Sunday, January 31, 2010

Southern Snow

It's the last day of the first month of the new year (and new decade)--is that simple enough for you? It's also a frozen wonderland outside. Yesterday my town received 8 inches of snow. This was the scene near my home (I was out walking my dog--luckily I still had all my winter gear from living for 7 years in Massachusetts, including an amazing pair of boots that were tested in the Alaskan tundra and are rated at 20- below zero).

And this was the scene this morning, as seen from the porch of my home (that's my dog "B"):

Now, for all of you living in areas where 8 inches is a fairly routine event in late January, I'm sure you are saying "OK, so what?" But for anyone who understands what snow means south of the Mason-Dixon line, you will understand that 8 inches in my hometown means that EVERYTHING shut down. Most weekend events were cancelled. The airport cancelled all flights in or out. A birthday dinner I was to attend was cancelled, both out of concern that some of us wouldn't be able to get in our cars and drive as well as out of concern that the restaurant may not even be open. Main roads got plowed but not very well--not like in New England--plowed means most of the snow is pushed to the side and a bit of salt is scattered, but it's not clean and from the way I saw certain cars skid, people here DO NOT KNOW HOW TO DRIVE IN THE SNOW/ICE. And, of course, no one has chains or snow tires, and even the 4-wheel drive cars are still finding it challenging.

All of which means, I've been homebound. Which is fine by me. I've been able to do a lot of reading and saw a indie movie by Wayne Wang, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, based on a short story by Yiyun Li (be on the lookout for a future movie review). I'm also re-reading a collection of short stories by Robert Olen Butler, A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (look for a future book review) in preparation for teaching it in a few weeks. So all in all, things are moving pretty slow around here. I don't have anything more illuminating to offer at this point. Although I do have a few links for you to look at that I'm going to title "Outrageous!" -- as in, topics/themes that other bloggers have written about that any reader of this blog will find to be absolutely ridiculous/awful/outrageous:

*The Chris Matthews kerfuffle of "I-forgot-he-was-black" with respect to President Obama. Both What Tami Said and Stuff White People Do have their own insightful takes on this matter.

*WWII racism courtesy of the U.S. military "How to spot a Jap" -- lets hope there's not a 2010 edition of "How to spot a terrorist" (although what am I saying? Of COURSE there's a 2010 edition--just maybe not in such a handy-dandy pamphlet form) -- hat tip to Angry Asian Man.

*Justice Alito mouthing "Not true" at the State of the Union address by President Obama--thing is, as Huffington Post blogger Doug Kendall details, it IS TRUE.

*Finally, the latest installment of This Week in Blackness -- watch for yourself, but as usual, Elon is on fire!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Taking "Save the Date" cards to the next level

My brother "C" just sent me a link to Angry Asian Man's blog that had this youtube clip of Jeff and Erin's wedding. It really brings the whole "save the date" card to the next level. Of course, I definitely noticed that the couple in question are not only an inter-racial couple, they are a white-female & Asian-male inter-racial couple, with Erin being a few noticeable inches taller than Jeff--skewering all sorts of sterotypes about gender roles and racial pairings. But really, see for yourself--the production values are AMAZING and whoever they got to do this voice-over sounds just like the iconic movie voice-over guy (who died a few years back).

Congratulations Jeff and Erin--may your marriage be just as action packed and thrilling as the trailer you put together. And congratulations on breaking down all sorts of stereotypes about mixed-race couples. Kudos to you--I hope you have a fantastic celebration in Los Angeles on 10/10/10!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Visuals matter: the faces of power in America

I just finished watching the State of the Union address (and the Republican rebuttal) and am half-listening to the spin doctors on CNN dissect the details of Obama's speech and rhetorical flourishes.

But what I want to concentrate on are the visuals. Because while, of course, the substance of his speech or more importantly, the substance of the policies that his administration have and will make, are what we should pay attention to, first and foremost.


I have to say that visuals matter. Symbolism that isn't simply symbolism but representations of actual power matter. Seeing women and people of color in positions of power on national television matters.

I say this because I was really struck by the visuals of Obama's cabinet walking into the hall. I knew that this cabinet was one of the most racially diverse in the history of Presidential cabinets, but actually SEEING these faces/bodies was really remarkable.

[Aside: I should note that the cabinet is not quite as good in terms of gender equity, but I mean, look at both the Senate and the House, as well as the Supreme Court Justices--still a boy's club any way you slice it. And to test yourself about noticing gender inequity--look at the above image. If your first reaction was that it "looks" like there are equal #s of women to men in the above cabinet photo, count the actual bodies--you might be surprised, but researchers about a decade ago showed that when people are given a photo of equal #s of women and men, they often believe that women are the majority because we are so underused to seeing actual gender parity we confuse it for female dominance when it does occur]

I have never seen 3 Asian American cabinet members, let alone such a mix of African American and Latino cabinet members. And of course I was gratified to see Justice Sotomayor front and center with the other justices.

