Friday, September 3, 2010

I'm Afraid. . .

Andre Bouey is program assistant for the Catalyst Program at Plainfield South High School. Catalyst works with at-risk youth to facilitate change in behaviors.

First of all, what I am about to write is going to be pretty deep. Some of the topics that I am going to address might offend some people, and for that I would like to say that I am sorry off the bat. I am not trying to make people mad, or even stir people up. These are things that I have been thinking about for a while – so much that I needed to write it down for my own good. Hopefully you, as the reader, could offer me some insight on my thoughts. Maybe I have it all wrong, maybe I have it all right; either way, if you feel the need to comment, give your honest opinion. I will push back on your thoughts... only because I feel so strongly about the topic. If we so happen to disagree, please know that I will not be upset or mad. I will respect all opinions no matter how you feel.

I'm speaking from the point of view of an Afro-American male, 26 years old, born in raised in the Midwest of the United States of America. I am afraid....

I am afraid that our focus has been dramatically shifted from success as a culture to be comfortable as a culture. I look at the battles that we have fought over the last ten years. We have the battle of electing a black president. A battle of affirmative action. Burying the "N" word. The equal housing battle. Equal schooling for our kids. Most importantly, the battle of being "REAL" and "acting black" despite our surroundings. Some we have won, some we are still fighting.

I love the ideal of a black president. I personally think he is doing a good job, going against the popular opinion that he is not. I saw all the energy that we put into supporting Obama to get elected to the highest office in the land. When it happened, I saw many people cry. I saw his T-shirts. I saw people running around as if we won some sort of battle. I'm afraid we didn't win anything.

My next example is affirmative action. If they would just give us a chance to get equal schools, equal jobs, live in better hoods, everything would be good. The definition of a minority can be Asian (South or Southeast), Native America, or any woman. Those groups have just as much of a right to jobs as any African American. Yet we focus so much of our attention on affirmative action as if it only affects black people.

Affirmative action has helped people. Yet at the end of the day, how do you employ more people? I have come up with an answer, and it's pretty simple. Ownership.... Ownership is the key to wealth. Ownership gives you the power of influence. Hell, it even controls our government (look at the bailouts!). It comes down to what do we own, and how much money we control due to ownership. Look at our nation’s CEOs.... Look at the owners of NBA teams. Owners of NFL teams. Owners of media corporations. If you own something, you dictate how things are run. You control information. Most importantly, you control who you employ.

Affirmative action is only a small step towards ownership... it is not the end towards our independence. Once you own, you control the flow of income. If you control the flow of income, you can put money in areas that are important to you, like the area your kids go to school in or your neighborhoods you live in. My problem with affirmative action and Al Sharpton protests in the streets is that we are asking for something to be done. If you own... you don't have to ask. You make things happen because you now have the independence and power to do it your way on your terms, not on anyone else's clock.

Our battles for the black community are not for ownership on a large scale. It's for renting and managing. We love to rent and manage. We rent jobs, housing, cars, from "owners." We also manage for "owners." Salaries have increased, opportunities have opened up, but at the end of the day, we are working for "owners" and using the money that we are making to give right back to the same owners we are working for. Barack in office is cool, but Barack on Wall Street or as CEO is better. The symbol is not as powerful, but the impact is greater.

We are being taught wrong. The battle is for wealth and power. Not taking it all for ourselves, but for equaling the playing field. Instead, we are fighting to rent or for our self-esteem (i.e., who can say the "N" word)! I'm saying that if you own more, we become the landlords. Our self-esteem automatically becomes something too important for people because they respect our power.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Nice White Lady

Monica Yancey will be a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger for 27 months starting in October of 2009. Her blogs are Monica's Universe and Compassionate Witness.

What's with the tittle, you ask? Click here before reading further and find out.

There is a great line in Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth (which I am recalling only from memory)—where he says that many people approach global warming with three stages--denial, knowledge and then despair. He suggests that there are more choices than that--despair needn't be the natural progression of increased knowledge. We can create a world where we have no reason for despair. When it comes to my own understanding of race and racism, I have too often fallen prey to either denial or despair, only briefly pausing to experience knowledge.

