Thursday, April 17, 2014

Searching for Unicorns in the Age of Obama: The TV Show 'What Would You Do?' Desperately Looks for 'Anti-White Racism' at a Black Barbershop in Harlem

"What Would You Do?" is great television.

It merges the classic TV show "Candid Camera" with social science-like experiments and a clear moral lens which offers the viewer the "good guy's" perspective: thus, breaking the proverbial 4th wall and providing an ethical Deus Ex Machina moment.

What Would You Do? is so very smart in how it creates complicity with the viewer through scenarios that are very much a black and white, cut and dry, right and wrong binary choice, where no "decent" person would side with the obvious wrongs depicted on screen.

What Would You Do? is especially powerful, because its unscripted moments often reveal basic facts about white racism and other social ills that the privileged and the in-group would prefer to deny in order to sustain the fictions of a just world that sustain them psychologically.

It is easy to maintain a sense of one's righteousness and moral superiority by watching a television show; it is much more difficult to do so through lived practice in everyday life.

What Would You Do? offers moral catharsis and cheerleading for viewers, a group that would likely choose self-interest over generosity in most of their social interactions

A settled debate about the evils of racism and the virtues of egalitarianism are central to how post civil rights America defines itself. In practice, this is muddied: for example, the Republican Party is a white identity organization which uses the language of "colorblindness" to advance a white supremacist agenda. Operating in the same historical moment, egalitarianism has been uncritically folded into a public ethos of American Exceptionalism such that a black man could be elected President of the United States while institutional and structural white supremacy still remains a dominant force in American life.

Social and political reality often undoes easy, parsimonious, social theory. Anti-intellectualism births much nonsense because it allows its adherents to be comfortable while projecting a sense of superiority as nurtured through lazy thinking.

For all of its virtues and merits, What Would You Do? is a product of the post civil rights era consensus. This bargain was based on the following lie: all Americans, of any color, or occupying any position relative to the colorline, are equally capable of being "racist".

Racism is prejudice plus power. Racism has nothing to do with color. In practice, racism has almost everything to do with how different people are located relative to different racial groups by dominant society.

Racism is not a mutual sin across the colorline. No. Racism is the near exclusive sin, in American society, of white people.

White people as a group are not racists because of some arbitrary melanin count or the laws created around its meaning. Whiteness, white supremacy, and racism are intimates because of how white society created an entire social system around advantaging its members and thus disadvantaging those others excluded from said community by virtue of skin color.

Much anger will likely be directed against such a proposition by some white folks and those people of color invested in Whiteness. This is misdirected energy. White folks who are angry about discussions of white racism should direct their talk and processing inward to their own community, and also backwards to their ancestors who were signatories to that Racial Contract.

Moreover, the flattening of history created by such a consensus fuels fictions such as "reverse racism", or the mythic belief, common to those on the White Right and its useful idiots, that white folks are somehow "victims" of "racism" in the post civil rights era.

White Supremacy, and the struggle against white on black and brown racial terrorism, has been one of the central, if not dominant, narratives in American history. Anti-racism forced American democracy to be more true to its potential and abstract creed.

The lie of raceless "racism" gives protection to white supremacy by freeing white people of their particular relationship to a centuries-long system of white privilege while simultaneously allowing them to accrue material and psychological advantages from its evils. As I and others have suggested, white privilege is a great and singular invention because it allows its beneficiaries to accrue gains while also providing the plausible deniability of ignorance, individuality, and good intentions.

Because What Would You Do? reflects the norms of post racial and post civil rights America, the show is primed towards engaging in its own hunt for the mythic unicorn that is "black racism". The other lies, what are the slogans "fair and balanced", and "both sides do it", that dominate contemporary late 20th and early 21st century political discourse, demand such a fool's quest.

What Would You Do? tried to find "black racism" at a barbershop. The prank involved inserting a white barber into a black space.

Of course, because African-Americans are a radically democratic and inclusive people, the white barber in What Would You Do? was defended, and for the most part, welcomed by the patrons who demonstrated a deep respect for the rule of "law", and how a person who is trained and licensed should be allowed to practice their craft. This is expected--yet still welcome to see--as a principle from a community of people who were historically denied such protections by white society.

