Terrance Heath

What Kind of Country Do We Want to Be?

Filed By Terrance Heath | March 07, 2009 9:30 AM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: nigger, patriotism, post-racial world, racism, sexism

In a previous post, I wrote:

Or you’d have to just not care, something which these days is increasingly referred to as being “post-racial.” Yet that the Post would publish a cartoon like this is evidence that we’re not anywhere near post-racial. We won’t be “post-racial” once images like this “don’t matter,” or “aren’t a big deal,” or “just a joke.” Saying you’re “colorblind” doesn’t make you so, because those few words can’t divorce you or me or anyone else from the history we share or the culture we’ve been simmering in practically since conception.

It’s been said before, but we’re not anywhere near post-racial. We’ll be on our way to being something a bit closer to “post-racial” when we don’t see images like this because we know the history they invoke and we we give enough of a damn about our fellow citizens that we at least think before we use them.

We’ll be a step or to even closer to something resembling “post-racial” when we question our need or desire to use words or images that have been used to cudgel the consciousness and poke fun at the personhood of the people we which whom we share this country and the rest of the world.

Instead of bemoaning being able to use “the N word,” if you’re white, how about asking instead why you need to use that word our of all the possible choices, or why it bothers you that you can’t do so without consequence?

Instead of complaining, if you’re a man, about not being able to call a woman a “bitch” or use “the C word”, how about asking instead why you need to use those words out of all possible choices, and why it bothers you that you can’t do so without consequence?

Instead of complaining, if you’re heterosexual, that you can’t used the word “faggot” and now even “That’s so gay” will get you some disapproving glances, how about asking why you need to use those words out of all possible choices, or why it bothers you that you can’t do so without consequence?

Because it’s not that you can’t. It’s that you can’t so and expect to face no consequences or to go unchallenged.

(That means having to ditch the notion that all of the above infringes on your right to freedom of speech. Because:

  • the government isn’t stopping you from saying what you want;
  • in fact, no one’s stopping you from saying you want to say, but the “good old days” of being able to say it and go unchallenged by the people whose personhood you would impugn are gone; and there are consequences because people who were once silence can now speak up.

One of the more interesting communications I’ve gotten related to the New York Post was an email from GLAAD, pointing out that the cartoonist -- Sean Delonas -- has a long history of anti-gay bigotry in his work.

This cartoon, in particular, jumped out at me.

It reminded me of images like this one, from the “bad old days” when the police regularly raided gay bars.

That’s the difference between now and the “good old days” when people understood such things as “harmless jokes”; the kind that are OK as long as you know that the person having such fun with them isn’t really a racist, sexist, homophobe, etc., and when people could enjoy all of the above and not have to grapple with their own racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. The people who used to just breath a sign, grit their teeth, or roll their eyes, and otherwise say nothing because that’s all they could do without consequence.

Now they’re likely to show up outside your office with signs and bullhorns, and the media in tow.

Times have changed. A cartoon might just have been a cartoon once upon a time, but not so anymore. A joke is not just a joke, and the privilege of having a cartoon be just a cartoon and a joke be just a joke so long as they were coming from you -- a privilege purchased by the silence of many who are silent no more.

Like I said before, things ain’t what they used to be. And some people resent that.

I've joked, on occasion, that the great complaint of the last 20 years or so of American politics boils down to the reality that being white, male, and heterosexual (throw in Christian or Protestant here, too, if you like) just doesn't come with as many privileges it used to. If I were to make a sweeping generalization, I'd say that a good bit of conservative politics these days, boiled down to gravy, adds up to not much more than that. (Steven points out that being white, male, heterosexual and wealthy at least still has its privileges.)

But at least they still have the privilege of being angry.

I've noticed something. No one seems to seems to question whether the angry white men that swept Newt Gingrich and the Republican majority into power in 1994 were justified in their anger. It' assumed that whatever they're angry about they have a right to be angry about.

But not so for the so called "angry black women." Their anger is somehow less "real" and less justified. Perhaps that that's because being angry is a privilege in this culture. Anger, if you are a minority, is dangerous. If you are a woman, or a person of color, gay, etc., your movements must be calm, your voice must be modulated, and your anger must ever show.

