#Mine Only. . .Appropriate

Related imageIn a country that has recently hosted moralistic movements like #Black Lives Matter and #Me, Too, though I support the essence of each, I’m surprised that there has not been a Mine Only campaign.  Between the Chinese qipao Prom dress-wearing white girl of this week and the hoop earring controversy last year (white girl wearing them, again. . .to the consternation of an African American woman), maybe we need a hashtag where we can list all the things that belong to each of us individually.

Today is a great time to wade through this murk.  The 5th of May.

Mexicans?  Cinco De Mayo belongs to you only.  The rest of you Non-Mexicans slurping down margaritas and shrimp tacos be damned. Germans?  October fest is yours.   Anyone else drinking beer in the month of October, listening to polka, you are insensitive slobs.  Again Asians?  Ramen/Pho.   All those non-Asian college students surviving on the cheap little packets, are you honoring Asian culture or your empty wallet?  And those restaurants that are popping up everywhere.  How do you dare to pad your bank accounts by feeding non-Koreans?

But food is such an easy cultural target.  What about creative works or the clothing and jewelry that caused my hashtag in the first place?

Men?  Blue Jeans first covered your hard-working butts.  How dare you girls and ladies steal what rightfully belongs to the rough riding male ranch hands or miners.  How cute you look does not erase your insensitivity to these hard-working men.  Or maybe we should go so far as to say pants in general. . .back into dresses you get, Women.

European Catholic?  Lace.  It is a primarily a 16th century catholic invention that the Italians, Irish and Scotts perfected. Any woman of another culture, you need to find a less offensive way to be sexy.

African-Americans?  Rap.  This old argument about white rappers stealing a truly African-American cultural powerhouse might have some relevance here.   If so, then Appalachians?  Blues.  Some old folks of Scots origin argue that their mountain instruments and ditties led to the development of blues, though others say this is not so.  I guess, every new musician needs to study the roots of their music before they venture out.

Or Americans?  Sneakers (AKA trainers, kicks, awts). Anyone outside the US, you are misappropriating our United States culture.  You need to stop.  Or if we want to be really particular, white American men only should wear them, since these rubber soled shoes were created and perfected by white men.  And since they were created after black men had been utilizing their freedom and their vote in America, we cannot really use the slavery/stolen identity/cultural loss replacement argument here to forego the importance of misappropriation, right?  And maybe even basketball that helped popularize those same Chuck Taylors and Converse shoes in the first place. . .created by a white man at a white college.  Who cares that some of the greatest athletes in the history of the world who have ruled that sport are not of European descent.  Let’s get these cultural thefts cleared up NOW.

As one anonymous Jennie said when quoted repeatedly in the spat of articles about the Chinese Prom dress, while she is Asian, she still would not wear Korean or Japanese dress for they are not her cultures; to do so would be shameful.  So African-American women: stop wearing Kangas if you are not Kenyan or forego the Buba or Iro if you are not Nigerian. A quick 23 and Me test will clear it up if you don’t know for sure.  Though, in truth, research about traditional African dress are rife with details about tribal wear, not national wear, and the origins of cloth versus skins.  So. . .what then?  Get it right, People!

Who wore the nose stud first, who wore cuffs around the wrist first, who used silk or silver or turquoise first, who wove linen first, who used eyeliner and lipstick and sandals and. . .and. . .and. . .???

I’m not ignorant.  The fact that the Chinese have been so supportive of the Utah teen wearing a beautiful dress of Chinese origin, but a Chinese-American man was the first to reject with such hostility is very telling.  The Chinese are the Chinese.  They still own their own culture and all its icons, and see themselves as sharing that dress with the Utah girl.  Whereas so many Americans who are not primarily of European descent see themselves and their traditions erased in many ways. . .became too “American” by either force or by tough assimilation,  (If you want a job, you must dress and speak our way said the white man, never mind that the Scots gave up their kilts and the Russians gave up their kartuz and kosovoratka, as well.) that there is a turn-about-is-fair-play logic.

Why wouldn’t a Chinese-American man think,  “If my ancestors had to wear a three piece suit to work here, instead of a Changshan, you white men have actively rejected my culture, so you cannot then later, revel in it or profit from it.  It is mine.”  Just as the angry woman felt about the hoop earrings: you stole my identity, robbed me of history, you can’t have what’s mine anymore.

#Mine Only.

And they live in a time where saying so doesn’t get them killed.

But as I pointed out, when does it stop?  Is it actually racist to cross cultural lines in clothing and creativity, an act seen by some as similar to black-face wearing vaudevillians?  I see racism as the active subjugation of another race, whether through ridicule, laws, unwritten traditions or violence.  Is that what I do when I wear kohl eyeliner? Or put on my red leather moccasins?

