Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Zora Says: What Would White Folks Think?

At this point, you have all figured out that Chauncey, Gordon and I differ a lot in our writing styles, in our sense of humor, and in our perspectives on the politics of race. This isn't something that typically bothers us; indeed, in the great Negro tradition, we glory in our diversity. However, there is one area that we continue to struggle with -- What do White folks think? and Do we care?

I have to say that from the early beginnings of this blog, I have always been conscious of how White readers would interpret our posts. My concerns have had to do less with whether or not they will see them as acceptable nee respectable, and more to do with them misinterpreting our project. We all know that there are things that we might say among ourselves that we would never say in mixed company. (I think that this must be true for every racial or ethnic group in America, including Jews, Desi, Chinese-Americans, etc.)

Alexyss Tylor has been the subject of several Chauncey DeVega posts. And, to quote Monty Python's Pontious Pilot, Alexyss is indeed "wisible." I have never been completely comfortable highlighting her on this site, however, because I don't think that White folks get the joke. Do they see truth where we see irony? In order for something to be ironic, it has to have some basis in reality. If our White readers have a skewed understanding of African-American life in the first place, how can they ever get our jokes? This is the conundrum that Dave Chapelle found himself in: are they laughing with me, or are they laughing at me?

Being a respectable Negress, I also worry about how certain images and narratives will reflect on the African-American community at large. We actually have a post label titled "politics of respectability" that we attach to postings that either challenge negro respectability or engage it in some way. Among our "dislikes" are malt liquor, Tyler Perry and ghetto literature. Why? Because they either confirm or reinforce negative racial stereotypes. Chaucey recently wanted to post pictures from You Know You Dead Ass Wrong on our blog and I flat out refused. I don't want any part of promoting negative images of Negroes, for there is an abundance out there already. On this subject, Gordon often loses his patience with me. He feels no attachment to the figures on sites like Hot Ghetto Mess. His sense of linked fate does not extend to them. He and Chris Rock share the sentiment that there is a difference between "niggers" and black people. Gordon may have a valid point, but do White people get that difference?

Finally, I don't like double-standards. How would we react if we found out that Hot Ghetto Mess was produced by a bunch of elite, White kids? Or, better yet, by Republican operatives? Can we refer to ourselves or to others as "niggers" and then get upset when someone White does the same thing? Can we be essentialist about other races and ethnic groups and then protest when we are essentialized? Does it matter if we are "just joking?"

"It's a very delicate line to walk," says David Allen Grier in discussing his new show Chocolate News. "...It's one thing to put on a dress and be that sassy black woman, which is a negative African-American female archetype. Now it's another thing to comment on just that phenomenon ... There has been a genetic mutation ... that the only way black men can be heard is by dressing like fat black mamas."

Both Chauncey and Gordon often say that we shouldn't waste our time concerned about how others will interpret our work. We simply can't control what readers, Negro or not, will take away. Even while they say this in the context of this blog, I also know that they are strivers who study and work in circles where they are often "the only one." No matter what they say, they have to care what White people think.

What do other Negro bloggers think? How are you all navigating this terrain? Who's your audience? And for White bloggers and readers, what do you people think? Am I underestimating you?


Your driver said...

I am an old white guy. I've been following race issues since I was a teenager. I don't have any real problems understanding the subtle nuances here. Insofar as I sometimes don't get it, it's usually because of age differences. Also, I gave up on mainstream pop culture a long time ago, so I sometimes don't understand comments about pop culture figures. There's precious little open and honest discussion of race going on today. Unfortunately, the topic is threatening to most white people, and white people pretty much control the general public discussion. Personally, I welcome being challenged or made to think.

Anonymous said...

He and Chris Rock share the sentiment that there is a difference between "niggers" and black people. Gordon may have a valid point, but do White people get that difference?

This is one of my pet peeves. Do white say, "There is trailer park trash, and there are white people. I'm a white person"? No, they don't. Trailer park trash is trailer park trash -- no one feels the need to differentiate them from normal white people.

To define groups by their skin color, which the construct "nigger" vs "black person" does, demeans all of us. It's a short step from "Those people are niggers" to "All those people are niggers," a step made even shorter when black people are throwing the word around. Chris Rock is a funny, bright guy who means well for the community, but he's annoyingly wrong on this issue.

Shaina said...

OT: But, I have a new euphanism for 'white people': "Joe the Plumber"

Anonymous said...

