Saturday, September 24, 2016

My Privilege

A friend linked to this article, which originally came from Good Black News.   According to the author, she "was tagged in a post by an old high school friend, asking me and a few others a very public, direct question about white privilege and racism."  She then answered this friend's question, at length, giving personal examples of encounters with white racism, and did a good job of it.  What I want to do here is to say what is wrong with the way the friend, Jason, expressed himself; one aspect of white privilege, it seems to me, is that I am allowed to question the motives and bona fides of other white people, where it might be considered rude for a person of color to do so.  Not only am I allowed to speak up, I think I'm obliged to.  So here's the friend's post, as quoted by Lori Lakin Hutcherson, the editor of Good Black News.
    “To all of my Black or mixed race FB friends, I must profess a blissful ignorance of this ‘White Privilege‘ of which I’m apparently guilty of possessing. By not being able to fully put myself in the shoes of someone from a background/race/religion/gender/nationality/body type that differs from my own makes me part of the problem, according to what I’m now hearing.

    “Despite my treating everyone with respect and humor my entire life (as far as I know), I’m somehow complicit in the misfortune of others. I’m not saying I’m colorblind, but whatever racism/sexism/other -ism my life experience has instilled in me stays within me, and is not manifested in the way I treat others (which is not the case with far too many, I know).

    “So that I may be enlightened, can you please share with me some examples of institutional racism that have made an indelible mark upon you? If I am to understand this, I need people I know personally to show me how I’m missing what’s going on. Personal examples only. I’m not trying to be insensitive, I only want to understand (but not from the media). I apologize if this comes off as crass or offends anyone.”
There are several red flags here, culminating in the faux apology at the end.  He's not "trying to be insensitive," but he achieves insensitivity effortlessly, without even trying.  He makes it look so easy!

I'm skeptical of his claim that he has treated "everyone with respect and humor my entire life (as far as I know)."  I've known numerous white people who made exactly that claim, and then proceeded to make some bluntly racist statements.  In general, announcing one's respect and humor is a direct prelude to saying something vile.  I'd never make such a claim myself, partly because I know that I have my own blind spots and have failed more than once in treating everyone with respect (a tricky word anyway), but even more because one aspect of structural / institutional bigotry is that the dominant group is shielded from feedback on its conduct.  Those on the bottom mostly know not to speak up, most of the time; they know they'd damn well better laugh at the little jokes of the Privileged.  One symptom of white or other privilege is wondering loudly why These People are suddenly making all this noise and trouble, the Privileged One thought things were mostly all right, this is America, and besides, the Privileged One has always treated people with respect and humor.

Humor, of course, is a minefield, and a Priviliged One who assumes that his or her jokes are as funny to the less privileged as they are to him or her is probably assuming far too much.  As Ellen Willis once wrote,  “Humorless is what you are if you do not find the following subjects funny: rape, big breasts, sex with little girls. It carries no imputation of humorlessness if you do not find the following subjects funny: castration, impotence, vaginas with teeth.”  I’ve noticed over the years that when I repeat this quotation, women usually laugh delightedly, but men usually look unhappy. (The more so if the men had previously been complaining about “humorless feminists.”) 

But what I noticed right away was the opening reference to "ignorance of this 'White Privilege' of which I’m apparently guilty of possessing."  There's been a lot of complaining -- almost all by white people, naturally -- about the term "White Privilege" lately; and also many attempts to educate the complainers.  I think I'd be cautious about using that term myself, not because it's inaccurate but because it is the kind of idea that gets people's backs up, and even if they're wrong, if you want to communicate with them you want to find ways to express what you want them to learn in ways and words they'll be able to hear.  It's going to be hard enough in any case.

