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“Making Whiteness Visible”: We Are Not Trayvon Martin

If there is one hopeful note amidst all the anguish and recrimination from the acquittal of George Zimmerman, it’s that growing numbers of white people have come to appreciate whiteness for what it is: an unearned set of privileges. And as a result of that dawning awareness, it’s become possible to imagine a day when that structure of privilege is dismantled – by white people.

Recall that immediately after the killing of Trayvon Martin, people of every race took to the Internet to declare “I Am Trayvon Martin.” They wore hoodies. They proclaimed solidarity. That was a well-meaning and earnest attempt to express empathy, but it also obscured the core issue, which is that Martin died not because he was wearing a hoodie but because he was wearing a hoodie while black. Blackness was the fatal variable.

And so now, post-verdict, a more realistic meme has taken root. On Tumblr and Facebook and elsewhere there is a new viral phenomenon: “We Are Not Trayvon Martin” (emphasis mine). Huge numbers of white Americans are posting testimonials and images to declare that it is precisely because they are not black that they have never had to confront the awful choices Martin faced when Zimmerman began to pursue him.

This isn’t about empathy or the posture of equivalency that empathy can tempt us to assume. It’s about owning up to the unequal privilege of being non-black and saying, in essence, “I Am George Zimmerman.” And because I am George Zimmerman, I get to have my fears trump reality. I get get-out-of-jail-free cards. I get a presumption of innocent victimhood, no matter what my own acts or attitudes.

Much has been made about the fact that Zimmerman is white and of Hispanic ethnicity, as if he therefore couldn’t possibly embody white privilege. This is a deep misreading of the dynamics of race and the media in America. As an Asian American, I am endlessly frustrated by how binary and black-and-white – literally and figuratively – the portrayal of race is in our country. Much of the time Asian Americans are an afterthought, or simply presumed foreign. But I assume that had I been the neighborhood watchman that day in Florida, I would have been understood in the media as the non-black actor. Which is to say, for the limited purposes of this trial, I would have been granted “honorary white” status – whether or not I wanted it.

Whiteness is the unspoken, invisible default setting of American life. We frame our conversations about race in terms of how white people see and what they think they see. We imagine that nonwhite Americans want to be more like white Americans. We imagine that to be American is to be white. When racial minorities complain about the slurs of a Paula Deen or a prank like the faked names of the Asiana pilots, they are often told by whites to stop being so sensitive or to take the context of tradition or history or humor into account. That ability, to dismiss and minimize people of color for being oversensitive, is itself one of the privileges that whiteness confers. The broader privilege that whites have by occupying the omniscient vantage point in media and civic life has to be named and then undone.

How will it be undone? Not, in the end, by the work of communities of color alone. Minority groups can and must be vigilant, vocal advocates for fair treatment and representation in public life. But if America is to transcend its long conflation of whiteness with Americanness, it will fall to white people – those wise enough to see they are not Trayvon and humane enough not to become George – to lead us all to that promised land.

 

By: Eric Liu, Time, July 17, 2013

July 18, 2013 Posted by | Race and Ethnicity, Zimmerman Trial | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Rachel Jeantel Explained, Linguistically”: She Made A Lot More Sense Than You Think

Let’s face it, none of us would want to be Trayvon Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel in the last couple of days. Much of the country is laughing at the “ghetto” black girl who keeps getting tripped up in her story. But Jeantel has made a lot more sense than it may have seemed.

Yes, she was dissimulating in pretending that Trayvon Martin’s referring to Zimmerman as a “creepy-ass cracker” wasn’t “racial”—of course it was. Cracker is today’s “honkey,” a word now about as antique as The Jeffersons in which George used it so much. It is both descriptive and pejorative, although it’s important to note that according to Jeantel, Martin was not calling Zimmerman a cracker to his face but when trying to give his friend on the phone an update on the situation.

The origins of the word in reference to persons as opposed to snacks is obscure, but most likely started when cracking could mean bragging in Elizabethan English. Upper-crust colonial Americans had a way of referring to lower-class British immigrants to the South as loud-mouthed “crackers,” as in boastful beyond their proper station.