It is important to note how the scheme on What Would You Do? was grossly ahistorical and lacked any sense of context for the role of black barbershops and hair salons in the African-American public sphere and counter public. In a world long-dominated by Jim and Jane Crow and white supremacy, those spaces were one of the few that allowed African-Americans a sense of dignity, privacy, a living wage, and the opportunity to be treated as full human beings.

Of course, the black barbershop was not immune from the social power of white supremacy--white men prized their black barbers; many shops and artisans developed a lucrative reputation precisely because they did not cut black people's hair.

The political economy of black hair also reflects the broader challenges of African-American life in post civil rights era America. The end of Jim and Jane Crow, and then the new racially predatory policies of State, Local, and Federal governments, helped to destroy black wealth as held in both businesses and by individuals.

Of note here, Black Americans spend extravagant amounts of money, as compared to other racial groups, on personal grooming. However, this outward flow of resources is not sustaining the Black American community. Instead, those resources are supporting East and South Asians, African immigrants, and others, who have realized how a lack of a self-sustaining, indigenous, black American economy--as a people black Americans give the vast majority of their money to those outside of their racial and ethnic group--is a literal golden egg for others to create wealth and opportunity.

The barbershop episode on What Would You Do?, while advancing the lie of black racism, also fails to ask the inverse question: would white ethnic barbershops accept a black person as a client or as a barber? Based on my own experiences, and in talking to others, the reception a black person would have received in those spaces is likely far less welcoming than that received by the white barber on What Would You Do?.

What Would You Do? also fails to offer up a foundational question: given the history of African-Americans with racial harassment, white violence, and surveillance, what is so objectionable or problematic about the idea and practice of a "black space?"

In the Age of Obama, the search for black racism is fashionable. By comparison, the reality of white on black racism is uninteresting. The truth, more often than not, is found in the latter category. "Everyone's sin is no one's sin" is one of the guiding rubrics of white supremacy in the post civil rights era. Of course, such a claim is sophistry. Nonetheless, it is very compelling for too many Americans.


Learning IS Eternal said...

I remember in high school wp were "victims" of busing. They actually had to go to another school outside their usual route & comfort zone. Mind you the areas they came from were heavy in kkklan activity. Blacks weren't so much as peppered through these salt white areas outside the city. Wparents were on the news complaining, drizzling on the camera lens their spit as they spoke w/(g)utter conviction about the wrong being thrust upon their babies.

My school was highest in suspension, expulsion, fighting, 2 murders occurred on that campus in less than 6, 7 years but I swear those wkids were safer there than those indigenous to the area. Sad to say all the violence committed around there was by us against us.

So no I'm not surprised by the results of 'what would you do' barbershops' social experiment. I've seen in many different scenarios. These wkids didn't have to worry about bullying, being a hot topic of weight gain, gossip; all the things black kids (I knew) took daily and more, straight lace no chaser.

Everything I just told you is horse but no unicorn...

When they claim this racism do they do they compare in juxtapositio?

Wp. Bp.
The kkk. ???
Slavery. ???
Lynching. ???

The list is longer but you smell the gumbo. Anyone can be prejudice but even w/the Oprahs, Michael Jordan's, Jay-Z/Beyonce's, Magic Johnsons of the world we still can't afford the title of racist/racism because of lack of power.

Also sad to say that as much of the atrocities committed by whites to blacks worldwide you will still be good when in our areas. Reciprocation is non grata on the flip side of this experiment.

James Desborough said...

I have to disagree with you. Racism, or *ism of any kind, is not prejudice plus power, it's prejudice on the basis of race/sex/age etc. Power doesn't factor into whether it's racist or not, only the scope for acting upon that existing racism - presuming it exists.

People of any race can be racist and people of any degree of power can be racist. The racist types who join the EDL or BNP in my own country are most often at the bottom of the social pile, members of the underclass who feel threatened and looked down on by immigrants and those who are doing better than them. They have no power and therein stems their racism.

One need only look to the Nation of Islam or the New Black Panther Party to see racism within the American black community as well as disparaging attitudes towards things that are seen as 'white' (such as atheism). Dating outside one's own 'kind' also seems to be a much bigger problem for racial minorities than it is for whites.

Racism + Power is institutional racism, but racism without power is still racism.

Even RationalWiki agrees, and they're overly PC.

The plus power formulation seems to stem from gender studies.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

"would white ethnic barbershops accept a black person as a client or as a barber?"

