it was “authorized” by a single Black person. Racism is not an issue that is limited to Black vs white. When there are numerous and diverse ethnic identities that contend with numerous and diverse racial oppressions, whites need to take a long look at our “I don’t see race” mantles and the token POC we may have stacked there as our personal opinion trophies. I sense a double standard of whiteness at work when Morgan Freeman’s comments are privileged as incontrovertible truth, but the words of Malcolm X are dismissed as extremist ramblings that pose a “threat to homeland security.” Why would whites have either the interest or the investment in one position over the other? Because one position works to our advantage and reinforces our privilege while the other does not.

I have no disrespect for Mr. Freeman, but with the undeniable reality that I would still be a dumb white motherfucker had I not been exposed to discourses on race and racism, I have to respectfully disagree. I cannot discuss why this kind of thinking might be damaging to POC because I am not a person of color. What I can do, is use my stories to explain why this kind of thinking is ultimately beneficial to and in the interest of white supremacy.

I vividly remember what I’m going to call the ‘white awakening’ I had my first quarter of college in the Ethnic Studies department. Prompts for our midterm papers were being handed around in class, and I was sitting comfortably with my usual expectations of academic exercises. In other words, I was going to breeze through whatever 5-6 pages this would be while remaining as neutral as I’d always been as a student. This white arrogance had no idea what the fuck to do with itself once I actually read the prompt. “Tell your personal migration narratives of contact with the United States and explain how this has shaped your ethnic identity.” I am still perfectly ignorant of many things, but in this particular context, this is how ignorant I was at the time: I went home in crisis. I had a self-indulgent meltdown where I unleashed white panic and stared at the prompt for who knows what amount of time. This isn’t an assignment for white people, I kept telling myself, how unfair. My first serious paper, and the first one ever that had asked me to examine my own ethnic identity, left me dumbfounded, directionless, and questioning my major.

It shocked me when, the next day in class, our TA revealed that my fellow desperate white students in crisis had collectively and immediately crowded her office to say to her what I wouldn’t say out loud. I will never forget what she said to the *entire class,* how she said it, and how this changed my thinking forever:

“I have news for you, white folks. YOU HAVE RACE. Understand that white is a race too and it’s socially constructed too. Yall are related to European immigrants, so don’t give me this shit about how you can’t talk about your migration patterns and ethnic identities.”

For me, this was the single card an important person pulled to bring the whole house of cards down. I have made mistakes and I have been wrong, I will continue to make mistakes and I will continue to be wrong. But had this moment not happened, had the radical power of words not existed, I would have remained locked into the great white ignorance that still controls this country and most of the planet. This state of mind would not have been good just for me; it’s good for whites in general.

At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I would say it’s not really Morgan Freeman who whites are agreeing with. When we use comments like these to defend colorblind thinking while we simultaneously reject or attack the ideas of radical POC, we are ultimately validating our own ideas and agreeing with ourselves. When we are at this point, it doesn’t matter that Morgan Freeman is Black; what matters is that his words are not threatening to our whiteness, while the words of Malcolm X or Angela Davis are perceived as highly threatening in this regard. The suggestion that we stop talking about race and racism prevents us from staring white supremacy in the eye behind its white hood, which means we must stare into a mirror, rather than look away and assume we were right all along. It is always easier to never speak of something again than it is to face its ugliness every day.

–DD

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Let’s Talk About: Intersections of whiteness, Masculinity, and Queers

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So this afternoon on facebook…

After a debate with a Zionist I clicked over to my dash to find this image being used by a local gay bar to advertise their thxgiving day festivities. “Come get your turkey stuffed,” said the promotional material. Here we have an example of the most popular time of year to use white stereotypes of Indigenous peoples as marketing strategies. Furthermore, this is yet another example of whiteness in communities who, although they might understand the oppression of homophobia, have the racial privilege to dismiss the oppression of racism and cultural appropriation. This image reminds me of two things: not to assume that white supremacy exists exclusively in conservative heterosexual spaces, and to remember that even though there are queer whites, we have still been conditioned by white supremacy and continue to benefit from it. Being queer does not preclude us from being racist or participating in racist behavior.

