reappropriate

Friday, October 06, 2006

Owning the Building and Still Wanting a Seat

It's a hard thing to realize as a minority in a White-dominated society: though I am saturated with White culture, White society, White history, and White people, and though I can probably guess-timate to a greater extent what Whiteness is all about compared to a White person trying to imagine the life of a person of colour, my best guess-timate is still just that -- a guess. Recently, I have been preoccupied with trying to understand how and why many Whites in America seem to have such an alien reaction to discussions of race relations, very much akin to a "White Man's Burden" narrative, that strikes me as wholly foreign. (I was particularly struck last night as I watched David Mamet's film adaptation of his play, Edmond.) As a woman of colour, race remains foremost on my mind. Every morning, I step out into a world in which I am perceived primarily as different, unique, and unusual. I cannot hide in a sea of faces, and believe that I am just like everyone else: even the slightest comment is enough to remind me that my skin colour and "almond eyes" are a factor. Even the most supposedly tolerant White people I work with cannot help but Otherize me; last month, I was subjected to several non sequitor remarks referencing my "Eastern" heritage in conversations that otherwise had nothing to do with anything Asian. Two weeks ago, I noted that I was one of a mere ~265 Asian Pacific Islander graduate students at my school last year (representing a fraction of a percent of total graduate students), a statistic which most graduate students wouldn't even bother to look up, let alone place any significance upon. It's hard to imagine myself in a position where I wouldn't feel racialized, or in which, when I step outside in the morning, I can rest assured that, if all else fails, I am just like everyone else: normal. So, I can only scratch my head when I observe what seems to be an increasingly popular sentiment amongst the White mainstream: a frustration with race relations and a backlash against racial identity. Just a couple hundred miles north of where I currently sit, an undergraduate student group at Arizona State University has gained national notoriety. Over 40 students at ASU have formed and claimed membership to the newly-founded Caucasian American Men's Club (CAMASU), which describes itself as a cultural club for Whites (CNN video). The choice of name is hardly incidental: though the group purports to celebrate Caucasian culture, the name specifically cites Caucasian men. We understand almost immediately that this is a club intended to re-invent the most privileged group in America -- White men -- as the underprivileged, based on cultural clubs that have been traditionally used to communicate minority viewpoints to White-centric college campuses. The group's founders state that they feel the existing of CAMASU is only fair in light of the existence of an African American Men's group on campus. One founder, Matt Jiezerski, cites Whites as an emerging minority group, saying:

