Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Not Interested in the Frog Princess

The new New Orleanian Frog Princess is being heralded as Disney’s first black princess. It is significant because Disney’s princess collection has stolen the hearts and minds of little girls all over the planet. In the world of my three year old daughter there are countless little girls awash from head to toe in pink, wearing sparkling patent leather shoes and plastic rhinestone tiaras with matching earrings – all of them in the mold of some version of Snow White or Cinderella. As with most things in American society, the aspirations of little black girls are secondary, if not totally overlooked. In the Disney repertoire, there has been no image for a black girl to aspire. There has been nowhere in this global inescapable Disney princess marketing blanket for her to look for images of beauty that even loosely resemble herself. The legendary consequences of that have been a steady assault on the self image of little black girls. Dr. Kenneth Clark famously demonstrated black children’s preferences for white dolls in the 1940’s. Kiri Davis has painfully reconfirmed those preferences right here at the beginning of the 21st century. Among other things, the onslaught of Snow White and the gang – not to mention Barbie – has caused little black girls to degrade themselves before they can even fully recognize themselves. In light of that, I am not interested in the Frog Princess and her packaged for black beauty. And a princess titled Frog doesn’t sound pretty anyway.

My daughter has the ultimate weapon to protect herself against the debilitating equivalence between white women and beauty – her mother. My wife is not only the perfect countermeasure to the white standard of beauty, she is the complete personification of beauty itself. Without any risk of chauvinism, women’s hair is a multi-billion dollar industry because it is a critical component of women’s sense of beauty. My wife is not constrained by the unwritten rule that says that black women must wear their hair in the closest semblance to white women. Indeed she does not adhere to the broader rule that says that hair is a central element in women’s beauty period. As such she moves gracefully and confidently between the most natural of afros to bald and back without breaking stride. Her hairstyles are just one of countless other qualities that demonstrate her extraordinary personal strength and serve as ammunition for our little girl.

It is the confidence implicit in her rebuke of such an overwhelmingly strong social code that is such a precious gift for our daughter. My wife’s extraordinary comfort and confidence in her own skin signals a smoldering degree of self assurance. She prescribes her own rules for beauty and measures herself against them. That is the weapon. The ability to be governess of her own soul. Beauty is in the eyes of the vessel from which it comes. She has the power to signal to the world that she is beautiful and the world responds accordingly. She is arming our little girl with that special skill. The confidence and courage to make her own rules and be her own judge. These are extraordinarily important qualities for black children and black little girls because there is an endless array of images that either belittle their beauty or dismiss it altogether. Against that weaponry Cinderella and Snow White and Aurora and Ariel are powerless and the Frog Princess is meaningless. I’m not interested in the Frog Princess because my little girl has a secret weapon.

Her mother.


Monday, March 19, 2007

The Brown Conundrum

There appears to be a fair amount of hostility in the south towards Hispanic immigrants. In many ways Hispanic has become synonymous with Mexican illegal immigrant. The issue of illegal Hispanic immigration has resurrected some very traditional American values – racism, intolerance and damning disdain for other people. The anger and scorn towards Hispanic immigrants is centered among conservatives hoping to conserve an older version of America where some of their traditional values were more relevant. In attempts to not be so blatantly ethnocentric, the anti-immigrant corps provide a set of arguments against illegal immigrants that center around the fundamental illegality of their presence and the idea that they are stealing jobs from American workers and pushing down the wage scale. Aside from the thinly veiled racist arguments, there is the moral and practical conundrum.

Illegal immigrant workers do have an impact on the low skilled labor market. The grand claim that they are stealing jobs from American workers, however, is less clear. There is nothing new to the idea that the illegal immigrant workforce has a very limited impact on the labor market for which there is domestic competition. American born workers are not interested in those kinds of jobs – picking fruit in the Central Valley of California, cleaning toilets and bedrooms in hotels, cutting the heads off chickens, cleaning up trash and dumping it in the back of restaurants. I would speculate that none of the ultra-patriots who argue that the country ought to purge itself of these immigrant workers would ever themselves or allow their children to perform those functions for the society.

Another claim regarding illegal immigrant workers is that they are taking advantage of “the system.” The argument goes that they do not pay taxes but they want to partake of the public trust; they want public education for their children and public health services when they are sick. In essence, they want to take without giving. This argument is incomplete. The hole in this argument is that we can see the work that they do and the contributions that they make. The claim that they are not contributing to the society is undermined by the fact that everyone can literally see, touch and benefit from the work that they do. The stereotypes of Hispanics even corroborate their disciplined and responsible work ethic. It would be quite a different story if the majority of illegal immigrants were coming into the country and loafing and still expecting public goods.

