Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Study-Yourself Department

Dear White Student,

I'm glad to see you taking African American and oh hell, Other People courses (third world/women/queers/class conscious) here at Yale. We welcome you into this strange world of self-reflexivity. We welcome you into historical reformation, to a legacy of revelation that necessitates revolution. We welcome you into the remarkability, yes the miracle that is our continued voices of protests in spite of systematic decimations of our memory of ourselves. Breaking it down, we welcome you into our homes that don't figure on official maps.

You'll encounter the language of our self-definition: what is blackness, who defines it, why do we need define it, what is black leadership, what is the culture of poverty, who determines that a culture of success must oppose blackness, who is the diaspora, who tells our story, and what, in fact, is our story.

Watch our attempts to convert race trauma into literary analyses to contribute to the oft unsung legacy of the Black Intellect. We are leaving trails of resistance and self-assertion for generations to come, the way those before us did. Learn how we do this for our children so they know how to fight a hidden system that we nevertheless know is as real as the gaze of that certain individual when we walk into a classroom, a lab, a library.

But dear White student, when writing that paper or two on Black identity, consider that maybe your studies of blackness are not just a function of your liberal/progressive/leftist/PC/etc capacity to understand race, but consider that your interest is also a function of a system which places our blackness under a limelight while your whiteness remains the illusive norm escaping all notice. Are we a curious, fetishistic foray into the language of race for you? Tell me, what is the function of black studies for you? Don't paternistically presume we enjoy your attention to the styles of speech, styles of dress, struggles of preservation. It does no system of injustice any use when the perpetrators place undue, feverish attention on the survivors without internally reflecting how it has come to be.

When you told me the other day that you felt so much for race struggles, you were going to write another essay on the question of blackness, this time on brothers Fanon and Garvey, I felt this tightening in my chest. How far we've come that you were so willing to emerse yourself in my reality. But I wondered why you never wrote about whiteness, about the fiction that is American identity which many in powerful channels would claim is "everybody's culture". "The great melting pot". Why is your own body never an original point of analysis? What does it mean that Abercrombie & Fitch has a code of hairstyles forbidding dreadlocks/braids? Does that YPU format seem a little more 18th century Europe and a little less Haitian cooperative, what does it mean to teach a New Haven 2nd grader to "speak proper" or teach Malaysian students how to read Shakespeare, why do you play 50 cent's 'Get Rich or Die Tryin' at your parties when you've never read ellison, soyinka, west? is it strange listening to talib kweli as you cross the street when a 13 year old Black boy is riding a bike?
Will you turn your own curious gaze onto yourself? Write the hidden narrative of constructed whiteness and tell yourself the story of how you came to be white, because as much as my blackness is its own end, that blackness you see is in part a function of your persistent gaze.


See you in class.

19 comments:

Jared said...

dear e st v,

let's historicize whiteness. let's historicize the fuck out of it.

sincerely,

one white student

Joel said...

"Tell me, what is the function of black studies for you?" Tell me, what is the function of black studies for black people? This question is not answered in this blog post. Rather, the post is filled with hollow and bitter questions that don't really deserve to be answered. Surely, you can not argue that any interest by a white student to know the history of black culture stems from a fetish with "black culture" or at least what the media and stereotypes portray as such.

"Consider that your interest is also a function of a system which places our blackness under a limelight while your whiteness remains the illusive norm escaping all notice." Yes, the system has placed "blackness" in the limelight, but that does not justify the chastisement of any white person who has interest or the nerve question where it stems from. And of course "whiteness" will seem the "norm" in a country where the are 200 million white people. This is a moot point.

"Tell me, what is the function of black studies for you?...It does no system of injustice any use when the perpetrators place undue, feverish attention on the survivors without internally reflecting how it has come to be." This has to be the most frustrating part of this post. The very internal reflection and understanding of how the situation evolved you call for is the very thing you chastise white people for trying to do.

To teach a New Haven 2nd grader to "speak proper" is to teach him/her how to function in a society where the language s/he is speaking is not the dominant language. To perpetuate the falsity that s/he can get by in life by speaking ebonics is advocating the establishment of an independent black-only state. And even then, it would only be comprised of people who speak ebonics.

Are you suggesting that it is improper for white people to listen to 50 Cent when they are a majority of the consumers in the hip hop market? When they are a large part of why hip hop is successful? You argue that they should not listen to this music without first having read West. Oh wait, this is the same thing you chastise them for trying to do.