I [as a Caucasian man] do feel like a minority and I do feel like Caucasian males in general, y'know, from all parts of Europe, from all nationalities are being underrepresented... so [after seeing a poster for the African American Men's group] I thought it would only be fair to have a Caucasian American group and to show it as, y'know, a legitimate organization and as, y'know, a group of people with a cultural history and a signficiant heritage and past.
The formation of this group is, to me, in the same vein as the formation of specific groups earlier in this country's history that was intended to exclude, explicitly or inexplicitly, the Other. Like White Southerners who grow up long past the era of the Civil War and yet still claim pride in the Confederate flag, it seems as if, more and more frequently, we are seeing White Americans who misread privilege and normalcy as oppression, and are drawn to these groups because they see something "special" in being different. Though the CAMASU advisor is quick to point out that the group doesn't advocate White supremacy or the exclusion of people of colour, one has to wonder what message is sent by a group of people, with membership in the racial mainstream, feeling the need to appropriate niche aspects of people of colour to further emphasize their own identity. Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that CAMASU shouldn't exist. I simply don't understand why it needs to. I have to wonder why Whites seem to feel threatened by the existence of minority-oriented clubs and organizations in the first place. What was it about the African American Men's club that so bothered Jawierski that he felt the need to create CAMASU? Clubs like the African American Men's Club are also open to people of races, and focus on narratives largely excluded from the traditional American narrative. Back at Cornell, when I participated in events held by the Black Students United group (or created my own events for the Asian Pacific Americans for Action club I led), we discussed parts of history that are ignored by the White-centric classes taught in courses we could take for credit. For my group, we focused on the presence of Asian Americans during the Civil Rights era (for example, a radical Asian American group the worked closely with the Black Panther Party called I Wor Kuen that is rarely mentioned in today's history classes, even those focussing on Civil Rights) or the struggle of Asian American men in navigating Hollywood's sexual stereotyping of them as demasculinated and invisible). What, we have to ask, would CAMASU do for its events to highlight White heritage that is not already addressed in class? Beyond just CAMASU, I have heard ever more frequently this characterization of Whites as a minority group, underrepresented in a society with increasing minority presence. Though statistics don't support any possible underrepresentation of Whites in mainstream media or on campuses like ASU (as an aside, Survivor: Cook Islands singlehandedly increased representation of Asian American characters on television by a third), why are many Whites feeling marginalized by minorities? For that matter, why do some Whites still struggle with discussions of race politics? Many of the Whites I have the greatest problems with on a racial level, are those who most avidly claim to be non-racially biased. Although one might imagine the vocally intolerant, older generation of Whites who lived through Jim Crow to be the most difficult to interact with, I have come to find that it's frequently the White liberals, who claim to be open-minded and tolerant to diversity, who have the hardest time adjusting to discussions of race relations. I interact with many White people who blanche (no pun intended) at the mere mention of race, or who almost instinctively respond with the nigh-hysterical statement, "I'm not racist! I don't have a problem with race! It wouldn't matter to me if you were Black, White, Brown, or Yellow!" anytime I bring up my perspective as an Asian American woman. What's frustrating is that this fanatic adherence to superficial tolerance is almost as close-minded as the most fervent KKK member; so desperately are these Whites afraid of being labelled a racist that even suggesting an open discussion on race terrifies and frustrates them. Instead, clinging to a view of the world in which racism can be willed out of existence by merely chanting the mantra of "un-racism", these White liberals soon find my presence untenable and unwelcome. My identity as an Asian American woman becomes exhausting and I become the problem: always finding racism where they see none. I, as the person of colour, become the perpetrator of racism, by being "over-sensitive". I, as the person of colour, become the oppressor by making the White person feel uncomfortable in their privileged skin. I, as the person of colour, become the self-absorbed, because I experience racism when they do not. In the end, these "un-racists" prefer to return to their world of "tolerance", safe in feeling liberated from racism while never being challenged by the thoughts of a genuine person of colour. And so, CAMASU exists, to cater to this "new minority" of Whites, who see racism in the existence of race and who feel oppressed by America's history of oppression. Unfortunately, this seemingly inconsequential reaction to the Civil Rights Movement has a more sinister side: this interpretation of race relations as marginalizing Whites only serves to refocus discussions of race relations away from people of oppressed races. The unspoken consequence of the CAMASU club is, also, to parody the African American Men's Club that inspired the group's name. Rather than approach race relations in good faith, this "un-racist" mindset would reject complex discussions of race politics in favour of sweeping the discomfort of racism back under the rug. In a mere century, racial minorities have gone from being animalistic creatures undeserving of basic human rights (let alone Constitutional rights) to representing a sizable fraction of people in the country and at institutions of higher learning. Brought to this country under bondage, forced to work for the benefit of Whites, marginalized, misunderstood, misrepresented, and -- on occasion -- murdered for our differences, we have nonetheless forged ahead and created a round table where we can share mutual equality. That table might be rickety and creaky, it might sit in the back-room of a large restaurant, and we might still struggle with the number of chairs to seat at it, but, at least, it is ours. Whites own the rest of the building -- why do they want a seat at our table, too?

8 Comments:

Blogger Filby said...

For that matter, why do some Whites still struggle with discussions of race politics?

...

...so desperately are these Whites afraid of being labelled a racist that even suggesting an open discussion on race terrifies and frustrates them.


I think you answered your own question there. When White Americans talk about race issues, we look like naive twits and our ignorance is out there for all to see. Which, needless to say, is a very lame excuse, as the only way to chip away at that ignorance is to open up to discussion and admit that our preconceptions could be wrong.

Regarding this CAMASU nonsense. I don't get it. Whites aren't a cohesive group, nor do we need to be. I think it speaks volumes about these students' own insecurity if they feel less "special" next to others who come together for legitimate reasons, and form a group with no cause beyond shallow imitation.

10/06/2006 07:18:00 PM  
Anonymous smelmoth said...

"CAMASU exists to cater to this "new minority" of Whites, who see racism in the existence of race and who feel oppressed by America's history of oppression."

extremely well put.

indeed, you could replace "CAMASU" with "90% of party politics" or "75% of popular American culture".... the numbers are, of course, rough estimates, mileage may vary, but your point could not be more perfectly succinct.

re: the notion expressed by Filby above ,that "whites aren't a cohesive group" is true to a point. But then when a huge chunk of white society just happens to adhere to a racial politics that is monochromatic, you can't help but acknowledge that there is a cohesive culture behind this. Indeed, the irony behind whiteness as it plays out in modern multicultural america, and perhaps the gist for the anxiety behind groups like CAMASU, is that part of the shared group identity code involves invoking the mantra, "we don't have a culture."

