Today a story popped up in my newsfeed: “A White Face With A Forgotten African Family.” The link leads to an interview with Joe Mozingo, a “blond-haired and blue-eyed” Californian who found out he is descended from Edward Mozingo, a black, indentured servant who gained his freedom in seventeenth-century Virginia. Joe Mozingo’s journey to trace his ancestry was first chronicled in the LA Times a couple of years ago, and has since been released as a book. I haven’t read the book, and I’m not interested in trying to figure out its relative merits as a work of art, genealogy, or anything of the sort. Nor do I want to neglect the one or two aspects of the aforementioned article that I think can be potentially illuminating. Take, for example, the following quote:
LYDEN: You stumble across many people with the name Mozingo in this book. And there in Virginia, you meet a character, Junior Mozingo. A lot of these people didn’t really want to think about having an African ancestor.
MOZINGO: He didn’t want to hear about it at all. I mean, he had lived literally on a spot where Edward Mozingo had lived 300 years before, yet he had this myth that they were Italian and they had gotten here in the 1800s, when in fact, he could trace his lineage straight to Edward.
This, I think, offers insight into how deeply intertwined people’s conceptions of whiteness are with the notion of a white (ahistorical) lineage. Through this quote, we get a glimpse into the importance of white narratives – if entirely mythical – to the formation of white identity, even if that identity is predicated on a whiteness that subsumes distinctive ethnic groups, e.g. Italians, under one racialized banner.
Beyond such moments of insight though, I found myself asking, What am I supposed to get from this? What is the significance of finding out that a person who looks white is, in fact, somewhere down the line, descended from a black person? Is this some kind of one-drop rule experiment? Am I – are we – supposed to feel differently about race now that we know that a person who looks white can trace their roots to someone who looked black?
I ask because I don’t feel differently. And, other than having a non-Anglicized, or “unusual-sounding” last name, I’m not sure Joe does either. Why not? Because regardless of how many black men are on Joe’s family tree (the violence of the metaphor is telling), Joe has lived his life as a blue-eyed, blond-haired white man. And, he will continue to live his life as such. Never will Joe’s mouth mirror Fanon’s tight smile in response to the repeated call and attendant burdens of, “Look, a Negro!”
What the article has to offer us, then, if we read it discerningly, is that Joe’s recognition of a black ancestor is ultimately insignificant to our understanding of race, except as a) a reminder of the gravity of imagined racial purity to whiteness, and b) an indicator that people still believe race is somehow contingent on biology. This is exhibited by Joe’s comment, “My initial intention was to go there and make people’s heads explode with the news that they were black, even though they weren’t.” That is to say, that them being related to a black person, despite their inexperience with situations that black people tend to face, changes them in some significant way – and not merely because it mars their narrative, but because it mars them. Race in this context is discoverable; it can be presented to someone as “news,” as though race is an ontological fact rather than a lived experience.
For the parts where the article exposes the aspirations, illusions, and delusions of whiteness, I am there with the imagined readership. But, I resist the moments where I feel as though I am being compelled – by the narrative, by the commenters – to read Joe Mozinga’s story as a humanity lesson. The lesson is that Joe being “black” humanizes blackness, and that, if only more white people knew they were “black,” racism would end. The former point, which I think is one of the main thrusts behind the Joe Mozinga story, hints at one of the messages that is embedded in articles like “A White Face”: The stories of black people are only relatable, and indeed, human, when mediated through white faces, and it is only when blackness becomes relatable, local, translatable into and behind whiteness that race and racism, for white people, become personal problems.
As you might have heard by now, President Barack Obama has expressed his belief that gay people should be able to get married. Obama said he has talked to friends, family, and neighbors about it; hell, he has people on his staff who are gay (surprise!), and it’s not fair that they feel “constrained… because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage.” There’s a lot that could be said about what’s been called Obama’s #formemyselfpersonally endorsement of same-sex marriage–such as how he’s acting like it took Sasha and Malia being confused for him to realize that he should support the issue, and whether it’s good or bad for politics–but I want to take a moment to talk about the terms of the discussion. My concerns can fit broadly under what I’ll call The Equality Problem.
Though the potential weaknesses of equality-based advocacy are myriad, perhaps one of the biggest is that the foremost goal is typically inclusion. Wagering for inclusion with regard to marriage is problematic first of all because it affirms rather than challenges the legitimacy of marriage as the supreme institution of relationships and domesticities. As has been argued before, the primacy of conjugal status in determining things like who counts as next of kin, who’s covered by whose health care, and who can file joint tax returns is worth questioning. Fighting to extend the benefits of marriage to gay couples, on the basis that they model the nuclear mold, falls short of a “larger effort to strengthen the stability and security of diverse households and families.” And ultimately, as we have seen with the recent passing of Amendment 1 in North Carolina, policies touted under the banner of assumedly desirable “traditional families” are, and have been for at least five decades, about restricting state support for a range of “deviant” relationships and domesticities from unmarried partnerships to multigenerational and single parent households.