I will be serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer for the United States Government in Niger, Africa for the next 27 months as a Community Health Educator. One of the issues with my Peace Corps Service is my own discomfort with being Nice White Lady. My problem with being a Nice White Lady really lies in the reality that as an outsider I do not know what’s best for a culture I am not a part of. I could go on and on. Of course, I don’t mind being an actual nice white lady (I am white and I do tend to be nice). However, the savior motif as seen in the Nice White Lady film genre is ridiculous at best.

"Whitely" is a term introduced to me by Dr. Fred Lee--it describes a white person who is (often obnoxiously) unaware of how his or her privilege and worldview are impacted by their racial identity. Dr. Lee said to me, "You can be white, but you don't have to be whitely." In other words, you can't help being Caucasian, nor would anyone suggest that you do, but you can try to think about your racial identity once in awhile in relation to other people and make choices from a thoughtful space. (I tried to find the original "whitely" source but could not--excuse my simplified definition).

In my experience, white people don't typically face discrimination based on skin color and even when they do it differs from the racism that people of color face—if for no other reason than historical context and the power that historical context carries. Actually thinking about race, for me at least, has been a conscious decision. To compare, no one had to explain feminism to me--I totally understood gender inequity ten seconds after I was born. Race, however, has been a different process because I was born into a system where my race was absent, natural, default and normal. In short, I was born white and whitely.

So what now?

The opportunity to be in the Peace Corps is not something I take lightly and if I didn’t believe that I could spend my time in Niger in a meaningful and non-whitely way I would not be going. I want to help when help is needed (and not help when it isn't). I know ultimately, it is me going to Niger, not a Nice White Lady. But let’s face it—I can't go to Niger without being a white person. I have to wonder what that will mean. I wonder what the impacts of my racial identity will be on those around me.

I am going to keep Al Gore's idea in mind here and try not to used increased knowledge as a quick stepping stone from denial (white and whitely) to despair (nothing I can do).

Ignorance would be bliss if it didn’t harm those who have no choice but to see. It is for this reason that I choose knowledge over denial and despair.

In Niger, I will be white, but hopefully I will not be whitely.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Cop, the Conservative, & the Issue of Race

I appreciate the recent invitation I received to join the RaceProject Facebook group examining communication, race, and politics. I follow the Facebook posts with great interest, and would love to learn from, and possibly contribute to, the discussion -- the long overdue and scarcely acknowledged discussion. I offer the following (about the recent issues with Professor Gates) knowing that the folks at the RaceProject have studied these issues much more extensively, and understand them far better, than I.


I was a police officer in an area populated almost exclusively by black people for nine years. I had learned from Clara Luper and John George, but still did not understand the chasm that existed between me and the community I served, or tried to serve. I still thought "it" was "over." I thought it unfair that as a white cop I was reviled by so many. I hadn't ever (fill in the blank with owned slaves, beaten black people, used the "n" word) Wasn't that prejudice?

Now, after years of studying and listening, trying to understand perspectives I was not reared to consider, I find I'm frequently a man without a country. White conservatives (that would be me, mostly) want to believe the playing field is now equal, and we all need to "move on." Cops think they apply the law impartially without regard to color, leaving them submitted to their unacknowledged prejudice - but don't try to tell them that. On the other hand, I've written a paper explaining that it's ridiculous to assert that all white people are inherently "racist" (an overused term as Charlton McIlwain has pointed out), and that power centers are dynamic, thus anyone can be a bigot. My conclusion, so far, is that we're all prisoners of our bigotry until we're willing to admit that we are naturally bigots. Then, we can begin to recognize, and fight, the tendency.

I get angry when no one wants to consider where Professor Gates was really coming from as he invoked his rights. No one wants to consider his life story, that he's probably been demeaned by white police officers before. If he hasn’t, he knows plenty of people who look like him who have. Those stories are a part of the fabric of black America, and they explain how black people relate to both black and white police officers.

I get angry when no one wants to consider that burned in the officer's memory are flashes of flag draped coffins and grieving wives comforting stunned and sullen children who want their Daddy to come home. I promise, you never forget that. He didn't know what he was going to face, and to let his guard down could result in a knock on his family's door that would change their lives forever.

