the unbearable whiteness
what's black and white and white all over?
a couple weeks ago some friends showed me a piece in the weekly dig thinking i would find it interesting, which i did (mildly), and thinking i might sympathize with the dig's perspective, which i did not (pretty strongly).
my friends thought i might agree with the dig--if i may so venture--because the piece seemed to be assailing an irresponsible portrayal of race relations, which is a subject i tend to harp on myself. i disagreed with the dig in this case, however, because i thought the portrayal they were criticizing was, more or less, accurate--if not quite as subtle as it could have been (or as i would attempt in my own writing).
in the semi-anonymous, staff-signed piece, the dig downright skewered--indeed, practically called for the termination of--a music critic for the boston globe, one siddhartha mitter (apparently, a/k/a the illhindu). the dig appeared to take issue with mitter's black-and-white reviews of some recent, local concerts. which is to say, they found his frank discussion of race and racism (and misogyny) offensive and out-of-place. at least, that's what i gather, since the dig is pretty vague about what actually irks them in mitter's articles. they simply present mitter's writing (out of any sort of context, of course) as obvious evidence of its own bullshittiness, which, in a piece of criticism about a critic, really doesn't fly. but please, read it for yourself and tell me what you think. (seriously, i'm curious.)
you see, i think my friends' conflation of my antiracist position with what seemed like the dig's antiracist position fails to make a rather crucial distinction among us liberal-whiteys. (and know that i use such an epithet not without cringing. these slanders describe not how i self-identify, but how i might be identified by some, so, since it's germane to the present discussion, i'll take the daggers. still: would that we could shift this paradigm!) my friends think of me as a person who doesn't like to truck too easily in words like "black" and "white"--not because i'm uncomfortable with them, but because i appreciate all too well the ideological magic they work. i tend to challenge other people when they use such terms too casually, and i try to speak more carefully myself or to play with such loaded terms in a rather express manner.
for example, if one of these friends were to ask me if i liked a particular indie band that they were listening to and which i had seen reviewed at pitchfork'n'blogs but whose music i had never heard and had no intentions of ever seeking out, i'd probably reply glibly, "i'm afraid they'd sound too white--and i don't mean that in an essentialist way." and what i would mean is that, though i don't really believe in racial difference beyond the skin-deep and the enculturated, i often dislike the aesthetics of music that has been marked as "white music" (which is to say, since "white music" is--in some strange way--the norm and thus not named, music that has not been marked as "black music"). there's something about the retreat into whiteness as a cultural zone that i find really unnerving, not to mention unappealing, in an age where racism and the legacies of institutionalized racism remain so stunningly powerful and destructive.
at the same time, when i attempt to chant down whiteness by calling it out in this way, unmasking what too often masquerades as the norm and denigrating what for too long passed as the ideal, i also vigilantly avoid reifying race. to inform someone that they are exercising racial privilege is one thing (even if by teasing), to lock them into a racialized subject position is another. and it is yet another thing again to decide that since "race is a social construction" we shouldn't ever talk about it. that, in essence, seems to be where the dig positions themselves in this debate: for shame, mr.mitter, we gentlemen of the press deign to discuss such sordid matters in publick; or, you got your chocolate in our peanut butter; or something like that.
but we will not wish it away, even with the important insight that race is not, in some sense, real. because in all too many other senses, it is. that's what the anti-anti-essentialists were getting at back in the 90s (before they became anti-anti-anti-essentialists). they weren't calling for a return to essentialism in the face of constructionism, they were calling for a consideration of the way that race works in the world regardless of its made-up-ness. again, to return to taussig: "we dissimulate."
so, ultimately, that's where i differ from the dig: i'm also uneasy with facile invocations of black and white and race and racism, finding them often more unproductive than progressive; but sometimes--and really, too often--race is the elephant in the room, and not talking about it is a lot worse than talking about it. by not talking about it, we're just pretending it's not there, thus ensuring its persistence more, i'd wager, than if we just stopped talking about it altogether (which, if we're racialized as black and remain the subjects of racism or if we're racialized as white and remain the accomplices, we can't).
but don't take my words for it, or my use of michael taussig's words either. try ebog johnson's provocative prose in defense of his comrade, for example. (you could also read mitter's post on the matter or his reply to the dig.)
