Black White Man

My mother is black, and my father is white. I walk among you.

Archive for the ‘Racial Theory’

James “Rhodey” Rhodes, War Machine, as the “best” (aka worst) example of a Black superhero

I’m not just a Black White Man. I’m also a father, a web designer, and a big comic book nerd. Of course, that gives me a keen interest in family blogs, geek parenting, online comics, and every other combination of my interests — including the portrayal of people of color in comic books. I came across this interesting article about Iron Man’s sidekick, James “Rhodey” Rhodes, aka War Machine. At first I had the wrong impression of the article, since it calls Rhodey the “ideal” Black superhero. I thought it meant that he was the best possible Black superhero. But, it was actually correctly using the term to mean the best example of a Black Superhero — in other words, Rhodes has all the qualities that we consider to be typical of the Black superhero. In fact, I think the article is fairly scathing of Rhodes, and I would agree, that’s he basically a side-kick, and an “angry Black” outsider type. The comments further the analysis by arguing persuasively that Storm is the best written Black character in comics, and therefore the worst example of the type. Good article all around, both for comics literary analysis, and for an analysis of Blacks in the media.

The Curious Case of Tiger Woods: is he Black or Asian?

Yesterday I blogged about a conversation I had with some of my drinking buddies about whether or not Obama is really our first Black president. As annoying as most of that conversation was, there were a few novel and interesting bits. At one point someone brought up the case of Tiger Woods: that he is considered a “Black golfer”, but that he self identifies as Asian.

If you’ve read that post, or much of my blog at all, you might guess at my response. I lean toward the idea that he “all of the above”. So, I would tend to answer the question of whether he’s Black, White or Asian with, “yes”. But, I also tend to very much respect the idea that people who fall at the edges of our system of racial categories have some power to decide for themselves. It has a lot to do with our relationships to our parents, and our home countries, which is an intensely personal thing. One of the main reasons I identify so strongly as being Black is the close and good relationship that I have to my mother and her extended family. On some level, when people tell me I’m not Black, it says to me that she and hers are somehow not my kin. For all I know, Tiger had a similarly close relationship to his mother. In any case, it may not be true that he identifies more strongly as Asian than he does as Black or White — I have also often heard that he self-describes as “Caublinasian”. But, regardless, I feel like it’s his prerogative, since our classification system clearly has a hard time describing him.

“Mixed Race” Jewish kids

Reading this fascinating post about “mixed-race” Jewish kids has got me thinking about the Jewish model on defining race, and how it differs from the other models defining race in this country.    Traditionally, in Judaism, you are considered Jewish if your mother is Jewish.   So, the girl mentioned in the article, whose father is Chinese, and whose mother’s father is Chinese, is considered fully Jewish (at least in theory), not half-Jewish, or a quarter Jewish or “multi-racial” in the sense that it’s often used.

There are a lot of things I like about this construction.   Emotionally, it resonates with me, in the sense that I don’t consider myself “half” of anything.   I think that’s a bizarre idea when you think about it closely.   My training as a computer programmer likes that it draws a clear line, and that iterates nicely from generation to generation.    In fact, it’s the only set-up I can think that has that feature.   Most racial constructs begin to get extremely foggy when you start talking about third generation descendants (whether it be “octoroons” or “sansei”).

Obviously it also has its downsides.   On the one hand, a more common paradigm filters through in cases like the one that this article talks about, where non-White Jews are often not considered “really” Jewish, despite having an indisputable claim according to tradition.   But, even if you take the tradition at face value, it can do some weird things.  Jewish friends of mine who are men have gotten a lot more pressure from their parents about marrying Jewish women (over other races), because the parents want their grandchildren raised inside the faith.   Of course, a non-Jewish woman can convert (which I’ve also seen among my circle of friends), but it’s an extra consideration which doesn’t apply to a Jewish woman marrying a non-Jewish man.   And, I have several friends whose non-Jewish mother decided not to convert leaving children with a Jewish father who are, traditionally, not at all Jewish themselves, which is kind of odd.