No one stopped to consider the others' perspective. They didn't do it then, and most people aren't doing it now. I'm glad that Professor Gates, the officer, and the President sat down and had a discussion -- but shouldn’t we ALL be having that discussion?

I agree with President Obama, it was a teachable moment. I doubt, though, that we actually learned anything.

* * *

Lieutenant Jay Barnett has been an Oklahoma City Police Officer since March of 1990, and currently serves as the downtown dayshift patrol lieutenant. He earned his B.S. in Liberal Studies from the University of Oklahoma, and is currently working on his M.A. in Legal Studies at the University of Illinois-Springfield. He just started research on his thesis examining the expansion of the rights paradigm and its impact on classical liberalism.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Just Do It, Tiger

Michael L. Butterworth (Ph.D., Indiana University) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and Associate Director of the School of Media and Communication at Bowling Green State University, where he researches and teaches about the relationship between rhetoric, democracy, and sport. He blogs regularly at The Agon.

NFL legend and long-time social activist Jim Brown has called out Tiger Woods. Again. Frustrated by what he perceives to be Woods’ persistent refusal to engage with matters of political substance, Brown recently told HBO’s Real Sports that Woods is “terrible,” when viewed as “an individual for social change.” He went on to compare Woods to Michael Jordan—he of the famous “Republicans buy sneakers, too” defense (when asked why he would not endorse a Democrat for the Senate)—stating, “I know they both know better, ok? And I know they both can do better without hurting themselves.” The question that many will ask in response is: should Woods do better?

Americans in general, and American sports fans in particular, are quick to defend someone like Tiger Woods on the grounds that he has the individual right to be apolitical. Indeed, this was the predominant sentiment found in the public reaction to the controversy that emerged last January, when Golf Channel anchor Kelly Tilghman said that in order for young golfers to challenge the dominance of Woods, they should “lynch him in a back alley.” Once Woods called the remark a “non-issue,” many argued that the issue was resolved. Yet Tilghman’s “apology,” Woods’ acceptance of that apology, and the public’s general indifference to the insensitivity of the initial comment all failed to acknowledge the central problem: it wasn’t that Woods was the subject of a racial attack—anyone paying attention would have grasped that—it was that terminology that evoked the historical trauma of racial violence was used irresponsibly in a public forum. The outrage expressed by some wasn’t an effort to protect Woods from racism, it was an effort to give voice to the millions who continue to bear the traces of a violent racial history.

Tiger Woods appeared to be indifferent to the kind of pain that the word “lynch” might evoke. This is probably because, in spite of dramatic efforts to introduce Woods in 1997 to the public as a transformative civil rights figure (Nike’s “Hello World” campaign), Woods has long maintained a de-racialized persona (as Brown suggests, not unlike Jordan). Woods is perceived by many to be a transcendental figure, largely because he allows the majority population to evade any feelings of guilt or responsibility for the millions of racial minorities who are not—and cannot be—accepted as he has been. As Davis Houck argues, Woods keeps his “blackness” hidden from view, thus making him the embodiment of a “post-racial society” (you didn’t think those comparisons between Woods and Barack Obama were an accident, did you?).

As I’ve written elsewhere, I think Woods does have a responsibility to respond when he becomes figured into political discourses. It may not always be fair to him as an individual—why, after all should he be the spokesperson on all matters relevant to the African-American community if he, himself, does not identify himself primarily as a member of that community?—but Woods does not operate autonomously. Rather, he benefits handsomely from an institutional arrangement of sports media, organizations, fans, and corporate sponsors, most of whom simply want Tiger to hit golf balls not make political speeches. It is important to note that golf, and sport more broadly, encourages political silence and quiescence even as it exploits various socio-political dynamics for its own advantage: it continues promote its signature event—The Masters—at a private club that excludes women, it colonizes land and resources both in the United States and around the world as it carves and shapes its courses, and it hides from a racial history that until very recently was a source of tremendous shame—the PGA legislation against African American golfers that wasn’t repealed until 1961, the use of only black caddies at Augusta National until the early 1980s, the decision to play the PGA Championship at Shoal Creek—a private club excluding African Americans—in 1990.

