Whiteness


i’ve got a whole lot of unfinished posts right now. i start them, based on outrage at somebody saying something wrongheaded and narrowminded…

And then my will to write evaporates.

You see, part of me is cheering on the bloggers who are taking yearlykos crowd to task for the Pale-larity* of the whole thing….and part of me is asking why smart and talented bloggers like them are wasting their breath. Maybe i’m not seeing the point…we knew that some of the big names have some nasty oversight issues when it comes to you know, recognizing that people who aren’t middle class white folks exist and have valid political claims that if we believe our own ideology, ought to be answered by liberal political systems.

We know this. We know this.

So why do we write as if it’s still newsworthy? Are we still collectively shocked at our own awakening to the crass betrayal of progressive politics by the established “liberal” institution? Stung by the pernicious and cancerous hold of racism on the American imagination?

Is it just plain difficult to render into words a political and social discourse that isn’t responding to the massive deployment of unearned privilege and generalized fuckwittery that passes for civilization these days?

I haven’t been writing much.

I wonder why.

-sly

* Pale-larity is the the awkward laugh that a White person makes upon recognition that the room is nearly entirely inhabited by White people. It is often accompanied by proffering an explanation for why the room is so White.

From time to time, Sly leaves orphans. Unfinished pieces, strands of thought drifting off into the ether. I regret this, but it is a natural by-product of writing. Sometimes, I lose focus on what would be a fine piece, and sometimes you are spared the most asinine of my musings that I might have been tempted to consider profound.

In the spirit of there being nothing new under the sun, particularly when it comes to blogwarring, i offer the following. This first came up a long time ago, when someone (i really do forget who) offered the ill-timed sincerity of relating to us just how awful those terrible Chinese were for practicing foot binding, right during the middle of Burqa-Photo-Gate-Shop-Wars. This has again risen to view in light of the strange and continuing conflation of transgender and racial issues in feminism.[1]

I will refer to both periods of time in which this piece is written as recent history, so take note, keeping in mind that we’ve been down this road before.

Technically, this post might be entitled: “The Other, Other, Worst Thing” and i’ll explain. In all the recent discussions on how western feminism relates to the burqa, one of the statements of why cultural relativism sucks is to bring up FGM. The most annoying thing about this is that I don’t know of a single cultural relativist, anywhere. [2]

It’s a frigging bat that conservatives use to whack “us” and now that we’ve found one to hit back, we’re trying it out. The attack that anyone who doesn’t support cultural intervention or colonization is a “relativist” is a particularly vicious strain of this new “progressive” teaching.

I don’t like to admit it much here on these pages, but Sly Civilian used to have a grand narrative. I wasn’t Sly back then, and many things have changed since. And one thing was my relationship to modernity. One part stubbornness, two parts ignorance, folded into a base of Western Acculturation which was then seasoned an uncritical and fucked up version of pomo washed around the halls of Undergraduate Institution. (I should be clear here that the problem primarily resided with New Converts, and not with the faculty. Get a bunch of 19 year olds to all think the same thing when they think said act is totally rebellious, and you’re gonna have some issues. Most got over it.)

So, in the midst of clinging desperately to my Grand Narrative, I was introduced to this work: Aching for Beauty, by Wang Ping.

She writes a fascinating cultural and social history of foot-binding, with special attention to women’s stories, reflections, and language around the practice.

I was intrigued. And my intrigued, I mean outraged. I knew I was beat if I went for the direct assault, so I ended up writing a very intense piece that tried to be fair to her argument for the first half, and take to to town in the close. I went to Orwellian linguistics, and the morality of simple speech, for crying out loud.

I know, dear friends, I know. My naiveite is painful, but you must read on. For it is a cautionary tale of how a well intentioned youth could end up being so very very wrong. That, and I had a point. The act of description is in fact, a moral act. Recall Subcommandate Marcos’ call for truth telling about the ongoing struggle in Oaxaca. The people’s move for justice is accomplished at the same time that the injustice is fully named. I was not just being a neo-con dilettante, but I had a genuine concern for the moral implications of speech.

