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[xmca] Crises

Sorry Mike, but this post won't provide any help re: texts to
use to teach about race in higher ed (although How the
University Works is a favorite about higher ed).

I caught some of the footage of the racial controversy at UCSD
on Youtube and some other media outlets and had some thoughts
(too many for sure). 

This sounds terrible and serious. The University of Chicago
had a similar incident (with only slightly more subtlety) in
which students staged a series of parties with different
musical themes – the Hair Band party and the white trash party
went off without a hitch, but they got into trouble when they
had the “Straight Thuggin’” party. It was a real mess and I
thought the U of C administrators did a horrible job of
managing it. The administrators were quick to condemn, but
without taking any action. And nobody was willing to engage
with the difficult questions raised by the party, most
particularly the questions of meaning that were being raised
by both sides (what did this party mean? Was it about race?).
The white kids insisted that they weren’t parodying
African-American culture but were parodying a musical genre
(“gangsta rap”). They might have had some basis for an
argument if it weren’t for the fact that one of the students
at the party ran into an African-American student in the
hallway and said that he should come to the party because he
would be “the thuggin-ist one at the party”. In this moment,
the semiotic tie between gangsta rap and blackness was made
(it is one of those things that I suspect was on everyone’s
minds before that moment but without this moment, it would
have been difficult to definitively make the link. The UCSD
incident seemed to lack this sense of ambiguity, although the
Black organizer of the party is doing everything he can to try
to make this more nuanced).

The issue here is nothing new. If you read the accounts of the
blackface minstrels of old, you see striking parallels. In his
book on blackface minstrelsy, Love and Theft: Blackface
Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, Eric Lott notes
that famous blackface minstrels (e.g., Thomas D. Rice) would
describe a feeling of elation and liberation when playing the
black caricatures. These were certainly caricatures not
characters, as evidenced by Jessica Taylor’s note in her
article in the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology (vol. 19,
issue 1, p. 10): “Herb Howe gossips in Photoplay that ‘the
Christies hired a troupe of colored players from a Los Angeles
theater and a white man had to be engaged to tutor them in
Negro dialect. I guess they’d never heard of Mammy. She’s in
the cold, cold ground so far as they’re concerned. And so goes
another illusion with Santa Claus’ (1929i)”. Except here we
are eighty years later and the illusion remains. 

If you take a look at any middle-class plus suburban high
school you’ll find numerous examples of white kids “playing in
the dark” (see Toni Morrison’s book Playing in the Dark for a
description of the role of blackness in the construction of
white selves in literature). But these are very marked spaces
in which these white youth inhabit blackness – the basketball
court, when angry with someone, when “pretending” to be
ignorant or in trouble with the law. If you begin to work this
out, and I’ve done this with students before, you begin to see
that this language usage is the linguistic embodiment of the
black stereotype – but without a word being said ABOUT black
stereotypes. The black stereotypes are IN the words and their
pragmatic employment. These stereotypes are all the more
pernicious because they are *felt* in the boundary between
White English and Black English as it is projected onto social
spaces like suburb:city, and onto political identities like:
civility:non-civility, and onto emotional landscapes like:
passivity:aggressiveness, blandness:color/flavor?fulness, and
so on. What is important is that these differences are FELT by
whites at a very base level so that racial distinctions feel
real. It is the reproduction of race and racism at a pragmatic
level. Ask these kids how they feel about racism and you’ll
find that they are likely to be anti-racist. Many of them may
even actively participate in anti-racist causes and campaigns.
But they are caught up in this semiotic quagmire of race in
America. The worst thing about it is that they can't see it
(except when it is shown really explicitly).