One thing I have to beg to differ with Jen on this issue... it ain't new. The whole "Angry White Men" issue was key to the rise of the Republican Right in 1994. Key to their cohesion was the reappropriation of multiculturalist ideas, only now with a pale pink face.

The thing with CAMASU is now they are in a bind. Being too clever by half, they think they've pulled one over us all with their tricky reappropriation, but now the rubber's gonna hit the road, and they will have to show how C.A.Ms are indeed being left out, or whatever, without looking either insane or racist. And that will be quite impossible... and so, CAMASU will fade into the desert twilight, a rolling tumbleweed that may look substantial at first sight, but is in fact composed almost entirely of empty space.

10/06/2006 08:48:00 PM  
Blogger Bankuei said...

White people usually go right into a defensive place in these discussions because at least subconsciously, they recognize:

a) they hold privilege
b) other white people use privilege, and by not checking them, they're giving silent assent
c) that this system of privilege is protected by its invisibility- by not recognizing it.

Anything which potentially removes that privilege (including, say, another group having a strong identity and possibly showing that the world doesn't ALL revolve around white people), becomes a hot button for that defensiveness.

You can usually see it because the logic used is poor, and shifting, and it often becomes clear when you simply transpose the logic to a similar situation reversing the roles...

For example, CAMASU would make sense, if, 95% of the history books they were using in class were filled with non-white history.

Of course, they're not thinking logically, they're defending their privilege.

The metaphor I use is this:

One person has a knife, another person doesn't. The suggestion that either a) no one should have knives, or b) everyone should have the right to carry a knife, makes the knife holder very nervous and feel threatened.

So much for equality.

10/06/2006 11:56:00 PM  
Blogger little light said...

It's a lot like the "War On Christmas"--the intolerable thing is being presented as one among many, as not special and majority and superior. Their definition of "minority" is "having privilege checked at all."
They buy into this bullshit zero-sum game where if the rest of us get to be equals, then they have to necessarily be "less equal" or lose something somehow as a result, added to a paranoia that if the rest of us are ever on top, we'll give them what they gave us when we were on the bottom.

10/07/2006 08:09:00 PM  
Blogger ballastexistenz said...

I got here from Creative Destruction.

There's a particular way of insulating oneself from the world that is really only open to white/privileged people.

That is, pretending the problem doesn't exist, and pretending that a problem is solved the more it's totally and completely ignored, and the more people become seen as little individual bubble-islands with no relation to each other and certainly never to be grouped together even to analyze oppression (because that would be Wrong).

The post that got me linked on that Creative Destruction post (which then led me here) was about a conversation with someone who happened to take that particular position to an extreme.

Here's something slightly edited from part of what I commented there awhile ago about her standpoint (for background, I'm white and very obviously developmentally disabled -- enough that people who see pictures of me don't always believe this is my writing -- and the person I'm discussing was a white woman who helped me out around the house and such, so the main power dynamic was the staff/client cognitively-disabled/not-cognitively-disabled thing):

I ended up in a pretty much unending (regardless of how much I tried to avoid it by avoiding political topics) series of clashes with this person, because she was terrified in general of viewing anything as beyond the personal.

As in, when my roommate pointed out something as simple as “When Amanda walks down the street, people call the cops. That doesn’t happen to you, right?” She panicked and tried to find some explanation besides ableism.

She told me once that she found it both frightening and distasteful for anyone to think of each other based on groups, so she would think of everyone totally as an individual, and everyone’s behavior towards each other as never motivated or affected by anything like prejudice, privilege, etc, because the very idea of prejudice, privilege, etc, was abhorrent to her. Which usually translated into her finding some pretty interesting ways to abuse power while insisting that she was “not the kind of person who abuses power”. (She also insisted that she didn’t have to deal with adult responsibility in this job, and that this was why she liked it so much, because the clients (us) were "like kids" anyway.)

So basically her terror of all things political, combined with my very political bent, made for a really bad personality clash that was unavoidable at times. I ended up having to totally squelch my personality around her in order for her not to run out of the room in a panic in the middle of shifts basically (and I put up with all kinds of stuff from her that was just wrong). And if my personality poked out even a little she would be running outside to calm down. She was very controlling and I ended up putting up with a lot. But other clients have put up with things from her that make me want to smash things on their behalf.