Pretty soon the word just referred to the people, period, with elegant Central Park architect Frederick Law Olmsted even casually writing in 1850 after a Florida jaunt that “some crackers owned a good many Negroes.”

Jeantel may well have heard some whites in Florida using the word for themselves with a kind of in-group pride – just as black people use the N-word that way. But surely she knows that’s a different meaning, just as anyone who claims it’s okay for Paula Deen to have used the N-word because Jay-Z does is faking it.

The important thing is that it made perfect sense for Martin to use that word to describe a white man chasing him for no reason. Few fully understand that the tension between young black men and the police (and by extension, security guards, traffic cops and just about any sort of watchman) is the main thing keeping America from getting past race. If ten years went by without a story like the Martin case we’d be in a very different country.

There are several possible reasons why Jeantel feigned on whether calling someone a cracker was racially-motivated. It could be because she wants to protect her dead friend. It could be because she’s extremely uncomfortable. Much of her irritable reticence is predictable of someone of modest education reacting to an unfamiliar type of interrogation on the witness stand. As natural as many educated people find direct questions, they are culturally rather unusual worldwide, an artifice of educational procedure. In oral cultures – i.e. most cultures— direct questions are processed as abrupt and confrontational. In that, Jeantel is operating at a clear disadvantage.

Yet one problem Jeantel is not having is with English itself. Many are seeing her as speaking under some kind of influence from the Haitian Creole that is her mother’s tongue, but that language has played the same role in her life that Yiddish did in George Gershwin’s – her English is perfect.

It’s just that it’s Black English, which has rules as complex as the mainstream English of William F. Buckley. They’re just different rules. If she says to the defense lawyer interrogating her “I had told you” instead of “I told you” it’s not because it’s Haitian—black people around the country use what is called the preterite “had,” which I always heard my Philadelphia cousins using when I was a kid.

If you think Black English is primitive, here’s a test – is it “I ain’t be listening that much” or “I don’t be listening that much”? It’s don’t, and Jeantel and millions of other black people nationwide could tell immediately that using “ain’t” in that sentence is “off.”

This was what defense attorney Don West failed to understand yesterday when he asked Jeantel:

“Are you claiming in any way that you don’t understand English?”

“I don’t understand you, I do understand English,” said Jeantel.

“When someone speaks to you in English, do you believe you have any difficulty understanding it because it wasn’t your first language?” asked West.

“I understand English really well,” said Jeantel.

She understands it as well as West or anyone. So now who’s the dumb one?

 

By: John McWhorter, Time, June  28, 2013

June 30, 2013 Posted by | Racism | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Blindspots, Symbols And Symptoms”: What Paula Deen Could Teach The Supreme Court

Why, in a week of multiple important Supreme Court decisions, are we so focused on the racial sins and multiple apologies of country cooking’s Paula Deen?

In part, of course, it’s because we brake for train wrecks, preferring them even to this week’s twin local animal stories about Rusty the runaway red panda and the black bear cub running through backyards in Northwest Washington.

But we’re also clicking on the Deen-athon because the “Oprah of food,” as one of the cook’s 2.7 million Facebook fans calls her, is a symbol and a symptom — a walking, talking, crying and deep-frying reminder of how much we still need both affirmative action and a fully functional Voting Rights Act.

Deen, who told NBC’s Matt Lauer, “I is what I is and I’m not changing,” was wrong about that: She’s already lost her cooking show, her deals with Smithfield Foods, Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Target. All that and more slipped away since the news that she’d admitted in a legal deposition that “of course” she’s used a racial slur in the distant past, and dreamed of throwing her brother Bubba a “plantation-themed” wedding dinner served by an all-black wait staff.

Now even Novo Nordisk has, by supposedly mutual agreement, “suspended” the woman who brought the world skillet-fried apple pie as spokeswoman for its diabetes drug. But she is the perfect spokeswoman for a week in which a number of the biggest stories circle back to the issue of inequality. To our flawed efforts to live up to that shimmery line in our Declaration of Independence about the apparently not-so-self-evident truth that we are all created equal.