So certainly this is about emotion, but I also think that it
is important to recognize that emotion is “out there” in
culture and society as much as it is “in here” in our
psychobiological individuality. This is where mainstream
psychology will always miss the point about racism. Howitt and
Owusu-Bempah describe the problem nicely in their book The
Racism of Psychology (1994 but out of print for a number of
years now – appears that there is not much money to be made in
calling out the goliath of the social sciences!). The problem
revolves around the methodological individualism of psychology
that will always seek to locate racism in the individual and
will never be able to get a handle on how racism is “in the
water” so to speak – or “in the air” as Claude Steele
describes it in his concept of stereotype threat but without
ever really describing it in any satisfactory way. And the
good psychologically minded individualist undergraduate will
respond to Claude Steele’s claim of the “threat in the air” by
asking “but where in the air is it located? I don’t see it
anywhere? How can it be located anywhere other than
individuals? Isn’t this all just in the heads of the
individuals experiencing stereotype threat?” The undergraduate
is, of course, partially wrong and partially right. Wrong
because he has no notion of culture or “the social” and
instead assumes that he has been made as an individual sui
generis (Mead’s ontologically prior individual). But right
because it is indeed individuals (and their institutions) that
constantly make and remake culture (and this is where many
anthropologists have gone wrong – as noted by a vast
literature in the past 20 years or so that have criticized
“essentialist” and “reified” notions of “culture”). But let’s
not be so confused to think that this making and re-making of
culture is somehow a conscious process.

These emotions are energized as the sacred and the profane
(which, as Durkheim tells us, gain their power from the social
group). These derogatory signs of blackness (most notably the
n-word) are given their power because they are profane,
sanctioned unsayables – in other words, they get their power
from “the social” – from the prohibition of others and thus
from the feeling of collective effervescence with a group when
one uses them. Just like the adolescent who discovers
profanity, these white kids are titillated by the chance to
use them. There is an incredible interview with Dave Chappelle
on the Actor’s Studio and Chappelle says that he regrets doing
his skit about the Niggars – a white family by this name – and
in each skit, the black milkman (Chappelle) comes to visit
them and keeps using their name (I only saw one example of the
skit, so I’m not sure I’ve captured the entirety, but you get
the idea). It is a fantastic skit that creatively plays with
the profaneness of the n-word. But what Chappelle realized was
that when white kids would see him out on the street or
wherever, they were all too eager to use this word in a way
that made him feel awkward (e.g., “Hey Dave, I love that skit
with the N-word’s, how are those N-word’s doing? Gotta love
the N-word’s”). There was something about the way that they
would relish using that word that made him very uncomfortable.
(it seems like Jiggaboo Jones is trying to frame what he is
doing in the same way as Chappelle did, only he doesn't seem
to be anywhere near as thoughtful about it). It is this same
playing with the profane that these college kids are doing,
only it is slightly more nuanced and hidden than the early
adolescent's use of swear words, or the early/middle childhood
kid's use of the word "booty" or "poop". 

I think, in the end, it seems like a situation that calls for
thoughtful, sympathetic dialogue. I wonder if one way to
encourage this to a class of non-Black Communications students
might be to challenge them to “understand” the position of the
Black students, to discover the power of silence. and
listening. This seems like an ideal time put tried and true
theories of communication to the test (although certainly not
a time to experiment). 

Or consider the interview with Jiggaboo Jones on the Roger
Hedgecock show and the different rhetorical and interactional
moves that Hedgecock makes in presenting his position. I
listened to this in absolute horror. I only hope that no one
actually listens to this guy. He may even be worse than Rush
Limbaugh. I think I found the radio show more disconcerting
than the Compton Cookout itself. At least they could hide
behind the ignorance of youth. Leaves me deeply concerned
about where our country is at right now.

And is this all tied to the state of the economy? Is this a
sign of the times, racial retrenchment in times of financial
crisis? On Hedgecock, he took one caller who asked about why
there are so many black people at UCSD. This flies in the face
of reality since less than 2% of the population is black. And
Hedgecock asked Professor Widener whether students should be
admitted on the basis of their skin color or because of their
academic abilities, Widener refused to answer (it is a stupid
and incredibly biased question after all) and Hedgecock hung
up on him and basically said "I told you so". It seems like
the source of the fear is that their (white) kids are not
going to be able to attend the elite UC schools. Scary, scary

Roger and Mr. Jones have left me feeling terribly sick, and so
I have no happy or hopeful words to end this post.


Greg Thompson
Ph.D. Candidate
The Department of Comparative Human Development
The University of Chicago
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