Anyway, here's the thing.  White privilege is not something you're "guilty of possessing."  It is assigned to you, and you can't divest yourself of it.  No matter how respectful and humorous you are, no matter how much you oppose racism, you will be perceived and treated as a white person -- accorded white privilege, in other words.  You will not be followed around by store personnel who are convinced that you're a shoplifter, even if you are a shoplifter.  You will not be stopped for Driving While White, Walking While White, even for Carrying a Gun While White.  You're a lot less likely to be gunned down by police while you have your hands in the air.  You will not experience what John Howard Griffin called the hate stare, just for existing.  Barriers that black Americans learn to take for granted will not be there for you.  (It is possible, however, to have your white privilege taken from you, if you become a race traitor effectively enough.  White privilege didn't protect Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, Viola Liuzzo, or numerous others.  But I doubt Jason wants to go that far himself.)

This doesn't mean that white people always have it easy.  Privilege is never absolute.  I had privileges as the oldest child in my family, but that didn't mean I could do whatever I wanted.  My parents were explicit that as the oldest, I had obligations as well as privilege.  Which is why it's absurd when apologists for racism point to the existence of white poverty (or to the existence of black wealth) to refute claims about white privilege.  When someone invokes poor whites in West Virginia, I want to know how poor blacks are doing there.  One symptom of white privilege, indeed, is the conviction that no black person should get a job or be admitted to a historically white college or own a pair of shoes until every white person has been taken care of, first.  Such people see Oprah not just as a disproof of black advantage, but as an insult to poor white people, who presumably would be better off if Oprah hadn't gotten all those Special Rights.

Also closely involved here is "guilt."  I've never felt guilty for being white, or for being male, nor have I ever felt that black people or women were trying to make me feel guilty or wanted me to.  (Which is odd, because personally, I am very susceptible to guilt most of the time.)  Whenever a Privileged One complains about being made or expected to feel guilty, I feel pretty sure they're projecting.  I qualify that because I can't say for certain that guilt hasn't been used at times by some people in this way.  I'm sure that it has not been an important factor in the movements or the discourse.  Besides, feeling guilty, expressing one's guilt, confessing one's guilt to the congregation is often a way to avoid doing anything, either to make reparation for what one did or to change one's behavior in the future.  It turns one's offenses into something that is all about Me Me Me, and distracts attention from the people who've been hurt by those offenses.  This may not be deliberate, but it is damned convenient.

So I have severe doubts about Jason's good intentions in posing his question.  For one thing, how can someone who's been out of school for several years, and who claims to have "numerous Black or mixed-race FB friends," and who further claims to treat everybody with respect, be as ignorant as Jason claims to be about what people of color experience in this country?  Someone's living in a very effective and impermeable bubble.  I'm glad Lori Lakin Hutcherson answered Jason's question, and I'd be very interested in seeing how Jason responded to the answer he got.  In my experience, people who ask such questions rarely stick around to hear the answer, and tend to get all spitty if they do.  From the tone and spirit in which he wrote, I feel pretty sure Jason will find some way not to hear what Lori Lakin Hutcherson tried to tell him.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The United States of Amnesia, Latest Installment

A couple of weeks ago, numerous liberal friends on Facebook were posting pictures of children who'd been injured in the Syrian Civil War, which they'd apparently gotten from corporate media, thus showing their bold opposition to the Assad regime and to all bad governments that hurt children. Much handwringing -- "if only we could do something," etc. Not one of them posted pictures of Yemeni children who'd been hurt in the Saudi "coalition" invasion of Yemen, which is supported materially by the US and UK governments. Not one. Well, no wonder -- they hadn't been given permission to be upset about Yemeni children ("unworthy victims," as Noam Chomsky calls them), and our courageous adversary media hadn't supplied them with piteous pictures to share. And now even the concern about Syrian children seems to have dried up.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

More and Better Masculinities!

I just finished reading Masculinities in Chinese History by Bret Hinsch, published in 2013 by Rowman & Littlefield.  I'd previously read Hinsch's Passions of the Cut Sleeve (California, 1990), a breakthrough study of homosexuality in China, so I figured he'd be worth reading on Chinese manhood.  The book is a bit rushed, as you'd expect when someone tries to cover a huge and complex culture over several millennia; I suspect Hinsch was aiming at an undergraduate readership.  As an introductory survey, it's probably good. but then I'd already done a fair amount of reading in the area.

