19 February 2005

Shades of Black - Part Two

Let’s start with a quote from a book I’m supposed to be reviewing:

“There are many ways of expressing and experiencing racism which focus on particular cultural specificities, but all are nearly always predicated by the primary indicator of skin colour, since the essence of any racist discourse is the linking of biology to behaviour, or in this case, colour to culture.”

The quote is taken from Rehan Hyder’s Brimful of Asia: Negotiating Ethnicity on the UK Music Scene. Page 21 if you’re that interested. In the book, Hyder uses the experience of four bands to explore the issues of racial and cultural identity in contemporary Britain. I thought of Hyder because of the comments Henry and Wael made to yesterday’s post. As Henry said: “You are what I say you are.”

Or as Hyder says:

“Who we think we are is only part of the story, since what others think of us is a contingent part of the process of self. . .”

The analogy I used yesterday about the teacher, the chalkboard and the categories, was an attempt to get to the heart of what I consider to be the problem: “black” as an impossibly narrow category defined by others. What astonished me about Ms. Reichel’s essay, was the realisation that even in 2005 the possibilities for being a black woman still appear to be so limited. This isn’t to suggest, of course, that black women aren’t out there thumbing their noses to these “restrictions” and living to the fullest extent of their capabilities. But the essay shows just how their lives can then be critiqued in terms of their “blackness.” And if that weren’t bad enough, consider the criteria for being black. Have we really not come any further than the Mammy/Sapphire dichotomy?

Obviously this isn’t just a problem for black women. Wael’s comments about his experiences as an Arab-American since 9/11 – including visits by Homeland Security – reveal the extent to which stereotyping remains the organising principle around which racism operates. [Hey Wael, where’s your blog?]

And I don’t see it changing. Well, at least not without a fight.

This fight means challenging stereotypes and racism whenever and wherever they are encountered. It means speaking up, talking back, and challenging small-minded notions of who and what we are. While I do not support her politics, I think that Condoleezza Rice has earned the right to be judged on the basis of her role as Secretary of State and not on some racist notion of what it means to be a black woman.

In my mind, being a black American is not the indication of a racial category, but the evidence of a shared experience: America’s slave-trading past. And if it is not possible to move beyond the essentialising notions of race evident in the essay, we are still in chains.

Coming soon, "One Nation Under a Groove: The Year that was 1978"

1 comment:

  1. It pays to remind oneself that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The comfort zone that one is provided by being able to draw boxes around people is utlimately an inner demon we all have to fight individually. The common defensive retort when presented with problems of racism, especially when associated with the history of slavery is "It is what my great grand fathers did, not I." Fact remains, that a box is a box is a box and it gives no comfort to the person in the box
    that kind of denial simply because the box is now a different shape or made of a different material.
    We each have in us the capacity to unlearn some of these bad habit we have acquired over the generations, but it requires rigorous self examination and this is where most folks are found wanting. The box maker did his work cenutries ago and is long gone, but his ancestors inherited the box, in much the same way that slaves were inherited from one generation to the next. Today's box is mostly made of imagery. Sometimes the images come in the form of the evening news, sometimes they come in the form of cleverly crafted ill fitting garmets that actors on TV have to wear. Only slightly different from "Amos and Andy" or "Stepnfetchit". In other cases they come through the ear piece of an IPOD or the deafening boom of night club speakers. There was a time in rap music when the imagery created had a refreshing variety, some good some not so good, but variety nonetheless. People in the box, attempting to define themselves for a change. Sadly, that was when record companies were independent and what we have seen since that independence was lost, is a one note symphony of distortions of the character of an entire people, for mass consumption and sampled by some of the very people it denigrates. Imagine for a moment the inesacpable conclusion forming in the mind of a young impressionable person about an entire race of people, when the output from the IPOD and the accompanying images on MTV sears their brain, branding permanent conclusions. What happens when that individual young person is eventually in a position to employ one of the marginalized?
    What image does he see? Does he see what is in front of him clothed with voice and reason, or does he revert to those images grafted on to his brain all those carefree years ago?
    We can pretend we are making progress, but the challenge is not just a collective one, it is an individual one as well. Are we prepared to unlearn some of the negatives that are constantly re-inforced in this global image driven culture of our? It's hard work, but we have to begin somewhere.

    Inez, I am sure you would love to hear an opinion that
    challenges your position. Sorry it won't come from me as I happen to agree with you.