Of course, assimilation into an institution also means assimilation into a particular notion of what’s normative and acceptable. Enter: The “Just Like You!” Plea. At the end of the day, inclusion still conforms to a perceived norm, and in doing so, marginalizes other preferences, experiences, and expressions. People in gay relationships (not queer! that’s a bad word) just want to buy a house with a picket fence and have 2.5 kids like their mythical heterosexual brothers and sisters. They just want to “raise a family” and take turns walking the dog and emulate the anachronistic norm of patriarchal, economically productive homes. Right? … No? Okay, so in that case, can we stop pretending like everyone is the same? (And while we’re at it, can we stop pretending as though “opposite” and “same” sex are in any way accurate or adequate?) Progressive legislation and equal recognition need not be rallied for on the grounds that all LGBTQ couples are wealthy, white, able-bodied, cis male monogatrons who are “just like you, but gay.” Challenging this homo-normative narrative entails acknowledging that the hetero-normative illusion it claims to be “just like” is also a fallacy and furthermore unnecessary as a means for comparison. Do we all have to identify as straight, gay or lesbian, or perform an intelligible gender, or be in “incredibly committed monogamous relationships” to deserve the multiple economic and legal privileges currently provided through marriage?
Lastly, a side of the marriage equality wrangle that merits some discussion is the obsession with whether or not same-sex attraction is “natural.” With well-intentioned proponents affirming that it is, and others countering that it’s not (usually accompanied by some name game platitude involving biblical characters), the “natural” vs. “unnatural” debate almost has the appearance of being important. Yet, not only should it be of no import whether or not Cynthia Nixon was “born this way,” but harping on the matter compromises the terms of the debate and significantly clouds what should be an unstable notion of “sexuality” anyway. “Homosexuality” is not any more natural than “heterosexuality,” and, in fact, neither should be conceived as constituting some kind of fixed, continuous entity that can satisfactorily encompass intimate human activity since the beginning of time. After all, it’s been only relatively recently that marriage has become marginally less prejudicial than it’s been at times in the past, and not long before that was the discursive binary of hetero/homosexuality popularized, so there is absolutely no reason to invoke “nature” here, nor is there a need to concretize acts of sex and intimacy into identity, and identity into institution.
The aim is not to legislate how “happy,” relatively unenthusiastic, or somewhere in the middle people can be about Obama’s announcement and the drive towards marriage equality more generally, but rather to try to think about how the debate is framed, who it further excludes, and what we want beyond it. The concept of equality does not have to present problems (or at least not problems we can’t work through), and perhaps it can be useful if we ensure that it signifies more than simply drawing the circle of hegemonic normativity a little wider. In the meantime, in the midst of the political momentum surrounding same-sex marriage and with an ongoing commitment to remain critical, we’ve got our work cut out for us.
Posted at Huffington Post.
In the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin, some people have been reminded that anti-black racist violence is, in fact, a regular problem in the United States. Of course, those of us who haven’t forgotten — either because we don’t have the privilege to or work to eschew it — find ourselves dealing with a range of responses, among them an insistent hope that we can participate in this moment and shape sustainable movements via community building, consciousness-raising, organizing, advocacy, or whatever our preferred mode of change-making. Civic activities have been on a relative upswing compared to times when similar violence doesn’t receive mass publicity, with protests and marches having occurred in more than fifteen U.S. cities. As with most happenings that spark public outrage, people with varying backgrounds and degrees of prior awareness are coming to the table with some form of interest, at least temporarily, in something akin to justice. Since those emerging from quietism and those long engaged in practicing anti-racism alike are in deed and discussion over this issue, it seems apt to have a conversation about what solidarity might mean and how it might look, especially in cases of racist violence such as this one.
There is a vague idea rolling around the internet ether, which posits that expressing objections to the ways people display empathy or protest in effect creates insurmountable or otherwise troublesome obstacles for solidarity. This kind of contestation functions as a form of “shut-up politics,” some say, and prevents people from coming together and taking action. This is one of the currents behind Sherry Wolf‘s “The Paralysis of White Privilege,” in which the author claims that a video that tells “middle-class, white, socially concerned” activists not to wear “I Am Trayvon Martin” t-shirts “disarms any antiracist white person from actually joining the struggle.” Aside from completely misrepresenting the points of the video as well as the concept of white privilege, Wolf’s article is suggestive of an underlying notion that is shared by many people. Put crudely, that notion, when uttered by white people, amounts to “don’t tell us what to do.” Put more diplomatically, it may look something like “your questioning my position vis-a-vis racism disarms any antiracist white person from joining the struggle.” Either way, the basic concern, which seems to be shared by people of all racial backgrounds, is that talking about the ways in which our experiences are different, and the ways that this might require us to participate differently in anti-racist struggles is somehow “divisive.” This is cock and bull.