This person, by the way, claimed to be super-sensitive to the "suffering of others" and thus to refuse to think about it at all (even , apparently, when she causes it) "in order to be able to function". She never understood the bizarreness of this, when, for instance, I can't not plan for thinking about inequality if I want to function. (Nor could she accept that this was true of me. She insisted that I was just bizarrely sensitive and taking things personally, if I surmised that there was some connection between prejudice and, say, the fact that I can't walk outside alone without someone wondering where I "wandered off from" and whether I needed to be locked up somewhere for my own safety.)

10/10/2006 06:53:00 AM  
Blogger sailorman said...

Linked from Alas.

Great post.

10/10/2006 11:18:00 AM  
Anonymous gatamala said...

"Beyond just CAMASU, I have heard ever more frequently this characterization of Whites as a minority group, underrepresented in a society with increasing minority presence. Though statistics don't support any possible underrepresentation of Whites in mainstream media or on campuses like ASU (as an aside, Survivor: Cook Islands singlehandedly increased representation of Asian American characters on television by a third), why are many Whites feeling marginalized by minorities? For that matter, why do some Whites still struggle with discussions of race politics?

Many of the Whites I have the greatest problems with on a racial level, are those who most avidly claim to be non-racially biased. Although one might imagine the vocally intolerant, older generation of Whites who lived through Jim Crow to be the most difficult to interact with, I have come to find that it's frequently the White liberals, who claim to be open-minded and tolerant to diversity, who have the hardest time adjusting to discussions of race relations"


I had this experience while watching a doc on LinkTV last week. The subject was the growth of white supermacist gangs in the rural area outside of San Diego. [Can't find the name of the doc]. The gravamen of the argument was that (1) shrinking economic opportunity due to the elimination of high-wage, low education jobs,(2) the subsequent erosion of the family in rural SoCal (3)in conjunction with changing racial/ethnic demographics and a sense of alienation/rebellion/angst led to two meth-hopped white boys beating a homeless Mexican man to death in a ravine by dropping a 42 lb boulder on his head. They beat him and came back for more after they went for beer. This act was also compared to school shootings in similar, neighboring counties.

These kids/men/women are skinheads. They wear docs, red suspenders. They celebrate Hitler's birthday and are tatted with "dago bolts" - which are the lightning bolts the SS used as an emblem. Their graffitti includes, "white power, n------ die, s---- die, KKK rules, white boy click [sic]"... They emulate the form of the SoCal Latin gangs.

Note: the demos. are changing - in So. Cal as in the rest of the country. HOWEVER, VERY VERY few of the faces shown in their schools were non-white. Only a handful were black. How one could even plausibly pretend that there is ethnic marginalization is laughable. The director/narrator made a point of emphasizing the poor white n'hoods and the wealthy n'hoods next to the NaAm casino. NOTE: she did NOT show any NaAm faces watering the flowers.

My problem w/ the doc was the tone. The tone was explicitly stated by a sociologist who worked with these youth - "the boys don't have an "identity" like the Blacks and Hispanics - they are not racists, it's just teenage rebellion". This [white] soc. was actually arguing that THESE white boys in a 90% white, working class county are marginalized and so need to band together! Not only that...but their adoption of KKK & Nazi imagery is NOT to be taken as racist.

Marginalized? Exclusion? Not part of what club???? No "group" identity? Whites created and define the white idenity and racial politics in the US. How about this group: Anglos, Saxons, Celts, Jutes, Picts, Normans, Bretons, Gauls, Scandinavians, Germanic peoples, Hungarians, Flemish, Dutch...the newbies Iberians (w/ Basques), Italians (w/ Sicilians), Romanians, Slavs, Greeks, Bulgars, the folks from the Caucasus (since they jacked their name) -- maybe sort of Jews, Roma*. How can a member of THAT crew feel like an outsider??????? [btw Jenn, talk about guesstimates. How many of these newly marginalized folks could do such an "ethnic" rundown on us???]

You are so very, sadly right Jenn. The sympathetic, educated, liberal type (the soc was from Portland - ha!) is often the most dangerous with the theories and propagates the white male vicitimization. What makes this more interesting is the the youth's (filmed in shadow) take on the situation. He knows and fully admits to being a racist. He states that the racism is more of a problem than the county wants to admit. In fact, the worst comments come out of the older folks who don't want to seem racist.

10/10/2006 04:05:00 PM  
Anonymous gatamala said...

To quote the words of our beloved leader...I "forgot about Poland".

10/10/2006 04:12:00 PM  

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