"Write the hidden narrative of constructed whiteness and tell yourself the story of how you came to be white, because as much as my blackness is its own end, that blackness you see is in part a function of your persistent gaze." Yes, I agree that blackness has evolved because of white people's persistent gaze. But don't criticize white people, however, for searching for the lenses with which to see clearly.

Anonymous said...

Why are men occasionally interested in taking women's studies classes? Why are there no men's studies classes?

Elizabeth said...

anonymous, yes! i took this one class last semester on white masculinity in US pop culture. it was informative to say the least. there def need to be more of those classes.

Naima said...
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Naima said...

joel, a couple of things...

i think e st v did not answer the question of what the function of black studies is for black people because that is often the framework with which we operate and approach these disciplines. e st v is pushing us to ask a different question, oft less considered, which is: what are the motivations of a white student in taking these courses? e st v's investigation here does not preclude the possibility of white students seeking to understand black history and experience with earnestness, humility, honesty, respect. she rather challenges us to recognize the dangers of pursuing a course of study due to a fetishized interest in a culture and reality. in her example of the "down" white person who plays 50 cent at a party but has not read "ellison, soyinka, west," e st v is illuminating the consequence of a false and incomplete understanding of black arts, resilience and struggle --- a cheap, flat understanding in which the white gaze is never deconstructed: a project, which according to my understanding, is integral to black studies and also "Other People courses."

i disagree with your assertion that whiteness must logically be the norm. "whiteness" is a construct - it need not be the norm in a country that does not regard people primarily as racialized entities.

in terms of your point about teaching new haven second graders to speak properly, i recommend you read andom's post entitled "(reclaiming) black english in the ivy league" - it argues that language is another mode through which white hegemony is asserted. i do not see how opposing the denigration of black speech necessarily advocates for the "establishment of an independent black-only state." not unless the USA's stated commitment to plurality does not extend to language?

the reality of white patronage of the hip hop industry in no way means that white consumers or executives are protected from critique. free speech allows us to levy challenges to those in power - whether it is a black challenge, a queer challenge, a christian challenge, a womanist challenge, a progressive challenge, etc. some would agree with your conviction that white people are a large part of why hip hop is successful. i would question your meaning of the word "success" and whether it pertains solely to profit or also accounts for things such as social responsibility, political consciousness, and human dignity. one might argue that the production of mainstream hip hop with a white audience in mind is the commercialization of hip hop that has led to its degeneration to a form of minstrelsy. (i am speaking very broadly here: there are of course hip hop artists holding it down, uncovering history and telling truth and writing futures on their own terms).

lastly, i think West would disagree with your broad assertion that white people are "searching for the lenses with which to see clearly." i am posting a link to an article in which he contends that the "grand caravan of courageous white Americans [in the struggle against white supremacy] is a marginal tradition."

i'm glad this post has sparked such a meaningful exchange on the north star.

elizabeth, thank you for such an insightful entry --- you should cross-post it to our recurring series, "Blacks in the Left."

the link to the West article is here: http://www.jstor.org/view/00411191/dm994485/99p0120h/0?frame=noframe&userID=80244582@yale.edu/01cc99331500501bd12e6&dpi=3&config=jstor

Naima said...

ALSO,

saying "word" and listening to kanye west does NOT mean you stand in solidarity with black people.

racism should be something you seek to destroy in more places than the thesis of an essay written for class.

politics are not just rhetorical or intellectual: they are transformative convictions and commitments! politics are how we live our lives!

after another weekend at yale, had to comment about the incredible irony of the Left here.

let's get on that recurring series, elizabeth!

Joel said...

Naima, just a few points...

I don't argue that whiteness actually is the norm, only that with the vast majority of the country made up of white people, whatever is the standard will SEEM the norm and be referred to as "whiteness". In my opinion, this is why it's not often questioned. It's why it suddenly becomes a "problem" when all the black kids sit together at a lunch table, but it's not a problem if all the football players or all the WASPs sit together at other tables. I argue that most of America does regard people as racialized entities, but that's a point for a later discussion. I just didn't think the point was well-delivered.

I don't disagree with you that language is another way that white hegemony is asserted. Realistically speaking, however, it's essential that children are taught (from a young age) to speak proper English. Yes, there is a useful skill in what's often referred to as "code switching"; however, it's of no use if there is no actual switching going on. It's imperative that we teach black kids proper English so they aren't pegged as ignorant or incompetent, which, regardless of how much we assert the "value" of "black language", will still occur. I'm not denigrating black language - I'm still unsure what I think about it. Rather, I argue that if we ever expect black people to be taken seriously, then black children need to be taught that they can not expect to be successful in life by speaking a broken dialect of English that will hinder their education and understanding and be a stumbling block in their attempts to make a decent living. Also, I've never heard of the U.S. having a stated commitment to plurality. If it stated anything of the sort, it was lying. A stated commitment to plurality would not have pushed for the English Language Unity Act in the House in 2003 - an act that would have made English the official language and had huge ramifications.