The comments were, as I suspected, fairly withering. One sticks out. In a impassioned plea (imagine the pathos of a “won’t someone please think of the children” cry), I asked for the simple, honest truth…

“Isn’t that what she did?”

But…her narrative was ambivalent! It talked about how Westernizing pressure damaged society, and how women whose feet were already bound were summarily barred from civil society. It discussed the ways in which foot binding was both a violent and intimate act, and how women used that space to communicate, write, and be in community with each other…

Orwell is right. It is a dastardly thing to think that the glaze of the writer’s flourish is a replacement for sober honesty. And this is not just a peculiar flaw to the creative set, but an endemic malady of the age. Classics like “Down and Out in Paris and London” help form a blueprint for writing as moral act, and offer youths like myself something to aspire to.

But my professor was correct as well. I was faced with a very accurate truth telling. I just didn’t like it. The indictment of the West was searingly understated, the display of how ham-handed the interventions were, how painfully racist the rhetoric was…it made me hurt. I wanted to see progress, for something to address the queasy unease with which i regarded these stories of pain. But in that desire I did not care see the full dimensions of the social practices at hand, nor the self-interest of those who “opposed” them. For what were they opposed to? The image of the bound woman? The sexual rhetorics? The social status made available to women via this practice? Women’s intimacy and communication? The cultural self-definition of China? This was a truthful narrative, and the truth was ambivalent.

The worst thing in this world is not FGM, or a burqa, or footbinding.

What is? The answer to this does not lie at the end of the Oppression Olympics, but far closer to home. It’s the the way in which we abandon the ability to be truthful about our own exercise of power, however limited or expansive as it might be.

-sly

1. I don’t mean strange as in incomprehensible. I mean strange as in frustrating. As I’ve remarked previously, I think this has to do with conceptions of state power and knowledge. But it was squickfantastic to see folks like Bint totally disrespected over at heart’s, yet…it’s not like this is something new. Threads to read include Bint’s reaction here, and Kim’s take here. (Read the comments, too… Belle offers some really great moments, including the new to me information that Heart used to be a hot commodity in the Christian Home Schooling movement. You don’t say…) As for the nasty, transphobic, racist shit that got spewed…again…in the words of my great puppeteer, belle, “fuck you and the “we” you rode in on.”

2. That’s a lie. I did meet people who claimed to be in undergrad. That said, given the utter incoherence of their defense of what they thought cultural relativism to be, I’m going to chalk those cases up to them being idiots. Feel free to prove me wrong, though.

Tonight, I’m driving home with two of my friends, and as they catch up, the conversation turns to some incidents in which white people acted a fool. I’m not surprised by this, not by now.

But when we talk about being the only black/white person in a class, they both had profoundly negative experiences. On the other hand, i will offer as close to verbatim quote as I can:

“It was a different experience, and somewhat unnerving at times because I didn’t know what was going on. I was really lucky that Prof. Name made an effort to make it a positive experience for me.”

Lucky isn’t quite the word I was looking for, was it?

Anyhow, we still had a lovely evening. I mean, lovely. Great food (if i do say so myself) and even better company. On the way back, we remarked on how cold Yale can be, and how fulfilling it was to take some time off and just be fun for a while. Sitting back over a meal, having my guests sing a duet of an old Elton John song that they think that as a queer man I am woefully remiss for not knowing, flipping through my baby pictures, joking around about relationships past, really taking some time to think about why people chose what is hurtful to their lives, going back to laughter, and sharing some good old fashioned camaraderie…

That’s lucky.

That’s lucky indeed.

-sly c

Following some links around this morning, I hit a thread I’d seen a while back.

Black Amazon takes on Sofia Coppola, and discusses hipster feminism
. Go read….I’ll wait.

Done?

