It’s rather surprising to find out just how often a U.S. citizen can be told to go home or asked about where she (really) comes from.
It’s also infuriating
Contrary to popular opinion, a word doesn’t become Spanish by adding an [-o] to it. Using this construction does however make most any word irritating to her.
This can be useful, amusing, or painful to you, depending on the details.
Rolling your Rs can be damned difficult.
A speedy-Gonzalez voice is not funny. (She told me to add that it’s also kind of racist.)
Taking a Mexican girl to a Mexican restaurant is not likely to impress her. You may hear comments such as “rice doesn’t really go with this” or “why would you put lettuce on that?” Also, don’t be surprised if she prefers Italian food, Shabu Shabu, or Korean BBQ.
Date her long enough and you may yourself ruined for an awful lot of Mexican restaurants.
It turns out that an awful lot of famous Mexicans are actually Spaniards, and apparently that makes a difference.
What a lot of us assume to be Mexican accents are actually northern Mexican accents. And apparently, this too matters.
Anything you say about Mexico, Mexicans, or Mexican culture is racist. Anything she says about white people isn’t. This is how girlfriend privilege trumps white privilege.
…and it does.
Don’t be surprised if music you think of as Mexican strikes her as redneck country music, or at least the south of the border equivalent thereof.
Christmas is celebrated on Christmas Eve.
Because of course it is.
Virtually every western you’ve ever loved has some Mexican character vamping up the stereotypes to the point of personal embarrassment.
She will feel that embarrassment first.
Then you will feel it more.
You will probably pay dearly for every tongue-in-cheek comment you make in this post.
It’s a common question. It might be a little more common coming from white folks like me, but I’ve certainly heard it from some African-Americans as well. A couple years back, for example, Stacey Dash weighed in on the subject for the benefit of the Fox viewer base. I hear views like that of Dash often enough. So, I blogged my own two cents worth of a response here. It was a short post, and rather sarcastic to be sure, but I still think that post about captures my sense of the issue. (Also it was an excuse to get a Leyla McCalla song onto my blog, which has to be a good thing.) Today, I thought it might be worth spelling out the point a little more directly.
Dash’s comments are hardly unusual. Time and again, you’ll hear someone gripe about the Latin American Music Awards, the Miss Black America Pageant, the existence of Black Entertainment Television, or any number of just-for-the-minority occasions, awards, and honors. In some cases, it’s hard to escape the impression that those making these comments just don’t like the ethnic groups in question and want them to go away. I somehow doubt that’s what Stacy Dash has in mind, but she’s probably not the sole example. Not every objection to minority-specific recognition can be fully understood as a conscious defense of white privilege.
As to latent prejudice, even against one’s own people, the jury is still out.
The most interesting case against such minority-focused honors, for me anyway, seems to to be the argument that they should not be necessary, and that minority-focused recognition is contrary to the spirit of a more unbiased community. Why set aside a specific month for black history, so the argument goes, when we should be incorporating elements of black history throughout the curriculum? Why have special awards for minorities when we should be including those minorities fully in the mainstream awards? Some might even suspect that Black History Month works to put the topic in a ghetto, so to speak, giving us leave to ignore the subject matter throughout the rest of the year. It may or may not work like that, but there does seem to be a certain merit to the notion that what we really out to be doing is ensuring that minorities are recognized when they ought to be recognized on a day-to-day basis, all year. Wouldn’t this be better than trying to set aside specific moments when this or that minority gets a spot of time under the spotlight?
Dash’s comments, like those of many who generate this argument, make a seamless transition from opposition to segregation to opposition to Black History Month, Black Entertainment Television, etc. Some of us might think these horribles (the segregation system of old versus Black History Month today) would weigh a little differently on the scale of man’s inhumanity to man, but that’s raising a question narratives like this simply don’t address. It’s a point of principle, Dash seems to suggest, and the same principle that forbids the one should forbid the other. Hence, the absence of minority-specific recognition becomes the price of freedom from segregation with all of the horrible things that that go with it. Shouldn’t we just approach these subjects in a color-blind way, she argue, and not show any preference at all?
Maybe it’s just my inner redneck, or at least my outer whiteness, but I have to admit this argument has a certain appeal for me. The appeal isn’t entirely self-serving. Sure, there is the notion that life might be simpler without having to deal with a specific month where folks pester me about covering African-Americans in my classes. That might be convenient. But along with that goes the notion that I really should sit down and work really hard to ensure that I am covering the subject adequately all year. Then I should do the same thing for Latinos, Native Americans, Women, the LGBT+ community, and any range of underprivileged peoples who may get squeezed out of the history books and the history lessons in one way or another. Theoretically, at any rate, these kinds of responses shouldn’t lead us to forget minorities; they should lead us to distribute credit more evenly, allocating it to minorities when they’ve earned it, or when the story demands it, just as we supposedly do to those in the majority. Doing that right would not be easy. In fact, it would be damned hard.