I was thinking of how important it is to have rolemodels, visual rolemodels. Like seeing Nancy Pelosi as the Speaker of the House. Just knowing that this is possible for women--like it's possible for people of color to achieve high ranking positions of power in our government, is a powerful message.

I was especially struck by these visual images of power given a search for a senior administrator at Southern U. The pictures and bios of all three candidates were published in the school paper recently. All three were older (in their 50s-60s) white men. It was discouraging, to me, as a younger female faculty member of color to see that the face of power in the university system is still white and male. It makes me feel that Southern U. is paying a certain lip service to diversity but that when push comes to shove in terms of positions of real power, we're really interested in the old boys network. And it's disappointing and disheartening and certainly not encouraging of me, as a younger faculty member, to want to go into higher ed administration because it feels like I'd just be giving myself a headache bumping up against that glass ceiling.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Am I a Southerner?

Recently I was filling out an application that asked me how long I've been with my current employer. Since coming to work at Southern U. coincided with my move to "The South" I realized that I've been here for over 7 years. Which means I've lived here longer than I've lived anyplace else in my adult life. And the only other residence I've called "home" for a longer stretch was when I lived in my childhood home in the Bay Area from 4-18.

So I have to ask myself: Am I a Southerner?

I actually posed this question at a talk last year at Southern U. It was with respect to the question of Southern identity and how long one must live here or whether there are other markers (namely race and ethnicity) that legitimizes one as a Southerner more than another. The short answer I was given from one of the panelists (and a few audience members, all of whom I should tell you are academics working in Southern Studies) is that yes, I am, indeed, a Southerner--should I choose that label for myself. In other words, what all these good professors (many of them Southerners themselves) were telling me was that I was free to choose this as my identity if I am comfortable.

But they also acknowledged that there may be others, outside of the ivory tower or the hallowed grounds of Southern U., who may question my self-identification as Southern. After all, I do not speak with a Southern accent, was not born nor raised here, and perhaps most incriminating of all, I do not eat BBQ (or more precisely, the BBQ I favor is Kansas City style--you know, the classic ketchup based bbq sauce smothered over pork ribs...yum!). I also don't "look" Southern, because lets be honest--most folks have in their minds either someone who is African American or white American. Maybe American Indian if you claim to be Cherokee or Lumbee. But Asian Americans in the South? Not really what you think of when you are asked to picture a Southerner.

And yet I found myself wondering about whether I am, indeed, a Southerner after stumbling across this passage in Abraham Verghese's memoir, My Own Country: A Doctor's Story of a Town and Its People in the Age of Aids:
"I suppose this is when you know that a town has become your town: where others see brick, a broken window, a boarded up storefront, you feel either moved to tears or to joy. The map of the town becomes the map of your memories, the grid on which you play out your obsessions, on which you mark your great loves and your enmities; its geography becomes your destiny" (Verghese 186).

When I came across this paragraph I dog-earred it because it really SPOKE to me. Because I know the feeling that Verghese is expressing--the sense of deep connection you have with a place. The sense of a community you feel a strong affinity for--that you own.

And that's how I feel about my small Southern town. I feel it when I'm walking my dog around town. Or when I go to the Farmer's Market on Saturday mornings. Or coming back from the gym and waving to my mailman. I notice the stores that are opening and closing or the new coat of paint on a restaurant or the porches that go up or come down on my neighbors' homes.

I don't want to just be a visitor here. I want to invest in my community and feel like I am a part of its landscape. At the same time, I must be honest and say that if you were to ask me if I'm a Southerner, I'd laugh. In fact, when I was traveling to Canada over the holidays the custom official, who looked at my form, said to me, "Are you really from the South," to which I replied, "Oh NO, I'm from California--I only work in the South" and he laughed and said, "I didn't think you sounded like a Southerner" and waved me through.

Looking back on that encounter, it seems a bit unfair to my current community to say that I'm only here because of my work circumstance. It is true--if I were let go from Southern U. I would undoubtedly be looking for another professor's gig somewhere in the world--college teaching is in my blood. But it's also unfair to think that I'm only here biding my time because of my job. Because I DO feel that the map of my town has become the map of my memories as Verghese writes above. So perhaps, one day, I'll willingly and eagerly claim the title of Southerner and proudly pledge my allegiance to this region. In the meantime, I'll just make do with small steps--like having a "y'all" creep into my speech from time to time.

Monday, January 25, 2010

If we're all living in a postracial world, Colson Whitehead must be its ruler

I know I've waxed rhapsodic about Colson Whitehead's satirical skills in the past. I just finished re-reading Apex Hides the Hurt since I'll be teaching this text next week, and I'm once again struck by Whitehead's spot-on sense of irony when it comes to exploring and explaining race in the 21st century. One of the things that he does in this novel that I really appreciate is that he does not ever tell you when a character is a person of color; instead, he reserves his racial markers for all the white characters in his fictional realm. It's an inversion of what most writers (esp. white writers) do in their fiction, namely leave out the race of all the characters and the main protagonist so that we assume whiteness to be the default, only mentioning someone's race when they are not white.

