Monday, February 28, 2011

It still matters if you're black (or white)

Despite what Michael Jackson may have sung about once-upon-a-time, I believe it DOES matter if you're black or white.

Meaning, it matters, still, whether you identify as African American or as Caucasian. Meaning, it matters if you benefit from white privilege. Meaning it matters how others perceive you, especially depending on where you are, regionally and contextually (ie: are you in the U.S. South or the West Coast? In a cosmopolitan city or a rural township? Are you in a classroom where you are the only one, and is this a course on 20th Century American writers or African American poets?)

I guess I've been thinking about this question a lot, lately, because of a novel I'm teaching in one of my classes and because I've recently read two articles, one in The New York Times that discusses racial passing, tracing how three families changed their racial identification from black to white over a few generations through a combination of inter-racial marriage and consolidating wealth and status. And the other is in the Chronicle of Higher Education with the provocative title, "Does African American Literature Exist?" Both essays, in their own way, talk about the disappearance of African Americans from the public landscape and discourse-- or at least in the latter, that what we think of as African American literature during the Jim Crow era no longer matters since Jim Crow no longer exists in its legalized, institutionalized form (so sayeth the author, not me).

It's tempting to downplay the legacy of race. To talk about race and racism is wearying. It's like beating an old drum that many people have tuned out.

By now we should imagine that a month dedicated to black history, African American heritage, and reminding us of the contributions of black Americans to U.S. life and society would not be necessary in the sense that we have moved beyond a stage of needing to highlight the contributions of African Americans because they should be woven within the larger history of the United States.

Yet it's not. Moreover, I believe that we're still a pretty racially segregated culture. Perhaps I feel this more because I live in the U.S. South. But I must say that I was impressed with the honesty with which my students came to a writing assignment recently. I asked them to describe the racial climate at Southern University. This was in preparation for talking about the novel Caucasia by Danzy Senna (a wonderful coming-of-age novel and a trenchant novel to talk about issues of race and especially mixed-race identity). My students were pretty honest in their assessment of race relations, meaning that while they noted the diversity here at Southern U, particularly as compared with some of the more homogenous town that they have grown up in, they noted two things. First, that compared to other locations, Southern U is probably not all that diverse. And second, that despite this diversity, people still hang out within self-segregated friendship groups by race--something my students readily admitted that they participated in (albeit it sheepishly). In fact, only one of my students disclosed that s/he had a close friend who was of a different racial background to him/herself (this in-class writing assignment was anonymous, so I don't have a sense of who this was, at least by gender--since there are only 3 self-identified Asian American students and 3 self-identified African American students, it's a good guess that this student was white, and also because s/he identified as such).

Nearly all the students lamented the fact that they only had friends of the same race, but none of them really knew what to do about this fact--and a few mentioned that they noticed other races (Asian Americans in the business school, African Americans in the dining hall, Latino students in the dorms) congregating together as well.

Interestingly enough, no one brought up where the mixed-race person fit in--the person who is both black and white. Or black and Asian. I suppose we are still working on hypodescent rules, where the assumption is that you identify with the group you look like the most or that is the furthest away from whiteness.

I was glad that my students felt so free to be honest in their writing about the state of race relations at Southern U. Of course they were also quick to say that they did not notice any racial animosity--that there did not seem to be racial hostility between or among groups, as there may have been once-upon-a-time. But I did wonder about the lack of social mixing, racially speaking. I also wondered if this was a difference in location--because I had grown up, in my high school environment, having close friends who were black and white and Chicano--and when I mean close friends I mean the kind of friends that you have sleepovers with or that you go to prom with or hang out with at parties on the weekend. Not just friends you see in the classroom or chat with because your lockers are next to one another.

A friend recently told me that many white students will say that they have an African American friend but most African American college students don't claim to have any white friends (or friends of any other racial group). The disparity, a researcher noted, was that the white college students were counting, as friends, black students who sat next to them in the classroom or who lived in the dorm--people they chatted with and were friendly with. But the African American students counted as friendly only people they had significant ties to--whom they socialized with outside of a classroom or dorm environment.

And perhaps the last thing I'll end with in closing out this post is whether or not it matters. If, as my students said, there is no racial animosity between groups that they can discern, does it matter that students are self-segregating along racial lines? My gut says that it does--but at the same time I am also well aware of the power of having safe spaces and friends that you have absolute comfort with--and in an environment where you are a minority, being able to be with people who understand your experiences is psychically important.

3 comments:

Rae said...

Jennifer,
As a mixed-race woman with a very light complexion and "black" features, I can concur that the desire for me to pick a race is still out there. I identify with both equally, since I am not just black and white but a first- and third- generation American on both sides. I have cultural heritage that eclipes the need to pick a race. Picking a race would equate to me picking the French over the Trinidadian!
If it is wrong to choose one culture over another, shouldn't be just as wrong to choose one race over another? No matter what race we are comprised of, they all contribute to who we are and what brought our parents and ancestors together. Sadly, some (many) will never see it this way...

jonaos said...

White Privilege is one of the oddest words of our day. What it really boils down to is the majority being more accepting of their own.

In that context [which is the reality behind the word] White Privilege does not exist.

If you go to Japan, China, any African nation etc, there is Privilege there to but it is in favor of their majority.

Japan has Japanese Privilege.
China has Han Privilege.

Try being a Chinese person born in China. If you expect to be treated the same as other Chinese [who are Han] you are fooling yourself.
Han-Chinese Privilege exists there because Han are the majority.

So the word is folly.

Besides, n the US there are pockets of non-White Privilege.
Miami ? Hispanic majority city. Hispanic Privilege is there.
Hawaii = Asian Privilege.
Border states are increasingly becoming Hispanic majority, Hispanic Privilege is increasing every year for people of Hispanic descent.

Jennifer said...

Rae,
Thank you for leaving a comment--and I apologize for not acknowledging it until now--I really do appreciate people who leave comments on this blog--especially people whose personal experiences resonate with the things I write.

Jonaos,
I think you can guess that I disagree with your sentiments--I also don't know if you fully understand the concept of privilege and hegemony. Of course there isn't white privilege in China, per se--the power structure in China is different than in the U.S. (although one could argue that the dominance post-age of Englightenment of Europeans and the legacy of European colonialism has ripple effects worldwide)

Also, the idea of an area that has an ethnic majority and thus having privilege is too simplistic--South Africa is a great example, as is Hawaii--while it might have an Asian American majority, white Americans within Hawaii and white Americans nationwide, in terms of those in national government and who are part of a larger U.S. popular culture and critical discourse means that white privilege still impacts people in Hawaii.

And finally, privilege is not about necessarily or only individuals--it's about a cultural and value system that privileges whiteness.