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.



luvlife0702 said...

I had an AfAm colleague who was an anthropologist who specialized in Japanese Americans. I will tell you that she got grief from black folks about why she would want to study such a thing and her credibility to be an expert on such a topic was also challenged by her academic colleagues. That said colleague was a kickass sistah who did not mess around also challenged stereotypical notions of what it is that we who profess are allowed to profess about. Since we are black our specialty must be blackness. I know my non-white colleagues in philosophy experience similar challenges to people's notions of experts and who is qualified to teach what.

i'm down for having someone from Papua New Guinea do a show on American families. Give Margaret and her Meadness a little flip of the script.

luvlife0702 said...

Dude, this reminds me of the film "Anthropology on Trial". It revisits Ms Mead's footsteps and challenges the very notions of which you speak. Students at the university in papua new guinea wanted to know why their grandma was not a 'source' if she told them what she knew but was one when she was quoted by white folks in anthro texts. it does end with a PhD student from there studying American notions of community and putting in his perspective. It's quite the film. I used to show it in research classes but only San Francisco State had a copy. Can't find one anywhere else in the damn country. So if anyone reads this and knows of one, let a sistah know.