Anyway, I came across this piece that Whitehead did back in November forNew York Times Op-Ed piece on the postracial world we're all living in. It's a wonderfully satirical and sardonic look at life in the U.S. a year after Barack Obama's historic win and ascendancy into the Presidential office.

I know that there are people who really do believe that race no longer matters. That we are, indeed, experiencing life in a post-racial America. I also have some prime ocean real estate to sell them in Nevada.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The art of the apology--giving and receiving

Since I wrote about a racial gaffe I made yesterday, I've been thinking about apologies. In the news, lately, there has been the high profile apology of Harry Reid for making racially insensitive remarks. And the apology-that-isn't-really-an-apology from Michael Steele, who used the racial slur "honest injun" on the Fox network, right before denouncing Reid for his "Negro" remark.

So it got me thinking about apologies--why we make them and what we want to accomplish through the apology, both in the giving and the receiving of the apology.

I suppose much of this is content specific. But I think when it comes to the racially insensitive remark or even the blatantly racist slur, what we want is something heartfelt and genuine--we want an acknowledgement that there has been an injury and that the person apologizing understands this and isn't just paying lip service.

In other words, the apology should be not a matter of interpretation (the "I'm sorry you think I said that thing that you think is insensitive so I'm going to apologize for it and imply that you are being over-sensitive") or a consequence of getting caught (the "I'm sorry you had to overhear me say that comment but I'm not really sorry for the comment in and of itself"). Instead, the apology should be authentic and real--it should come as the result of some self-reflection and deep thought, or at the very least a recognition that your words or actions really harmed someone and you really don't want to make comments or do anything that is harmful anymore.

A few years ago, a camp leader led a group of kids in a racist children's rhyme that mocked Chinese accents. I wrote a letter to the camp leader, explaining why the rhyme was offensive and how disturbing it was to hear it repeated in the campus gym. The next day I got a phone call from the camp leader, expressing his genuine dismay and sincere apology for reciting that rhyme. He really had no idea that it was racist--and we had a productive conversation about why it was. While part of me thought it was incredible that he wouldn't understand that repeating the word "chinky-chinky" wasn't offensive, I decided that I needed to take him at his word and grab the educational opportunity in front of me--and most importantly, to acknowledge his apology as genuine.

And I think when we are faced with a genuine apology we need to accept it gracefully and find a way to move on. I know it's hard--I mean, we may question how much the person making the apology really "gets" it. But I think if we are going to be anti-racist educators, we have to give people the benefit of the doubt and try to move onward and forward, not to forgive and forget, but to forgive and educate.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Apologizing for the racial gaffe

This semester I'm teaching a grad seminar on race and cultural studies in contemporary America, and one of the things I emphasized was that despite the amount of reading I've done and research I've conducted and despite the fact that I've taught both grad and undergrad classes on various racial topics, I'm really not a race expert. In fact, no one I know is a race expert. It's just too slippery a concept--it's like nailing jelly to the wall (a phrase I've stolen/borrowed from a dear colleague of mine in History--don't you love that expression!). Race is such a flexible, fluid, changeable concept. I think the best that any of us can hope for is to educate ourselves, continually, and to be open to admitting that we will all make blunders when it comes to racial sensitivity.

And yes, I have made blunders. I think it's important to share them with all of you, because if I'm going to call myself an anti-racist ally and educator, I have to own up to the moments when I make mistakes. And perhaps something we can all learn from is how to deal with that OH NO moment when you realize you've said or done something insensitive--how do you recognize that moment, make amends, and move forward?

So I'll share a story with you, that may seem very mild to completely inoffensive to some of you, and for others it may seem totally out of line. What is important to know is that I recognize it for being racially insensitive.

I was having lunch with two colleagues--one a friend in the same department as me who is Latina and the other, a new post-doc who is American Indian. I had met the new post-doc once before--I'll call her "J"--and I wanted to introduce her to my friend "L" since "L" and I had gone through the same post-doc program that "J" was currently in. We also all work and teach on issues of race/ethnicity. I'm setting the scene to indicate that anyone who was at this lunch would have been aware of racial issues--we were three women of color who are racial minority faculty who teach on racial matters. So when I talked about the hiring priorities at Southern U.'s law school, guessing (since I'm not part of their law school faculty) that replacing a critical race theorist who had left years earlier was "low on the totem pole" for them, I was clearly forgetting who I was with.

The minute that expression was out of my mouth I quickly realized the insensitivity of that remark--saying it in front of my new American Indian colleague. ACK!

"J" didn't bat an eye. Neither did "L." We continued our conversation, and I wondered, feeling slightly panicked, whether "J" was just being nice or wondering if she didn't feel comfortable confronting me, for a number of reasons. I thought about saying something at various points through the remainder of our lunch, but somehow I just didn't know how to return to that moment--and I didn't know whether it would make "J" feel more uncomfortable if I brought it up. And I wondered if, perhaps, it wasn't as offensive as I guessed it was. In other words, I was continually rationalizing my silence at what I knew to be an offensive comment.