It wasn't until I'd almost reached the end of the book that I noticed a curious omission in Hinsch's coverage.  In writing about the end of Imperial China he mentions the ongoing theme of Chinese "emasculation" at the hands of the West, though it seems that it was the Japanese who came up with the "sick man of Asia" epithet; certainly they seem to have used it most.
Stricken by a sense of national emasculation, intellectuals and activists began to search for ideologies that could put their nation back on its pedestal, thereby restoring collective honor to Chinese men [151].

The radical reign of terror [of the Cultural Revolution], together with a general sense of powerlessness under an arbitrary totalitarian system, had left many men feeling emasculated [156].

Portraits of virile manhood [in TV series] fascinated a society haunted by a widespread sense of emasculation [158].
As China reconnected with other countries and cultures after 1970,
Ironically, even though women [under Mao] had emulated stereotypical male traits, outwardly bolstering the masculine atmosphere of society, men themselves were left feeling insufficiently manly.  Opening to the outside world further exacerbated the problem.  Chinese were once again able to compare the state of their own masculinity with slick images of idealized manhood transmitted by Western and Japanese media -- and found their own men inadequate in comparison [156-7].
Oh, that's always a good idea -- comparing your reality to fantasy images of cowboys and gangsters from other societies, taken out of their contexts so that you miss all the anxiety about manhood that inspired and permeates them.

What virility actually meant, of course, was the exaltation of violence by "bandits" and rebellious peasants, but
Although the novel and film [Red Sorghum] trumpet male strength and sexual potency, they also depict violence, sadism, murder, and domination of women as signs of a rejuvenated manhood.  The new man [same as the old man] was not necessarily someone a woman would want to meet, much less marry [160].
I've seen a lot of handwringing about male anxiety and inadequacy in academic and other writing about Asia, but also of course about the West.  I'm sure that Hinsch is aware of works like Susan Jeffords's The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War (Indiana, 1989), about the hit American masculinity took by failing to conquer Vietnam, as worked out in American cinema; and perhaps also Kim Kyung-Hun's The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema (Duke, 2004), a monument of transnational male anxiety inspired partly by Jeffords.  Germany and Japan went through similar tribulation after their respective defeats in World War II.  Chinese men could hardly have imbibed a message of male confidence from other cultures' media, since those media are also steeped in male tears.

Notice too that although women constitute half the Chinese population, as they do in all societies, the burden and trauma of foreign conquest and social change is always assumed to affect only males, and their fragile little egos.  That women suffer by being subjugated, whether by foreign invaders or by local subjugators, is generally ignored, or explained away as harmless due to their "nature" as women.  Most of what I've read by Asian and Asian-American men about their imperiled manhood pays lip service to feminism, since it emerges from American academia, but once lip service has been paid, male resentment of uppity women always returns to center stage.  Despite their pro forma denunciations of Western / American standards, they don't really reject Western masculinity: they are just indignant that they can't share in it.  Masculinity in almost all its forms is a zero-sum game: if you achieve some humanity (which is equated with manhood) less is left for me.  As a faggot no less than as one influenced by feminism, I feel no great sympathy for this attitude.

But back to the matter of "emasculation."  I suddenly realized as I read this final chapter of Masculinities in Chinese History that Hinsch had never said anything about eunuchs -- literally emasculated men -- in Chinese history, though they played a significant role in the imperial court and in the cultural imaginary.  In Europe and America, castrated men are at most a historical aberration,or an orientalist symbol of the cultural Other, long ago and far away.  In China, however, as in much of the rest of the world, castration was an alternative path a man might take -- or have forced on him -- in order to achieve a limited amount of power and status.  Granted that Hinsch might not have chosen to address this because of limitations of space, it's strange that he never mentions it except as a bugbear for Chinese men in the late nineteenth century and later.  In China, emasculation was not just a bogeyman, a metaphor for loss of masculine power, but something that happened in real life, even possibly to people one knew.