With regards to hip hop, I was only referring to fiscal success. I, in no way, think that hip hop has been a beacon of light for black America. I agree (as you stated) that, with a few exceptions, hip hop has been a huge failure (primarily, with regards to social responsibility).

Finally, I don't argue that all white people are searching for the lenses with which to see clearly. Most are blind to the fact that there is a race issue in America. I objected to chastising those white students who are actually attempting to learn about black history or culture through an academic medium.

jared said...

joel,

you seemed to have missed the entire point with regard to language: it's an injustice in the first place that one version of english is considered "proper" and another "improper." the fact that one is accepted and the other not is not because there are numerically more white poeple (and this fact is also historically a result of racialized immigration laws); it's because of a racial hierarchy that asserts itself through a number of means, one of which is denigrating the cultures, religions, and yes, languages of those who are not already deemed a part of the category of whiteness. the response to this injustice is not to somehow assimiliate one portion of the population to the dominant dialect (in which case white supremacy would probably invent some other way of excluding people). rather, we have a responsibility to dismantle white supremacy in what ever form it appears, linguistic or otherwise.

also, you clearly know nothing about hip hop. please do not say anything more on the subject until after you've listened, at a minimum, to Public Enemy.

Jarrett said...
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Jarrett said...

"I'm not denigrating black language - I'm still unsure what I think about it. Rather, I argue that if we ever expect black people to be taken seriously, then black children need to be taught that they can not expect to be successful in life by speaking a broken dialect of English that will hinder their education and understanding and be a stumbling block in their attempts to make a decent living."



Joel, I'll make this short and sweet cuz I gotta get back to studying another language white people forced upon free peoples, but that's another blog entry, so be on the lookout. I don't know what you could possibly mean by "black language." Is there an equal and opposite "white language?" I don't know if you were taking a general shot at black folk across the world, or you were not recognizing the normalized whiteness which e st v so eloquently pointed out in her original article. But to insist there is a collective "black language" insists that such a language is inherently wrong, thus making the "white language" inherently right. Therein lies the problem. Neither of them exists. So along with the concept of race in general, once again someone has taken something which doesn't even exist, put emphasis and meaning on it, then summarily attached hegemonized and abstract thoughts and values to it, and now we have ourselves a stratification. One which pits right against wrong, good against bad, white against black. Now, Joel, if you don't mind, I'm going to continue studying for my Euro-centric/token-Latin American Spanish class. I wonder if there is a "black Spanish" too. And on which side I would be...

Elizabeth said...

brother jarrett, that was too fly: "So along with the concept of race in general, once again someone has taken something which doesn't even exist, put emphasis and meaning on it, then summarily attached hegemonized and abstract thoughts and values to it, and now we have ourselves a stratification."

Elizabeth said...

Because Sister Naima beautifully addressed and clarified many of the issues, I'll only add some things not yet talked about:

Joel, while I appreciated your willingness to voice your dissents, I was disappointed you chose to write off sincere questions of white liberal interest in race matters as merely "hollow and bitter questions that don't really deserved to be answered". It devalues and disrespects the dialogue of race by presuming there are topics not deserving due address. The inclination to erase topics of conversation by some standard of value which you've independantly established supports the silence of all issues of race.

Some topics:

You noted that I chastise all White students for their interests in Black studies. Here is the quote wherein I sing the White student's praise: "How far we've come that you were so willing to immerse yourself in my reality". This is my happiness at White students' interest in Black studies. I realize now that perhaps I should've added more flatteries to assuage the hurt that comes with critique.

But maybe consider that critique is borne not out of antagonism but out of a convinction that White students' interest in Otherness studies has the potential to be far more transformative, far more revolutionary if self-referential critique is made - when the individual not only extends the critical gaze to those beyond him/herself but to their own body.

" 'whiteness' will seem the "norm" in a country where the are 200 million white people. This is a moot point." Taking Naima's lead: the norm may be a moot for those who benefit from being of this majority category but for someone struggling to create a safe space for our alternative identities, it's not. In fact, it's of the utmost significance to find out why mere numerical presence means that American identity can continue to evade definition and become the basis against which others either assimilate or disappear.