Paying taxes is not the only way to contribute to the system. Indeed, it may be the most difficult way to contribute if you are here and working illegally. In Atlanta, all of the building construction, all of the roofing and mason work and landscaping and all of the restaurant table busing and kitchen work is done by Hispanic people. Many of these workers are here illegally. Their work; however, provides the physical structure and service base for the carefree gentry that is so viciously opposing their presence. In some ways the argument holds in reverse, the anti-immigrant set wants the benefits of immigrant labor without having them reside in the country. They would like the United States to be one large gated community where the workers come in 11 million deep on a big pickup truck in the morning, do the menial work, and then get out by dusk.

Having said that, there are problems with unchecked illegal immigration. The cities and states that are burdened with the problem simply cannot continue to support an unending stream of new people. Hospitals and schools, for example, are being forced into a more and more difficult moral conundrum. Those services that are supported by the public trust cannot support people who do not contribute to their upkeep. Building the buildings and taking care of the doctors’ children is ultimately insufficient.

I do not know what fraction of illegal immigrants that work, pay taxes. I would guess not many. Indeed there is little incentive to do so. If they pay their taxes now, some of their own money might be going to build the wall to keep others like themselves out. A conundrum if ever there was one. Fundamentally, an unending flow of people that is not balanced by an increasing tax stream stretches the capacity of a society to sustain itself beyond its social and structural limits. Ultimately, the problem boxes sympathetic morality into a practical corner.


Monday, March 12, 2007

Wondering About Relationships

I was recently in a meeting where I met a really unusual woman. She is a middle aged white woman from North Carolina. She speaks as if she is a member of the southern gentility and is equally refined. Without diminishing the qualities that likely make her unique; two stand out. She is a lesbian and a Quaker. I suspect that for many people, including me, it is not clear whether those two qualities are in conflict with one another. Quakerism, although largely an enigma to the general population, is usually associated with peace, pacifism, respect for human life and healthy living (and of course oatmeal.) It turns out that the Quaker position on homosexuality depends. It depends with them as it depends in the Anglican Church, as it depends in the United Methodist Church, as it depends in a lot of religions. In that way at least, Quakers are demystified – torn over the issue of homosexuality just like the rest of us.

Our conversation took a turn to regional handling of contentious social issues. She was making the case that there is still broad and blatant discrimination against homosexuals everywhere. While I agreed with that, I argued that in several cities in the country there is a lot more willingness to at least consider new social structures. Among these structures is one where homosexuality is merely a part, not a pariah of the social fabric. I feel that is true despite the ongoing tensions and festering hatred. She didn’t seem to hear that and presented me with a long list of horrible crimes enacted against homosexuals and legislation in several states that degrade and diminish them. For the first time ever, I think I felt like a white person listening to black people who are constantly pointing out the ongoing practice of racism while I’m saying, “I hear you already, but things are changing. Obama is running for President for crying out loud!” I conceded to myself that her personal conflict with these two components of her identity – lesbian and Quaker – were such that she was not hearing about broad baby steps towards reconciliation because they may not be reflected in her immediate struggle. Perhaps?

While I was making that internal concession, she suggested that I pretend to be gay by taking on conspicuously gay characteristics or pretend to be transgender by dressing up as a woman. She challenged me – with a bit of the self-righteousness born of the sense that “I” am the sufferer – to go out into the world like that and experience what the discrimination feels like. My first reaction of course, was Sharptonian, “you are speaking with a natural born black man living in these United States,” I don’t need to play make-believe to make me believe in social intolerance, abounding ignorance and racism; not to mention government and police brutality or need I say Katrina. Of course I always bristle when homosexuals equate intolerance of their sexual orientation to intolerance of black skin. While sexual orientation may not be a choice, whether it is revealed to the world or not is. Having said that, I despise comparative suffering. It is one of the damning consequences of oppression.

My second thought was that there is no way that I would pretend to be gay or transgender just to see what it feels like. Thinking about it more carefully, I realized that it isn’t because I am afraid of the experience of discrimination or disgust. I don’t want the stigma. If I were to pretend to be gay, that isn’t something that I can just wash off and tell those who know me and saw me, that I was just pretending, it was just an experiment. Sure you’re not a homosexual. Having had that thought, I realized that within my inner emotional core, not only do I not agree with homosexuality, I still despise it in a way that I would not want there to be any connection between my personal character and it. That reveals that I care what people think about me. That may be a weakness or not, I’m not sure. More importantly, it helped me identify the boundary between my intellect and my emotions. Like most white people who are questioned, I am quick to say, “I don’t have problems with homosexuals, one of my best friends is a lesbian.” For me that is sincerely true. I have managed, however, to reconcile the differences of my mind and my heart to maintain what I think is and hope will continue to be a close personal friendship. Indeed, it is through the lasting nature of that friendship that my emotional core is changing. I changed my mind a long time ago.