If you got to the comments, you’ll see that I made a brief defense of reading SC in a different light.

Basically, i don’t know that she likes her (ostensible) protagonists. in VS, the boys weren’t presented sympathetically at all, and it was odder than hell watching a movie that wasn’t about them through their eyes. the question is if the oddity is intentional, and is disruptive of the assumed male gaze, of if it’s an accidental byproduct that shows why the movie is crap.

Later on, midwestern transport comments that it seems like “making a film version of lolita and missing that humbert humbert is unreliable.”

Bingo. The question first hinges on if the narrator is reliable. The response there correctly noted that this question can be answered yes, and the text is still problematic. As long as the Western Blonde of Perfection is the great pearl cast before an undeserving audience, the unreliability of her observers only furthers the trope. The question then moves to our ultimate narrator. Is Sofia intentionally creating an unreliable narrative of race, gender, and civilization? Or is she unfortunately sincere?

Hard to answer. I have to have a profound amount of respect that a great deal of folks read it very differently. See the comments for that. To have any recourse in trying to arbitrate directorial intent, I’d have to listen to commentary track and such. The fact that I don’t is perhaps a signal that I’m afraid I’m wrong. I want to read these movies (I haven’t, and likely will not see Marie on the basis that it looks like it will destroy this thesis) in a very counter cultural way, in which a nearly perfect mime of Western Values uses the imperfections of reproduction in order to produce an dissonant note. Optimism? Perhaps.

Why dredge this all up? The first is simple. I happened to reread it, based on reading BA’s current piece on the blowup at FDL. The second is that I think that properly executed, the unreliable narrator is one of the highest forms of mockery. Briefly falling into sarcasm and coming right back up for air is one thing…it is quite another to create a literary avatar and send them off into the abyss in a display of contempt disguised as love. See also, Steven Colbert. But imagine if he winked at the audience less.

Lolita is a damn good novel. It remains throughly problematic for exactly that reason. If my memory serves me, both The Derb and Snitchens have recounted their sincerely sexualized readings and thus winning the “EWWWWWWW” award for reading miscomprehension. Lolita has the potential both to undermine and reinforce narratives of exploitation and sexual consumption. The text is openly dangerous, and requires careful negotiation.

Not everything can simply be subverted by slapping a label of irony on it…a text has to have a level of complexity and authorial awareness to actually merit such use.

I’m still torn. Is is a question of unreliable narrators, or unreliable narratives?

-sly

Note: The following contains a discussion of white guilt. This is not meant to be a pity fest or a cue for reassurance. I’m trying to, as the title implies, disarm that guilt and start moving forward again.

I mentioned in my last post that I’d made a less than brilliant choice of walking to the subway the last time i was in New York. The story is as follows.

My friend lives pretty far uptown on the east side, and so I needed to get from the Metro-North station at 125 all the way over to the 1 line. Now, it happens (and i suspect this is not in fact a coincidence) that there is not a good way to take the subway cross town that far up. So waiting for the M60, I realize that I don’t know the schedule, and it may not even be running this late. I have no idea where the 101 goes. Feck. I start walking.

Seven blocks in or so, everything is going to plan. People in NYC don’t want anything to do with you. They’d much rather move to the other side of the sidewalk, and just keep moving. The fundamental rule of social compact is not based on interaction, but rather neutral neglect. So when i see a guy walking right towards me, I know something is wrong. As he passes, I keep moving to the left, but he corrects. Slamming his bagged bottle into my right arm then letting it fall to the pavement with a sickening crash, he turns and begins a confrontation.

This is the point at which my heart rate is up, and I begin to realize that I may have done something really, really stupid.

Two guys walking even with me turn just a little and tell me very clearly: “Keep on walking. Just keep walking.” I start to take this advice, but I can hear the man closing in from behind. I’m carrying my backpack, and let’s just say this. I’d tip over pretty easily if i wasn’t ready.