I’m assuming a buckled hat or turkey feathers weren’t erotic enough, so they decided to go with a… war bonnet. Not only does this image use white stereotypes to objectify Native masculinity, it also exploits cultural dress by packaging it as a sexualized costume that will, ideally, appeal to potential consumers and stimulate their genitals. The common and frighteningly overused argument that cultural appropriation is a demonstration of appreciation and respect cannot, even remotely, be applied in this case. I fail to see how using war bonnets to sell sex to mostly white gay men would qualify as appreciative or respectful. If there are any questions about this, consider the fact that the war bonnet (in combination with the promotional material quoted above) is only serving the purpose of a sexualized costume precisely because it’s the only thing the model is wearing—the picture being tantalizingly cropped right before the pubic hair territory gets more graphic.

With turkey basters being as phallic as they are and ovens being as orifice related as they are, the use of a sexualized racist trope becomes less of a random association and more of a conscious decision. This hypersexual photo is designed to appeal to a decidedly non-Native demographic for a decidedly non-Native event.. which is based on a whitewashed holiday that celebrates legacies of ignored Native genocide in the US. Selling distorted Native images to sell thxgiving could only be the product of a white supremacy blind spot. Nontraditional war bonnet wearing already plays on white fantasies of Native peoples constructed as universally similar in appearance and customs, but this version gives it a hot shirtless twist to attract gay men and compel them to buy $9 cocktails. This version turns cultural appropriation into a gay male fantasy.

Why is this desirable? A naked white dude (who can go ahead and skip the spray tan) with a turkey leg in his mouth and an oven mitt on his dick wouldn’t fit with the “get stuffed” theme? Doesn’t that send the same message? The point being that eroticism is a good thing until it manifests at the non-consensual expense of oppressed peoples. I am unconvinced the decision to go with a war bonnet has nothing to do with a sentimental attachment to the whiteness of thxgiving, and the privilege to exploit, stereotype, or dismiss Indigenous peoples and their cultural traditions. I still can’t get over the fact that thxgiving is being celebrated at a gay bar in the first place. How is that progress—for anyone?

—DD

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Politics and white Privilege: Reflections on Why I Voted for Obama

Several months ago I came to the conclusion that I would never vote again, and decided it was some kind of meaningful decision aligned perfectly with my radical politics. I thought I would ignore the Presidential election entirely, assuming this would allow me to exist outside the US system of government. If this sounds similar to the white fantasy that we can exist outside the system of white privilege when we “think differently,” that’s because it’s almost identical. I am implicated in both systems whether I am a willing or unwilling participant, aware or unaware, and I don’t know of any cancer patients that became immune to the disease simply by ignoring it. As I’ve watched this election cycle unfold (by far one of the most appalling examples of wasted money that “modern” humans have ever known), I have reflected on what it says about my white privilege to even assume the freedom I have to abstain from voting is a “moral” freedom and to assume this decision is a “radical” one.

Full disclosure from the very beginning: I agree with several highly respected friends of color that voting is a colonial franchise. It reinforces the structural power of a neocolonial system (the US government), the foundation for which was formal European colonialism. It’s a uniquely white privilege to reflect on US national heritage with pride and nostalgia, and the “pioneering” ideas behind the creation of the US nation-state that never applied to Indigenous and ethnic “others.” I agree that voting is essentially an act of supporting this history and its influence on the contemporary moment. As per usual with a white person, however, my political position is completely different, and because of my privilege the stakes are not as high for me in any given election.

What’s the worst thing that’s going to happen to the majority of white folks if Obama is re-elected? The wealthiest of us might have to pay higher taxes? I don’t really need to think about the few unfortunate consequences I might personally suffer if Romney is elected, which means I have the white privilege to vote for myself and satisfy my own politics.. or not. I can dislike both candidates—one significantly more so than the other—and I could’ve spent this election as a “radical conscientious objector” instead of a voter, but my white privilege is unaltered either way. So I also agree with many respected POC bloggers and writers who argue that no vote for President Obama could amount to the election of Mitt Romney, which would mean worse conditions for many POC in this country.

I have no illusions that I achieved political oneness with “democracy” today because I decided, after all, to vote for Obama. What does the idea of “democracy” really mean when states like Ohio and Florida could decide an entire election? I recently had a discussion with a white feminist about electoral politics, one in which she claimed a certain group of people should “get their shit together and vote” if they wanted certain rights in the US. Not only was she perpetuating the white liberal fantasy that anyone can completely overhaul their social problems with democratic agency, but she was also suggesting that voting is the ultimate solution to any given issue. I could be wrong, but I have to seriously doubt that anti-colonial ideas have ever been viable voting measures. Folks with white skin can simultaneously be aware that the region called the “Southwest” was stolen from Mexico and Indigenous peoples, then claim voting will somehow effectively address this situation. When has “give Mexico back to Mexican and Indigenous people” ever been on a ballot anywhere in the US?