…and by ‘damned hard’ I mean, ‘probably not going to happen’.
The plan runs aground on the limitations of human nature. We don’t really have a universal standard for any kind of recognition, not beauty pageants, music or acting awards, journalism, or anything else for that matter. Certainly not history! We all look at questions of merit through the lens of our personal experiences, values, cultural background, etc. Thomas Jefferson doesn’t simply have a privileged role in our history books for reasons of abstract merit. Like it or not, he is also there for his contribution to institutions of white dominance. Frederick Douglas didn’t simply get into the history books because he reached some imaginary threshold of significance that deserves a paragraph or maybe even a page in a textbook. He got there because he made contributions to the present conditions of African Americans. His role in our history books is itself a function of special interests, and that should be neither surprising nor all that objectionable. It’s just how this works!
All of these stories are filtered through the lens of interests shaped by issues like race and gender today. Those who rise to the top of the mainstream narratives typically have some real advantages in the competition for our collective attention. They benefit from personal and institutional bias. Some of these biases are obvious, and some of them are subtle, but the point is that bias is bound to creep into decisions about who does and doesn’t have merit. This is as true of a historical personage as it is an artist or a contestant today.
When I try to put together the materials for a history class, I make any decisions about what to include, what to emphasize, and how to explain things to my students through the lens of my own personal experiences. Those include years of life in lily white neighborhoods talking to other middle class white people. They also include years of exposure to minority subjects in college classes and even more years working in Indian country and then the arctic. Plenty of my influences point me to the dead-white male version of history; others lead me to open that story up and include lots of other people. Whether or not the one is enough to counter-balance the others is always an open question.
My answer is better on some days than others.
Under the circumstances, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing to be reminded for one month out of every year that I might have missed something. There may be some stories about Aftican-Americans that I could and should get to my students somehow. I can’t say that the results always get into the February part of the curriculum, but I have certainly added African-American subject matter to my American history classes during the month of February. I don’t ignore these stories the rest of the year either, but the reminder certainly does nudge me toward a better balance.
More to the point, correcting bias isn’t simply a zen kinda thing. You can’t just sit there and be non-biased. As least I can’t. I’m human. My brain is subject to the same cognitive biases that I see quite readily in so many other people. So, if I just follow my first instincts (or even my first thoughts) on the subject of what to teach, I’m going to miss some things. I’m going to miss some people. I could wish otherwise, but it’s going to happen. So, somewhere in that process, I figure it’s worth it take a little time to think consciously and deliberately about those peoples who tend not to make it into the standard dead-white male narratives that still dominate so much of our common historical narratives. Whatever else, Black History Month does, it forces the issue, and it sets a number of teachers who might otherwise proceed blissfully onward to spend some time asking whether they’ve done enough.
The world would of course be better off if we didn’t need to go through such a process in the first place, if we could all be relied upon to handle minority subjects smoothly and evenly on the first pass.
But we don’t live in that world.
We never will.
Which brings me back to the imagination behind Stacy Dash’s opposition to Black History Month. The ideal she cites is compelling enough. It’s easy to say that we would all be better off without these special moments set aside for recognition of selected groups, but that only works if we imagine away the biases that make them necessary. The problem here is the notion that the ideal in this case will be achieved by eschewing the pro-minority agendas first. We may or may not get around to any sense of larger equality in due time, so the thinking goes, but as a point of personal integrity, we should all give up any effort to assign recognition to specific minorities before we can really expect movement on the larger issues. We have to forget Black History Month before we can be sufficiently color-blind to stop leaving black people out of our regular history lessons.
But that larger equality never comes. Like the communist state or the free market of Libertarian mythology, this world without prejudice just hangs out there somewhere in the ether. We can talk about it. We can imagine we are moving towards it, but it will never get here. In the interim, supposedly, the price of moving toward this ideal will be paid by those already on the short end of the stick. The first step toward that equality will be a sacrifice of what few breaks some folks have managed to gain at one point or another. The rest will come later. The big moment when we all judge each other by the content of our character sits somewhere on the other side of the moment we stop taking an extra beat to see who might have presently been left behind. But we’ll get there. Don’t worry!