I turn, still walking backwards to keep pace with the two guys who seemed like they might help. The argument that follows is kind of a blur. Something about last bottle, 8 bucks, and a whole lot of angry.

After the other guys say something about it not being my problem, and I repeat an apology without offering any money, he starts to slow. I turn and speed up. I face my helpers for a moment, and feeling infinitely awkward for involving them in a scene they had no interest in being a part of, I say thank you, and walk away quickly.

Enter white guilt. In the rest of the long and chilly walk, I had plenty of time to think. I wondered if I could even remember any of this right. If i saw pictures, could i have picked out the angry drunk guy from the men who helped me? Or had they all been subsumed into a larger cultural image of the threatening black man? Why had I been scared of this walk in the first place? 75 blocks south, would I have even thought about it? Hadn’t humanity actually come through this time? Why was I still shaking? What made me think of this one person as a threat, when the white power that I daily participate in is far more menacing to his existence than he was to mine?

I came back to Yale, and we talked about Malcolm X. As I had been reading, I kept cheering along. It was about time to shake things up, and be decisive, even at the cost of civility.As we talked, I got a ill feeling. In many ways, I’m still an institutional man.

I talked with one of my friends, and we wondered about how we were going to deal with all of this as we try to be white allies in anti-racist work. We agreed on needing a space for us to start defusing some of these issues, emotions, and problems. If the broader conversation is going to keep moving, we need to disarm ourselves before we join. White guilt can be toxic, shutting down discussion, reorienting the space on to white concerns again.

However far I’ve come, I still have my fair share of demons. And they need to go.

Yours in contrition,

-sly civilian

I borrow the famous form of the question to talk a little bit about outing and identity.

So, it turns out that a Confederate apologist’s mother is Jewish.

This is not about overreacting, though in a way he did. This is about gaze, and what is happening here is ironic, but still tragic. Allen is about to suffer from racist ideologies that he has previously benefited from. But avoiding this is not automatically anti-Semitic.

Attention plus power becomes gaze. A person looks at something, and there is no direct result. A person with power examines something, and the correlation is an enforceable judgment is produced about what is seen. Bringing something under gaze is not a neutral action, and “reporting” facts in these conditions can be the substance of oppression.

It was never illegal to be a Communist in America. McCarthy worked with the tool of gaze. Publicly discussing political affiliation in a hostile environment has one central purpose, to inhibit, discourage, and cause fear among the political other.

So, much as I loathe George “Macaca” Allen, what has happened in terms of questioning his ancestry is clearly race baiting to my eyes. To pretend as if there aren’t anti-Semites in Virginia other than him…is disingenuous. Public identification is only a neutral process to the extent that the resulting audience will be neutral.

-sly

The gravity of the situation is about 32 feet per second squared. The gravity of the situation is also hundreds of years of privilege, and a solitary representation of oppression in an otherwise black classroom in the overwhelmingly white Yale Divinity School.

So, I walk to my afternoon class that I’m shopping (we don’t preregister), and expect a crowd. One of the larger halls of the div school, should be a big lecture.

Six students, one professor. One whitey.

As follows, my meditations and worries so far. I’m incredibly interested in the subject matter, and learning more about Afro-American religious history, and the way social movements have formed around various modes of religious thought. But I’m also keenly aware of the way in which whiteness, and myself as a bearer therof, is interruptive of what is otherwise a safe space.

In my nation, my culture, my church, and this academy…the straightness is deafening. To even hear myself think, I need safe spaces.

On the otherhand, to withdraw sends two unfortunate messages. A lack of interest, school wide, in this type of class…as it would take the number in the class down to five. The other is a possible expression of white priviledge in the offer. It suggests the dispensability of the material, as well as placing the responsbility for the decision out of my hands.

Especially considering that my other possibilities are bothy extremely well attended classes, strongly within the “cannon” of the school, I tend to think it’s my obligation and opporunity to stay in a very interesting conversation about race in American religious life.

Advice?

-sly

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