Wednesday, March 02, 2005

RE: Moe, liberalism, self-defined positionality

To Mr. Moe's credit, he was trying to bare the situation of white privilege by exposing his own privilege in a white supremacist Mississippi society. In the process of doing so, he 1) equated northern "liberalism" with antiracism and did his own with soutern "conservatism", 2) was more eloquent and outspoken than the other two speakers, and 3) failed to provide a critical analysis of what his own experience of privilege meant. (his stories were provided as self-explanatory tales of a racism/antiracism divide).

In her keynote speach, Joy James indicated that people liken to dissociate themselves from structures of power just in order to present themselves as the "good people". She says:

once you locate racism in the south, it’s very easy for whites in the north to just sit and blame everything to the southerners. they don’t have to do anything, they “become antiracist” for the sole fact of not being located in the south. (James, Democracy and Captivity. )

This process of assigning all blame upon "a small minority" (or a majority, for that matter), that is "part of us but a different faction" has been going on for quite a while. During Lincoln's times, it's northerners blaming "racist" southerners to let those slaves work in northern factories; then it's "liberals" blaming "conservatives" of racism so that they can get black votes (the entire "south" voted for Lyndon Johnson in 1963); then it's "democrats" blaming "republicans"; then it's "progressives" blaming "liberals/democrats"; when well-meaning white american volunteers go abroad and get criticized by the natives, they take offense and claim that they are "just trying to help, unlike the U.S. government". Thus I disagree with this statement:

I think though it goes well to illustrate the "white liberal" Biko (and Malcolm X) said had to stop speaking for blacks. Moe's intentions were good, but misplaced;

It's a continuous process of passing on the blame to another group that is not my own, and trying to dissociate myself from "them". As a Jamaican student got offended last year when I criticized all international students claiming that we all were "elites", I'll stick to talking about myself here and try not to generalize, but sometimes I can't help it.

When Ricardo Levins Morales ( ) and Vijay Prashad said during Diversity Weekend that "your identity is shaped by your politics", I don't think they were trying to say "your [racial] identity is shaped by you voting green", or that it's all OK once you align yourself with a certain political thought. I think there is a pervasive atmosphere at Macalester of trying to claim all that is good for myself based on a few disperse thoughts I hold in my head, and that I can never become part of an oppressive system because I hold those thoughts disregarding praxis and/or my own social upbringing.

In that context, I think Alex Flores's observation that "I got to asking a classmate if (s)he had any grandparents, and they responded no.", that is, imagining my persona as a free floating spirit in a historicosocial void, is opportune and points to a problematic issue. Heck, even nazis had good intentions, they were trying to "make the world a better place", weren't they?

The goal of passing on the blame seems to be an effort to gain some sort of moral standing against those whose political ideas I don't support. Thus, if I support policies X and Y, and I want to make the point that the person I debate regarding those policies is wrong because they are morally (or politically?) flawed against my own ideas, I just need to chunk policies X and Y together with antiracism and give a name to the package: it can be called "liberalism", "progressivism" or whatever. Then, it will follow, I am taking a moral stand in terms of race, something very courageous of me as a white person, and I win the argument.

When I think of my own positionality as a non-resident alien, male, upper class korean student from a third world country, I think of my grandmother's privileged social position in Pyungyang during the japanese imperial occupation of the peninsula, my grandfather's education in a "high school" (a rarity in the early 20th century) and posterior chances at tertiary education in Tokyo, his involvement with the southern korean navy during the north-south war and his contacts with the U.S. army (described in the popular imagination as essentialistically white and only supplementarily colored - PRs and blacks), of the arable lands that grandparents on my father's side held in the Chonra province (where their graves are now located), of the secondary tertiary degrees both of my parents were able to acquire partly out of their own effort and partly through the support of the prosperous protestant churches in southern korea that aligned themselves with the large corporations that arose under dictator Park's sponsorship in the 70's, of my mother's contested positionality in the "feminist" but "upper class" Ewha university, of the financial surplus women sex workers produced under national encouragement (History of Women's Human Rights Movements in South Korea, summary), of the Vietnamese blood that stains the rise of southern korean manufacturing industry, of the large scale expansion of korean textile factories to Latin America in the 90's (in particular Mexico) and their contribution to the undocumented immigration phenomenon, of the various "tutors" my family could afford me based on the $20,000 dollar annual income (which is a large sum in the third world) that the church provided my parents based on said structures of exploitation abroad, the fact that my high school was more expensive ($1,800/year) than the chilean college ($1,500) at which we striked for adequate student loan policies, and the patriarchal domination that afforded me more opportunities than the average southern korean daughters born in the 80's. I think all of these structures are closely intertwined in a global process of capitalistic accumulation that engages in an agonizing exploitation of those in the periphery, at the marginal benefit of those at the center.

I think however, it is a mistake to assume that because I am aware of the multiple dimensions of oppression that surround my own comfort, I am somehow at a more moral standing than those who enjoy the benefits without being aware of their inner workings. Indeed, I only understand the historical processes that shape border-crossing elite students because I am in a privileged position, and can afford to study in the heart of the empire. I am not less part of the problem, but I am more so. As I have argued elsewhere, I can choose to highlight selective portions of my life in order to engage higher orders of oppression and give voice over those whom I take privileges, but this strategic weapon should not mislead me into thinking that I am somehow taking a moral (and not tactical) stance.