A revolution is not going to happen in the US at a ballot box, and I’m not a fan of every single Obama policy—particularly not the one that effectively means voting for him amounts to voting for more deportations of Latin@ immigrants. But Romney’s ideas on immigration? “Hey, pull yourselves up by your boot straps and self-deport.” Hear ye, hear ye, the colonizer proclaims the Natives shall leave voluntarily from their own land. It’s not better that I voted for Obama, but it would have been worse had I voted for that. Not voting for the alternative gives the worst case scenario a much better chance. I don’t think Obama is the “lesser of two evils,” I think Mitt Romney is yet another financially elite, racially privileged, homophobic, patriarchal, and white supremacist politician that does not deserve to be given more power than he has already enjoyed. Simply put: Romney is worse, and, if elected, would be much worse for communities of color. He wants to dissolve Indigenous sovereignty, which is enough of a reason to vote against him, whether you’re drinking the “democracy” koolaid or not.

Although there are political struggles aimed at disrupting and deconstructing the two-party binary system that dominates US campaigns for office, I don’t know that there will ever be such a thing as a “good vote” or a “good politician” within a corrupt system. Even my vote for President Obama was not a “good vote,” it was a vote against Romney. There have been countless moment’s in Obama’s Presidency that I have imagined how different he might be if he was not forced to operate within the confines of a necolonial and white supremacist system. I think of all the moments he could not be the candidate so many voters wanted him to be in 2008 precisely because of this system. I imagine maybe there are days when he goes to work as Bill Clinton and goes home as Malcolm X. Perhaps the problem is not so much the politician, but the faith voters have in a corrupt government and the promise that this institution, if run by the “right person,” will create the social welfare and “equality” it was supposedly designed to deliver.

I might prefer abolishing the system altogether to find a different way of life, but, as long as it is still in place, I will vote against the worst and most horrifying candidates competing to control it. This is not a heroic, ethical, or revolutionary stance—it is being the lesser of two evils as a white person.

Assuming Romney does get elected, I wonder what will be said about a “post-racial America” then. Will folks say the country is still “post-racial” just because half of its population once elected a Black male? Will they reflect fondly and say, “Remember that Black President we had.. that one time?”

—DD

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Tumblr Q&A: The Myth of the Aryan Race

Q: I know you’re trying to do something good here, but do you really think white people are the only ones who are capable of being racist? Even in ancient times, Aryans from central asia created what became the Indian caste system to separate themselves from the darker dravidians. There are several examples of this throughout all of history. Please, before you tell people to check their privilege, check your facts.

A: Here’s the interesting thing about the facts I’ve checked: The word “Aryan” was used to describe folks with white skin in the eighteenth century by Europeans (one in particular, a French Orientalist thinker, by the name of Abrham-Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron) and was created through European translation of the Sanskrit word arya (a word that has its own specific history in India). Nothing ancient about that. It was a term Europeans appropriated and changed to describe their own white racial identity around the myth of a “pure Aryan race,” and it became popular within racial anthropology as a racist term to favorably refer to a dominant white ethnic group that supposedly “emerged” in India—also known as “Indo-Europeans.” There is a whole historical perspective of linguistic, religious, and racial classification behind the European division of Aryans and Dravidians, one that can be further understood in Aryan Idols: Indo-European Mythology as Ideology and Science by Stefan Arvidsson.

There are many scholarly studies that show the imposition of romantic European ideas and colonial thinking that created the mythology of an “Aryan race,” which was taken to violent extremes by Nazi Germany’s Third Reich. Orientalist histories and colonial racial “science”—conceived by British and fellow European colonizers—have also contributed to the idea that there were racial divisions in caste systems in India. There are also studies, both genetic and scholarly, that show archaeologists having an incredibly difficult time proving the racial difference and/or dominance of ancient Aryans. It was 17th, 18th, and 19th century European ideas of race that inscribed ancient caste systems in India (which had more to do with language, religion, and region) with racial meaning. Ideas of race, white supremacy, and racism started in these eras—not in ancient times.