Acknowledging our different experiences and examining how they might impact our roles in movements against oppression is actually an integral part of working towards becoming an ally. White Person A is not Trayvon Martin and does not share the experiences of being a black man in America. A white person, on any given day, in any given predominantly white or middle to upper class neighborhood, will not have to worry about being stopped and frisked, reported to the police, or killed on the basis of their skin color. This is white privilege, and it can apply to all white people regardless of class, gender presentation, hoodie status, and so on (though that is not to say that white privilege is the sole or most salient determinant of a person’s experience (read: intersectionality)). This is basic in understanding the Trayvon Martin case and a necessary recognition in our move towards solidarity. To claim that acknowledging the fact that white privilege makes white people incapable of sharing Trayvon Martin’s experience somehow blocks white people from participating in anti-racist work or clouds the “bigger issue” at hand is not only wrongheaded and curiously self-important, but it’s also damaging to the very idea of solidarity and our collective understanding of how race and racism operate. Trayvon Martin was murdered because he was racially profiled, and while this danger may be the reality for some of us, it is simply not for others of us. This in no way inhibits anyone’s capacity to get involved.
This is about more than a t-shirt. This is about how to participate mindfully and self-critically in struggles against domination. In the context of anti-racist struggles, this is about white people figuring out what they can do, from their relative positions as people who experience white privilege, to be active allies to people who are subject to the multiple effects of anti-black racism. This is about relinquishing the need to be front and center in everyone’s struggle and to alternatively practice listening, asking questions, stepping back, going away sometimes. The fact of the matter is solidarity is not about anti-racist white people “joining” the struggles of anti-racist black people. Though our goals may be similar, our struggles are not the same. Part of solidarity is accepting this. As a person who experiences ability privilege, I can act as an ally to people with disabilities without claiming to be them, or even to understand a fraction of their experience. Instead, perhaps I can work to be aware of the ways in which I might be complicit in discrimination against people with disabilities, and defer to them on how I can be supportive of progressive change. Rather than feeling “disarmed” by the reality that my ability privilege affects my role in struggles against ableism, I can accept it, and my place.
We have to stop acting as though our varied experiences are inconsequential. That people racialized as white experience racism differently from people racialized as black is not a “distraction” from the violence and injustice of the case of Trayvon Martin; it is an explanatory part of the story and a constitutive element of any anti-racist organizing that might occur around it. To claim that a constructive analysis of white privilege is “paralyzing” is to basically issue a low-key threat to withdraw from any kind of critical activity, as well as a warning against alienating well-meaning white people. But if said well-meaning white people would rather engage in class reductionist evaluations of racist violence, or obscure the uses of privilege with the problematic of guilt, then perhaps they need to go back to the drawing board and revamp their understandings of race and racism entirely.
We need not homogenize. Solidarity does not mean sameness just as diversity doesn’t mean a rainbow-complected room of people. We are not one undifferentiated mass waging a uniform war against The Ruling Class. We are communities of individuals engaged in separate but intersecting and overlapping antagonisms. Our struggles are not the same, and they don’t have to be. I am not Trayvon Martin, and I don’t have to be. None of us should have to be in order to wholly commit to ending racism and the violence it enables.
Posted at Huffington Post.
In time for Martin Luther King Jr. Day last month, Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def and not to be confused with the ever beloved Beyonce hereafter) released the audio for “N*ggas in Poorest,” the first piece from his Top 40 Underdog series. Similarly apt, the video–largely made up of footage compiled by Bey–arrived on the 21st of this month, forty-seven years after Malcolm X was assassinated. Spit over the beat for “N*ggas in Paris” from Kanye West and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne album, Bey’s message touches on the violence (structural and otherwise) that comprises many people’s everyday while he, arguably, manages to reflect the people better than Jay and ‘Ye did on the original.
Though “N*ggas in Paris” is what one might call a “club banger” (and thus, I’ve learned, outside of the realm of critique for many a blog commenter), I can’t help but hark back to Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “black excellence” gap upon hearing Bey’s interpretation. With footage of Malcolm X and lines like “it’s them n*ggas who poorest be them rebel guerillas,” Bey seems to be getting at what I consider to be Jay-Z and West’s recurring casual disjuncture between packaging and content. Since when is watching a throne an act of empowerment? For clarity: Jay-Z and Kanye West can rap about the topics of their choosing and celebrate themselves; we can even celebrate with them, but let’s be transparent about a few points: 1. This is not protest music, and 2. If there is anything to be lauded here it is the journey, not an isolated material end.