If white privilege is a problem, then it stands to reason that I can only see that problem through the lens of white privilege, and if whitesplaining is a problem, then any account I might give of it carries a real danger of becoming yet another instance of whitesplaining. I don’t always handle these issues well. (Seriously, I think about some of my past comments and cringe.) It’s a tricky issue. Still, I don’t think it’s one I can avoid any more than the next guy or gal with a keyboard and a penchant for social commentary, and I will make one (possibly gratuitous) assumption here, which is that there must be some reasonable way for a guy like me to approach the subject. Whether or not I find that approach in this post?
Well, let’s see…
What has me thinking about this? Well I just happened upon a Youtube clip from another white guy who took it upon himself to present a reasonable approach to this issue. Suffice to say, that I don’t think he managed it, and again, I don’t know that I’ll do much better myself. Still, I think the problems with his approach make a nice springboard for tackling the issue.
…or at least for addressing some of the problems frequently arising when those of us on the pale end of the privilege spectrum try to address the issue.
The video in question was produced by Eric Post, a military veteran also famous for this response to a flag burning protest. He has other posts, but these two seem to particularly resonate with the sentiments of quite a few people. In both cases, Post adopts what seems to be a fairly reasonable response to a (probably left-wing) challenge to the social order. In both cases, Post seems to dismiss the challenge altogether. He prefers constructive engagement to insults and (thankfully) violence, but the impact of both these videos would seem to be a clear rejection of the concerns and problems in question. It’s tempting to see his approach as positive, given the man’s general tone, but I think the most important thing here is to pay attention to the story he is telling. In both cases, he generates a rather one-sided narrative, and in both cases the appearance of reasonability provides him with a moral high ground denied to those he claims to be responding to.
Anyway, here is the video:
The first thing I want address here is the way Post frames the problem, the context he generates within which to discuss the issue. We don’t encounter the case for white privilege here in any direct sense. What we get in the video is Post telling us a story about a black guy who said something to him about ‘white privilege’. What we learn of the black man’s thoughts on the subject is what Post chooses to tell us. So, his own white privilege here gets a solid boost from the privilege he acquires as the narrator of this story. But how reliable is Post as a narrator? For all we know, he made the whole thing up, though I think it more likely he is taking more subtle liberties with the story-line.
As Post would have it, this is the story of him setting a man straight on the issue before they hug it out and wind up with a hopeful ending. That’s the kind of ending I would expect from a Disney movie or a television sitcom. Most verbal confrontations don’t follow such a neat pattern. People interrupt each other. In the rush of rapidly phrased arguments, points don’t quite get made the way you would want to make them. The other guy scores a good point or three as well, and some really important stuff just gets dropped while tangents take people into all manner of foolish places. Moreover, there is always a genuine prospect that each side in an argument will just end up talking past the other without engaging them in any meaningful way. The prospect that Post really did just have a nice conversation with a guy who took all his points with grace, and without rejoinder, before agreeing with him in the end strikes me as about as likely as any other happily-ever-after ending in any other story. Suffice to say that he’s asking his viewers to take an awful lot on faith.
It’s a bit much to ask.
More to the point, consider the nature of the encounter. This began at least as a petty insult, followed by at least the beginnings of a pissing contest (Post does tell us he got in the guy’s face). So, right away, the case for the existence of white privilege gets off to poor footing in this video. It enters the story as petty insult, an expression of personal animosity cast at a complete stranger. In effect, the issue emerges here as a sort of game piece played in a petty conflict over personal status.
Social justice, this ain’t.
Now, I have no doubt there are people who would do that, people for whom ‘white privilege’ is little more than an insult to be thrown at random white people, or at least those of us who get in their way. Whether or not Post’s account of the man’s behavior is accurate is one thing, but I think I’ve met a few people like that myself. The thing is that I’ve also met folks for whom this issue is NOT about humiliating anybody, and for whom this issue is an important obstacle to social justice.
… or as I like to call it, justice.
The notion of ‘white privilege’ connects to a broad range of other controversial topics associated with social justice, inequality, and all manner of things deep and divisive. I probably won’t be solving any of them in this blog post, and wouldn’t expect Post to solve them in his short video, but perhaps, that’s the problem. Post does solve these issues, or at least he pretends to solve them insofar as he explains them away and replaces the whole issue with a quick motivational lesson shaped for the benefit of black people and liberals everywhere. This would be an impressive accomplishment, but it isn’t, because the problems he pretend to solve never amount to much more than a dirty story about an asshole he met on the street. If this isn’t a straw man, it’s certainly a whipping boy. Just an easy set up easily smacked down, and narrative easily applied to all those complex issues Post hasn’t really addressed at all.