I got home and thought about it and realized that I needed to do and say something. So I wrote an email to "J" and as directly and simply as possible I apologized. I told her I didn't have a good excuse, only that I recognized, right after the words left my lips, that it was offensive and racially insensitive of me. And that I would be better, in the future, to excise that expression from my lexicon. I didn't try to overly apologize. I didn't talk about all the American Indian friends and colleagues I knew or the novels and films I had seen featuring American Indians. Or my sympathy and understanding of the plight of Native Americans. I acknowledged my remarks as racially insensitive. I apologized for saying them. I told her I hoped we could have lunch again in the future.

And what was "J"'s reaction? She actually said she had no recollection that I had made that remark! She literally didn't hear it (perhaps she was subconsciously tuning me out and giving me a pass?). She also said that she appreciated my apology and recognized that it couldn't have been easy for me to do it.

I wish I could say she was wrong--that I didn't hesitate to send her that email message. But I did hesitate. I did wait. I didn't say anything during lunch--not when the remark flew out of my mouth and I knew it was insensitive. Not throughout that lunch when I kept looking carefully at "J" and "L" for their reactions. Not when I immediately got home (because I forgot about it). It was only later that night, when the pin prickles of guilt nagged at me that I opened up my laptop and sent that email message to "J". I say this because it would have been easier for me to let it go--but it would also have bothered me, even if it didn't bother "J" or "L" (who I talked to after I got "J"'s email and who also said she didn't register the remark).

It's not easy to admit when you are wrong. It's even harder to acknowledge when we say things that are offensive and that hurt others or that put us in a bad light. But it is important that we do own up to our shortcomings, esp. when it comes to the racially insensitive remark.

And for those of you unsure of why the expression "low on the totem pole" is offensive, we need to really understand the significance of totem poles to American Indian culture. The expression is blithe and off-handed and doesn't recognize the sacred nature of totem poles. They are majestic and regal and they represent the family and kinship networks of American Indians. They shouldn't be relegated to off-handed remarks made to signal low priorities (which, by the way, is an inaccuracy--totem poles are not necessarily arranged in hierachical order top to bottom). And I should know better, especially since I saw some very beautiful and breathtaking totem poles on a summer trip to British Columbia.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Today is Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. He was born on January 15, 1929. If he were alive today, he'd be 81 years old. On Monday, the nation will honor Dr. King with a holiday. But another way we honor his legacy of activism and social justice is to dedicate this day as a day of service. And honestly, I can't imagine a better way to celebrate the life and accomplishments of Martin Luther King Jr. than by giving back to your community (click here for a link to the Day of Service page to find local service projects in your area).

Happy Birthday Dr. King. We have a long way to go to achieve real racial equality, but I think you'd be happy to know that we're still fighting the good fight and that we have made some progress, since it is the first MLK day that will see an African American as President of the United States.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Please help Haiti

If you have turned on the television or opened up an on-line news site, you will have seen the devastating images of the earthquake aftermath in Haiti. The pictures of the survivors and heartbreaking. The news that thousands may be dead/dying is horrendous. And in the wake of this disaster, it's easy to feel overwhelmed and to wonder:

"What can I do?"

Well, according to experts who work in areas of charitable donations and massive natural, global disasters, what you can do at this very moment is to give money. Although they do caution that you should be careful about where you are giving your money to. Southern Man, who is in the coffee biz, has put together change bottles where customers can donate their change and it will go to Haiti disaster relief. But, of course, they must trust that Southern Man will actually donate that money to a reputable aid organization (he plans to take the proceeds to Red Cross). The regular customers who know him are more likely to trust him, but I think we should all be wary about random solicitations on-line or in person.

So I thought I would help by listing two different organizations that will guarantee that your donations will make it into the hands of Haitians to aid in the recovery:

*Yele Haiti. This is an organization that Wyclef Jean (formerly of the Fugees for those who knew them back in the day) created in 2005 to bring awareness to the issues that Haiti faces. Their website is now devoted to the issue of earthquake relief. They are also making donation very simple:

Text "Yele" to 501501 and you will donate $5.00 to their organization for aid to Haiti [you will be charged $5.00 on your cell phone bill].

If you go to their website you can donate a larger amount on-line.

*The American Red Cross. The Red Cross really has been at the forefront of every major disaster in the U.S. and around the world, giving aid and relief to those in need. I usually pick them as my organization of choice for donations to countries or regions suffering from huge natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis, or hurricanes. Like Yele, they have made it simple to make a donation:

Text "HAITI" to 90999 and $10.00 will go to the Red Cross for aid to Haiti [again, you will have a $10.00 charge on your cell phone bill]

And if you want to donate more, you can do so on-line at the American Red Cross website.

