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Tagged: Race

11

Diversity Day!

“Mom,” said my fourteen-year-old daughter. “What can I be for Diversity Day without being racist?”

As a good, progressive private school, my daughter’s school prides itself on its commitment to “diversity.” And like schools everywhere, it has a Spirit Week during which students and staff are instructed to do wacky things together in the service of building school spirit. Pajama Day! Crazy Hair Day! Superhero Day! This year, for some reason, the two mandates collided. Thus we got Diversity Day.

Someone, fortunately, had made a stab at thinking things through. We parents got an email from a school administrator warning us, “This is NOT a day to try to be someone else.” At least no one is going to show up in blackface, I thought with relief.

But what is Diversity Day supposed to be about? According to the email, “It is a day to celebrate a core aspect of the School’s mission by giving students the opportunity to celebrate their own cultural and/or family traditions. . . a day to express a certain amount of pride and respect for their families and backgrounds.”

Great, but there is complexity on top of complexity here. Begin with the fact that among the children of the Northern California professional-managerial class, there are hardly any who would claim a single “cultural and/or family tradition” for “their own.” These are kids with hyphenated last names and hyphenated backgrounds. The email to parents says, “They need to express themselves in a way that would make their grandparents proud of who they are.” Yes, but which grandparents? And who “are” these kids? Do they – or we – yet know? Yes, they have studied slavery and the Holocaust at school. My daughter and I have had lively discussions about President Andrew Jackson and his role in the Trail of Tears. But these children are fourteen and privileged and they live in the Bay Area; they are only now beginning to come into personal contact with the sharp edges of racism. I’m sure the parents of the eighth-grade black boys have already had several painful talks about being deferential and making no sudden movements when around strange white people or police officers. But I’m lucky; as mother of a girl, I only (!) have to worry about sex.

As in: “None of my friends think Asian boys are hot,” says my daughter. Some boy in her class has declared, “Black girls aren’t hot unless they look white.” To which my (black, curvy) daughter said sorrowfully, “I would have thought black girls would be attractive because they’re curvy.” We talk about the politics of personal ads; it seems grown-ups are also not quite post-racial in this area. And we try to unpack what “hotness” is supposed to mean, anyway.

Yet even these hard conversations are only tiny forays into the maelstrom of identity. High school and college, these days, are where the racial decisions really begin to bite for privileged kids. That accords, anyway, with the accounts of my “of color” students in their Critical Race Theory journals, who report being shocked when college classmates suddenly insisted on knowing “What are you?” or “Where are you from? No, really?” College is when those with complex identities and backgrounds are pressured by others to choose, to align, to make a stand.

Add to this confusion our national culture’s own vexed commitment to “diversity,” that peppy, All-American solution to the tragedy of racial subordination. Diversity is great because everyone has it already! Also, it’s good for everybody, since the corporate world, the military, and advertising can’t be wrong! But as Sheila Foster pointed out long ago, the downside of diversity is its emptiness; it can mean all things to all people and therefore nothing at all. And since everybody is different from everybody else, diversity is kinda automatic, no? “Should I just go as myself?” wonders my daughter. I respond, “If it’s their mission, then why isn’t every day Diversity Day?”

The truth, of course, is that race is the elephant in the diversity room. What we really care about when we talk about “diversity” is race and ethnicity, with perhaps a nod to gender, sexuality, and disability. But within the diversity framework, this commitment becomes fraught. When corrective justice was the paradigm, it made sense to put race and ethnicity at the center; flute players and yoga practitioners have not been targets for society-wide discrimination. If diversity for its own sake is the new goal, however, what do race and ethnicity become but skin color, eye shape, and quaint native costumes? Thus does Diversity Day pull us, ironically, toward the post-racial fantasy in which Martin Luther King, Jr. Day really is no different from St. Patrick’s Day in the United States: just another chance to be sold fun foods and drinks, and to feel good about how we are all the same beneath our superficial differences.

And I would be fine with that, were my daughter actually growing up in a world where no one would make her hotness depend on how “white” she looks.

Well, by the time she’s ready to go to college, of course, no doubt the Supreme Court will have ruled that diversity is not a compelling state interest after all and that higher education admissions in public schools must be race-blind. The question will be what these well-meaning private schools should do with their Diversity Days. New awkward rituals await, I’m sure.

But perhaps an awkward commitment to justice is better than no commitment at all.

P.S. I know: All these race problems are supposed to disappear in twenty-five years or less. Our innocent, colorblind children are going to lead us into the promised land. OK, I’ll wait.