The problem here isn’t entirely contained in the video. If folks would treat this as a random encounter with a random jerk whose particular flavor of jerkitude just happened to be racial politics, then perhaps we could file the whole thing under guilty pleasures of little or no consequence. But that isn’t happening. No, this is one of many videos out there which circulate around the net under the guise of substantive commentary about the notion of white privilege. A white guy whitesplains away the whole issue through a dirty story about an asshole he met on the street and a good chunk of the internet says ‘huzzah’!
This isn’t solution. It’s avoidance.
So, how does Post dispense with the issue? He begins by telling us he has had some problems of his own in life, and yes, these do seem like serious problems. He goes on to lecture the man from his story on the need to be realistic about his job prospects and to educate himself properly for the kind of job he hopes to do. In effect, Post is saying that white privilege is a myth, and that the difference between a successful person and an unsuccessful one is a function of the effort they put into life.
As an answer to the problem of white privilege, this seems to be equal parts straw man and false dichotomy. Simply put, success isn’t either race or effort. It’s a function of both (and a lot of other things). If the black man in Post’s story is wrong, then so is Post, bearing in mind, of course that this whole thing is Post’s story. In effect, it is a story about the choice between two different kinds of mistake, and that is all that Post seems capable of understanding about the matter.
This brings us back to the concept of ‘white privilege’ itself. What does the phrase mean? I’ve heard people use it in at least three different ways. Some clearly use the phrase to suggest that white people are categorically better off than others, that we all have a better shot at success (through no credit of our own) simply by being white. This approach would seem to dismiss the significance of any mere white-people-problems and sweep any advantages enjoyed by any particular non-whites under the rug. If mileage may vary, this way of talking about white privilege doesn’t acknowledge any variance outside the boundaries of a clear case that some people (white ones) have it better than all the others. I don’t think this way of talking about the issue stands up to scrutiny all that well, but it’s a sense of the phrase that is well suited to insult contests and generally morbid reflections about personal status, hence it’s appearance in Post’s story, and hence the ease with which he dispatches it.
A second approach would be to suggest that white people enjoy an advantage on account of being white. How this particular privilege stacks up against the other advantages and disadvantages that individuals experience in life is another question altogether. One needn’t deny that white people have our own problems or that some individual minorities may have some clear benefits in their own personal lives. Hell, we don’t even need to deny that there may be contexts in which being a member of a minority could actually be an advantage. It is enough to say that being white can help out in some ways. This approach seems more reasonable, but it achieves the reasonability at the expense of weakening the proposition quite a bit. It’s particularly attractive to white liberals such as myself, who may want to acknowledge privilege while minimizing its importance in our lives. “…yeah, I caught a break by being white, but let me tell you about this other personal hardship, and look at you, you got all this.”
…which is why most who talk about white privilege would step the whole thing up a notch and insist that in the grand scheme of things whiteness weighs rather heavily against those other factors. It still may be that particular white people have real problems and particular non-white people may have real privileges of their own, but in the grand scheme of things race is more likely than not to play a significant role in determining one’s status in life. In other words, whiteness may be one of many variables, but it is often the decisive variable in getting a job, getting a house, talking to a police officer, or any number of things that affect peoples wealth and well-being (not to mention their lives). This third approach is, I think the more serious of the three. It isn’t really all that different from the second approach, except insofar as it insists on the relative importance of whiteness in relation to other variables.
Suffice to say that Post’s argument wouldn’t touch either of the last two approaches to the subject of ‘white privilege’. Whether real or imagined, his adversary in the story isn’t up to the task of clarifying the issue, or if the real person did do that, suffice to say that it didn’t make it into Post’s own version of the story. It couldn’t, because Post’s story was always a story about a pissing contest, about a conflict over personal dignity. The antagonist in Post’s story was never going to accomplish anything more than gain a smug sense of satisfaction out of his insult, and so nothing rides on the ‘white privilege’ message but personal vindictiveness. Post is the only one with a dignified goal in the story, and that is true regardless of the (de-)merits of anyone’s thoughts about white privilege.
The reasonability with which Post approaches the issue is illusory; it’s simply a function of the story-line. Notice how he takes it upon himself to lecture the other man about the nature of taxes. Because of course the man he is talking to wouldn’t understand that his government check is paid for by private citizens. This is a common theme among ‘conservatives’ and radical right wingers these days. They like to imagine liberals and minorities in the form of the unemployed demanding government aid. The prospect that a gainfully employed person might advocate the social safety net is a possibility increasingly escaping their own narratives about government and economics. This story facilitates that trend by telling us about an individual who literally occupies that very place in life, and of course it compounds that narrative by enabling Post to explain the nature of taxes to the man as though he’d never thought about it himself. Post is reasonable in the story, because that’s how he tells the story, but in effect it is a story about a black man who doesn’t understand his own situation at all. The cherry on top of this condescending pie is the fact that it’s a white guy explaining it all; in effect whitesplaining white privilege to the clueless minority who hasn’t the faintest idea how to take care of himself.