There's another reason why eunuchs would be relevant to Hinsch's survey.   He describes the conflict about the spread of Buddhism in China during the Jin Dynasty of 265-420 CE.  Many traditionalist Chinese objected to the rising influence of a barbarian (that is, foreign) religion, and the Buddhist challenge to normative manhood was a major area of contention.
Judged by these standards, the ideal monk presented a disturbingly flawed picture of aberrant manliness.  He abjured marriage, renounced fatherhood, was ill positioned to care for parents, did not own property, declined public office, deprecated secular learning, mutilated his body (a gift from his parents) by shaving his head, and rejected orthodox manners and rituals for an alien set of rites.  According to the masculine standards of the time, how could such a person even be called a man? [50, emphasis added].
Such behavior, of course, is a rejection of normative masculinity in most societies.  But what interests me here is the reference to shaving one's head as self-mutilation.  Hinsch returns to the point a few pages later:
Filial piety extended to the body, demanding that a man keep his person intact, as he had received it from his parents.  However, Buddhists expressed skepticism regarding the value of a perfect body.  For example, hair was traditionally an important symbol of gender identity, and filial piety demanded that a man keep his hair fairly long.  The society of the time associated hair on both the head and the face with ideal masculinity.  For example, Prince Rencheng of Wei was famous for his valor and manliness, as well as for his magnificent beard.  And in a continuation of Han dynasty judicial practices, medieval officials shaved the heads of convicts as a humiliating punishment.  So for a monk to shave his head and face not only violated gender norms but also disfigured the body that he had received as a precious gift from his parents.  Accordingly, Buddhism's opponents pointed to the monk's cleanly shaven head and chin as proof of the religion's contempt for filial piety [55].
It wasn't until I encountered the complaints about "emasculation" a hundred pages later that I realized how conspicuous was Hinsch's silence about Chinese eunuchs here.  Some sort of aside, at least, about the mutilation involved in castration seems to be in order.  And didn't those opponents of Buddhism accuse monks of making themselves into eunuchs, not only by cutting their hair but by foreswearing marriage and fatherhood?  It's a strange omission.

Chinese men must surely have harbored some anxiety about emasculation, as both a literal and a symbolic assault on manhood, long before the English and French barbarians invaded China in the 1800s.  In keeping with masculinity as a zero-sum game, hierarchical models of masculinity require that men abase themselves before men of higher status -- fathers, older brothers, teachers, military superiors, the Emperor -- so normative manhood is always unstable and endangered.  In order to have Real Men, you have to have Not-Men.  (Just as you must have Bad Women in order to have Good Women.)  And since Real Manhood is achieved, it can also be lost.  I haven't seen enough recognition of this in masculinity studies.

Monday, September 19, 2016

If Only We'd Thought of This at the Time ...

Jon Schwarz' articles on the less inspiring part of the National Anthem have gotten a lot of attention, from print media to social media to e-mail.  Like this one:

I have to admit, David has a point.  The pre-Columbian peoples of the Americas quickly learned that a multiracial population was foolish; you let in a few white people, and before you know it, they've given you diseases, looted your treasuries, and stolen your land.

But leave aside such hindsight; as a great American sage reminded us, we must look to the future, not to the past.  Let's stick with the War of 1812 itself.  There was another ready-made fifth column in our infant nation at the time: British immigrants and their children and grandchildren.  During World War II we put such people (of slightly different ancestry, of course), with their presumable -- indeed inevitable -- sympathy for the Enemy into concentration camps.  Deporting British-Americans would probably not have been feasible, given the primitive surveillance and other technology of the day.  But confinement surely would have been.  Luckily, it proved not to be necessary: the United States eked out a fragile victory over the Enemy that time.  I wonder where David's ancestors came from ...