Minorities have a right to protest acculturation.

Calling these diverse peoples "white" is a tactical political move to sustain the system of power. Calling 200 million people "white" works well to solidify state-building ambitions by consolidating what would have otherwise been a wildly difficult broad base to organize politically. Exaggerating racial difference in the United States is how we've come to insidiously define our nationality.

Rap: can we talk about white producers, white consumers, and the question of simulated agency of black rappers in conjuction with your analysis of "hip hop as a failure".

Naima said...

joel, another thought:

"I'm not denigrating black language - I'm still unsure what I think about it."

I think this confusion about what to "think" of black speech, the hesitation to recognize it as a legitimate mode of communication, is a denigration in and of itself.

If we're wondering whether or not to respect something... we don't.

I do value, however, your choice to struggle with this issue. I think that working to sort out your opinions on black speech is better than being resigned to ambivalence or an absolute denigration of it.

I hope that you continue to consider our posts and comments in your thought process on this issue. I also hope that you continue to contribute to the dialogue we have on this blog.

liz said...

I found this post and the ensuing discussion very thought-provoking. I've got a question about the "White Student" that this post addresses. In your first sentence, you state, "I'm glad to see you taking African American and oh hell, Other People courses (third world/women/queers/class conscious) here at Yale." Where do White students who are members of those groups that you designate as "Other People" fit into your critique? Are you then only speaking to a upper-class, heterosexual White male as your "Student"? Does membership in any one of these groups change whether someone is subject to your critique?

Additionally, I think that the point that you make about consumers of rap is valid, but I don't believe that most people who listen to 50 Cent are doing critical academic thinking about what that consumption means, regardless of race.

Joel said...

Hmm...this is interesting. I apologize for not being faster in my response. Unfortunately, a new post has been up, but I did want to address a few points before I moved on.

To Jared...
Yes, there has been injustice. However, that's no a reason to perpetuate a false belief that black kids can be successful without learning English. It's simply not true. It may be the result of injustice that a dialect of English is spoken, however, that does not explain the fact that the nearly 1 billion worldwide who speak English all turn to the same order and set of grammatical rules that are seen correct (a.k.a. "proper").

Also, as far as hip hop is concerned, I'm at liberty to comment because Public Enemy is not leading the troupe in today's hip hop world.

To Jarrett...
I didn't assert anything you said. If you read up a few more lines, you'll note that Naima's post says, "i do not see how opposing the denigration of black speech necessarily..." She uses the words "black speech". In my response, I didn't double check her response to take note that she used the word "speech" instead of the word "language". So whatever you claim I assert, you claim she does as well. Besides, neither of us were intending to "[take] a general shot at black folk across the world." Calm down. My comment about not being sure on which side I fall with regards to ebonics was with regards to its legitimacy. It's a dialect of English with few, if any, clear structural or grammatical rules. So, I'm really not sure how I feel about it. Nevertheless, black kids should be taught to speak English that is conventionally used and accepted in standard communication. The fact of the matter is that you can't honestly think that teaching kids to speak and write ebonics in any and all contexts is appropriate. If you believed that, you wouldn't be writing the way you are at the moment. Children need to be taught clear rules until their minds can comprehend subjectivity and bias. If children are only taught how to read, write, and speak ebonics, they will not be able to communicate effectively outside of certain social settings. If you object to calling it "proper", then fine. But, that does not deny the fact that it is still conventional and should still be taught.

To Elizabeth...
You stated, "Here is the quote wherein I sing the White student's praise: 'How far we've come that you were so willing to immerse yourself in my reality'."
Given the context of this statement in the blog post at large, it did not come across as genuine, but as bitter sarcasm. Also, I seriously doubt anyone was "hurt" by your critique. It's not that you needed to add more flattery, rather that you need not appear to contradict yourself.

As far as the point about rap, we can talk about all of those things you mentioned: "white producers, white consumers, and the question of simulated agency of black rappers". They still lead to the same conclusion of hip hop as a failure with regards to social responsibility and accountability.

To Naima...
As far as "black speech" is concerned, yes, I do hesitate to recognize it as a legitimate mode of communication. I still hold to my belief that it can be a powerful tool with regards to prose and speech and should be used at the speaker's discretion. However, I still object to it being taught to kids as an ALTERNATIVE to what's conventionally accepted as the structure of standard English. The question is raised, "what do we consider 'legitimate'"? It's usually defined as having recognized principles or accepted rules and standards. For the most part, black speech lacks that. And the standards it does have are not the standards are not the standards that are accepted in the fields of academia, medicine, politics, or business. If we don't want black people in any of these fields, then, I guess we should only teach them "black speech." People could probably get by with only learning "black speech", but this will hinder them more than it will help them.