And if you want to make sure that both these organizations are legitimate, see this piece on the CNN website with Anderson Cooper interviewing Wyclef Jean. But whatever you do, even if it's just $5.00, please donate to help the people in Haiti.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

MRA Book Review: The Known World

Since I'm an English professor I thought that I should, from time to time, provide book reviews of works that fit with the topic of this blog, which just so happens to be a majority of what I read, both out of professional duty and personal interest.

So let me introduce you to Edward P. Jones's The Known World.

First of all, Edward P. Jones (and it's always Edward P. Jones--perhaps people don't want to confuse this author with the investment company) has been on my radar for quite some time. I remember hearing about The Known World winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 and remember reading a short story or two of his in The New Yorker. I must confess that on first glance, the topic of the novel was not one that I felt immediately drawn to--African American slave owners in the antebellum South. The skeptic in me felt that it had won the Pulitzer based on the novelty of the topic and, moreover, I worried about Jones's handling of this very sensitive issue.

Let me just say loud and clear: I was wrong. What I mean is, I was wrong to be such a skeptic or to worry about Jones's deftness with this provocative material. I was wrong to be so cynical about the motivations of the Pulitzer committee (although lets be honest--these committees are so politically motivated it's hard not to be skeptical). The novel is a wonder. The characters are drawn so vividly, in such unsparing detailed that also conveys a true understanding and sympathy for each character--almost none of whom are drawn as caricatures or in two-dimensional ways (almost none--there are a few, like the white patroller Travis, who are morally irredeemable and depicted as a simple evil...of course, then again there was definitely evil in the antebellum period so why not portray it in its simplest form?)

The novel largely follows the denizens of the Townsend plantation on the eve of its owner's death. Henry Townsend was a man born into slavery who was bought and freed by his parents when he was twelve, only to eventually earn enough money through bootmaking to purchase slaves of his own by the age of twenty, through the help of his former slave owner and current patron, William Robbins. By the time of his demise, Henry has amassed a large tract of land with around two dozen slaves and a wife, Caldonia, whose own free-black parents also own slaves.

The novel is told from an omniscient point-of-view and is set in the fictional Manchester County, Virginia. While the main action of the novel takes place over the course of about 6 months, the novel (which is really postmodern in its execution) flashes forward and backwards, from the time of Henry Townsend's youth on the Robbin's plantation to the present day. It may seem jarring, at first, the jumping out of sequence, but the effect is actually reassuring in a novel that has, as its opening premise, the violence of slavery and the curiosity of free blacks owning enslaved African Americans.

I think that's about all I'll say about the novel. I don't want to give away too much. I will say that it is a fascinating novel, not simply because of its subject matter -- black slave owners -- but because of the truths that this fictional novel tells about an actual historic condition, one in which we are still feeling the ramifications of to this very day. The novel's brutal honesty about class and caste differences, about the role of white supremacist thinking in the antebellum period, about the racial differences that became codified in this time period, and the tensions and uneasy alliances and hostilities always felt and often unexpressed between slaves and their owners, are themes and issues that resonate in our contemporary time period and may help to explain why the topic of race is so thorny and complex.

So if you are wondering about a good book to read, one that both tells a tale that will keep you turning pages as well as gives you much rich food for thought, especially in terms of thinking about the complexity of race, I highly recommend Jones's The Known World. I also recommend this Washington Post interview with the author and for further reading on African American slaveowners, click on this link.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Is Reid a racist?

In case you haven't heard, the senate majority leader Harry Reid, said of Obama during the 2008 primaries that Obama was a viable candidate because he was "light skinned" and didn't speak with a "Negro dialect."

For regular readers of this blog, it goes without saying that his remarks are problematic, particularly the fact that in the 21st century, Reid is using a phrase that is clearly antiquated and offensive.

Republicans, especially in the form of Michael Steele, the RNC chairman (and yes, if anyone before Obama's presidential election-win was scratching their heads thinking "Michael who?" one only has to think back on Obama's Illinois senate run-off against KC Watts to understand the (il)logic of the Republican party in how they handle race), are crying "DOUBLE STANDARD" when it comes to the Democratic reaction to Reid's remarks. They want Reid OUT and they are citing the ouster of Trent Lott after Lott famously praised Strom Thurmond and waxed nostalgic for the good-old-days of segregation that Thurmond represented when he unsuccessfully ran for President.

So people have been asking: is Reid a racist? Were his remarks racist? Should he be forced to resign?

I hesitated to blog on this issue because it almost seems like a non-starter. I don't mean that Reid's remarks are egregiously in bad taste and racially insensitive (they are) or that the race-baiting that the Republicans are now engaging in doesn't smack of the worst of opportunism (it does), but do we need to really debate whether or not Harry Reid is a racist or more specifically whether his remarks are racist? Does it matter the context in which Reid was speaking--in support of an African American man who was running for the presidency vs. Lott's remarks--in support of a known segregationist who espoused the worst racist rhetoric of his time once-upon-a-time?