Friday, September 16, 2016

Swallowed Up by the Skirt

You know that unpleasant feeling when you feel a sneeze coming on, but you just hover there on the cusp, waiting for it to get done with, but it won't?  Well, I've felt like that for most of this week.  I'm not sure I remember a cold quite like this before.  I began to notice the onset of a cold on Monday, with congestion and a muzzy inability to concentrate, and by Tuesday noticed at my (part-time) job that several of our student workers were in even worse shape than I was.  So I kept waiting for it to crest, so that I could begin recovering, but it got worse each day.  Today I napped for a few hours, which seems to have helped a bit; I'll probably do that for the rest of the weekend.  It's frustrating -- I had several topics to write about, and was ready to get to work on them, but this week I couldn't get motivated.  In the end one simply has to sit down and get on with it.

I've been reading a book I found at the public library sale, Speaking of Jane Austen (Harper & Brothers, 1944) by Sheila Kaye-Smith (1887-1956) and G[ladys] B[ronwyn] Stern (1890-1973).  It's a fond discussion of Austen's works by writers who like her a lot, though they distinguish themselves from hard-core "Janeites."  (There's always somebody more extreme than you are, no matter where you stand.)   It's fun to read, not a work of academic criticism but still historically informed, and both authors grew up in an England very different from the one they died in, probably closer in culture to Austen's than to the England of the late twentieth century.

Among much else, I was intrigued by Sheila Kaye-Smith's digression on women's underwear:
Miss Bingley's remarks on Elizabeth Bennett's petticoats -- "six inches deep in mud, I am absolutely certain, and the gown which had been let down to hide it not doing its office" -- inspires the reflection that most articles of feminine underwear started on the outside.  Elizabeth's petticoat was meant to be visible, a part of the scheme of her dress, with the gown above it looped up to show either a contrasting or a blending colour and a different material.  Sometimes the gown was slit down the front to display that petticoat beneath, and half a century earlier had been hunched high over it in panniers.  It was not until Victorian times that the petticoat disappeared under the skirt.  Stays, too, by Elizabeth's time invisible, started as outside wear, much in the style that still survives among certain European peasants, with the chemise visible above them.  Drawers were later than her day, but they also began as a visible article of dress, reaching the ankles and to be seen for several inches below the skirt, which finally dropped to the ground and swallowed them up as it had swallowed up the petticoat.  The Victorian women, then, wore no less than four unmentionable undergarments which had in their day not only been mentionable but plainly visible.  By the time that her crinoline and bustle had shrunk away into modern streamlines and what was beneath might be expected to be revealed, it was found that these had shrunk too, contracting all four of them into a single scantie.  [243]
It happened that I read this progress (if that's the word) of outerwear to underwear as more controversy raged over Muslim women's headscarves.  It's worth remembering that in England and Europe, respectable Christian women covered their bodies below the neck, as well as above.  (Male visitors from the Muslim world still found them "immodest," of course.)  The remarkable thing to me in this case was how each new covering apparently had to be covered up in turn.  Where does it come from, this obsessive need to package women's bodies in layer after layer of wrapping, like a fast-food hamburger covered in tissue and paper and a cardboard box, then put in a paper bag?  We seem to have left the tendency behind in the West for the most part, though I expect a reaction to come eventually; the best hope I see is that women here do have a lot of room for personal choice, whether for long skirts or short shorts.  The problem isn't the degree of covering so much as making a specific degree of covering or uncovering mandatory.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

What Do We See? What Do We Not See?