In Florida, where George Zimmerman is on trial in the shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin, the friend Martin was on the phone with right before he died testified that he told her, “That ‘N-word’ is still following me now,’ ” she told the court. “I asked him how the man looked like. He just told me the man looked ‘creepy.’ ‘Creepy, white’ — excuse my language — ‘cracker. Creepy [expletive] cracker.” So we’ve been told that Zimmerman saw Martin through a racial lens. And now know that Martin saw Zimmerman that way.

In California, same-sex couples will soon be free to marry, but they still can’t walk down the aisle in 38 other states. And despite the high court’s thumbs down on the Defense against Marriage Act, we’re still nowhere near equality for an awful lot of Americans.

Which is why the saddest headline of the week had to be the one announcing that, as the civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis put it, “the Supreme Court has stuck a dagger into the heart of the Voting Rights Act” and “gutted the most powerful tool this nation has ever had to stop discriminatory voting practices from becoming law.” Now Mississippi and Texas can implement voter ID laws that, whatever their intent, will disenfranchise minority voters.

Across the land, meantime, disappointed white college applicants have effectively been invited to challenge race-conscious admissions plans like the one in Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin, which the Supreme Court sent back to a lower court for further review. “The worst forms of racial discrimination in this nation have always been accompanied by straight-faced representations that discrimination helped minorities,” Clarence Thomas wrote in his concurring opinion. He’s long seen affirmative action as a vote of non-confidence, suggesting that maybe minorities aren’t as good as anybody else.

I’m not puzzled about why he might feel that way; when someone recently observed — pleasantly, with a hug and no ill intent — that my contribution to a certain group was to keep it from being all-male, I smiled on the outside yet inside, narrowed my eyes and gave him the invisible Death Stare.

But the problems caused by affirmative action are nothing compared to what the lack of diversity gets us: Just for example, a 66-year-old millionaire who still doesn’t know not to brag that she has a friend who is “black as a board.”  Who somehow reached retirement age and became a big darn deal without ever learning that yes, the racial slur in question is offensive. Or that “plantation-style” is not a festive party theme.

Matt Lauer finally did make me feel for her with his blunt questions while she was in tears, acting like some latter-day Jean Le Maistre demanding on behalf of the Inquisition that Joan of Arc forsake men’s clothing in prison. (Though if Joan responded that he who is without sin should “pick up that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me,” I don’t want to know.)  We all pay the price for that kind of not-at-all-benign cluelessness. And for her blind spots and all of ours, what better antidote do we have than the civil rights remedies undermined this week by our highest court?

 

By: Melinda Henneberger, The Washington Post, She The People, June 27, 2013

June 28, 2013 Posted by | Affirmative Action, Voting Rights Act | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Paula Deen Is Confusing People”: A Stange Epidemic Of People Pretending To Be More Stupid Than They Actually Are

American life is full of two groups of people: those who find racism abhorent, and those who find this first group of people tiresome. Paula Deen’s humilation this week seems to have brought out the members of Group 2. Why is everyone making such a big fuss, they ask?

Thankfully, The New York Times has a very amusing report from Georgia on this subject:

The line of Paula Deen fans waiting for her restaurant here to open grew throughout the hot, muggy morning Saturday. They discussed what they might select from the buffet inside The Lady and Sons, her wildly popular restaurant in the heart of Savannah. But they also talked of boycotting the Food Network, which dropped their beloved TV chef on Friday after she awkwardly apologized for having used racial slurs and for considering a plantation-themed wedding for her brother, with well-dressed black male servants.

And what are these folks really angry about?

 “Everybody in the South over 60 used the N-word at some time or the other in the past,” wrote Dick Jackson, a white man from Missouri. “No more ‘Chopped’ for me, and I suspect thousands like me,” he said, referring to a popular Food Network show.

A white man? I never would have guessed. And, then, of course, the question that good white folks love to ask:

In the line Saturday, some pointed out that some African-Americans regularly used the word Ms. Deen had admitted to saying. “I don’t understand why some people can use it and others can’t,” said Rebecca Beckerwerth, 55, a North Carolina native who lives in Arizona and had made reservations at the restaurant Friday.