Jon -- who sounds like an awesome human being -- notwithstanding, I don't think you are vastly underestimating the ability or willingness of most white Americans to "get it." I also don't think you should worry about it much.

Read Toni Morrison on this subject, know who your core audience is (because no one is really writing for a "universal" audience; most writers are really writing for one person, in fact) and write as honestly and as fearlessly as you can.

The rest will take care of itself.

I love the site, by the way.

macon d said...

I don't know if you're underestimating other white readers, but not this one. I'm a big fan of this site, but I don't take anything on it as representative of all black thought and experience. And it's so smart and clever (I do mean two different things there) that I doubt most of those who WOULD take anything on it that way stick around for very long. They very likely scratch their ignorant heads once or twice and then leave, forever.

Anonymous said...

This lends its self in someways to the "End of Black Politics?" article that the NY Times ran a few months back. One of the aspects of that article that I took with me is embracing elements of blackness not as a stereotype but just as what is part of what we do.

I know there were a fair amount of colored folk who were aghast by Barry-O hooping it up for recreation and not out on the links for somehow no matter how far one "makes it" you're still "slinging (some sort of) crack rock or got a wicked jump shot." I think this a foolish notion that there are just certain ways we express ourselves and there are certain outlets that are just "what we do".

Hell after a hard day in corporate America my mid level exec, MBA having ass looks forward to drinking a 40 and unwinding and will do that whether I'm alone or in mixed company. If said non-Negroes (and Negroes alike) want to negate the everything else in my life over my choice of beverage because that connotes way more about me than everything else I've done/did/will do in my life then the problem is not me.

Once again the surface unifying element of our Negrocity unfortunately limits the other spectrums of our existence in the areas of thought, expression. I think out this ingrained notion to protect and insulate those who are deemed "weaker" by what ever sense, in essence shackles us with a chain of weak links rather than creating a shorter stronger chain that can be better used to secure my gate and protect what I've built and trying to keep...

Just my random ramblings. I love WARN. Besides my penchant for malty goodness I rock with you all 100%. I love the diversity of thought amongst the three of you respectable Negroes. Excellent points you've raised Zora, and would take way more discussion than a comment section...

Respect due.

Kit (Keep It Trill) said...

Zora, except in professional relationships (and then to only a limited extent), I gave up caring about what whites or anyone else thinks long ago. I wasted years worrying what others thought, and couldn't be me, even the diplomatic on the job me, as a result.

Haters or the jealous will be that way no matter what, on the job, in your family, wherever.

Compromising so many aspects of myself - worker, lover, family member, writer, African American - stifled my growth and creativity, and I can't begin to tabulate the cost of that. It would be too painful to even try.

I learned that working too hard to conform to others is a way of buying their acceptance or love. You can't really buy that; either people appreciate your uniqueness as a person (or culture) for who are and what you're about - or they don't. And that's their loss.

Nice post. Got me thinking about some things. Thank you.

Jennifer said...

It's rather like asking if there are any differences between the (native) English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish. We may all look the same, and even speak the same language (English, hah!), but we can tell each other apart in many subtle if somewhat stereotypical ways.

Like Africans and West Indians. Many different countries and islands. It's absurd to think there are no noticeable differences.

What you call ghetto or trailer trash, we call common. But then I'm a polyglot Brit who was lucky enough to grow up in Central London. Vive la difference!

Zora said...

Thanks for the feedback. Maybe we do have a really selective bunch of readers. Chauncey pointed out that our least popular posts are those having to do with the "politics of respectability." Either you are all in complete agreement with what we've written there, or you just could care less about being "respectable." It may also be that the very notion of respectability is just too intangible at this point in our society.

I do think that there are also questions of power that are related to this. White people (including White ethnics) can make fun of themselves because they know that such jokes won't affect their day-to-day experience. They don't distinguish between "trailer park trash" and "white people" because they don't have to. As a black woman, I have to battle everyday the perceptions of me as a loud-mouth, aggressive, hyper-sexual (sometimes asexual), ghetto mama. Michelle Obama's experience with the campaign shows that she, too, is battling those perceptions. Unfortunately, I don't think that I am at a point where I don't have to give a damn.

I'm trying to get there though!

aimai said...