In response to Liz's post:
I agree that most people who listen to 50 cent are not doing all of the academic reading and critical thinking advocated, regardless of race.

Melay said...

Joel.

I am sorry, but I need for you to explain to yourself your disdain for hip hop music. Then I need for you to explain to me why you categorize this movement as a failure.

Hip hop does not exist in a vaccum; to the contrary I would assert that hip hop is quite possibly one of the most clear lenses through which one can look at American society. The issues that plague the movement (and YES hip hop is a movement, one with worldwide reprecussions) are none other than the ones that this country has been grapping with since its inception- i.e. materialism, the abuse of the female body, black essentialism- I could go on for days.

You yourself have recognized the market power of the white consumer regarding hip hop culture. How then do you justify your attack on hip hop without taking a look at the root- the consumer who is dictating and determining the future of this movement? So if hip hop is a failure, then the society it reflects is not far behind. I think you need to look at the historical origins of this youth movement and the long-standing tradition of white- guided commercialization and control of black art forms before you assume any sort of expertise on this issue.

And it wouldn't hurt to listen to a lil Chuck D.

Elizabeth said...

thanks liz - regarding hip hop that's precisely the problem: pop culture as pedagogy.

to the critique that there are black audiences just as there are white audiences listening to commericalized hip hop without having read black thinkers: this conflates black life with white perspective. while a black individual may have never read these thinkers before or as he/she listens to hip hop, the lived-in experience of a racialized person provides awareness of cultural aspects of blackness that are more than the caricature that mainstream hip hop someimes presents. black consumers would no doubt benefit by learning from the rich legacy of their community's black thinkers while listening to hip hop. the aim of the original post, however, was to cast the gaze outward and encourage an internal critique of whiteness.

for those emersed in black studies of some kind, listening to 50 cent as students - what i called for in the original post was an awareness of the irony of studying blackness while inadvertently engaging with hip hop in ways that contributes to the white gaze on black identity whether that may mean simulating empathy without substantive action or otherwise. though i didn't focus on this in the post, how the black student engages with commercialized hip hop is another interesting though different question. i'll think about it more.

does membership in an "other" category change one's relationship to studying the black subject? for example does being a white american woman change your relationship to black studies than from white men?

this is an awesome question which i have to think through some and write a longer post on maybe but some truncated thoughts:
to answer the particular example-question i posed above, feelings of oppression engendered by sexuality can provide a link by which a woman can sympathisize with the feeling of oppression which characterize racial experiences.

however, it is not sufficient in and of itself because the sympathy in oppression does not recognize the specificity of experiences that differentiate the struggles of a white woman to, say, a black woman, though they may have their gender as a common point of origin. this is not to elevate one form of oppression over another, but to point out that the location of each person informs their outlook so that while a white woman might know oppression through gender, she may still operate out of the privileged experience of whiteness, which a black woman cannot.

ultimately too though, it's less a question of collecting as many otherness categories as one can to approximate at the black struggle but to 1. examine one's own origins when arriving at black studies and 2. recognize the specificity of each 'othered' experience.
...will definitely think more on the question.

Eugenia said...

Joel says:
"It's imperative that we teach black kids proper English so they aren't pegged as ignorant or incompetent, which, regardless of how much we assert the "value" of "black language", will still occur."

This consistent focus on 'black children' who speak a 'black language' is a large generalization. While it is possible that you may mean we should teach 'those black children' who speak -the term is - ebonics how to switch from ebonics to 'proper english' it appears that there is some sort of image of all the little black children sitting in classroom speaking black language and a teacher who speaks it with them, preventing them from understanding that there is a 'proper english' somewhere out there. Perhaps the real problem that Liz had was the outsider who enters a school to teach proper speech to these children because their current language is inferior.
Also, let us not forget those who are not black who do not speak 'proper english.' There are in fact white americans, in the south for example, who speak a different english than what is being expected of these black children. Also, the non-black Americans who think 'black language' is about being 'cool' or 'down.' However, there seems to be less pressure on them to conform... or maybe that is just how I feel since I attended a 100% black elementary/middle school where there were always teachers who constantly reminded us of the importance of being able to communicate with others outside of our very much black communities.