Really? You don’t understand it? Ms. Beckerwerth doesn’t say she wants to use it, but it sure sounds like she thinks she is making a real sacrifice by not using it.

The article descends into unintentional hilarity when the writer decides to call an expert on race:

Tyrone A. Forman, the director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference at Emory University, said the use of derogatory words can mean different things to different groups. “People take a term that was a way to denigrate or hold people in bondage for the purpose of continuing their subordination and turn it around as a way to reclaim it,” he said. But that kind of subtlety is often lost in a discussion of race. “That nuance is too much for us,” Mr. Forman said. “We have a black president so we’re postracial, right? Someone uses the N-word? That’s racist. But the reality is there is a lot of gray.”

Thank God we have someone to address all this confusion, although the final sentence here left me, if anything, even more confused.

The piece ends as follows:

[One man] was particularly bothered by a commentator on a national news program who suggested that Ms. Deen should have atoned for the pain of slavery, given credit to African-Americans who helped influence some of the country food that made her famous and offered a stronger statement against racism. “She’s a cook,” Mr. Hattaway said. “She’s not a Harvard graduate.”

Hold on, aren’t we supposed to sneer at Harvard graduates? Now apparently you have to go to Harvard to understand that using racist language is wrong. The Deen case has brought with it a stange epidemic of people pretending to be a lot more stupid than they actually are. Ms. Beckerwerth and her ilk aren’t really confused. I didn’t go to Harvard, but I’d diagnose their problem as something a little worse than a lack of comprehension.

 

By: Isaac Chotiner, Senior Editor, The New Republic, June 24, 2013

June 25, 2013 Posted by | Racism | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Well Shut My Mouth!”: Paula Deen Played With Fire And Got Burned

I take no pleasure from the trouble food “personality” Paula Deen got herself into this last week, culminating in her firing by the Food Network after she stumbled through efforts to save herself via heavily massaged apologies. I admit to have enjoyed a couple of her recipes over the years. And I usually found her over-the-top “Well Shut My Mouth” embodiment of outworn southern cultural stereotypes annoying rather than deeply offensive–just another Cracker playing the fool for the tourists, basically.

But as a Cracker myself, not that much younger than Deen, I know that she cannot plead ignorance or even innocence of the dynamite of the South’s racial history, and how perilously and inherently her own Old South shtick has skirted the thin line that separates the light side from the dark side of our heritage. The Southern Cooking Icon who occasionally forgets she needs to play error-free baseball when it comes to race is a lot like the southern white politicians who occasionally forget they represent African-Americans.

Paula Deen will do a lot to redeem herself if she refuses to let herself be used as a martyr to the cause of anti-anti-racism–a victim of “political correctness” and all that. The campaign is already developing:

Todd Starnes, who also hosts a Fox News Radio segment, wrote on his Facebook page that the “liberal, anti-South media is trying to crucify Paula Deen. They accuse her of using a derogatory word to describe a black person. Paula admitted she used the word — back in the 1980s – when a black guy walked into the bank, stuck a gun in her face and ordered her to hand over the cash. The national media failed to mention that part of the story. I’ll give credit to the Associated Press for telling the full story.”

Starnes also defended Deen via Twitter, writing: “The mainstream media hates Paula Deen […] I think it’s because most of them don’t eat meat.”

Oh good God. The multi-millionaire celebrity Paula Deen is hardly up there on the cross, and I can testify there’s at least one white southern carnivore–a biscuit eater as well–who thinks that those who work so hard to identify themselves with southern cultural stereotypes are courting controversy and disaster if they don’t watch their mouths. There are many, many southern white chefs and TV stars and book authors and even politicians who don’t set themselves up as regional paragons, yet also manage to steer clear of discrimination suits and admissions of casual, “innocent” racism. Paula Deen played with fire and got burned. She can best heal herself by refusing to be used by those who aren’t “innocent” at all.

 

By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, June 22, 2013

June 24, 2013 Posted by | Racism | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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