In other words, although Tiger Woods can be understood as a symbol of racial progress, he is simultaneously a symbol of our limited capacity to engage race substantively. Too often our desire to achieve a “color blind society” is nothing more than a call for racial minorities to stop acting as if they are not white. Thus, non-white Americans are commonly trapped in a double-bind: first, they are marked as “raced” because they are not white; second they are expected to render their race invisible by conforming to white norms. In such a culture, the bottom line for Woods is simple: be grateful that you get to be a professional athlete, appreciate that millions of white Americans like you, deny the relevance of race, keep your mouth shut, and play ball. Is this a recipe for making millions of dollars as an individual? Of course it is, and Woods plays the part all too well. But more importantly, Woods has wasted numerous opportunities—as one of the most recognized people on the planet—to make the case that we can, and should, find better ways of living together. Just imagine what impact Tiger Woods could have if he combined his prodigious talent, charisma, and marketing persona with the political consciousness of Jim Brown. Come on Tiger, just do it, won’t you?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Swine Flu Racism

Monica Yancey teaches at the University of New Mexico, Central New Mexico Community College and Bernalillo High School. She lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico and blogs at Monica's Universe, where this essay originally appeared.

The Swine Flu is creating an excuse for heightened fear, anger and hatred toward Mexican people (regardless of citizenship or place of birth).

I work in a high school where about half of the students are Mexican (I live in New Mexico, after all). The past few days, however, this isn't perceived as positive and/or neutral to the non-Mexican students at the high school. I have heard, on more than one occasion, a non-Mexican student say to a Mexican student something along the lines of, "Watch out for him, don't let him touch you, he'll give you Swine Flu." I respond with something profound like, "Guys, knock it off. Not cool."

I hate the idea of a young adult walking around campus all day being teased and treated like s/he has some sort of deadly disease, treated like an untouchable.

Anger, hatred and fear against Mexican people exist in the United States. Swine Flu is just a new excuse for those irrational feelings. As it turns out, my little classroom is not the only place where the Swine Flu is making life harder for Mexican people in the United States.

Some conservative talk show hosts have found that the Swine Flu magically validates racist sentiments and race based conspiracy theories targeted toward Mexican people.

These reasons, and many more, are why I was very pleased with Barack Obama this past news conference where he used the words "exploit" and "illegal immigration" back to back. Instead of being suspicious of and hating Mexican people in this country, he is opening up the dialogue: we are exploiting a huge work force by denying citizenship, rights, visibility, and so on. It's unbelievable, actually, that there is hatred—when really, if anyone should be angry, it is those who are continually exploited.

How sad that a serious health crisis is only an excuse for racism and not for care, concern and love.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Turkish Black Face: A Culturally-Grounded Perspective

Rima Gungor is a junior at North Central College. She is the co-captain of the Model United Nations team there and just won the award for Outstanding Delegate in her committee at National Model United Nations in New York City this past week.

Our Internet world was afire last Wednesday. The object of debate was a Youtube posting of a commentary made by a Turkish pundit on the Turkish Channel Flash TV. It’s one of the few times I’ve seen the left and the right agree in the last year. In fact, one of my favorite blogs, Dr. Caliendo’s “This Week in Race” linked to one of the most conservative blogs, “Atlas Shrugs,” and one of the most liberal blogs, “The Young Turks,” in the same entry.

Unfortunately, because no translation was immediately available, the intent was interpreted by all as shocking, possibly mocking, racist and insensitive to the history of slavery in the US. But the actual message had been, as one Turkish blogger put it, “Lost in Translation.” There are three reasons why Turks would never insult Obama in that fashion:
  1. It does not have the same history, thus concept of racism, as we have it in the U.S. “Blackface” does not have the same connotation in Turkey as it does here. The Turkish people are a mix of many different ethnical/racial groups.
  2. President Obama is the son of a Muslim. As such he is thought to be part of the Umma, and as Malcolm X found after his pilgrimage to Mecca, in the Umma, all interact as equals.
  3. Hospitality is one of the most important Turkish values. To insult a guest, whoever they may be and wherever they may come from, is beyond the pale.
The famous Kurdish/Turkish author Yasar Kemal puts it best. In an interview about his friend, the African-American author James Baldwin he said, “As far as I was concerned, Baldwin was not Black” “for there are no Blacks in Turkey in that sense. We don’t have the category. There are only people with darker skins.” Baldwin spent many years off and on in Turkey during the 1960’s. It functioned as his refuge from the oppressive racism and unequal treatment of Blacks in the U.S. Kemal says further, “Baldwin used to say: Yasar, I feel free in Turkey.”