Around here, I don't think there would be too many problems, but if someone started objecting about it openly I doubt there would be a chorus of defenders, although again it depends on the space.

There was a barber shop around here a while back with one white man and one black man. I bet if anyone objected to the black barber, the white man (owner) would have booted and banned them.

"what is so objectionable or problematic about the idea and practice of a "black space?"

This is something white people are flipping out about. Every time there is some diversity seminar at a college campus and white people are excluded these white supremacist/conservative sites start circulating how they are being discriminated against by (insert minority here). White people have all white spaces that are controlled and dominated by white people as just the normative social relationship in almost any place.

If white people cannot dominate or are not "protected" (from verbal harm), then they feel threatened or endangered.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

I don't know how many times I have met some "victim of forced integration" who happened to be bullied by black boys or girls while in school.

I think that they are white and their bully is black causes such an indignation within these white people. Like they should be untouchable to bullying by black or brown people, which is absurd (obviously bullying is bad, but it is universal and pretty much a given in schools).

I want to question these people's motives when they complain about "black on white racism" in their public school. I want to ask them how many of their classmates didn't bully them. Would they be as indignant about bullying if the bully was a white person. They are usually secure in their belief that it was anti-white bullying and everyone was ignoring it and their suffering.

lioness said...

The lie of raceless "racism" gives protection to white supremacy by
freeing white people of their particular relationship to a
centuries-long system of white privilege while simultaneously allowing
them to accrue material and psychological advantages from its evils. As I
and others have suggested, white privilege is a great and singular
invention because it allows its beneficiaries to accrue gains while also
providing the plausible deniability of ignorance, individuality, and
good intentions.

The same thing could be said of the American closed adoption system. Interesting.

rikyrah said...

I'll be blunt. I wouldn't let a White beautician touch my hair. Back when I was getting my hair fried by chemicals, and definitely not now that I'm natural.
That's not being racist. That's being practical.

lioness said...

Does that include the pro-curl crew?

chauncey devega said...

I am more traditional in my definition. The prejudice plus power formulation has many parents including those of us in race critical theory.

Racism has everything to do with power. Prejudice and bigotry are often subcomponents or elements of racism but can be distinctive. You can't confuse individual level power with social or institutional racism. You can be poor and white in this society but the system is still racist in favor of your in-group. You can be a person of color in this society and have power on a local level--lets say as a teacher in a classroom or a police officer--but the system is still racist. Many honorary whites find that out the hard way when they step out of line.

The NOI are racial chauvinists. I don't now why you would include the Panthers, they have been caricaturized by the white media, they were not anti-white.

Those last two examples show a need for more precision on your part.

chauncey devega said...

Can you explain?

lioness said...

The American adoption system is based on the privileged exploiting the under-privileged. Under it, a pregnant woman with few resources is not given the means to take care of her baby while getting her feet under her. Instead, her baby is purchased by a more affluent couple on the premise that "affluent" means "better". The mother's lack of affluence is treated as if it were both a permanent condition instead of a temporary transition that most young people go through and a moral failing likely to endanger the child's life, instead of simply an economic inconvenience.

But this is just the beginning. Under the American closed adoption system privilege buys the right to erase the purchased child's history. They are encouraged to change the child's name and to seal away all legal evidence of the child's true origin. In many states these records remain sealed in perpetuity. The claim is that this will make life "better" for the child, when in fact there is a growing body of evidence that it does a great deal of psychological harm. What is this system if not a "privilege" that "allows its beneficiaries to accrue gains while also providing the plausible deniability of ignorance, individuality, and
good intentions"?

gordon_gartrelle said...

I saw this & wondered when you'd post on it. "Crash"-style "Everyone's racist" foolishness is quite popular.It's a long, insidious con. Kind of impressive when you think about it.

chauncey devega said...

I just discovered it. Did you see the one with the black teenager who wants to buy skin lightening cream?

Myshkin the Idiot said...

They did two in the black barbershop. The second one is about interracial relationships and they try to get people to protest a white woman's involvement with a black man.

Miles_Ellison said...

This is sociological pornography. If there was a Hall of Fame for false equivalence, this episode would be a first ballot entry. There is no comparison between black "racism" and white supremacy that has been supported by the government. This wouldn't even make it on the air in an intelligent country, which is why it's airing in this one.

what they really should show said... Whites are being attacked by blacks at an alarming rate, National media says next to nothing.