Of course it is possible that the whole encounter is real and that Post’s account of it is essentially accurate, but once again we have to consider the larger presentation. What makes this video powerful is precisely the way it fits in with the larger narratives of right politics in America. Post winds up the theme by telling the man (or telling us that he told the man) to stop lying to himself. In telling the narrated man to stop lying to himself about his own welfare, Post is effectively telling anyone who supports aid to the poor and/or concerns about social justice to stop lying to ourselves. In effect, this is but another story about lazy minorities who blame others for their own lack of effort along with the foolishness of anyone who would humor them. Reasonable tone aside, Post is pushing an explicitly racist message here.
Which brings me to another point, a larger one about the nature of privilege. One of the reasons the notion of ‘white privilege’ is so threatening to so many is because it undermines the meaning of success in a meritocracy. It runs contrary to the norms about success and failure in both mainstream liberalism and conservatism Whatever any of us has in America, we typically want to believe we have earned it. That goes without saying. It’s what the money in our bank accounts a little more meaningful than they would be for practical reasons. It’s what makes the houses we live in personal statements and the televisions we watch measures of personal merit. We have these things because we earned them.
But what if we haven’t?
What if our success (in whatever way we define it) is due in part to some break we didn’t earn? That’s a damning prospect. It stings a little, even for hose not so very adverse to messages about social justice. But for the true believers in their own success, for the fundamentalists of the free market this is outright heresy. We cannot admit of anything like white privilege or any number of social factors that might play a significant role in determining our lot in life. For the true believers amongst us, that way lies madness! Hence, the initial problem of this story!
…not the insult.
Post begins this story, sitting (as many of his posts do) in a car, telling us about his favorite car. Presumably, he is proud of his seat in this car. Presumably, he feels he has earned that seat. I don’t think that’s an accident. Whatever the significance of white privilege for African-Americans or any other minority, in this story, it is the threat to the moral significance of a nice car that is really at stake.
This is the real threat to acknowledging white privilege. for Post. It could mean, he hasn’t really earned that car, or perhaps anything else in life.The issue isn’t whether or not white privilege can explain any measure of social inequality, it is whether or not it leaves intact the moral value of consumer products.
So, it’s rather fitting that Post takes time to provide the man in his story with a kind of motivational lesson. According to Post, the central lie that both he and the man in his story were told (by whom he doesn’t say) is the notion that one must work to achieve happiness. The truth, he says is just the reverse. In this respect, he isn’t all that far from the Puritans of old, worrying about the apparent elect (also a class defined in part by worldly possessions in elation to some imagined moral characteristic). Post is just one among many to suggest that wealth is somehow a function of character.
The problem of course is that it’s not that simple. Personal resilience can explain a lot, but it doesn’t explain everything. Time and again, studies have shown that minorities and women (among other groups) face real obstacles to success in the work place, the housing market, and any number of contexts affecting their economic well-being. Some flourish anyway, and that’s a damned good things. But it’s an insidious logic that turns this into an argument to be used against those that don’t. It’s all well and good to tell people they should do whatever it takes to overcome those obstacles in their personal lives (although doing so often assumes an air of unearned authority on the topic), but I can’t help feeling that one of the many things people ought to do toward overcoming those obstacles is address them on a larger scale. This doesn’t mean spitting insults at white people who drive nice cars, but it does mean challenging white privilege as it plays out in various contexts of modern life.
And no, that doesn’t mean anybody should be ashamed of any privilege they may enjoy in life. It does mean we ought to be careful how we use it. If Post, for example, really does help an unemployed black man get ahead in life, I’d say that’s a damned good use of his own position. Putting out a video demeaning to the status of minorities for the benefit of right-wing consumers isn’t. I’m not suggesting that those of us born into any kind of privilege ought to spend every moment of every waking day trying to figure out how to make it right for others, but we ought to be open at least to the prospect that there are real problems with the way identity shapes the prospects for success in life. Perhaps, we ought also to look for ways to change that.
It isn’t the universe, as Post suggests, whose justice is at stake; it is the communities in which we live. The universe may not owe anyone, but for those of us living in societies committed at least to equality in rights (if not wealth), I reckon we do owe others an even chance at earning a living.
Far from denying the importance of hard work and honest sweat; the point is to ensure that such things really do matter.