Joy is permitted. You may sing, dance, and celebrate in your joy. It is a performance, sometimes a command performance, demanded of you even in the midst of despair. Suffering is permitted. It, too, is familiar and non-threatening. It can even be reaffirming to those looking upon it; reaffirming their power and privilege. Sadness is permitted. You are allowed to mourn, and to moan, keen, and cry in your mourning. Fear is permitted. Your fear -- wide-eyed screaming of stunned silence -- is familiar, and recognizable.

You are allowed all of the above, especially in response to another's more "real" anger, but not your own anger. Anger implies entitlement -- to material goods, to power and privilege, or a certain kind of treatment. Anger implies a right to expect something, and is a justifiable response to not receiving one's due. And you aren't due that which you'd have a right to be angry about having been denied.

And that includes acknowledgement of your humanity. Images like the New York Post, and the ones in the previous post -- to which the Post image is directly related -- serve numerous purposes, one of which is to dehumanize those depicted. Just as the images like the other Delonas images above.

They take individual and collective traits and characteristics that are merely human, and restrict them to a particular group, which may then be divorced from the rest of the human family. They’re so effective that even supposedly intelligent people -- who are not unfamiliar with minorities and even have friends who are Black/Asian/Latino, etc. -- still succumb to them and compartmentalize their relationships to people who belong to those groups. (Also, having those acquaintances gives them an automatic “I’m not racist” card.)

Part of the result is the astounding rash of what one writer called “ghetto-fabulous parties”

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In January, students at Clemson University in South Carolina and a number of other institutions of higher learning opted to mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day with what were called "ghetto-fabulous" parties at which white students dressed in blackface, drank 40s, wore fake teeth grills, flashed gang signs and, in some cases, padded their posteriors to conform to their stereotypes of the Black female body. A month later, white students at Santa Clara University in California threw a "Latino-themed" party, where young women feigned pregnancy, the young men played at being cholo and everyone reveled in the symbols and spectacle they associate with Mexican Americans.

Although not a new phenomenon, it seems that over the last year "ghetto," "gangsta," "south of the border" and "taco and tequila" parties have become college chic and cool. Parties at more than a dozen colleges and universities received national coverage in the past year, with countless others going unnoticed save for the pictures posted to sundry websites. It is tempting to interpret such events as clichéd racist expressions. They are, after all, contemporary minstrel theaters that allow middle- and upper-class white Americans to cross moral and social boundaries by racial crossdressing. But such easy explanations keep us from fully appreciating the circumstances on today's college campus that make minstrel parties pleasing and powerful for so many.

In many respects, ghetto-fabulous parties are the culmination of conservative politics on college campuses. They reflect the ongoing insecurities of whiteness in the wake of the civil rights movement and the supposed prominence of multiculturalism and political correctness. Indeed, ghetto-fab parties are part of a broader reactionary movement that believes whiteness and the ivory tower are being imperiled by political correctness, radical professors and "minority rights." Pushing against these perceived evils, conservative students have organized political theatrics on campuses, holding "affirmative action" bake sales and "white-only" scholarships. They have in essence created a culture today in which those with power think of themselves as victims and those without become targets for violence.

So it was when the images above proliferated, particularly after the civil war, when the black brute stereotype created a nearly nationwide panic over black men allegedly raping white women (never mind that white men had been raping black women for centuries). The direct influence of images like those in “Birth of a Nation” is evident in real events like the murder of Emmet Till and the case of the Scottsboro Boys, the miscarriage of justice against people like Genarlow Wilson the black residents of Tulia, TX -- and countless African American men accused of raping white women (often falsely accused or accused as the result of a secret, consensual affair that was discovered, leaving the white woman few options but to claim rape in order to save her reputation or herself) and subjected to the justice of the lynch mob.

The dehumanizing “black-man-as-beast” is seen in the all-but-inevitable portrayal of Obama as a monkey or near-ape.

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And a line can be drawn from those images to the more extreme expressions of anger and fear seen towards the end of the campaign, when an Obama victory seemed more likely; when individuals at the Republican candidates’ rallies began shouting “Terrorist!” and even “Kill him!” when McCain and Palin launched into their attacks on Obama’s character and associations; the Orange County Republicans posted outside of rallies, some McCain/Palin supporters shouted “Bomb Obama” and talked openly of “someone” assassinating him. And of course, there was the white supremacists’ assassination plot, foiled while still in its planning stages. It is the legend that enabled women like Susan Smith and to be quickly and easily believed, at least initially.

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The fear that Bill Cosby talks about is almost palpable in the responses of some white American’s to Obama’s election as president, and he sums it up better than I can.