Greg Tate has written some very good stuff; sometimes he's gone right off the rails into wackery; sometimes he steams boldly down the middle.  On Tuesday he posted this on Facebook:
You (incredulously) hear some folk say that they ''never see color '' or that bugaboo 'race', but you've never heard anyone say, ''I never see gender''. The former argument seems motivated by a pre-emptive guilt reflex--a knee-jerk desire to prove one isn't capable of racism because you're a magician of entitlement-- one who can make racism and yourself disappear from the world by refusing to be implicated or even see that race and difference keeps mattering, keeps producing violence against those invisible others. But gender related isms and phobias don't grant the same superpowers or superpowered delusional desires--the ability to bestow innocence on yourself by denying the existence of your own genitalia and everyone else's.
His initial claim grabbed my attention, and it has some truth in it, but only some.  I'm not sure I've actually heard or seen anyone claim that they don't "see gender," but I have seen a lot of nice liberal people claim that we shouldn't see it, for example in those memes that point out that a skeleton has no gender or sexual orientation, so we should just look past the deceptive flesh to the honest bones.  I've also heard of gay people who were told by their closeted partners that they didn't think of their sex, they just loved them.  Of course there's as much bad faith in those memes as in the claim of color-blindness.

That last quoted sentence is the wackery here.  "Gender related phobias and isms" certainly do generate entitlement and violence, not by "denying the existence of your own genitalia and everyone else's" but by creating a mythology about their vital cosmic importance, in order to "bestow innocence" on those who use that mythology to exclude, control, and punish others.  As Karen E. and Barbara J. Fields wrote in their brilliant book Racecraft:
The shorthand transforms racism, something an aggressor does, into race, something the target is, in a sleight of hand that is easy to miss.  Consider the statement "black Southerners were segregated because of their skin color" -- a perfectly natural sentence to the ears of most Americans, who tend to overlook its weird causality.  But in that sentence, segregation disappears as the doing of segregationists, and then, in a puff of smoke -- paff -- reappears as a trait of only one part of the segregated whole [17-18].
The same applies to sex/gender, which Tate seems not to understand very well.  The distinction between (biological) sex and (cultural etc.) gender, invented to express an important difference, failed for many reasons as the distinctions turns out to be difficult to draw, and nowadays "sex" and "gender" are often conflated, which expresses something true but also puts us back where we were before.  Biological sex is mostly visible on naked bodies (though there are well-known ambiguous cases), but since human beings cover our bodies in varying degrees, we create other markers to declare sex very visibly.  Weirdly, to my mind, we often cover the visible bodily markers to signal sex at the same time we hide it.  Gendered clothing, cosmetics, decorations, stylized body stances and signals, conventions of language intonation and even vocabulary, divisions of labor, and so on, express and enforce a society's assumptions about bodily configurations, and because they are mostly not directly connected, all these conventions can float free, and that freedom is used culturally for many purposes.  Cross-dressing, for example, can be a disguise, or entertainment, or ritual, or the expression of a deeply-felt personal essence ("identity").  It can be nonconformist or conformist.

Whatever else it is, gender is something one shows to the world -- not always consciously, much as I sometimes forget which t-shirt I'm wearing and am startled when someone comments on it -- but then, "race" can be that too, because "race" as Americans use it is not just skin color but cultural and personal expression.  Many people of various "races" would be furious, I expect, at the idea that "race" too can be performed, but when "race" is conflated with culture (analogously to "sex" and "gender"), it is certainly being performed.  (So is something like "age," by the way, as in the admonition "Act your age!")  I still remember the impact Cornel West's remarks about young black men's "stylizing their bodies" (Race Matters [Beacon Press, 1993], p. 88) had on me the first time I read them.  I had never believed that "black male styles of walking, talking, dressing, and gesticulating in relation to others" (ibid.) were innate, but it was exciting to see West state that they were cultivated and write about what they meant.

The question, I think, is not whether we "see" race or color or sex or gender or age, and what we do with what we see.  Of course I see color -- which does not equal "race," of course, though many people believe it does; that's what the Fields call "racecraft" -- as I see gender, but I don't make assumptions about the person whose skin color, or whose style of walking, talking, dressing, or gesticulating I see.  I'm aware of cultural conventions, as I am of gender conventions, but I don't universalize them: I know that the variation in behavior, beliefs, attitudes, and traits within groups is immense, far greater than the average differences between groups.

