Friday, March 13, 2009

Zora Says: What Does it Say That We Finally Have a Negro in the White House with "Madea Goes to Jail" as the #1 Movie in America?

With Obama firmly placed in the Oval Office, many Americans are taking off their Sunday best and stepping back into their "everyday" clothes. They are reclining into their regular practices confident that their pro-Obama votes have washed away their racial sins. Somehow, they perceive that that one political act has completed the work of social and political justice in our nation. The vote for Obama now entitles them to speak and act uncritically in areas of race and ethnicity. Apparently, Obama aids passed out post-racial passes to all those who voted for him, or at least claimed to have voted for him.

I am really struggling to maintain the high I achieved on my trip to witness the inauguration. I returned from D.C. to a town fraught with economic anxieties. The major employer in the area, my employer, had announced that soon it would be entering an unprecedented period of layoffs. My community is largely white with a strong "town-gown dynamic." The expectation was that the layoffs would be concentrated among lower-level support staff -- "townies" -- and among more recent hires -- "outsiders" who tend to be mostly minority. The result was that folks outside of those constituencies did little to prepare themselves for the cuts. With their Obama buttons on their lapels, they put together restructuring proposals that would do away with diversity initiatives and benefits for pink/blue- collar workers, and that would consolidate responsibilities under insider, white managers. Picture Sarah Palin wearing one of those Obama masks.

Surprise, surprise ... the cuts did not happen as expected. The decision-makers actually took the time to assess the value of the employees based on their productivity, performance evaluations, and ability to work with others. The cuts were still bottom-heavy, but not as much as expected. The result was that there were significant lay-offs among those who had considered themselves untouchable. When the news broke, the atmosphere was like that in the Republican National Committee during McCain's concession speech. It didn't take long for folks to start leveling the "stink-eye" at the "outsiders" who survived the cuts -- as a relatively young, African-American woman, that includes me. Of course, it was my gender and race that saved me. It had nothing to do with the fact that I manage to be twice as productive with half of the resources of others, that I regularly work 10-12 hour days while my colleagues are off skiing in Stowe, that I am one of a hand-full of employees who have made an attempt to update practices that were put in place back in the seventies, that I have turned around an office that my older, white colleagues deemed un-fixable, ... Nope, none of that.

We should not be surprised. Obama's election was a watershed event in American politics; however, it is naive to expect that Americans would drop their racial hang-ups with his election. Up until a few months ago, his own Secretary of State was pulling out every affirmative action stereotype she could think of: "he's smart, but he's not experienced," "he's articulate, but lacks leadership skills," "his mentors and advisers are the engines behind his success." Obama was labeled as an "outsider" not just to Washington politics, but to American society as a whole. What's so funny is that many of the folks who were quick to point out the racial hypocrisy and prejudice of the campaign season, are the very same who refuse to acknowledge it in their reactions to recent layoffs. It is a lot harder for them to acknowledge racial baggage when it sits on their own stoop. Obama is not their competitor, I am.

Even more funny is the indignation that is expressed by supposed Obama supporters when you call them on their prejudice and lack of understanding. One of my colleagues suggested that restructuring involve the slashing of our institutional diversity offices and personnel. First, she cited the election of Obama as proof that such resources were no longer needed. She then went on to suggest that as a white woman married to a black man, she was perfectly suited to anticipate and address issues of diversity. (In case you are wondering, she has no formal training on these issues.) She was offended that her "expertise" would be questioned. I tried to get her to acknowledge the absurdity of her assertion by suggesting that men have an intrinsic understanding of women's issues simply by being married to women. She failed to understand my point and looked at me like I was the idiot. This woman was part of the lay-offs and is now considering a discrimination lawsuit based on her status as a middle-aged, white woman -- no kidding. I still see her zipping around town with her Obama CHANGE bumper sticker.

Jeffrey Toobin recently wrote in the New Yorker about politicians who are arguing that the Voting Rights Act is no longer relevant given Obama's election. He counters this by pointing out that voting patterns in the Deep South signal that race continues to be a major factor in American political life: "Barack Obama actually did worse among whites than John Kerry in several of the covered jurisdictions, despite the nationwide Democratic swing." We should be careful not to dismiss this data just because it focuses on the South. Those of us who have been "raced" experience everyday instances, difficult to recount and impossible to quantify, that confirm racism as a continuing phenomenon in our society. Conservatives are not alone in their desire to use Obama as an excuse to take racism out of the national dialogue. Joining them are some so-called "progressives" who are all too willing to use their Obama button as a way out of confronting their own demons.