Why I am blogging about it now is that I think it's easy to flatten out all instances of racial insensitivity and, again, easy to trot out the dreaded "R" word when accusing folks of different levels of offensiveness. Is Trent Lott a racist? I'm not really quite certain. Does it matter whether I call him a racist or his remarks racists? Again, what I would say is that we have to look at the context of Lott's remarks and to think about what he was trying to convey--support for a colleague and friend who espoused a platform of racial separation within a white supremacist framework--and that Lott affirmed, in his remarks, that the U.S. would be a better place to live had Thurmond won the presidency and was allowed to have his value and politics triumph. Reid's remarks, by contrast, while racially insensitive and ignorant in phraseology (again, really Mr. Reid? Negro? Who uses that phrase?) were meant to convey a hard truth: that for many voters, Obama seemed palatable because he wasn't threatening or living up to a stereotype of an African American man that would make white mainstream voters uncomfortable.

The question to ask isn't whether Reid is racist or his remarks are racist--the question to ask is, why is Reid using such antiquated language and why are the Republicans so quick to jump on the bandwagon all of a sudden when so many of their supporters and politicians have been making racist and racially insensitive comments about President Obama far worse than Reid's remarks? In my opinion, it's because the Republicans see all racially insensitive remarks or all awkward racial remarks to be on par with all racist remarks.

And flattening out these differences is similar to deflections of real racism and racial discrimination by claiming that there is reverse racism or that blacks are prejudiced against whites just as much as whites may be against blacks or that individuals of color are bigoted against white people. What this flattening does is ignore a complicated history of power dynamics and institutional racism and white supremacy. It makes it seem as if all is the same when it's not.

Anyway, my final word on this will actually be to draw your attention to NPR's "Talk of the Nation" and the piece they did on this subject today as well as Kelli Goff's piece in The Huffington Post. I do think Goff, on the radio, said it best--we have to really ask ourselves about whether these are teachable moments rather than to react defensively. If only the Republican party could learn that lesson...

Friday, January 8, 2010

I only want real friends on Facebook

Let me first say that I defy many stereotypes. Case in point: this past holiday season I spent part of my winter break in Toronto with family members. Now, if you have ever spent any time with the large and extended Chinese Jamaican family that is the "Y" family (those of you related to me reading this know what I mean) then you will at some point or another been introduced to dominoes. There was one day that I literally didn't change out of my PJs and just played round after round of dominoes with aunts and cousins. Of course part of domino scoring is about adding up the tiles in your hand (depending on what game you play). And for the life of me, when confronted with adding up multiple figures that don't end in a 5 of 0, I become stymied. My cousins continually laughed and teased me about this defect--I kept begging for a calculator--and my aunt would simply add up my tiles for me, from time to time, when my own computational skills were just too slow to start a new game.

Now I suppose one could say that while I defy the "good-at-math" stereotype of the Asian nerd, I am perhaps perpetuating the "Math's-hard" mentality of that infamous talking Barbie doll (and the stereotype that girls aren't good at math). Guess you win some and you lose some.

But one area that I really DO defy all expectations of the Asian as computer nerd/tech geek whiz, is text messaging and social networking.

Text messaging, I know, is what everyone is doing nowadays--and it has its conveniences and potentially can save my life. Say I was kidnapped and put in the trunk of a car with my hands tied in front of me. With the use of my opposable thumbs, I could flip open my cell phone and text a message to friends to come rescue me. But aside from this implausible scenario, I can't imagine the need to send text messages--and those few friends and family members who have texted me know that I never reply--I simply pick up the phone to call them or send an email in return.

As for social networking, I've been asked to join Linked In and I have--and I have politely accepted all invitations because to say no seems rude, although I don't really understand Linked In and/or make no real use of it myself except to accept invitations from friends and colleagues. I don't twitter, or have a My Space Page and never got into Friendster when it was hot way back when, and prefer not to chat with people on gmail or any other chat forum. And I resisted Facebook for as long as I could until it became the place to have certain professional conversations--like different professional groups have Facebook Pages, so you really can't get away with not being on Facebook anymore, at least if you work in the fields that I work in.

But here's the thing I can't figure out (and yes, I know I am going to sound like a curmudgeonly 82 year old man shouting "You kids get off my lawn!): if I'm not really your friend (or professional colleague/acquaintance) in real life, why would I want to be friends with you now? And if we were never friends in high school, why are you looking me up to be friends over twenty years later? Seriously, I've received friend requests from the most random people--in some cases total strangers who happen to know one person in common with me--and that person is usually a professional colleague I once shook hands with at a conference 2 years ago. In some other cases it's folks from high school or middle school even who have found me and want to be friends with me--but if we are to be brutally honest with one another, we'd have to admit that we were never really friends. Yes, I may have signed your yearbook and you may have signed mine, because back then it's what you DID--you accumulated signatures in your yearbook (or at least I did) out of a sense of reciprocity or popularity or herd mentality. But if we never exchanged a meaningful conversation in high school and my only vague memory of you is that we may have shared Mr. Hokom's pre-calculus class, then why on earth are you trying to be friends with me now?!