These people are afraid of us. They’re afraid of our potential. They’re afraid of themselves.

Consider the legislature scenes from Birth of a Nation, that no doubt caused anxiety to whites at the time, and consider the reactions of the McCain Palin supporters to the (then only highly likely) election of Barack Obama to the presidency. The fear and paranoia is palpable.

“I’m afraid if he’s elected the blacks will take over…”

“When you’ve got a negro running for president, he’s not a ‘first stringer.’ He’s definitely a ’second stringer.’”

“Obama and his wife, I’m concerned that they might be anti-white, and that he might hide that.

“I don’t like the fact that he thinks us white people are trash. Because we’re not.”

“You consider me a racist? Well then, I’m a proud racist. Because Arabs are dirtbags. They hate Americans, they hate my kids, and they’ll hate my grandkids. And people like him ar giving them more power.

“Bomb Obama! Get rid of him. I’ve had a number of people in the … when he gets in the White House (gunshot).”

“You don’t want my true answer. I’d never vote for a black man.”

“I don’t want to sound racist here, but I do not want a black man running my country.”

The election of Barack Obama, the images of him taking the oath of office, striding onto the floor of the House to the strains of “Hail to the Chief,” to stand behind the presidential seal and address the nation, even though none of these images bears the vaguest resemblance to D.W. Griffith’s vision of black emancipation and enfranchisement, can’t help but echo those images and others like them. Even if they’ve never seen Birth of a Nation or images as explicitly racist as these:

They have been influenced by the children and grandchildren of these images, just as these images influenced their parents and grandparents -- from Jack Johnson to Willie Horton to Mike Tyson to O.J. Simpson -- just as blacks have been affected by them at the other extreme. It’s that reality, that makes it both cause for anxiety as well as hope when a man of African descent may be addressed as “Mr. President” in a county where for decades almost no African American man for centuries was granted the title of “Mister” or anything above “boy” or “uncle,” regardless of relationship to the speaker. The fear and anxiety they inspire has a purpose.

Images like those above served not only to define who we were, but to ultimately define who they are, justifying superiority and supremacy by defining them as “not” us and “not” all of the things that are and have been projected upon African Americans. It forged the one badge of honor that poor whites in the south clung to before, during, and after the civil war and on into reconstruction. No matter how poor they were or how uneducated, they could cling to one saving grace, that served not only as a comfort but as a distraction from an economic system that heavily favored the wealthy landowners: “At least we’re not niggers.”

Under those circumstances, it is a disaster if there are no “niggers.” You need a “nigger” in order to be, and know that you are, “not a nigger.” When identity is founded upon and requires the presence of “niggers” -- whether that merely means black people, dark-skinned people, or any socially, economically, or politically deprived group of people -- it is a crisis of identity when the “niggers” refuse to be “niggers” any longer.

It is a threat to identity. And a threat to identity must either be neutralized or annihilated.


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Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | March 7, 2009 10:49 AM

Wow, Al Jolson is dead, and the only place for "black face" is Othello. Terrance, it was powerful, and I came from a town where many Whites saw any advantage to Blacks as a "cost" to their race. Your description of the need to have a "scapegoat" for one's own shortcomings is compelling and so very genuine. Thank you!

But, people will stereotype regardless. Not just on the basis of race, but gender, hairstyles, age, designer jeans, cars and the "right" tattoo if there is such a thing.

People stereotype because considering each human being as an precious individual is impossible for the human mind to get around. There is not enough time for people to stop and consider each human being as an individual, so our minds lump categories together. You have stereotyped "angry white men" for instance. Stereotypes can be accurate, but still, we have to think about our initial reactions to outward appearances.

Stereotyping is not always ignorant or racist. I created my own negative ones over the trust fund babies I ran into in the Palm Beach crowd. Their day centered around which designer shirt they were wearing and had they been "seen" in it too many times. Also were you rich enough to talk to them? I do not miss Florida, can you tell?

Thank you for sharing your soul.

Every time I hear someone refer to America as being "post racial" now that Obama is President, I casually remind them that it must be wonderful living in all the other countries of the world who have had a black President. They must be really post racial. Or look at Germany and England - they must by Post sexism since they've had female leaders.

The logic just doesn't hold any water.

Humans will always judge each other by their differences, we need to evolve so that we start judging by our simularities as well.