All in all, it’s a system.   And while systems for dealing with race are necessary, they’re all problematic in one way or another.

Multi-racial or other as a category

It seems like a lifetime ago now, but I used to work in market research.  My job was to craft online surveys for such luminaries as Ford Motors, Hillary Clinton and Christina Aguilara.   Needless to say, the question of race was often an important one, as corporations and politicos both tried to cater to (quite often) Hispanic and (occasionally) African American audiences.

When I was in High School and starting to define my complicated relationship to race, I was somewhat in favor of “Multi-racial” as a separate category.   But after working in market research for some time, I’ve come to really detest it.   Throwing a Black-White person like me into the same group as a Hispanic-Asian person, and thinking that your going to get any relevant data from the group is ridiculous.

I understand that the other alternatives aren’t particularly attractive either.

  • You can allow people to check more than one race, but then you end up double- or triple- counting people with complicated ethnicities — making their opinions more important in some way.
  • You can force people to choose only one race, which causes multi-ethnic people to complain loudly (myself included).
  • Or you can allow people to check multiple boxes and then quietly recode them into a single race on the back end.   This is subversive and makes your own racial biases institutionalized (for example, that a Hispanic Black person is “really” one or the other).

But, really, I think that having a “multi-racial” category as separate from the other races is a cop out.   It’s worse than a bad solution — it’s an avoidance of the entire problem.   All it really does is cause the data supplied by multi-racial people to be thrown out (at least, any data as regards to race).

Let me give you an example.    I’ve been looking for schools for my son, who’s in preschool at the moment.   The Chicago Public Schools do a good job of giving you a break-down of each school by racial demographics.    This has been crucial to me, because I want my son to grow up in a multi-cultural environment that reflects his home life.   Unfortunately, the CPS data includes “multiracial” as a category.   Usually, you can guess at what it means.   If a school is 80% Black, 10% White and 10% Multiracial, chances are that the multiracial kids are Black and White.   But, it can get a little dodgy.   Some of the private schools, in particular, have higher “multiracial” percentages than any minority.   What am I to make of a hypothetical demographic like 60% White, 20% multiracial, 10% Black, 10% Asian.   Are there any Hispanic kids at a school like that?   Could be tons.   Could be none.   The multiracial statistic by itself obfuscates as much as, if not more than it clarifies.

Laws and Hearts

In the debate about whether or not racism still exists in this country, I think that the central point of disagreement is whether a country with equal laws can still be unequal.     The civil rights movement did an enormous amount of heavy lifting as far as equalizing the laws of the land.   There is no longer state-sanctioned apartheid, not to mention slavery.    And we are not only explicitly granted equality under the law, but discrimination is specifically forbidden.    So the argument that we are now in an equal society is persuasive, to the extent that the laws are now more or less equal.

But, discrimination law suits are much harder to win than a lot of people might expect.    It’s just too easy to claim you had some other reason for discrimination (the person was lazy, or had attitude or what-have-you).    This is basically what happens when policemen use racial profiling when making an arrest, or when juries convict, and therefore, to my mind, is the best explanation for the incredibly high rates of minorities in jail.

To support this idea, I fall back (as I always do) on the statistics.   More minority people in jail, fewer in college.   Lower average incomes.    Etc. etc. ad nauseum.    When confronted with these kinds of statistics, there’s only three explanations I can reasonably imagine:

  • there is still racism, and/or classism
  • past racism has effects which linger several generations
  • minorities haven’t seized the opportunities given to them

To me, the last one smacks of the same “minorities are lazy” assertion  that has always existed in this country (and, in fact, is the etymology of the slur “nigger”).     If we, as a culture, maintained that people were lazy as slaves, and then were proven wrong; and then maintained that people were lazy under apartheid, and then were proven wrong; then why oh why would we continue to make the same argument?    I’m not even sure how you can rationally argue that an entire population of people are lazy.   Clearly, even if I concede that a whole group of people are lazy (which I don’t) then there should be some *reason* why they are lazy.    And if not, then you must be arguing genetics — which is the height of 19th century pseudo-science-style racism.