When do we stop being the African, Ukrainian, Native, Chinese- American and allow ourselves to all be Americans who can embrace all the heritage that blankets our society?  When can we see it as gaining and honoring rather than losing or stealing?  I like the way Keziah Daum is responding. She loved the dress and felt beautiful in it.  She still loves the dress no matter how hostile the opposition.   And she is so young that any of the events that led to the hostile backlash are so fathomless to her now.

 

 

(Over)Killing Racism in the Book Club?

Reading While White  I swiped this logo from  a site of the same name because. . .In my book club group last night, I was accused of splitting hairs when I pointed out that I was surprised to find racial stereotypes in our reading of Like Water for Chocolate.  Set in Mexico during the revolution, the main character, Tita has a sister who overcome by the main character’s own emotions, becomes hot with passion, and while naked runs off with a stranger on horseback and commences to a sensuous coupling right then and there as they ride off into the sunset.  Later we hear how she was so filled with desire that she worked in a whorehouse in order to feed her needs; even hundreds, possibly thousands of men could not quench her sexual thirst.  Later the same sister dances at a wedding, exhibiting enviable moves that no one in the family knew she had.

Tita discovers through secret love letters of her mother’s that this horny, promiscuous, dancing sister was the child of an illicit affair with a Black Man. Uh-Oh. Tita then says, “Oh, I know now why my sister is so sexual and can dance. . .” or something to that effect.

This is the same character who has earlier complained of how white people stereotype her Mexican people and are unwilling to learn their medicinal-spiritual ways. . .so I said to my group, “I was pretty surprised to read what she said about her sister, those racial stereotypes.  What’s up with that?”

A few of us joked that maybe the author wrote this in the time of Archie Bunker and just had not learned yet anything about how offensive racial profiling was.  And isn’t “black rhythm” in music, dance and sex the most common, stale of stereotypes.

Another woman suggested that perhaps the author did this intentionally to show authentically how people really thought back then.

One woman pulled up Trump’s latest racist vitriol on her phone to illustrate it “Isn’t just back then. . .”

I said, “Maybe it’s authentic, but Tita was so sensitive to racial stuff directed to her.”

Another woman responded, “Maybe it was to underscore how people can be hypocrites.”

Two of the quieter women in the group grumbled at us, well at me primarily.  One said, “Geez, I didn’t read that at all,  I didn’t catch Tita saying anything racist. . .where did she say that?”  I agree: it was a quick comment.  Easy to overlook.

The other one rolled her eyes, and said, “Keren’s just splitting hairs now, really. . .”  And then leaned over to grumble something nastier more privately to her seat mate, but clearly annoyed that I had even brought this up.

She’s grumbling because I am the same one who disliked the now celebrated book—soon to be a movie near you—The Pecan Man.  Sure, it’s a quick, even enjoyable, little read that is self-admittedly derivative of so many other well-done southern books, like To Kill a Mockingbird, Driving Miss Daisy, Fried Green Tomatoes, even The Help, etc., with its small-town southernisms, its testy, feisty, but gentile white ladies, and their black servants with a heart of gold.

Our book club discussions always start with a survey of who liked the reading.   For The Pecan Man,  I was the only one of 20 readers who didn’t raise her hand, and suddenly I was beset by demands to know why.  One after the other I was confronted, as if I hurt their feelings by disliking what they enjoyed.  And then after about the fifth person angrily said to me, “You think she stole this?” because I had said book was derivative, I said, “Ok,  I can defend my opinion all evening, but I know you don’t want that. Here’s my perspective on why I don’t like this book.”  And I shared my thoughts about it not only being a knock off of sorts, but just another white hero book.

Aside from this common plot line, I was really, REALLY disappointed in how, even in this modern age, we still are learning lessons about racism from white characters who rescue black characters.

I am white, yes.  And I certainly cannot relate to racism, though I am sensitive enough to know it hurts.  How much it hurts, how much it affects people of color is not something white people can begin to understand.  But I have taught children of color for decades; they are my family to some degree.  And I abhor bringing some of these novels before them, even To Kill a Mockingbird.   Any book that teaches what it’s like to be an African-American or a Mexican or a Native American, etc.  from a white person’s experience seems ludicrous, especially when there are fantastic books out there, (much more real and painful books of course).  Black Boy,   The Invisible Man,  The Bluest Eye are some of the classics; some more modern takes are Loving Day, Between the World and Me.

Yet, here we are still reading the sweet Little Pecan Man in schools where the main character is white, and yes, she learns about her own hypocrisy, but she and (mildly, possibly) another white character are the only ones who are actively trying to make change.  All the black characters are impotent: either too angry, too scared, too shackled to do anything but die or go to jail, and must lean on the main character. Really?  Still reading this type of plot line in this day and age?