So what does Obama in the White House have to do with "Madea Goes to Jail" being the #1 movie in America for seven weeks? Well, I began thinking about this question when I realized that being #1 for seven weeks means that Negroes are not alone in flocking to view a tired stereotype play itself out on screen. When I saw it showing at the local theatre in a town where the number of black people amounts to less than one percent of the total population, I really began to wonder. Why is Madea so popular at a time in our history when you would think that such a character would be passé?

It wasn't until I was approached for the third or fourth time by white co-workers praising Madea that I realized why he/she is so popular. Madea evokes a time when Negroes were non-threatening, when their only legitimate roles were to serve and to entertain. With the fate of our nation in the hands of a black man, it would make sense for Americans -- still immature in their racial understanding -- to cling to such stereotypes like a baby clings to a pacifier. And, in my role as an African-American woman who is perceived to have unjustly survived a major layoff, I can't help but to think that my co-workers' praise for Madea signals their desire that I conform to what he/she represents. Again, the irony is that these are people who are nearly Obamaniacs. At the same time, are they also people who are uncomfortable with the thought of losing white privilege?


macon d said...

Great post--would that some of those Obama Lovers would read it! Read it sincerely, that is, instead of skeptically.

At the same time, are they also people who are uncomfortable with the thought of losing white privilege?

Well, maybe not with the THOUGHT of that, since they may well be willing to acknowledge that they have it, and that they should therefore be willing to relinquish it. But with the reality of losing it? Yeah, they're very uncomfortable with that, as you post so well demonstrates.

MilesEllison said...

The fact that Medea Goes to Jail was the highest grossing film means a lot of things. None of them good. Tyler Perry's minstrelsy is comforting to people who feel the ground shifting beneath them. White people who feel that their privileged hegemony is threatened are comforted by an updated version of the mammy stereotype; a reminder of a simpler time when black people were only clowns, not equals.

The black people who find Tyler Perry's work comforting were either not paying attention during this last election or they have come to embrace century-plus old stereotypes because they think that black control of offensive racial images makes them somehow inoffensive.

Anonymous said...

White folks, even the most bleeding heart liberals of the bunch who pay lip service to full consciousness of white privilege, remain staunchly committed to its benefits. Any instance that requires them to not just name or critique said privilege (which I know from my everyday experiences as someone who teaches black history as a mainly white institution is difficult in and of itself), but to actually conceive of life without it, gives them serious pause.

The election of Obama in particular had many white people's minds reeling as the ultimate position of privilege in America was suprisingly claimed by a clear racial "other" and indeed, after a few last ditch efforts to whiten this clearly African American man (and there were many that tried to heighten his half whiteness in order to do that job but to no avail as our President's black skin just would not go away), the only way to reinforce white privilege, and indeed control over the tenuous situation (that they sensed for their privilege) in the new America after Nov 4th would be to upend the longer term commitment to racial justice of communities of color from which political power of these communities has historically sprung: by denying the presence of race and racism from American society, by simply positing that Obama's arrival meant all of our arrival. When all of us know that nothing could be further from the case. What is that act, if not an ultimate reassertion of the same white privilege all over again.

In my response to you guys' great black history month post about the church of James Brown, my first thought was to zero in on Madea because this character was not just a rehash of all of what we knew was wrong with the black image in the white mind historicall, but indeed Madea is during this age of Obama, the anti-Michelle Obama. And it was this post by Zora that made it all so clear for me though, and allows me to articulate it now. The loud talking, purse swinging, mammy-esque sterotype that placed blackness and particularly black womanhood in a masculinized yet simultaneously unthreatening place politically and socially. Meanwhile Michelle's educated and feminine demeanor, and her rather controlled comportment despite her obviously black skin, is what remains conversely quite threatening to white Americans (and you too, Zora, in the context of your well-done performance at work plays a similarly nagging role for many whites at your job, hence you are on the receiving end of their blatant racism in a moment of economic downturn when again their privilege is under threat) Michelle Obama really seems to challenge white privilege in the subtlest of ways. Maybe that's why no publication can seem to let go of her dress choices and her appearance and constantly reduce Michelle's radiant whole to her many physical parts, from her arms to her legs to her butt. Black women have been suffering such a dissection of their bodies from time immemorial (see the Hottentot Venus for example) so its no suprise that such an impulse gains new steam in this day and age where white privilege is really up for critique and review.

There is something radically wrong with consumption of Madea and similar kinds of black images by white folks, and but what's even more wrong is the consumption and creation of Madea and her ilk by black folks who see the Christianized, mainstreamed typical messages of "how to be" that such a character portrays as a central definition of blackness. As black folks' best foot forward rather than a step back into 1915.

I coudl go on all day about this. But I have papers to grade despite it supposedly being spring break. Alas the academic's work is never done. But kudos to you for a great post.