/// an aside: the dig's response to mitter--"but we didn't want to exchange views"--is more or less the equivalent to mitter's characterization of the paper as "the mediocre alternative weekly to the other mediocre alternative weekly in Boston." neither response is what i would expect, or hope for, from among a community of local journalists who really should be--and, duh, clearly are--engaged in conversation. and, moreover, mitter's dismissal really isn't fair to the dig or to the phoenix, both of which, in my opinion, add quite a bit to local life here. and, seriously, you know what they say about people who live in glass
although--full disclosure!--i occasionally write for their long-established local alternative and i side with illhindu on this issue, i actually like the dig. they've carved out a voice for themselves in boston's lil' mediascape and i think the reading public is enriched for it, usually. more important, the dig's been nice to me (at least to date): so rather than, say, a snarky caption of some sort, i get cute, sweet compliments. still, i certainly don't like everthing they write. their recent defense of larry summers, for example, is classic bawstin in its anti-PC slant and totally misses the boat on why summers was so strenuously opposed by the faculty. but i understand. i grew up in cambridge, yes, but in a part of cambridge where, for many, liberal was a four-letter word (though these were hard-working dems at heart, and not necessarily "conservative"), whites were whites, and blacks were blacks (or sometimes worse). indeed, insofar as it is a reaction against the hypocritical discourse of the boston/cambridge "liberal" elite--those so-called limousine liberals, lefty in lipservice only, upholding various political pieties but rarely acting on principle--the dig's position kicks a little too much like a knee-jerk.
and, now, since i've so humbly placed myself on the enlightened side of the whiteboyus urbanus divide--what was it ebog said about smugness in these matters?--allow me to clarify my position on the whole matter just a little further. if you will, allow me to do so once again by referring to another's words--in this case, those of anthropologist peter wade. i find wade's perspective and position here instructive, and i wonder whether mr.mitter or those mystery dig writers would agree. (not sure they are interested in exchanging views with me, though, at any rate.) at least recently, this has been the conception that i too have attempted to follow when writing or talking or thinking about race. the following excerpt, explaining wade's particular approach to discussing race in his scholarship, appears in the introduction to his book, music, race, and nation: musica tropical in colombia (chicago 2000) (pardon, or please mind, the context):
Let me be clear about what I mean by "race." I am referring to the changing categories and concepts created primarily by Europeans as a result of their contact with, and subordination of, non-European peoples through colonialism and imperialism. These categories focused on aspects of physical difference deemed salient (primarily skin color, but also hair texture and certain facial features) and worked them into "racial" signfiers which came to bear a vast load of social and cultural meanings organized primarily by hierarchies of labor exploitation, power, and value. Meanings have varied over space and time, influenced by many factors, such as economic and demographic structures, the development of scientific understanding of human difference, and political and cultural struggle over the categories and meanings themselves. Partly because of their construction of heritable phenotypical variance, racial categories have, to a greater or lesser extent, been naturalized: the cultural differences that physical difference is taken to indicate are held to be rooted in a natural essence which is heritable through sexual reproduction; this naturalization has varied according to historically changing conceptions of human nature as well as changing structures of social relations, particularly those involving inequality.so, that, in a nutshell (or not), is why i disagree with the dig, support siddhartha mitter, and wouldn't have written what he wrote.
This approach to race emphasizes the process of racializing, naturalizing identifications and derives from my experience of Latin America, where racial identities are more often ambiguous, changeable, and context dependent than in other regions, but I think the approach is widely applicable and helps avoid reifying racial categories. In this sense, rather than studying "races" or "blacks" or "whites"--even as socially constructed groups--one studies processes of racialized identifications and the racialized social relations that go with them.
except for the part about williamsburg. and wu-tang. money's on the mark there.