Posted at Huffington Post.
A few things for the good of the order -
PostBourgie has a new home at Huffington Post, so my stuff will be up over there. A while back, I said I’d try to post things here for archive purposes and good measure, and I’ll continue to try to do that. My first piece on HuffPo was the one on voter suppression, and as of now, there’s another on Kanye West’s and Jay-Z’s “Black Excellence”.
Still committed to turnin’ this mutha out,
Since the release of their collaborative album, Watch the Throne, Jay-Z and Kanye West have received some criticism for their ostentatious display of wealth at a time when most of the country is dealing with the hardships of a recession. Their showboating rhymes have inspired a discussion about the need for the millionaires to tuck their wealth, as well as an Otis-sampling response from hip-hop great Chuck D, in which he calls on his colleagues to “reflect the people better”. Indeed, the album is laden with remarks about expensive cars, jets, vacations and the like; it’s what Kanye aptly dubs “luxury rap.” While this kind of braggadocio may seem particularly inappropriate during an epoch of economic hurt, I can accept it for what it is as far as pop music goes — well-produced, self-aggrandizing rap about things most people can only enjoy vicariously. It’s when the proponents of “luxury rap” try to posit their having and spending large amounts of money on superfluous things as something more, however, that I tap the brakes on the imaginary Maybach. What is this I hear about black excellence?
One of the tracks that gets cited as a pillar of “consciousness” on the album is “Murder to Excellence,” a two-part number that segues from a lamentation on black-on-black murder into what Jay and ‘Ye deem to be “a celebration of black excellence.” The first half of the track is peppered with mentions of Black Power Movement orator and icon, Fred Hampton (“I arrived on the day Fred Hampton died / Uh, real n*ggas just multiply”), and 20-year-old Pace University student, Danroy Henry Jr., who, like Hampton, was shot and killed by police. Throughout this part of the track, Jay-Z and Kanye successfully conjure up the energy of protest, embodied by their straightforward lyrics, the staccato drumbeat and the a cappella vocals that dance over it. “Power to the people. When you see me, see you,” Jay-Z proposes.
I was riding on a wave of pride — in the rappers’ boldness and the content of their message — when I came to a disappointing halt in my enjoyment of the track.
“It’s a celebration of black excellence. Black tie, black Maybachs,” Jay-Z announces as the track swiftly shifts into a different rhythm. He then delivers a verse about what he introduces as “black excellence, opulence, decadence,” with the inevitable line about his American Express black card. Kanye tags on some less boastful (and seemingly more thoughtful) bars, which include his customary momma-i-made-it affirmation of success by way of access: “In the past if you picture an event like a black tie / What’s the last thing you expect to see? Black guys.”
What started out as valiant social commentary has declined into a drab, somewhat sulky exaltation of “the new black elite.”
Complete with Kanye signing off at the end of his verse (“black excellence, truly yours”), the latter half of the track finds the two rappers positioning themselves as representatives of black excellence — positions they are worthy of, apparently, by virtue of their material wealth. This depiction of black excellence as a matter of entrance into the echelons of the super rich is divergent from, and discordant with, the tradition of black struggle that they reference on this track as well as elsewhere on the album: Malcolm X, Betty Shabazz, Corretta Scott and Martin Luther King Jr. dawn the chorus of the next song.
One of the principal themes of the black power tradition that Kanye and Jay-Z continually evoke is that of collective struggle. The figures they name, while not identical in their ideologies, did believe in international solidarity amongst oppressed communities, and in empowerment from the bottom-up. “Power to the people” was about the oppressed, the disenfranchised, the proletariat coming together to access their power. “The people” are common, and they are excellent, as individual activists, educators, intellectuals, and workers, and as an organized whole. How do the people fit into Jay’s and Kanye’s plutocratic vanguard?
With the talk of tuxes and sheepskin coats that plagues the supposedly “excellent” half of “Murder to Excellence,” the track morphs into a claim on black excellence that is decidedly elitist, and frankly, incongruous with the philosophies of the movements and the thinkers that are celebrated elsewhere on the song and album. Whereas the track begins as a memorandum of black struggle, it ends in a conundrum. “Murder to Excellence” may sound like a tribute to black struggle, power, and excellence, but it is a departure from the true meaning of the rhetorical symbols it’s couched in. By resting on the lavishness of their lifestyles to define their excellence, Kanye West and Jay-Z make it clear that it will depend on “the people,” the over 94% of us who can’t gloat over multimillion dollar assets, to “redefine black power” and name the future of black excellence.
Posted at Huffington Post.