How can that be possible in a nation whose predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, had been a center of slavery for centuries? The Empire imported an estimated 10,000 slaves per year, except during raids or after winning wars when the numbers could go as high as 50,000, from all over the reaches of the empire and beyond: the Balkans, the Caucasus, Eastern Europe, Russia, Greece, the Middle East, and Africa. They included every age, color, race, ethnic background, economic class, educational and skill level imaginable. Because of the various skills they had, they were given positions that ranged from advisors (to the rulers), artists, scientists (astronomers, alchemists), architects, metal workers, eunuchs, doctors, interpreters, military personnel and commanders, teachers, scribes, and also farmers, maids, cooks, tailors, shoemakers, grooms etc. It was not the color that mattered, but the skill that determined how “free” and powerful a slave could become.

Because Islam also regulated the ownership of slaves, both slave and master had duties and responsibilities, and manumission was urged upon the owners of slaves. None were considered of an inferior origin based on race or ethnicity. Over the centuries Islamic scholars debated various interpretations of the Quranic statements regarding slavery, the results of which were various degrees of freedom for slaves and regulations of purchase. For instance, it was determined that slaves could not be purchased from outside the Empire, people of the Islamic faith could not be slaves so they were freed, then people of the “Book” (all three monotheistic religions), then families, then slaves in general, until finally, between internal pressure from religious leaders and external pressure from foreign nations, slavery was abolished in 1857. Not all slaves were freed immediately, and not all were sent back to their country of origin or wanted to leave. It took some regions of the empire longer to comply with the law. Some were given land with which to begin a new life. Some stayed where they had been working, worked in the business and rose through the ranks. Most intermarried with the local population; they had assimilated into the population and were simply all Turks. The freedmen were not segregated out and discriminated against in the same manner as in America, and they had the same rights as everyone else did. That is not to say that many were not treated brutally. This was not, however, a result of prejudice against their race or nationality but rather an abuse of power.

In recent years many Turks have begun to research their roots beyond their Turkishness. Among these are the approximately 2,000,000 Turks of African descent who have founded an association to help them research their history and roots, and connect to Africa. This development has not changed anything for them in Turkish society. They are Turks, with all the associated rights, but as elements of their history and culture emerge, these are recognized.

If the commentary was unrelated to racism as we know it, why the “blackface”? It’s meant to emphasize a Turkish proverb that explains that if a Turk asks someone for something it embarrasses him deeply turning his face darker (like blushing) and if the person he asks this of does not give it his or her face will turn twice as dark, out of deep shame: “Isteyenin bir yüzü kara, vermeyenin iki yüzü.” Shame and pride are an integral part of the Turkish culture. The Turks believe that the face darkens when a person feels extreme shame.

Known for his provocative commentary, Gokhan Taskin thanks President Obama for his visit, proceeds to explain the reason for the commentary and darkened face, and makes requests that he feels Turkish leaders are too embarrassed to do. Click here or see the embedded video below to see the full translation of the commentary.

We Americans often tend to view the world from our own sometimes narrow perspective. We interpret events according to our history and experiences without realizing that the world does not have those same experiences, and views things from an entirely different viewpoint. We exhibit the same behavior at home. We house many cultures, races, religions, and political perspectives in our diverse nation, and often do not honor or allow them the freedom and space of expression, understanding, and respect that we require for ourselves, directing towards them instead treatment unbecoming to the most democratic nation in the world.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Let's Ring in the New Year with Some Racial Profiling!

Sidra Hamidi is an undergraduate student at
North Central College. She is a senior research assistant for The Project on Race in Political Communication and administrative assistant for the forthcoming Routledge Companion to Race & Ethnicity.