Now, I’m not saying that everyone who thinks that this country isn’t racist are themselves racist.    What I’m saying is that I don’t think they’ve really thought through their position.     I’m not sure how you can start with the idea that this country isn’t racist and end with any assumptions that are good; but I’d love to hear from someone who disagrees.

The problem of the Black Middle class

One of the great achievements of the last forty years in race relations in this country has been the formation of a strong and present Black middle class.     People like my mother blazed a trail, working their way up from poor rural Michigan farms, into the halls of medical school and onward to high paying government research jobs.    As a result subsequent generations have produced people like Obama and myself:

  • many more of us openly mixed race then in previous generations
  • we didn’t grow up in impoverished situations
  • we’ve attended the best schools and had solidly successful careers from the beginning
  • we have been raised mostly as minorities in a white context, rather than struggling up from segregated ghettoized neighborhoods

In cities with high concentrations of Black people (Atlanta, New York, and so forth) you’re even seeing the formation of entire Black middle class communities.     This, in and of itself, is a great thing.    But it requires that we, as Americans, now revise our definition of what it means to be Black and to add a lot more shading to our goals as a society.    Basically, I think that we need to start taking apart the assumption that poor Black people are representative of the Black community on a whole — in the past this was largely true, but it’s increasingly less so.

The assumption that there is one “Black community” leads the mainstream white culture to use the success of Black middle class people to argue or prove that there is no longer a problem with race relations in this country.    In reality the situation is still extremely dire for poor Blacks.    And in this way, I think, the Black community is quickly becoming more and more like the white community.

Poor white people have a very hard time.    All you have to do is watch an hour or two of the E! channel and you’ll see some ass or another making fun of “white trash” or “blue states” or some other term used to talk about poor whites in some way or another.     The idea that this kind of validation of bigotry against the poor may become the norm against Black people as well makes me ill to my stomach.    Not only do I think that we, as a society, have largely turned our backs on poor White people, but the proportion of poor Blacks compared to the Black community is much much higher than the proportion of poor Whites to the the White community on a whole.

I think that we’ve made a lot of progress on the race-relations front.  But I think that the problems we have remaining hit on deeper issues that we have in this country regarding class.    The intersection between racism and classism is a nasty place to be, but unfortunately, that’s where we are.    As a middle class Black guy, I really hope that we can avert people in my position being used as ammunition against the working class Black folk continue to suffer in a very oppressive society.

Liberals are ‘racists,’ obsessed with race in the same way that ‘florists’ are obsessed with flowers

Mr. MacEachern here starts with a fair point that many of us on the liberal side are overly-infatuated with racial distinctions.     We are all one human race, and the goal should be to achieve a parity where concepts of ‘race’ are no more important than your favorite movie or political affiliation — important aspects of your upbringing and personality, but not topics that are self-defining in terms of overly determining what neighborhoods you live in, churches and schools you go to, jobs you get, or chances of going to jail.

So, I accept Mr. MacEachern’s main argument: that liberals often overly fixate on race.    I’ll think about it, and hopefully internalize it.    As someone who keeps a blog about race, I think it’s a criticism that’s mainly levelled at people like me, and therefore that much more important to think about.

That being said, I think that Mr. MacEachern overstates his case.   It’s a common thread in conservative thought that because race shouldn’t matter, that we shouldn’t be talking about it or making distinctions based on it.    There’s a huge difference between “race shouldn’t matter” and “race doesn’t matter,” and it’s within that gulf that we have to have conversations about race.    It’s difficult to talk about important issues like the high rates at which Black people contract AIDS, the disparity of income, or incarceration rates, without talking about ‘race’.   In fact, without talking about race, it would be impossible to see that these individual statistics point to a larger pattern — and a larger pattern which is a problem.