Yes, I am ranting. Yes, I recognize the value of social networking. I even suspect that I could come up with something profound about race and social networking--about the ways in which it's a double-edged sword--easier for the white supremacists and bigots of all stripes and sub-groups (I haven't tried searching for this but I bet there's a Facebook group dedicated to hating mixed race black-Asian children living in Texas whose parents are veterans of a foreign war) it's also a space in which allies working for various social justice causes can find common cause and work together on issues (can anyone say Barak Obama's presidential campaign? Or the Courage Campaign's fight against Proposition 8 in California?). And certainly I have appreciated the many wonderful readers of this blog who have added to and at times challenged the different conversations I've been delighted to engage in, here.

But really, can you kids just get off my lawn?!!! And stop trying to be friends with me. I don't have the time right now. You see, I'm too busy looking for my old Smith Corona, and I'll be playing my 78s on the Victrola and cranking up the old Model T to go take in a talkie tonight.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

MRA Movie Review: Up in the Air about Invictus

So I thought I'd combine two movie reviews in this single post: Invictus and Up in the Air.

Today, Southern Man and I went to see Up in the Air

First, let me say that I thought the most powerful part of the film were the scenes of people describing their reactions to being fired. Apparently, these were not actors but rather real people who had recently experienced being laid off due to the downturn in the economy. I'm going to include an extensive quote from an interview that Jason Reitman (the director) gave to (by the way, if you follow the link to the interview, just be aware that there are spoilers in it--they do warn you, but I wanted to warn you too):

"[S]ince we were shooting in St. Louis and Detroit, two cities that got hit hardest in this country, we reached out to find people who had been fired to act in this movie. We put an ad out in the local papers and said we wanted to make a documentary about job loss, we thought by saying this we would weed out actors trying to sneak into the film, and find people who had no on-camera experience who were ready to just open up about what it’s like to be searching for purpose on a daily basis in a very, very tough time.

We ended up putting 60 people on film, 22 of which are in this movie. So everyone besides the actors you recognize, everyone who gets fired in this movie, is someone who’s lost their job. They would come in, sit at a table, we would interview them for about 10 minutes, we would ask them questions about how they lost their job, who they told first, how this has affected their life, and as soon as they were comfortable on camera, we would say, ‘we’d like to actually fire you on camera now. And we’d like you to respond the way you did the day you lost your job, or if you prefer, how you wish you had responded.’ And this would begin an improv scene; unlike any improv scene I’ve ever seen in my life.

My job as a director is to get people to get people to be honest on camera, that’s kind of it in a nutshell. It’s to get actors to be authentic. And I know how hard it is to sometimes get people to be authentic on camera. And yet here in this moment, 22 people who had never acted before, we would read them this boilerplate legal firing document that I found through an HR person, that is basically used coast to coast for firing. And the second they would hear this legal verbiage, and they would hear the kind of language they heard the day they lost their job, they would start to use sense-memory without knowing it. Their body language would change, their shoulders would fold, their eyes would turn, one girl broke into hives. I’m not sure if you noticed her, the hives broke out across her neck, right at that moment. And they’d begin asking questions of our interviewer, who knows nothing of their situation, they’d ask them about severance, and their medical benefits, and why they were chosen and why not somebody else. And if there was another job that they could get in the company, and these would go on for ten, sometimes 20 minutes. They were really emotional, and they would get angry and they would cry, and they would say the kind of things I could never think of as a writer, and it was said in a way that I would never think to direct them."

I think, given the times we are living in, the themes of this film--of alienation and the fragility of human connection and the difficulty of true and honest communication, is very apropos.

As for the rest of the film, I also enjoyed it--as much as you can say you enjoyed a film focused on a man who fires people for a living. To that end, I can't imagine anyone else but George Clooney in the role. There is a moment, and I promise not to provide any spoilers, but let me just say that there is a moment in the film that shows that Clooney isn't just a pretty face, he's an actor with true talent.

I do have to offer a criticism, however, since this blog is called Mixed Race America--namely that while the people getting fired were a somewhat mixed and diverse group, racially, all of the actual actors were not. The people at Clooney's company, the people at his sister's wedding, and most of the folks in the airport were a rather monochromatic lot. Which may be true if you are flying into certain airports, but having recently flown in and out of Toronto, Canada and Washington DC, I'd say that the folks I saw in the airport were vastly diverse, racially, ethnically, nationally. Can't guess socio-economics, but of course if you're flying you more than likely come from a middle-class (or higher) background, since taking Greyhound is still cheaper than many roundtrip tickets (and let me say that part of me contemplated taking a bus out of Toronto because of the huge hassle that followed). Ok, tangent aside, I'd say that Up in the Air, while entertaining, didn't really do anything to dispell my disappointment that most of Hollywood still maintains a very white-washed notion of America, even when the face of America, as represented by real people who have recently been fired in the Midwest, display a different side.