Here’s what needs to be checked: colonial whitewashed ideas about cultural histories, ignored complexities and specifics of historical events, and, once again, white privilege.

—DD

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Colonialism 101: white Privilege in a “Nation of Immigrants”

In last night’s second Presidential debate, Mitt Romney used the phrase “We are a nation of immigrants” as his opening line to a voter’s question on immigration policy. This romantic idea, dripping with political correctness, manages to erase history, ignore social stigma, and homogenize the category of “immigrants” in a single sentence. The statement is horizontal; immigration is not. It suggests that the US has been a nebulous collection of travelers (which it hasn’t), all of them coming and going willfully and with agency (which they haven’t). It makes it seem as if there are no walls crossed and no lives risked, there is no degrading bureaucracy to contend with and no uniformed mercenaries waiting to harass, profile, and deport certain immigrants. It pretends as though there are not human beings designated as “legal” and “illegal.” It fails to recognize the sovereign territories of Indigenous peoples—the original inhabitants of this land—that exist within this “nation of immigrants.” The fact that Indigenous cultures are still thriving and still present in the US today invalidates that idea altogether.

Before we even get into this, let’s clear the air about Mitt Romney’s “roots.” His Mormon relatives fled to Chihuahua to escape anti-polygamy laws and his father returned to the US before Romney was born. Does that make him an immigrant? No. Do white people born to white people living in Mexico make them Mexican? No. Are US citizens living in Mexico who decide to return to the US immigrants? No.

First and foremost, the US Nation-State was created by European colonizers, and their descendents are now citizens enjoying privileged positions within the dominant culture of white supremacy. Then there were white settlers who either occupied stolen land or forcibly seized it from Indigenous peoples, and their descendants are privileged citizens also. The slaves on whose backs the US economy was built did not willfully migrate to the thirteen colonies. As a WOC professor of mine once said: “No one stood around on the shores of African countries and said ‘I wonder which slave ship I’ll take to the ‘New World’ today.’” Slave labor from Africa, imported labor from China, victims of human trafficking, and refugees don’t qualify as immigrants. Even the Bracero Program that imported laborers from Mexico, followed by a policy (“Operation Wetback”) designed to hunt down and deport disposable laborers of color… still not a “nation of immigrants.” Territories of the present-day Southwest were stolen from Mexico and colonized in the midst of violent Westward Expansionism, which means the US-Mexico border fence, US immigration policy, and white nativism are the only factors that construct folks from south of the border as “immigrants” in their homeland.

So let’s talk about US immigration policy and the creation of the US as a Nation-State direct from Mae M. Ngai, author of Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Fast forward to neocolonialism in the 20th century with the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 codifying the exclusion of Chinese, Japanese, and API folks in general, and establishing a system of allowing/disallowing immigrants from certain countries by numbers (national quotas) based on their “National origin.” With the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act (McCarran-Walter Act of 1952), quotas were replaced with numerical “caps” on immigration and, for the first time, it somewhat limited previously unhindered immigration from the “Western hemisphere.” This law, still in use today, established a legal preference for “skilled professional labor” as well, creating a hierarchy of ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable’ immigrants in the US. When immigrants have been divided along lines of race, and when race continues to determine inclusion and exclusion within immigration politics, there is no cohesive or equitable “nation of immigrants.”

But hold up—isn’t that a good a thing to say? Not if you’re white, and here’s why: Which immigrants are we? Are we the immigrants who have been excluded by law from entering the country? Are we the immigrants who live in fear of racial profiling? Are we the immigrants who get deported with our children left behind? Can we really claim to be immigrants when we are still colonizing and occupying Indigenous land?

Recent white immigrants have automatic racial belonging to the national body, and white colonizers of the past created the national body, giving whites tremendous privilege in migration power dynamics. As Toni Morrison said, “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” Immigrants with white skin have the privilege and physical safety of being read as American simply according to their color, which is a privilege immigrants of color do not have. When white politicians like Mitt Romney use the “nation of immigrants” phrase, he is pandering to reformist attitudes about immigration while supporting racist immigration policies like E-verify, secure communities, and “self-deportation.” He is also making it possible for whites to benignly say we came from “immigrants” rather than admit our ancestors were Native slaughtering slave owners responsible for colonialism and genocide. “Immigrants” sounds a lot nicer, doesn’t it?

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