It felt odd to write that, because it seems so obvious, and I think most people would say they agree with it.  The curious thing in most people's discourse about this topic is the way they oscillate between the belief that these traits and behaviors are innate -- rooted in biology, unchangeable -- and the belief that they are surface phenomena -- customs, conventions, culturally created, changeable.  The position they take at any given moment about a given trait is generally determined by their attitude toward it: if they don't like something you're doing, they assume you can change it; if you don't like what they're doing, it's natural and they can't change it.  Or a trait is unchangeable if they use it to defend a certain social arrangement: black people were born to be hewers of wood and drawers of water, women were created to stay at home and clean house, girls can't throw a baseball because their arms are built differently, blacks are just naturally better at (certain) sports than whites, these things are in our DNA and cannot change.  Beliefs about innateness generally predate any evidence about the basis of the trait under discussion, and are fiercely resistant to evidence against them -- indeed it seems that the belief will be expressed in the face of disconfirming evidence.

Cultural stereotyping, of race or gender or age or religion, heightens this contradiction.  That the trait, doctrine, behavior is socially constructed is all the more reason why it must be enforced and protected and nonconformity punished, yet Nature is often invoked in its support.  The apostle Paul notoriously claimed, for example, that "nature itself teach[es] that if a man have long hair it is a shame unto him" (1 Corinthians 11:14), and a commentator whose name I can't recall claimed that Paul was using "nature" to mean "custom."  I think that by "nature" Paul was referring to custom, but he was obfuscating the distinction, whether he did so consciously or not.  To use F. G. Bailey's terminology, he was using his "moral mind," which flouts evidence and reason to establish one's bona fides.  That's true of most discourse in such matters, including Greg Tate's as I've quoted him here.  But then, people who claim they don't see race are also using their moral minds.

Of course I see color, and because I'm a reasonably well socialized American I see "race" -- that is, I know the convoluted mythology America has invented around skin color, ancestry, culture.  But I know it's a mythology.  I don't claim to have escaped it completely; no one has, and that includes black people.  What matters is not that you see color, but what you think it means and how you act as a result.  That's why I immediately become wary when someone insists on the "reality" of race: are they getting ready to deploy some version of mystical biological determinism?  Robert Reid-Pharr wrote in Once You Go Black: Race, Desire, and the Black American Intellectual (NYU Press, 2007):
While the black body so ably described by postwar Black American nationalists may be a marker of a more politically efficacious political rhetoric, it also seems to be the last depository of wildly simplistic thinking regarding Black American history and culture.  George Jackson, arguably the most sophisticated of mid-century nationalist intellectuals, makes the point nicely:
My recall is nearly perfect, time has faded nothing.  I recall the very first kidnap.  I’ve lived through the passage, lain in the unmarked, shallow graves of the millions of fertilized the Amerikan soil with their corpses; cotton and corn growing out of my chest, “unto the third and fourth generation,” the tenth, the hundredth.
I continue to return to this rather stunning quote from Jackson precisely because the beauty and economy of the prose belie the incredible sloppiness of the thought.  Jackson has no recall, no memory whatsoever of the African continent, the middle passage, enslavement.  Indeed in his admittedly noble efforts to reclaim the lost African body he shuts himself off from the most basic realities of Black American history and culture.  That is to say, confronted with the reality that there is no authoritative history of the slave, Jackson constitutes a sort of Baroque poetics of the black body – fecund modifier substituted for stale fact [127].
I would add that I've also become wary of "black bodies," a critical-theory term which seems to have spread like a radioactive virus through public discourse on race in America in the past few years.  "Black bodies" may serve as a reminder that your mind doesn't matter, it's your body that the police will seize and punish.  I suspect that Rodney Harrison claimed that Colin Kaepernick wasn't black (in an attempt to discredit the latter's protest against racist oppression in the US) because Kaepernick's adoptive parents were white -- as though that would have shielded him from racial profiling or other racist practices.  Similar accusations were made against Barack Obama during his first Presidential run, as I recall.  (I wonder if Harrison would claim that a white kid raised by black parents wasn't white?)  But I'm not sure that's all that "black bodies" is meant to imply.  So far it seems to be just a buzzword, which is harmless enough.  What would speaking of "white bodies" signify, I wonder?  So I'm still listening carefully when a black speaker refers to "black bodies," to try to hear what else is being said.  I've found it instructive, for example, when I hear (or am tempted to use) the word "racial," to substitute "racist" -- "racial epithet," for example, or "racial language."  Sometimes "racial" is meant to suggest that whatever is going on is inspired if not caused by "race," when it clearly comes from racism.  It's a subtle distinction, but I think it's real, and useful to bear in mind.