Plus, I added: How good is it for kids, of any race, to continue to read work where the white man saves the day for people of color?  How weak do the black characters still need to be?  In fact, in The Pecan Man we are supposed to see going to jail as a heroic move on a black man’s part, and not because he was arrested for protesting, but for assuming the responsibility for a crime he did not commit.  Sure the book is set in the 70s, but it was written in today’s world, and it is being assigned in schools now.

And as a white woman among black students, how sensitive is it to “teach racism” to black children who live it everyday from a white main character?

Some of my reading group peers were receptive to my point of view, others just rolled their eyes. But it is why the one woman thought I was splitting hairs about  Like Water for Chocolate.  She saw me as “just looking for racist stuff” now. . .a rabble rouser for no good reason.  (I stifled my urge to accuse her of voting for Trump primarily because the comments in the book were quick, short though stood right out to me.)

Am I splitting hairs?  Is it important to notice and voice when you see unnecessary racism in literature or movies?  (Where the racism in Mudville is integral to the plot, Tita doesn’t need to connect her sister’s behavior to being black does she?)  Is it important to find more relevant novels where blacks are their own heroes?  Sure, it is wise to teach children that not all whites are evil, but when the ultimate lesson is about a racist culture or about stereotypes, what is best?

What do you think?  Do I keep quiet from now on?  Would you?  Or am I just stirring the pot?

For more info visit:

http://www.charisbooksandmore.com/understanding-and-dismantling-racism-booklist-white-readers

 

Prejudice on Prejudice: Self-delusion


I live in the South. I should not have been as shocked as I was.

I say that, but I have often tried to defend the South, protect it from its own reputation. Back in grad school, Sarah Lawrence, famed for its liberalism in gender issues, gender equality, rich-kid black sheep, politics, agri-awareness, gluten free before most knew what gluten was, I had a roommate from Minnesota, still a dear friend. She came home with me one summer for a few weeks as college roomies tend to. Her very first crossing of the Mason-Dixon line. I quickly discovered she stepped off the plane feeling guarded, ready to step into activist mode just in case she witnessed inevitable acts of racism.

I laughed at her, really. What decade did she think she had deplaned into? What I watched instead was a young woman who had never really experienced integration. Here, she sat on buses, ate in restaurants, walked through galleries where workers and customers alike were black and white, socializing, equal. She liked to view herself as open-minded and completely racial-bias free, though reared in a 99.9% white city, attending the most expensive college in North America, where the only students in the one African American Literary studies class were all of the 27 African-American SLC students and one little white gal from the South, me (not her). It was tough for her to whisper to me in the Peachtree Diner that she just didn’t expect so many black people. She wasn’t a racist; just inexperienced. Easy to judge race relations isn’t it, when you never actually HAVE any yourself, right?

I returned to this theme when my husband took me for my second visit to San Francisco, his home town, famed for always being forward in human rights issues.
Again I found myself defending my South. We had spent the day sight seeing with one of Tony’s closest friends and his wife. Before they collected us at our hotel, we had encountered a completely naked man riding his bicycle around the Embarcadero fountain. Our youngest son who was nine at the time was so utterly shocked. Wasn’t that against the law (as his more modest older brother had threatened each time our youngest  streaked  the house after his baths)? He wanted to report this naked man to the local Mountie, who simply shrugged. Nine year olds are the fonts of Right vs. Wrong, and tattling. We quickly realized that hundreds of naked men, fleshy and taut alike, were straddling bikes for an annual protest of some sort. Hilarious little story we were sharing later with our friends-slash-tour guides.

Somehow this discussion transcended into parenting issues: whether living in SF where men can dangle their testicles out in public is as kid friendly as the South, where they believed racists bloomed on every veranda. Who would ever choose to raise children in the dirty South. . .? I defended this prejudice from folks who had never been to the South except maybe to gas up the family jet on their way to Europe.

I didn’t ingratiate myself when I asked just why they didn’t live or shop in Oakland? Why I didn’t see any African Americans sitting in this, their favorite restaurant, where we were enjoying each other’s company. I shared my observations of my former roommate’s visit. I don’t think they understood my point that they were as segregated as could be, but saw themselves as so evolved. Again, easy to judge when you don’t have any real race relations of your own to reflect upon.

I think what they heard me say was that racism is okay when you actually do have to rub shoulders. No, no. Not at all. My point was that the South in many ways has advanced much beyond where much of the rest of the country has, and one cannot know or praise his or her own metal unless it has been tested.