In the end my reaction to this challenge confirmed for me, my point. I agree that homosexuality is not wholly accepted and likely will never be. That does not mean, however, that we cannot envision a new social order. The versatility of intellect is such that people can more quickly get their minds around the fundamental humanity involved in embracing people period. New kinds of relationships, however, are required for changing emotions. New kinds of individual relationships are the vessels not only for changing individual emotional orientations, but for creating new kinds of social structures. It is a slow process, no doubt, but I think that is all we have.


Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Discovery Channel Theory

Discovery Channel offers some of the most interesting and unusual programs on television. Through their broad array of documentaries and exposes we learn about fascinating people, practices and cultures all over the world. My Discovery Channel Theory is based on the people who impart all this amazing worldly knowledge. Invariably, there is a very animated young white man or woman who travels deep into the heartland of somewhere far away interpreting for us the habits and habitats of some strange people. Often the people are some shade of brown – African, Arab or Asian. This is an equally glaring truth on the Travel Channel. The cameras follow these young white culture sleuths while they enlighten us describing how wonderful the people are, how ancient their practices and what a terrible shame it is that modernization is encroaching on some precious cultural artifact or another. Our sleuths are also conflict investigators. They follow and interpret the origins of this or that tribal or sectarian conflict.

I watch these programs and enjoy them thoroughly. The problem is that they present white people as the interpreters of the world for the rest of us. The image of white scholars imbued with intellectual bravado and scholarly persistence is itself a product of Discovery Channel. Not only does the channel inform us about interesting realities in the world, it presents an image of who the interpreters of the world are. In this Discovery Channel pattern black and brown people are seen essentially as curious human mysteries that require the intellectual focus of white scholars to be unlocked. The intellectual imbalance is clear, hence the Discovery Channel Theory. The Discovery Channel Theory posits that white cultural scholarship is necessary and sufficient to interpret the human intricacies of the world. The corollary to that theory is that black and brown cultural scholarship is only relevant to black and brown cultural circumstances.

The image of the young white scholar-adventurer is so pervasive that the idea of a black scholar-adventurer is almost farcical. Try to imagine a black man, Dr. Dante Smalls, an expert on radical extremist Judaism. Consider what watching him on television might be like. Suppose he is a 50th percentile black man in build and looks like Rakim. Suppose too, that he speaks with a decidedly New York accent. His accent is so prominent that it is part of his persona – just as Steve Irwin’s accent, the Australian Zookeeper, was part of his. He speaks properly and directly and has not changed his speech to fit into the soft, academic, upspeak, NPR style like-sort of-very-actually speech pattern. Imagine watching Dr. Smalls traveling through the occupied territories of the West Bank and the Gaza strip interpreting for the world, the motives of extremist orthodox Jewish settlers.

That image is elusive to me. I have never seen anything like it - a black scholar who is not only expert on white cultural phenomena, but is the public face of the “Discovery Channel” interpretation; a black scholar whose face and voice are associated with broad scholarly foreign cultural interpretation that is not accusatory, but explanatory. Dr. Smalls explaining the Belgian tensions between the Flemish and the Walloons, Dr. Smalls unearthing the secrets of white evangelical Christians in America, Dr. Smalls exclusive on the quiet suffering of the Russian-Georgian conflict, Dr. Smalls on the oppressive Jewish-Afrikaner alliances in South Africa…

There is an enormous amount of power in such images. The absence of such images is equally powerful. Not only does it exclude the image of the black scholar-adventurer from the power position of cultural interpretation, it contributes to limiting the aspirations of young black scholars. There is no question that the problems plaguing the black world are such that many black scholars turn inward to address issues that are emotionally close to them. Notwithstanding that, black intellectual curiosity has to be as various as anyone else’s. At very least, curiosity cannot be correlated with race. As such, Dr. Smalls ought to be able to stand on a platform of universal human concern and apply his intellect wherever his curiosity guides him. The ungodly long list of white scholars who go into black schools and write books and make movies about us, who go into Africa and the Caribbean and explain our cultural traditions and economic hardships are not limited by white poverty in Appalachia or the cultural isolation of middle America. They are not deterred by the strangeness of the people and customs they choose to study.

Dr. Smalls will be our future intellectual adventurer champion – traveling around the world with the bravado of Rakim and Richard Roundtree and the acumen of W.E.B. Dubois. We just have to imagine him first.