Sunday, February 28, 2010

The relevance of African American Heritage Month

Today in The New York Times I came across this article, "California Campus Sees Uneasy Race Relations," which describes an escalation of racial tensions, beginning with the celebration of African American heritage month, followed by students who wanted to protest and parody this recognition of African Americans to U.S. history and culture by hosting a "Compton Cookout" on February 15, asking people in attendance to

"don gold teeth in the style of rappers from the Los Angeles suburb of Compton, eat watermelon, and dress in baggy athletic wear."

[Aside: I should note that for anyone who thinks that the stereotype of African Americans eating watermelon is a relic of the past--clearly, the fact that young 20-somethings are drawing on this in order to make racial mockery of African Americans demonstrates that stereotypes persist, whether we want them to or not and whether they are completely asinine or not]

What next followed were protests by African Americans and their allies of all racial backgrounds, enflamed by a campus new segment parodying the protest of the cookout by using the racist "n" word, followed up by a noose found hanging in the campus library, and then by students who had it up to HERE at this point with all the racist b.s. occupying the chancellor's office and holding a number of protests, class walk-outs, and teach-ins.

For anyone who thinks that we are living in a post-racial age where racism is no longer a factor, let me just say, if nothing else convinces you of the gross inaccuracy of this belief, you need to understand the noose. You need to understand that the noose--a symbol of lynching--a reference to lynching black bodies--is in no way funny or innocent or parodic. It is racist. And I know I have said that we should try not to use the "R" word because people don't hear us. But let me repeat:

The noose is a symbol of racism. It is a racist symbol. It is a symbol that conjures up centuries of racial violence enacted against African Americans in this nation by white supremacist forces. It was used, quite literally, during the reconstruction and post-bellum era as a means of domestic terrorism and violent control.

There is an entire history behind the symbolism of the noose in American history directly tied to the experience of being black in America that means if you didn't know this history, well, you should. Your education is far too incomplete.

Which is why there is a need for February to be recognized as African American history and culture month. It is why if I were ruler of the world, there'd be a mandatory black studies class at some point during every K-12 student's life.

But I don't want to end on too hopeless a note. Because despite the ugliness at UCSD, the students did not let the racist statements, spoken and unspoken, go unchallenged. They pushed back. They spoke out. And they did it as a multiracial student body. I'll just leave you with the words of one UCSD African American student, Richard Louis Kizzee, who said that

"he took heart at the protest’s cross-cultural flavor. “I knew the minority population was low here, but I didn’t think racism was so high or rampant,” he said. “But now, in response to what happened, this is what we should see.”"

[Update@6:10pm: There is a really fantastic letter by UCSD Literature professor Jody Blanco advocating for cross-racial alliances and allies of all colors (particularly Filipino but I think he would definitely call on all ethnic and racial allies) to protest the racist attitudes at UCSD. It is reprinted in full here. Tip of the hat to Angry Asian Man, who also calls on Asian Americans to act as allies for African Americans]


david said...

I wouldn't just call on Asian-Americans to be the allies of African-Americans, I would like to see everyone included. No one should be left out in the fight against racism; including White people.

I think, in my opinion, the white supremacists are in the minority. It's not enough for minorities to band together, it has to be everyone. Don't forget the freedom riders, whom some were killed, that fought racism.

Minorities today have written off White people as allies just as we did with the french during the Revolutionary War. People still need to heed the call against racism regardless of color.

Jennifer said...


I'm not exactly sure who your comments are directed at. I think I've made it clear both in this post as well as in my other posts that I appreciate all allies for all social justice issue causes. If you are referring to Dr. Blanco's letter, it was written to the members of the Filipino student group he is affiliated with, although as I indicated, I think his remarks could be direct for all people. As for Angry Asian Man, his remarks are directly specifically at his Asian American readers as a way to link the social justice issues and racial issues that Asian Americans have in common with African Americans.

I also disagree with you, somewhat, about white supremacists. If you mean the guys in sheets, sure. But if you are referring to a kind of thinking--a white supremacist type of thinking, then no, I don't think it's in the minority--I think one only has to look at the tea party or at the use of racially coded language to see that white supremacist thinking is still very much in evidence in today's society.

Finally, I am really not sure about your claim about "Minorities have written off White people as allies." Since I can't speak on behalf of all racial minorities, I don't want to say that I know for sure that all racial minorities have written off white people as allies. Again, as I've written about numerous times on this blog, I have valued many white allies, and I know others have as well.

I guess, I will ask YOU david, is it my imagination or is your tone a bit defensive and perhaps focusing a bit too much on white people instead of what we can all do as allies in the fight for social justice?

david said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Ugh, this UCSD thing. I actually avoided going to my in-laws' house this weekend because their (white) son goes to UCSD and I just didn't want to get into it with him. (Previous conversation we've had have not gone well.) I'm somewhere between ashamed and proud to call myself a UCSD alumna - shame from the "wtf were they thinking" and pride from the overwhelming response of support from the rest of the student body.

What continually amazes me, though, is what you've also pointed out: is that this shit is RACIST. I know no one likes to talk about that word, because white people don't hear "racism," they hear "Klansman," but it's important to call it out for what it is, because if we cannot even get people to understand that something this heinous is, indeed, racist, then what else is left? How are we going to convince them of the systemic, structural nature of race-based inequality if hanging a friggin' noose in the library isn't racist, that *protesting* MLK day and Black History Month and throwing a ghetto cookout party as your means of protest isn't racist?

I feel like this really has just been Skanky Race Issues Week/Month. Was it a full moon all month? Did I miss a memo from the gods? Ugh.

david said...

@ Jenniffer, I was addressing the letter by Dr. Blanco. I don't compose my thoughts very well when writing so i doesn't seem specific.

As for the tea party, it's hard to use generalizations. I know there are elements in it that have white supremacist thinking but I'm not sure about overall.

As for "Minorities have written off White people as allies," from what I have seen in pictures of rallies and such today, is that there aren't many White people involved in fighting racism as there was in the 60's. I realize I can't speak for everyone but just from what I have seen.

Anonymous said...

@david, I started to reply to your comment, but it turned into a 572-word monster and I figured if I was going to have a soapbox moment, I should at least do it on my own blog. I've created a new post that I'm inviting you (and Jennifer too, naturally) to comment on.

@Jennifer, thank you again for having created this space. I know it's been a while since I've visited and/or commented (previously as baby221), but I've missed your writing and it truly is a breath of fresh air to hear your words again.

Jennifer said...

sara speaking,

It's so nice to hear from you again! And what a lovely thing for you to say that you've missed my writing--I blush!


I know from the comment you deleted that our life experiences might be different. I say that not to play the age or professor card, but perhaps to suggest that you are right--that I should consider that people are coming to this space with different types of experiences and knowledges that they are working from. And I guess I would also like to flip that around and say that there are people who are coming to this space, or in my case have created this space who have different kinds of knowledges and experiences, and sometimes you are going to get called out for things if I (or others like sara speaking) think that your comments are pushing at a button that you may not know you were pushing. Or that seem to demonstrate, in my opinion, some broad/abstract claims that aren't helpful ("Minorities today have written off White people as allies") and that seem to suggest that you want to change the conversation to talk about white people instead of talking about people of color and specifically about the racism that the UCSD African American students are facing.

I will say that I found sara speaking's post a great educational experience in what it's like for her to speak her truth as a woman of color feeling frustrated by well intentioned white allies who miss the mark. I think you missed the mark for me--I know you consider yourself an ally and I want you to be an ally--I want to make space for you. I just want to make sure that your space doesn't infringe on my own or anyone elses.