Last summer another close friend from California came to stay with us. Mike has three sons, two of whom are of mixed race, African-American and Thai. His youngest son and ours are great fast-friends, lego lovers, video game enthusiasts, mud grubbers in general. They see each other as cousins the way sons of good friends do. Again. . .sigh. . .Again, I was faced with that chip-on-shoulder mentality, the second Mike deplaned. He felt defensive in his son’s honor. I am not sure what he expected. Insults? Spit? After taking the boys to Walmart for a squirt gun run, he came home feeling exposed. He believed people were staring at this white Dad and his dark-skinned child.

“Both blacks and whites were looking at me funny.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yes! Man, it was weird.”

“Are you sure?” I laughed at him. “Noooooo. Really?” I was not buying it.

“Well. . .I think so. . .” he waffled.

I launched into the story of my former college roommate, her assumptions. Mike acknowledged that he had never seen so many various races in one suburb before, just like my roomie had noted years ago. My hubby snorted at him, too, and said, “I think you’re just too sensitive.”

I teach at a local school, which is integrated, but majority black. If I was forced to guess, I would say that a good 25% of my kids are of mixed race, with one parent being white or Latino and the other African American. No one is giving each other the stink eye at Open House PTA nights. I can probably look up the stats since census loves to pigeon hole us. But my point to our friend Mike was this: “I’d bet that seeing you and your son is more ‘normal’ to the people you run into here than to the circles you encounter out West.”

Yes, I was right. His son attends a school that is primarily white. Mike knows very few other integrated families. But because being so liberal is knee-jerk there, Mike assumes that his segregated community isn’t nearly as judgmental as my South is. He was projecting his fears onto these Walmart shoppers.

What should we call this prejudice, the South-is-all-Racist-ism? Southernerphobia?

So here I am. . .a history of defending the new South, feeling that we have crossed bridges that other people haven’t even witnessed yet. So when I say I was shocked, but I don’t know why since I am in the deep South, I’m ironic.

This past Sunday, my mother-in-law who retired here from San Carlos, California, five years ago loves to throw St. Paddy’s day parties. She had us, my sister and brother-in-law, and several of her neighbors over for Corned Beef and Cabbage. I finally got to meet the famously sweet, Gloria, a retired baker who had been praying and baking for me for months now. I had eaten some of her most delicious strawberry cakes, lemon pound cakes, and tea cookies, for she knew I had been hospitalized and recuperating from major surgery, and gave to me because she loves her neighbor; it’s what Godly Southern women do. With her elegant upswept hair, her feminine sweater-set and pearls, she bear-hugged me and drawled about how many prayers she had been sending to God just for me to get better.

Somehow, even though we have been taught repeatedly to never discuss religion or politics in social settings, the discussion shifted to politics as it does in a social setting. Started on the topic of beer, shifted to “best beer”, to Yuengling, then to Obama’s favorite beer being Yuengling.

Sweet little old cake baker opens her mouth, “Oh Lord, not Obama. . .”starts to hesitate, but says, “Oh, I’m sure everyone here agrees with my vote. . .” Scary, words, those.

My dear sister-in-law laughs and says, “Oh, I don’t know. A bunch of us are from California. . .heh heh.”  As in Hint. Hint.  Don’t go there, Lady.

This doesn’t stop old lady from saying with such sharpened vitriol, “I just don’t know why somebody hasn’t SHOT that black boy yet!”

My mouth fell open.   She was so Certain we agreed. Probably proud that she had politely said ” boy” instead of the forbidden N word. I HUFFED at her, but she kept talking on and on, and all I could do was say as gently as possible, “Really! Okay, enough of that. We do NOT all agree with you. That is enough of that talk. Stop it now.” And I stormed into the kitchen, well, as fast as my recuperating body can move.

I am not coddled here;  I have experienced and witnessed acts of racism from my peers and students;  (“White people smell like wet dog” to “Oh, I can’t learn here if it’s going to be all black . .. “) BUT I had not heard anything that racist since I was a child stationed with my Dad outside of Boston. I had definitely  never heard anything that unpatriotic, that TREASONOUS in person. Ever.

How could I break bread with this woman in a few minutes and sit down later to a plate full of her cake? I did not want to ruin my sweet Mother-in-law’s dinner simply because a particular breed of bird was singing her breed’s tune. Luckily, my reaction was enough to cow the lady, who was morosely quiet during dinner, and who then skittered away soon after her last bite.

But I felt all my defense of how far we’d come in The South was just a waste of my breath. Was it? Or is she just some old lady squawking what seemed normal to her generation? SHE is why my friends come here with their defenses up; no matter how ivory tower some of my friends might be, there is always some Genteel Christian Racist to help them feel liberal.