It’s important that when we bring up these conversations that we do so in a way that helps to address the problems, rather than merely being divisive.    The young woman in Mr. MacEachern’s example who came out of a workshop about gender and race oppression feeling somehow bad about being White is exactly the kind of thing that we should be trying to avoid.    White people also have a unique culture of which we should be proud.   The history of oppression is not confined to Europe — China, India, the Great Zimbabwe and Azteca empires have all had horrible racial oppressiveness, just to name a few.    And, lastly, White Americans have played just as important a role in the civil rights movements as Black Americans and Americans of every other ethnicity have.   The problem we have is a problem for all of us, and so the solution necessarily has always and must always come from all of us.   Individual White people shoudn’t feel responsible or guilty — except to the extent that each and every one of us of all races is guilty of racism to some degree.

Mr. MacEachern’s overall point is that liberals are ‘racists’ in the sense that a ‘florist’ is concerned with flowers and a ‘militarist’ is concerned with the military.    I would say that this, in itself, isn’t a problem in the same way that florists and militarists are not, in themselves, a problem.    Race, unfortunately, is important in our society, and so some people need to be spending time thinking about it and talking about it.

An interesting take on ‘objectification’

David Schraub over at Carleton college has written a very interesting paper exploring the concepts of ‘subjectivity’ and ‘objectivity’ as it related to race in America, and in particular the Black relationship to the White majority.

He basically argues that while the history of America is one of exploitation of Black people, which he categorizes as ‘objectification’, the current problem presented to us is that mainstream America doesn’t objectify the Black community enough — that is to say that mainstream America doesn’t appreciate the usefulness of the Black community, the amount to which we can contribute.

My years working in market research certainly find this to be true.  Outside of movie-related or military research, I saw very little interest in what Black people had to think.   This was mainly because of income; so I might argue that America is equally un-interested in what poor white people have to say.    But I think that the point is a good one.   Like Henry Ford did for the industrial era, I think we need people at the helm who understand how everyone can benefit by allowing poor and disadvantaged people to participate more fully in the economy.    Charity and big-heartedness are good things as far as they go; but ultimately a truly colorblind and fair society will create equality in the workforce, not just in the extension of non-profit and government work.   And the workforce has to be built on mutual objectification — the employee is good for the company, and the company takes care of the employee.

The courageous belief that education can combat racism

Even in high school I was a bit of a rabble rouser, growing up in Atlanta and Washington, DC and being opposed to the popular Braves and Redskins mascots.     I was enormously impressed reading Ms. Costanzo’s post about her struggle as a Native American to oppose her local college mascot (also the Braves) and the racism that she’s encountered along the way.   Not only is she taking on one of the most powerful cultural forces in this country when she goes up against Sports; but she retains her idealism and hope that people can change if you let them know the hurt they are causing.    I think too often we descend into calling out racism, when, I believe, the great bulk of it is ignorance, and only a small fraction is malicious.   I know that after being inspired by Ms. Costanzo’s example, I’m going to take a second look at how I go about writing this blog.   I live mostly in white circles, and I’d like to think that I can do good by explaining Black issues to white people in their own language (and from a face that they don’t consider threatening).      But in order to do that, I have to work to keep the faith that Ms. Costanzo is keeping that we can overcome racism with education.

Here’s hoping.

“The Race Card” vs. “Real Racism”, part seven: Allowing the Majority to Define the Crime

The heart of the issue around the concept that some racism is “real racism” and that we minorities should therefore not complain about lesser cases is that it allows the majority to define the crime.  Of course, this is the exact same thing that the majority accuses us of, that the very concept of “racism” and “sexism” allows the victim to define the crime, and therefore opens up avenues whereby someone can abuse the system.   But my point is that isn’t allowing the alleged perpetrator to define the crime worse?   If we could approach the situation with a fresh mind, wouldn’t we prefer to err on the side of the potential victim?   First of all, the perpetrator can perpetrate by mistake (and I think this often happens).   One person can be honestly victimized, while the other is oblivious.   In this case, we clearly can’t let the perpetrators ignorance of the crime define it!   Secondly, even if the perpetrator knows full well the damage he is causing, if we define a real crime as not being so, there’s very little that the perpetrator can do to betray himself later on.