The election of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth president of the United States of America has initiated much talk about America’s ability to, at long last, overcome racism and bigotry. Although 2008 has resulted in a momentous achievement in the continuing struggle for racial equality, this past week has proven that racial profiling incidents continue to plague the American psyche. On Thursday, January 1st, nine Muslim passengers were forced off an AirTran flight at Reagan National Airport. Three of the nine passengers were children who were part of a family heading to Orlando for a religious retreat. Apparently, members of this family had made a “suspicious remark” which caused other passengers and two federal air marshals on board the plane to complain and ended up with the removal of the nine Muslims. Kashif Irfan, one of the passengers, stated, “My brother and his wife were discussing some aspect of airport security. The only thing my brother said was, 'Wow, the jets are right next to my window.' I think they were remarking about safety.”

All nine of the passengers were questioned by the FBI and even after being cleared for travel, were not allowed back on the plane by AirTran officials. It is important to stress that the six adult passengers were traditionally Muslim in appearance, as the men wore beards and the women wore hijabs. Although AirTran denied that the passengers’ appearance had anything to do with the incident, referring to it as a mere happenstance that all nine were Muslim, it is likely that the result would have been different had they been non-Muslims. A spokesman for AirTran, Tad Hutcheson stated, “It just so happened these people were of Muslim faith and appearance. It escalated, it got out of hand and everyone took precautions.”

It is understandable that AirTran took all of the necessary precautions to settle the issue; however, the most irksome part of the ordeal is that the nine passengers were still not allowed on the flight after it was declared a misunderstanding by FBI agents. In fact, the FBI urged the airline to allow the passengers back on the plane. AirTran did issue an apology on Friday along with refunded tickets. However, this half-hearted apology does not justify the discriminatory response of the airline. Clearly, AirTran was looking out for the safety and convenience of their passengers but the question is: which passengers are more important? It is apparent that AirTran inconvenienced and humiliated one set of passengers on the basis of their appearance while focusing on the “safety” of others. Additionally, reports have continually stressed that all but one of the passengers were natural-born U.S. citizens as though a non-citizen would automatically be more suspicious just because of her or his citizenship status.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which, among other functions, works to enhance the civil rights of American Muslims, has lodged a complaint against the U.S. Department of Transportation and has stated:
It is incumbent on any airline to ensure that members of the traveling public are not singled out or mistreated based on their perceived race, religion or national origin. We believe this disturbing incident would never have occurred had the Muslim passengers removed from the plane not been perceived by other travelers and airline personnel as members of the Islamic faith.
According to CAIR, AirTran should have taken a more balanced approach when dealing with the complaint instead of relying on the paranoid and exaggerated objections of a few passengers.

Just when we thought the heyday of racial profiling was over, it has yet again reared its ugly head as a reminder that for every step forward, we may take a step back. Oftentimes, occurrences of racial profiling can go unaccounted for because it is difficult to quantify the phenomenon unless there has been a formal complaint and because there may be different degrees of discrimination. In this instance, racial profiling was more than a little obvious despite AirTran’s dismissal of racial factors as a motivating force. However, in other cases, profiling may manifest itself as a “random security check” for certain passengers or through a more detailed check of personal belongings. It is certainly acceptable for travelers to stay alert and be concerned about their security. On the other hand, it is wrong to throw racial discrimination into the mix with paranoia and fear. This kind of amalgam can only yield ignorance and hatred.

Paranoia, which leads to discrimination, may aptly explain the incident. However, it is clear that eight years after the attacks of September 11th, 2001, a general fear of demise at the hands of Muslim terrorists continues to be at the back of most American minds. The preconceived notions of what it means to be a Muslim have prevented many Americans from understanding the modern-day complexities of the religion and have resulted in misunderstanding which has caused a fear of the unknown. This fear has motivated individual acts of discrimination which, unfortunately, have even resulted in violence. The widespread use of propaganda against Islam and Muslims immediately following the 9/11 attacks has subsided, and has all but diminished throughout the media. Still, the effects of ignorance and fear linger and reflect poorly on American values and ideals.