"Race and difference keep mattering," Greg Tate wrote, and he's right.  Rather than deny difference, as do people who claim not to see it, we need to see it and think about it.  What would those people do if they did "see" color?  But as Barbara and Karen Fields insist, racism doesn't happen "because of" race; "race" was invented -- "constructed" might be the right word here after all, because the term already existed, with different meanings, long before it took on the meanings we are used to in the US today -- to rationalize the oppression that some people wanted to impose on others.  The same is true of the sex/gender oppression that Tate apparently wants not to see.  What does he see?  What does he not see?

(The title of this post, by the way, comes from a relevant poem by the radical poet Muriel Rukeyser.)

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Sexual Correctness

I see that the noted rape apologist Dr. Ruth Westheimer is being brought to my town next week, to speak at a Sex Salon hosted by a professor and sex researcher associated with the Kinsey Institute.  I wonder if her views on rape and consent will come up, so to speak.  I will be working that evening, so I can't pony up the $10 admission fee.  I'm asking some people I know with relevant interests and connections about it, though.

Something like this is a perfect opportunity to address "Political Correctness," I think.  I do not think that Westheimer should not be allowed to speak in Bloomington; quite the contrary.  I do think she should have to talk about and defend her absurd and indeed false statements about rape.  For those who don't know or have forgotten, about a year ago Westheimer told a TV interviewer:
I am very worried about college campuses saying that a woman and a man—or two men or two women, but I talk right now about women and men—can be in bed together, Diane, and at one time, naked, and at one time he or she, most of the time they think she, can say “I changed my mind.”

No such thing is possible. In the Talmud, in the Jewish tradition, it says when that part of the male anatomy is aroused and there’s an erection, the brain flies out of that and we have to take that very seriously, so I don’t agree with that.
As I showed in the post I wrote about Westheimer at the time, she was alluding to a proverb that is not in the Talmud.  Some rabbis and scholars, whom I quoted, claimed that the Talmud's stance on consent was opposed to Westheimer's and agreed with modern feminism, but that wasn't true either.  Not that it matters, because neither folklore nor the Talmud has any authority on this subject, except for observant Jews who give them authority.  And perhaps not for them either, because the Talmud is an archive of debate and dissent and a springboard for more debate and dissent by experts in its tradition, not a final authority.  As another proverb says, Two Jews, three opinions.

Lest anyone suggest that this was a long time ago (over a year!) and who cares, it should be obvious that a lot of people do care; that rape, sexual assault, and consent are still hot issues; and that Westheimer did her best to bury the controversy when it first came up.  She should not be allowed to do so.  The Salon will take place off-campus, but it's connected to the University through the faculty who run it, and Westheimer specifically blamed colleges for fostering what she considered a bad, impossible point of view.  She's a doctor, a celebrity, and a public figure, so she really must be prepared to defend her position.  The attempt to shut down debate and silence disagreement (in this case, by an appeal to authority) is hers, not mine.  If she's changed her opinion since last year, that would be good to know too. 

In this I'm in complete agreement with the University of Chicago's official position, which I am sure Indiana University also holds.  Debating questions like this, rather than settling them by fiat, is (however ironically) what real Political Correctness is supposed to be about.  But if you want to talk about Political Correctness as it's universally caricatured, Westheimer's position is a paradigm case, which is all the more reason she needs to be challenged on it.