Okay, I don’t guess there is much mystery as to the meaning of the phrase ‘race card’. It’s consistently employed as an accusation that someone has used the prospect of racism cynically to their own advantage. Maybe they have accused someone of discrimination who didn’t deserve it, or maybe they are just complaining about some general sense of inequity when (so the thinking goes) they ought to stop playing the victim and do what it takes to succeed in life. Either way, to say that someone has played the ‘race card’ means that they’ve raised the prospective of racial disparity on spurious grounds. It’s as if someone has raised the issue simply because they can.
…a bit like playing a card simply because it’s in your hand.
Okay, so I can certainly think of some times when I believe people have raised the accusation of racial injustice without just cause. I can think of instances in which people I’ve known in real life (or famous people I’ve known about from various media) seem to field the accusation without substantial cause. Of course, it is entirely possible that I may have missed a few things. Being a white guy, raised in lily-white neighborhoods, I lack the immediate personal experience to see a lot of this without reflection (or a patient person willing to explain it to me). Still I can’t help thinking, at least some of the accusations of racism leveled at various parties are indeed unwarranted, More than that, I suspect at least some of them have been made in bad faith, not merely as an error, but a lie.
I reckon this phrase ‘race card’ is as good a way to call attention to that sort of problem as any, at least any that willy fit into a 140 character tweet, (or at least 140 character mind).
But if there is a race card, so to speak, then there is also a race card
Hell, the race card card works as easily as the race card. The mere existence of a body of concerns about race is enough to empower the race card. Recourse to the accusation of racism is enough to give that card all sorts of power. It’s enough to help shameless people exploit the topic. The race card card is no less convenient or easy to use. So long as people have concerns about the credibility of other people’s concerns about racism, cynical abuse of those meta-concerns will always carry a degree of weight And of course the existence of a short-hand phrase to communicate the message makes it all that much easier.
Indeed, a quick trip around the net reveals a number of people who believe (or at least maintain) that the subject of racism can be reduced entirely to cynical use of the race card. The mere mention of the word ‘race card’ seems, to some anyway, sufficient to answer a history of slavery, Indian removal, Chinese exclusion, manifest destiny, segregation, and countless comparable institutions and practices. Whether we are to believe, these things were never really about racism to begin with, or that all this history has been neatly contained somewhere in the past varies from source to source, but the theme is ubiquitous. Countless cultural conservatives would love us to believe that the subject of racism is (now at any rate) simply a liberal contrivance.
If I can agree that people sometimes use the prospect of racial discrimination to gain unwarranted advantages, then I must also insist that people sometimes use the prospect of such a ploy to dismiss legitimate concerns about racial disparities out of hand. You can use the race card to make people think you have been treated unfairly on account of your race, even if you haven’t. But you can also use the prospect of a ‘race card’ to to dismiss perfectly serious concerns about real social inequities. Both ploys seem to work. They seem to work best for different audiences, to be sure, but under the right circumstances, each can be a very effective means of getting undue leverage over others.
So, what sort of card game is this anyway? It ain’t poker! Honestly, I don’t think it’s any game you would play with a conventional deck of cards. I can’t help thinking this is a collectable card game of sorts. I can just imagine the race card saying something like: “+1 versus liberal sympathies. Triggers outrage checks versus conservatives.” As to the race card card, it probably just says it will counter the race card, “but only when used in combination with white privilege.”
The white privilege card doesn’t say anything.
It doesn’t have to.
It goes without saying that similar cards and counter cards exist for gender, religion, sexual preference, and …well, for gender again, and again. Similar cards should probably exist for class and geographical region, but we rarely see them. The ‘Class warfare’ card is a definite exception. It’s perfectly suited to eliminate any defense against assaults by the upper classes. Just put the class warfare card on the table, and you can screw the middle and working classes without any scrutiny, or even to torment the unemployed with a free conscience.
I don’t reckon there is much hope of getting rid of spurious political card games. None of these gambits are going away any time soon. In any event, people talk about the ‘race card’ a lot. By ‘people’ I of course mean ‘social conservatives’. People don’t talk much about the race card card.
I came across this D-Nuts bit last night. It’s not the first time I’ve seen it, but what the Hell? This time I thought I’d take a moment to bloggetize a comment or two on the matter. What’s interesting about this piece, you may ask?
We could start with the most obvious game that’s being played here. On one level it is simply a red herring. A claim about the present-day Republican Party has been answered with a series of claims about the history of the GOP and the Democrats, thus substituting a question about what each HAS BEEN for an argument about what each IS today.
Taken at face value, this red herring contains another problem, a seriously convenient omission of historical information, namely the shift in voting patterns over the 20th century culminating in the famous “southern strategy” of Richard Nixon. Simply put, an awful lot of southern conservatives switched parties over the years since the founding of the GOP and of the KKK. It’s tempting to say that a number of them did so precisely because they saw the modern GOP as a better vehicle for their own racist agenda. In any event, the shift has left both parties flip-flopped on civil rights and the proper balance of federal and state authority. There are some other factors besides race at work here to be sure, but a number of GOP leaders have made conscious appeals to racist sentiments over the years and the results have been quite striking.