Therefore, I am skeptical as to the extent that the following statement regarding Mr. Moe's supposedly uninformed criticism applies to my(or your)self.

I think also the suggestions as to what we should study bear on the assumptions that we, being of a younger generation, simply don't or can't understand what the civil rights movement in the united states was.

Where Gordon's observation that the white liberal (and the word "liberal" could really be any other tag), "entails the rejection of whiteness as an economic commodity". (Gordon, Intro to Biko, p.3) Rather, the following statement from Ivan Illich resonates truer to me.

There exists the argument that some returned volunteers have gained insight into the damage they have done to others - and thus become more mature people. Yet it is less frequently stated that most of them are ridiculously proud of their "summer sacrifices."(Illich, "To Hell with Good Intentions" )

That said, I'm off to my work-study where I "help" latino organizers working with latino workers.


RE: "petite" black female bodies, dialectical limitations in the white media

Elizabeth Hutchinson said:
I too noticed that all the women spoken of were described as 'nice', 'petite', 'small', and even 'articulate' though it was either relevant or suprising information about them. This was frusterating and somewhat insulting, and the commitment by women who they spoke about was not made clear though their descriptions...
I disagree with Elizabeth. I think this tactics was one of the few viable responses or counternarratives in the form of a thesis that could be presented in the space of white public discourse in the 60's.

As Shana Davis pointed out in our Feb 14 discussion, black women in South Africa were regarded as not threatening by white supremacist institutions because they engaged in domestic work (a point also supported by Kalpana Hiralal in "We Shall Resist", p.1, and Charles Payne in "I've got the Light of Freedom, p.269 ) and depended upon employment in the white neighborhoods. And precisely because of this, women had an upper hand at organizing rallies (Payne, 166) and constituted key supporters for male organizers (think of Ntsiki Biko holding the baby with Steve Biko's manuscripts in his pañales in "Cry Freedom").

But black women are imagined by whites as non threatening because they are considered as docile/dependent upon white economic structures. The first response from the white propaganda machinery in the face of women-led activism would be to portray her as threatening. When single self-sustaining mothers in northern Germany and England were accused of witchcraft during the 17th century, they were physically imagined as menacing (not merely "old and wrinkled", but fiercesome . Rodney Needham, "Synthetic Images" in RItual and Belief, p.285-87 and "The Syphilitic Shock", Stanislav Andreski, p.388) I think that the "non threatening" imagination of whites imposed upon the figure of the black female prior to the civil rights era would also involve a degree of conceived physicality of this non-threateningness, translated into small bodies and short height. Once their roles as activists come to the fore, I think, is when the discoursive antithesis surrouding the black female body is developed - 6 feet tall, musclesome, and so forth (as described by the speakers)

When this kind of rhetoric develops over the public realm (recall that Mr. Hickman said "there were posters all around with this Angela Davis with a large muscle build", etc. I would guess radios also played a part in this) you have the option of denying it with a thesis, to push for a "non-threatening image", or you can argue that the "threatening" image is a desirable aspect. Elizabeth, Sam and others crticize the speakers for not opting for the second option. The civil rights activists pushed for the thesis, that black women are as inoffensive and essentialistically "womanly" as white women, as a strategy (Payne, 6)

You can also argue that the framework in which the whole discussion about whether black women are threatening or not is constructed to give an essentialized view of black women one way or the other, and try to devise discourses that escape the binary dialectical split. You could, as Elizabeth and Rachel insinuate, push forward the claim that black women are fine being "large", "strong" and "loud-spoken", and fuck you if you have a problem with that. But I don't think navigating the white public discourse is as easy as that, because if you say in a press release "black women are strong and loudspoken and they fight alongside with our male civil rights activists", the media might cut out what white editors cannot understand/conceive and print "black women such as Angela Davis are dangerous, even the black males admit it" or something of that order.

Tricia Rose points out that in the midst of a blatantly sexist business practices, lyrics and producer-singer relationship in the Hip Hop industry (Black Noise, p.8),
MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Sister Souljah, and Yo-Yo refused to criticize their male colleages - not necessarily because they did not find the lyrics [of 2Live Crew] offensive, but because they were acutely aware of the dominant discursive context within which their responses would be reproduced. Cognizant that they were being constructed in the mainstream press as a progressive response to regressive male rappers, these female rappers felt that they were being used as a political baton to beat male rappers over the head, rather than being affirmed as women who could open up public dialogue to interrogate sexism and its effects on young black women. (p.149-50) [italics mine]
I don't see this as a compromise to be reached with male sexism on the basis of a shared racial background, but as a political tool gripped by black women rappers ready to use it when and where they wish to use it, but not to the mercy of a white media. In a sense, it is the women rappers who have the power to protect their male colleagues from being hammered down.

I also question the role of white women who may or may not share dimensions of class and race with fellow black women activists trying to speak on their behalf against strategically essentialized traits/behaviors (Rose, 44; Aman, 280)

So, I think the tactics adopted by the organizers in the 60's in combating the portrayal of the black women leadership by the media as aggressive, large bodies and so forth as a dialectical limitation imposed from above by the frame of public debate, which reveals a large deal about both white and black sexism of the times. But the tactics adopted by civil rights leaders as a response to the antithesis seems as effective as it goes.