Now, on to Invictus

I was recently talking to a friend about this film--she asked what I thought, and I prefaced my remarks by saying that any film about Nelson Mandela was going to be a film I'd go see, because I LOVE Nelson Mandela, as is evidence by this previous post on his 90th birthday (he'll be 92 this July--REMARKABLE!).

Apparently Nelson Mandela handpicked Morgan Freeman to represent him on film (click here for Freeman interview), so you know that this film, as far as the casting goes, has Mandela's seal of approval. And my favorite part of the film were the first ten minutes that shows Mandela's release from prison, the reaction of black South Africans, Mandela's campaign and election into the presidency, and the changing face of South Africa. The footage was largely re-created since it was Morgan as Mandela that you saw, but that feeling of triumph and joy at Mandela's release--it made me remember what it was like in the early 90s to witness the end of Apartheid and the ascendancy of Mandela. I was literally in tears in the beginning.

As for the rest of the film, it is your standard "rise from the ashes to glory" kind of sports film--fairly predictable (particularly if you google this event since it is a historic event) with fairly predictable conflicts and resolutions. But you know, it's not a bad reason to make a film--certainly with dreadful movies out in the world, to have a film made about one man's attempt to heal the racial wounds of his country and to have the forethought to recognize the cultural significance of a sport to help make this happen, is reason enough to give this film a viewing. That this man is Nelson Mandela was all I needed to plunk down my money.

I was struck, in particular, by one part of the film--a section in which Mandela talks about forgiveness--how important it is to forgive the white Afrikaaners who subjugated black South Africans for decades. That the time for anger was past and the time for healing was now. It is a theme I have heard again and again in terms of racial reconciliation, especially between blacks and whites in various contexts--especially between minorities previously disenfranchised about those formerly in power. I'm always amazed at this sentiment--because forgiveness does not seem obvious or natural and yet, what are the alternatives? Escalation of conflict and tensions that pull people and countries apart into civil war?

Finally, let me just say that while I was trying to be clever in my blog title, I actually am a bit ambivalent about Invictus. Because I wish it gave me a bit more about Nelson Mandela. Guess we'll have to wait for that biopic to be made in the future.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

It only took 2 days (sigh)

On Saturday, January 2, 2010, only 2 days into the new year and new decade, a black doll with a noose around its neck was hung over a billboard with a sign reading "Obama." This was in Plains, GA and the billboard reads "Plains, GA--Home of Jimmy Carter--Our 39th President."

(big sigh)

This is the WALB clip where you can see the doll very clearly.

And this is Jimmy Carter speaking to Brian Williams back in September about how much of the language and criticism directed against Obama is a subtle--or in the case of the effigy a not-so-subtle--form of racism:

There are so many disturbing things about this--the obvious I don't need to state, but in the WALB clip, they interview an African American man who says that everyone can see it [the effigy] but no one is talking about it. And that's what seems particularly disturbing. We are witnessing outright racism but everyone is afraid to name it clearly and directly. We have become so afraid of talking about racism--as if it's a disease. Or that calling someone racist may be seen as worse than actually saying or doing racist things--the label becomes worse than the actual, underlying problem. And so all those people who were mad at Carter for calling it as he sees it--as it actually IS...what do they think now?

I know it's a bit discouraging to have this be the second post of the new year (I was intending to write about Invictus, the new film about Nelson Mandela starring Morgan Freeman--guess I'll save that for tomorrow) but I also think that this is a good reminder to us that there is work to be done and that we must step up and take on that work. Are you ready?

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy 2010 -- a year and a decade in review

I've been very remiss in blogging--my apologies. The end of the semester and the holidays were a bit more chaotic for me this year. Or last year I should say. Because it's now January 1, 2010--a new year and a new decade!

If you think about all the changes that have happened in this past decade, it's really quite remarkable. Perhaps this is what we did when we looked back on the last decade, which was also the last millenia. But I do think that the changes we've seen over the last ten years have been true game changers.

Of course, what immediately leaps to mind are 2 in particular: 9/11 and the election of Barack Obama.

But on a personal note, the last decade had some game changers for me as well. I finished my dissertation and got my PhD, I landed a tenure-track job in the South, I ended one longterm relationship and began a second--and I suppose this is also the time to announce that a few months ago Southern Man proposed and I said yes!

So what does this upcoming year have in store for me? I am up for tenure, which means that I'm reading and writing as fast as my little eyes and fingers can stand it. I am planning a small wedding (I've never disclosed this before, but I was married before and did the 250+ traditional wedding--both Southern Man and I would like something much more low-key. And I'm turning 40 sometime this year--which means I'll have to change my profile to reflect that I'm actually a 40-something professor of English.

Anyway, this was a more personal post than I had planned. But never fear! 2010 will see more posts thinking about all things race related since this blog is called "Mixed Race America." But for now, I'm keeping it simple by just letting you all know what I'm currently reflecting on and what I'll be planning in the year ahead. And I do wonder what 2020 will have in store for us as we begin the first day of the second decade of the second millenia.