So, is it fair to say that the GOP is racist?
I could see reasonable arguments against an affirmative answer. Those arguments do not rest on a conveniently incomplete account of history.
Even still, I can’t help thinking the best (worst) part about this cartoon is just how well its content fits with its intended purpose. Here we have Charlie Brown whitesplaining the topic of racism to Franklin, the one black character in Peanuts. Franklin is clueless in comparison to Charlie’s wisdom. The cartoonist has him reacting with a stubborn inarticulate refusal to see Charlie’s point or even to engage the argument in any meaningful way. He just sticks to his position as if incapable of grasping the issues at hand. He is in effect simply playing the so called race card without any substantive reasons for doing so. The GOP isn’t racist, so the cartoon would have us believe, but apparently it takes a white person to understand that.
…a message which would probably come as no surprise to Franklin.
One thing about coming to Barrow, it has made conversation much easier, at least in the lower 48. All I have to do is tell people I am from Alaska and the conversation is well on its way. They will ask more questions than I could possibly answer, and once I start telling them about Barrow I can generally be assured of willing and sympathetic audience. I’m a socially awkward kinda guy, so yes, this is a good thing. Anyway, I’m happy to talk about my new home. Barrow can be damned interesting!
…so I suppose it should come as no surprise that this town has made its way into the occasional television show or movie production. Three particular movies about Barrow seem to have made it into the popular culture to one degree or another. These films couldn’t be more different from one another. Each tells a different kind of story to a completely different audience, and each portrays the community of Barrow in a very different way. I’m always fascinated to see the community change its shape in order to meet the needs of the film-makers behind these project.
…fascinated enough to write a post about it anyway!
Barrow as Darkness: Thirty Days of Night is of course the most well known movie about Barrow. In this film based on a graphic novel) vampires descend upon the town at the outset of Polar Midnight in order to enjoy a month-long feast in the safety of a season without sun. Thirty Days of Night wasn’t filmed here; it was filmed in New Zealand. Still, the central premise of the film is very much about Barrow and the dramatic significance of a long polar night.
The small hills and valleys of the movie’s opening sequences were about all it took to shake my sense that this film had much to do with the Barrow in which I live. The exaggerated sense of polar midnight didn’t help either. Once it goes dark in this film, it stays dark, …completely dark. What a lot of people don’t realize (and what the film-makers didn’t seem to find interesting) is the fact that we get a kind of fake sunrise here. If you can imagine the moment before the sun actually rises, that’s what we get in the midst of polar midnight, only it isn’t followed by an actual sunrise. You could swear the big ball of warmth was just about to pop over that horizon, and then the light just starts to fade.
…yes, it can be a little disappointing.
…kinda like Thirty Days of Night.
But perhaps I am being too harsh. Barrow does one thing only for this film and that is to provide the central premise, a vampire paradise. So, it should come as no surprise that the movie makes no attempt to convey anything meaningful about the people of this community. Still, you would think the directors would be kind enough to give their villainous horde of undead a bit of variety in their diet? Nope. The Barrow of this film is a lily white community if ever I saw one before. As I recall, a token native does make an appearance in the living feast that is Barrow’s population for this film. Other than that, the menu is white meat only.
This is a fun film in its own right, but it is definitely, not the Barrow I know.
Barrow as a Big Warm Hug: Hollywood has made one popular film here in Barrow, and they did it since I arrived, The Big Miracle. At least it was about Barrow, and they did shoot some film up here. Some residents even made it into the movie, as did natives from other parts of Alaska. With a cast featuring Drew Barrymore and Ted Danson, this film recounts a real event in the history of this community. In 1988, three grey whales became trapped in the ice not far from here. The entire town as well as a number of outsiders (including a Russian icebreaker) worked hard to break them free.
The ironic thing about this movie is that it was based on a rather cynical book, ‘Everyone Loves Whales’. I gather the original script may even have had a little bite to it, but the final cut of this film is a feel-good celebration of compassion, humanity, and …whales! By the end of the film, the plot is fully focused on efforts to save the big lugs of the sea, but the early scenes focus on political questions about whether or not anyone will help them. One of those questions was apparently whether or not to eat the whales instead of saving them. The Iñupiat community of the north slope harvests Bowhead whales every year, so that possibility could hardly be described as a stretch. This plot point is eventually resolved when the whaling captains of the town decide instead to help free the whales.