P.P.S. Oh, and for those who want to know — She’s going to wear a pink triangle.

4

Henry Louis Gates and Black in Latin America: A Review

Harvard Professor Henry Louis, perhaps best known to most Americans for his run-in with a Cambridge Police Officer, than for his scholarly writings and academic entrepreneurship, is back on public television.  His television series is entitled Black in Latin America.  The name of the series is somewhat misleading since three of the countries he visits are on islands in the Caribbean, and a fourth, Mexico, also is not located on the Latin America continent.  Nevertheless, the series promised to be eye opening.  As one reviewer wrote, “When most U.S. citizens think of a Latino, they rarely picture someone black. This series broadens our understanding of the very complex identity of people from Spanish-speaking countries, an identity that is usually oversimplified into misleading racial stereotypes in the U.S. media.”  But here again, characterizing the series as about Spanish-speaking “Latinos” also is misleading since the series includes Brazil where the national language is a form of Portuguese and Haiti whose national language is a form of French.  So you are getting some idea of this subject’s complexity.

David Eltis and David Richardson in their wonderful book, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Yale Univ. Press 2010), map this trade in human chattel that lasted for 366 years “and resulted in the forced deportation of 12.5 million Africans to the New World.”  Black in Latin American briefly looks at the status of these unfortunate humans and their descendants now scattered throughout the islands and the Americas. There is, however, no mention of Central America where the Atlantic slave trade also distributed West Africans.  But this omission is not a criticism, the topic is simply huge.

The Atlantic region includes countries whose history of slavery pre-dates the U.S., and where slavery persisted in some places until the end of the nineteenth century.  Race in the Americas, especially Brazil and Cuba, is a topic that has long excited a small group of anthropologists, historians and sociologists.  Today, however, “Latin American” notions of race have more meaning to Americans because of our growing Hispanic, primarily Latino population, which on the surface celebrates its mestizaje (mixed racial culture) while papering over the racialized divisions within and among each community.  Latin America is a region, like the U.S., that, as a result of the slave trade, is equally bedeviled by race.

Over the years I’ve visited and studied about the construction of race in Cuba, Brazil and Mexico.  A few years back I even wrote an essay about Afro-Mexicans and Mexico’s hidden third root, its African heritage.  By looking at laws in Mexico during the seventeen, eighteen and early nineteenth century, the presence of Africans and their descendants is apparent.  Thus, I eagerly looked forward to this series. Read More

7

(A few reasons) why Angela Onwuachi-Willig should be appointed to the Iowa Supreme Court

Various law blogs have mentioned the news that University of Iowa law professor Angela Onwuachi-Willig is on the short list for the Iowa Supreme Court

Angela is a leading scholar on topics of racial justice and critical race theory.  She is the only woman on the shortlist, as well as the only person of color

In addition, Angela is a longstanding supporter of LGBT rights who has written eloquently in favor of marriage equality and who signed a brief supporting marriage equality in Varnum v. Brien.

Given the backdrop of the current Iowa vacancies — they are the direct result of a homophobic right-wing smear campaign — I am thrilled to see Angela’s name on the shortlist.  I can think of no better way to respond to the anti-gay hate machine than to fill a court vacancy with a smart, articulate, energetic Black woman who is committed to LGBT rights — and to a principled and progressive feminist and antiracist legal philosophy as well.

1

You’ve lost that Loving feeling

An incredible story in today’s news:

A Louisiana justice of the peace said he refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple out of concern for any children the couple might have. Keith Bardwell, justice of the peace in Tangipahoa Parish, says it is his experience that most interracial marriages do not last long.

“I’m not a racist. I just don’t believe in mixing the races that way,” Bardwell told the Associated Press on Thursday. “I have piles and piles of black friends. They come to my home, I marry them, they use my bathroom. I treat them just like everyone else.”

Bardwell said he asks everyone who calls about marriage if they are a mixed race couple. If they are, he does not marry them, he said.

It’s 2009, the Obama era, and some folks (a JP!) still haven’t gotten the memo on Loving v. Virginia. Mind-boggling.

40

Knowledge of Jim Crow events: A quick, informal survey

I’m curious as to what level of knowledge people have of some important Jim Crow events. If you’ve got five minutes, please make a comment, to fill this out this brief, completely unscientific survey.  Feel free to do so anonymously or pseudonymously.  I’m not trying to embarrass anyone, I just wonder to what extent certain events are known or unknown, and this is enough to give me some general sense. Read More