9.17.2009

Race matters, but it's not what you thought it was...

Warning: The following essay is intended for an academic audience, and may be perceived as radical or controversial by those who are not well-acquainted with the author's previous body of... uh, "work." Anyway, I really think this is a top-notch analysis, so please read carefully and entirely before commenting. Enjoy.

Point #1: What's race?
I think something really interesting is happening -- and I want emphasize first that I think of it as an "ethically," and historically, neutral event. That is, what's happening is neither "good" for us nor "bad" for us. It just is. Here's what's happening: the concept of "race" has served as a sticking point for issues of cultural differences. To clarify, consider this metaphor: when farmers want it to rain, they sometimes shoot missiles that explode saw-dust into a cloud; this process is called "seeding," and it theoretically gives something for the moisture in the air to condense around. Think of "race" as the tactile seed, and moisture in the air as culture. It's about to rain, finally.

So, in the near future, "black" is going to denote not a skin-pigment, nor even a genetic background, but only a feature of culture. Similarly, "white" will denote a certain kind of culture... obviously, a culture that is perceived, and perceives itself, as somehow "opposite" or "opposing" black culture.

The difficult part -- really the only barrier keeping everyone from seeing this immediately -- is that right now it's still very difficult/taboo to try to identify what "black culture" is, and what "white culture" is. It's still offensive to say, for example, that black culture values basketball, while white culture values golf. But the offense goes away if we recognize, from a transcendental/enlightened position, that golf and basketball are simply two different possibilities for human beings, and to choose and prefer one sport over the other is a neutral decision, not a decision on a sliding-objective scale. Basketball and golf are like apples and oranges. Neither food is "better." One simply chooses what one likes.

In the days before race became culture, "stereotyping" was offensive precisely because of the obvious exceptions. It was not morally right and just to associate vegetarianism with white people and fried chicken with black people because there were exceptions all around. "I know a black vegetarian," someone would say. Further, everyone (and by "everyone" remember that we used to mean "white people) agreed that vegetarianism was morally superior, healthier, and just all-around better than eating fried chicken.

But phrases that are increasingly common -- phrases like, "You're acting black," directed at a white person, or vice versa -- indicate that we have an intuitive sense about which behaviors belong with which culture. All that's left to recognize is quite simple, really: Carlton Banks was white, and Eminem was black.

[Nobody who is not deeply familiar with a rebellious/protestant way of thinking will take easy to this concept. But remember: America was a rebel/protestant country for a long time, and the risidual consciousness lurks even if it is separate from the outward forms of religion. The protestant mind is only the mind, churchgoing or not, that can understand how a gentile could become a Christian, or how a Brit could become an American.]

Point #2: What's a racist? In the old paradigm, this was an easy question to answer: a racist was a white person who held unjustifiable views about people who weren't white, and who, because they were empowered by a majority privilege, used those views to justify a socially unjust political order. But in the new paradigm, where "black" and "white" are simply cultural choices, racism will be nothing other than preferring your own culture to that of another (which everyone does, implicitly, by choosing to be a part of their own culture). A white racist, regardless of skin color, will be a golf-playing, vegetarian-eating, elevator-music-listening, dress-shirt wearing, minivan driving person who prefers those forms to the alternatives offered by black culture, which might be things like art, basketball, community-sponsored-events, and louder music.

If all of this sounds "racist" to your ear--well, indeed it is! But whether it's a problem or not is the new question. Consider that it is only a terrible thing to define these cultures as I just did IF you presume, "a priori," that one list is intrinsically better or nobler than the other. And if you do think that way, I suspect you haven't made the quantum leap with me yet.

Point #3: What's to be done? The answer should be obvious by now: nothing. Just choose your culture, and enjoy! In an interview last night on Gwen Ifill's PBS program, linguist-turned-social-commentator (no, not Chomsky) John McWhorter, who is black ... er, white (?!) said this:
I actually think that it is a very important thing that Jimmy Carter has mentioned this. I don't think there's any harm in pointing out the fact that racism may or even does play a part in what's going on. But it just seems to me that it used to be that we were talking about how the racism out there might keep Barack Obama from the White House. I found that to be a very urgent issue. This time, we're saying that the racism, well, what? We're really just describing something that's not going to go away any time soon and I don't think really has that much effect upon the way our lives and the way the government of our lives is going to be going.

...because what's "not going to go away" isn't the old kind of unjustified, unconscious racial prejudice -- rather, it's the new kind of "racism," based in existential choices about which culture is "ours," and which is the dying culture. It's the Barbarians vs. the Romans, and it's the Romans vs. the Christians, and it's not clear whose way is better. What's at stake now is nothing less than this: who are we? And are we really a "we" at all?

One final point in conclusion: obviously, there is the possibility of those culturally-hybrid people who like both basketball and golf, but I think we will see, increasingly, that the "middle way" becomes a difficult position to hold. Or as Yeats said, "The center cannot hold." The "grays," people like me and Harold and Kumar and Barack Obama, who iron our shirts, hold graduate degrees, drink pinot noir and who love fried chicken and occasionally enjoy a good Bob Marley album (and who know what I mean when I say "a good Bob Marley album," ahem...) are going to have to choose. Just as moderates have been drown-out of the national political dialogue for years by the polarization of Republican and Democratic ideologists, the cross-overs, those comfortable in both black culture and white culture, will be ignored and ultimately unrewarded-out-of-history.

P.S. -- I really think of this as my finest blog-essay to date. Thanks for reading.

3 comments:

Wishydig said...

is it noteworthy that you only briefly mention the role of power in the distinctions being made?

Casey said...

Very noteworthy. My idea presupposes that power is decentralized... keep in mind that you can't use simple statistics about racial identification in my "new" worldview: even if 48% of Americans will be of "white" skin-color in 2028 or whatever, it may be that as few as half that many associate with what I've tried to define as white-culture.

I see the next twenty years as a jump-ball in terms of culture.

Casey said...

Did you see this guy:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRB9fXonu8c

Which culture will he choose?