(Big sigh folks!)
The eat-or-save sub-theme provides The Big Miracle with its main window into the community up here. Unlike Thirty Days of Night, this film actually finds a place for the Iñupiat community of Barrow in its storyline. They start out as potential villains and end up being god guys in the end.
…kinda like Clint Eastwood, only with chainsaws and snow-machines instead of Colt Walkers and a horse. (Let’s not talk about the harpoons.)
Folks up here are of mixed minds about how whether or not the film does justice to Iñupiat community of Barrow. Drew Barrymore (who plays a Greenpeace activist in the film) gives a pretty brutal speech about the native community and its whaling practices, and its hard to shake the sense that some of her points in that speech might have served as the voice of the film-makers. Later attempts to show the native community in a more positive light may or may not be enough to settle concerns about the politics of the movie, and for those here still very much committed to whaling, the major theme of the movie itself may be a little discomfitting. Barrow’s native community gets some love here precisely to the extent that their actions do not reflect what natives of the North Slope normally do with whales. It’s a conditional kind of love, and I can’t blame folks for being wary of the conditions.
For what it’s worth, this movie at least knows that natives exist in Barrow. It even kind-of likes them, so long as they aren’t eating muktuk.
Barrow as Native Youth: I can think of one REALLY good film set in Barrow, and that is On the Ice by Andrew Okpeaha MacLean. MacLean is from Barrow, and he uses the film quite deliberately to tell us something about life here at the top of the world. On the Ice tells the story of two young Iñupiat men with a secret they’ve been concealing from the rest of the community. And while this main story plays out, the film does a wonderful job of revealing the interplay between indigenous values and outside cultural influence in the native youth of this community.
On the Ice is a tense drama, and one which portrays the native community with a deliberate sense of realism. This film was shot in Barrow, and it features a number of residents in the supporting cast. It’s both amusing and a little disconcerting to see scenes on street corners I pass regularly, and even more so to see people I know in various scenes, but that is definitely one of the film’s charms. If the other films are set in Barrow (or at least an imaginary version thereof), the real Barrow jumps right out at you from this film.
…at least it does for me.
What’s missing from On the Ice is everyone else! …besides the Iñupiat community, I mean. Every once in awhile you can catch a glimpse of a non-native somewhere onscreen in this film, but that is definitely the exception. For the most part this film has eyes only for the native population. Gone are the white folks, yes, but so are the Koreans, the Thais, the Tongans, the Samoans, and the Filipinos, each of whom has a substantial place in this town.
On one level, fair enough. This movie is about native youth not the rest of us. On another, it’s a simplification, perhaps even an over-simplification. I can’t help but think it makes a difference that the outside influences (and the people who represent them) are present here in Barrow itself, and I would think that would be part of the story of native youth, at least if that story is to be a realistic portrayal (perhaps it is not). It would have been interesting to see how these characters dealt with ethnic relations over the course of the story. Leaving out all the sub-communities from the town simplifies the storyline and that is the one thing that jars me a bit when I watch it. But seriously, I mean to praise the film with faint damn. Because what this film does, it does well.
If you want to watch a movie about Barrow, this is the one.
So there it is. The community in which I live takes on radically different forms whenever a camera is pointed at it. It is darkness for those seeking a fright, a reluctant helper for those seeking a heart-warming smile, and in it’s best incarnation to date, it is an all-native community. The full community of Barrow never seems to make it into these stories, and the interplay between all the ethnicities of this town has yet to make it onto the big screen.
I don’t remember the joke, but it triggered the effect again. My black friend wasn’t black anymore; he was a machine and his face changed into a sort of digital display inside of which numbers and digits buzzed and whirred far too fast to read. I could tell he wasn’t pleased.
“Do you see me laughing?”
The face of my other black friend appeared above me. (Apparently I had precisely two of them in this story.) He seemed to be leaning over the wall I was sitting against, and he was smiling. The smile seemed to suggest that we were still friends, but that he too wasn’t pleased with my last comment.
I gave a weak smile, ‘no.’
“Maybe that’s because it wasn’t funny.”
“I know,” I stammered and cringed; “I don’t mean to be a jack-ass; it’s just that I can say that sort of thing with my indigenous friends and they laugh about it.”
“Well, we don’t think it’s funny.”
I told him I understood. I said I was sorry and that I will try to be more sensitive about things in the future.
The face above me looked across the street at our companion; “Have you explained that to him?”
“No, he turns into a magic parking meter whenever I attempt ethnic humor. I’ll apologize and discuss it with him when he changes back in a minute or two.”
“That sounds like a plan.”
Okay, those are pretty much the final moments of my dream this morning.