Hm. I'm one of your (many) white readers and I think you have to write what you want, how you want it, and hope that your readers keep up with you, learn from you, and respect you. A good writer, on any topic, may lose some readers (or not reach them) as they try to stretch their readers' minds, challenge them, or engage them in new ways. That's as true for new literary forms as it is for racial or political or religious or ethnic issues. You can't reach all the people all the time--and sometimes your posts will miss the mark, or confuse the morons, or otherwise "fail."

The main issue seems to me to be that blog entries are different from pamphlets or novels in that the readership dips in and out. They don't always have time to develop a long relationship with you, or you with them, and that means that what seems incredibly funny at 8:45 on a particular tuesday will fall flat for the reader who didn't read all the stuff that came before. But if the reader keeps coming back, and i think your readers do, they can also read forward and back and pick up new ways of looking at things and maybe on another day the discussion will make sense.

That's all at too high a level of abstraction. Your question was "for white bloggers and readers...are you underestimating us?" Well, maybe. There might be a lot of us and we are probably just as big a mix of dumb and smart, racist and non racist, as the rest of the population. But how should that affect your writing? You can't control your readers, you can only try to educate them and try to engage them and if some of them are too dumb to benefit? well, you did your best.

Over at LGM paul campos wrote a hysterically funny parody of what the right wing thinks will happen once Obama gets into the white house. What makes it really funny is that its just a straight up list of things bush has done. Wouldn't you know, several hysterical readers came on to lecture him about how short sighted he is and what a right wing moron because "doesn't he realize bush has already done all those things?" Yeah. That was the joke. But they didn't get it.


gordon gartrelle said...

Wonderful post, Zora.

I don't want to stop this great discussion; I just want to clarify some things:

1.) I agree with Chris Rock's sentiment, but not his words. I do not use the word "nigger"... ever. mg is absolutely right that doing so ties these people's degeneracy to their blackness. That is insidious. But Chris Rock is a comedian and provacateur, so we should grant him some leeway.

2.) As I've said before, I still haven't settled on my position on linked fate. I understand it as a reality, but don't feel the need to ascribe any normative weight to it. Just because I am tied to irresponsible losers becasue of racism doesn't mean that we have to embrace it as some kind of collective moral value.

3.) I can't stand Tyler Perry and ghetto lit because they suck. The stereotypes aren't what turn me off; I'm disgusted by the shallow content and terrible craft. A lot of black artists who trade in stereotypes actually produce some great work (e.g. the aforementioned "Chappelle's Show" and tons of classic rap songs). For me, depth and/or technique trump "positive" content.

Knockout Ed said...

I always say one of the main difference between whites & blacks is that individual black folk are stand-ins for the whole black race. There is nothing really insightful about that statement but it's why to a certain extent I think all "respectable negroes" worry about what how white folk perceive us. That being said I completely agree with 40 that the judgements that they make based upon some "stereotype" is their problem not ours.

Essaywhuman said...

I've been reading your blog only for the past month or so, so it took me a bit of perusing the archives to get caught up on some of the jokes and lingo. As a 20 year old white male, I can say that I have only truly attempted to be conscious of race issues in the past 2-3 years, so it has taken me a bit of perusing the archives to get caught up on some of the issues and perspectives.

While imperfect, the analogy works to illustrate my point. I am certain that some of your white readers will not understand your references and lingo. I didn't, which is why I dug into the archives. Ultimately you can't stop every time you write a post/live your life to explain to people who may not understand why you said or did something. White folks who look at having black friends as a way to understand such phenomona play into the "linked fate" narrative just as much as any racist, albeit probably unwittingly. Ultimately it is not your responsibility to tackle this particular dogma, though as a victim of it you are certainly within your rights to address the topic. When that gets in the way of the quality of your writing, that is when you should leave off and just remember, like kim suggested, to write as honestly and fearlessly as you can. In the end, that will do more to challenge perceptions then anything else, in my opinion.

To put it another way, I said that I think that white folks who look to black people to be their source of knowledge can play into that narrative. I speak from personal experience, and I tell you that of course you are right to fear misunderstanding from white people in general. I have tried my best to engage this topic thoughtfully with black friends and have come away looking like an ass. But, this was the biggest spur for me to rethink how I felt and thought about things, and why that was so. Had the people I engaged with held back, or given up hope on me, I might not have continued to progress. I am thankful that they placed that trust in me, though it pains me to realize how difficult it is to have that trust. I would hope that on your own blog, you feel free to place that trust in your readers, the vast majority of whom, I would hope, are more open to that same progress, but who in any event should not merit any consideration in your creative process. I hope that made sense, its a bit late for me.