a post for you…

May 21, 2007

at $3.60!

I’d like to bring up the question of under what conditions passing is morally blameworthy. To me, passing is when one deliberately performs an identity that is not “one’s own” (whatever that means) in order to escape that identity which is “one’s own.” Of course, passing isn’t just about race and gender. Birdie’s “passing” mostly involves fitting in at school: wearing certain types of clothing, exhibiting a certain type of sexual behavior, and doing certain types of activities.

To me, the reason we tend to find passing distasteful is political (for lack of a better word): by abandoning our identity, by selling out, we insult and weaken the identity that we leave behind—and it is this abandonment that is what makes passing “wrong.” Just in case anyone objects to this view, here are a few things that, I think, make sense in light of it:

· Why passing from a group of high social status to a group of low social status is intuitively different from passing from the opposite. If a high-status person passes as a low-status person, he gains absolutely nothing. And the high-status class is secure enough that it need not fear the repercussions of one of its members passing. By, contrast, if a low-status person were to pass as a high-status person, he would gain privileges that other members of “his race” are unable to obtain—it’s unfair.

· (A related point) Why, as Ahmed points out, there is a difference between a white person passing for white and a black person passing for white.

· How we can blame people for “abandoning” their race without essentializing race or becoming racist.

Of course, this explanation says nothing about moral culpability. When is it appropriate to blame someone for passing? I think the question is difficult to answer, since it boils down to the question of group vs. individuals rights. Even supposing that a particular group will suffer if one of its members passes, it could be that the passer would benefit so much from passing that it would outweigh whatever harm to the group that passing that represent. However, we could imagine that, as Ahmed alludes to, getting caught passing could cause the “rules” governing racial identity, rules which passing attempts to cross, to become even more rigid.

To try to make some progress in this topic, I’ll write about how these ideas can be applied to Birdie in Caucasia. Though Birdie does consciously and deliberately pass, I don’t think I’d hold her morally blameworthy. In the beginning, Birdie describes race and color as entirely plastic, especially when she and Cole imagine the world of Elemenos. Combined with her view that she is invisible (transparent, colorless), we see that Birdie’s “true identity,” if it is appropriate to use that term, is as a hybrid, as someone able to shift between identities as she pleases.

Nkumrah is the first place where Birdie finds herself in a place where she must pass. She is known as “Le Chic” and at one point uses a kohl liner pencil to make a “beauty mark over [her] lip” (64-65). It seems to me that she is blameworthy in the same sense that anyone is who, seeking to be liked in school, performs the role of the “popular kid.” (Which person or group of people is the victim? Anyone who does not conform to the rather rigid standards of that school culture.) But most of us would say that such an individual should not be blamed too much—there are few enough non-conformists or eccentrics that their well-being in relation to society is fairly unimportant to most of us.

What about New Hampshire? Naturally, to what extent one’s passing is forced is an important consideration—and Birdie had little choice but to pass, or her mother will be exposed and possibly jailed. There is a strong sense that Birdie has left behind her identity, if one regards blackness as her “adopted” identity, which can be supported by the fact that she identifies herself with blacks, such as when she punches Mona for calling the blacks who are about to beat Jim “niggers.” Though she remembers Nkumrah and her life in Boston, she gradually loses her memories of that place. However, the very real risk that Sandy may be in makes it extremely difficult for me to blame either her or Birdie for their actions. Even if they are selling out, their passing is, to a great extent at least, due to safety. Insofar as they pass to save themselves, their passing can be criticized only to the extent that their flight from Boston can be criticized. (Of course, if it turns out that the main reason they fled Boston was not related to fear of capture, it’s a different story….)

Sorry this post has been a bit disjointed. I’d just like to get these ideas through before the end of the semester!

Race and class

May 16, 2007

Inspired by posts by Tony, Shantel, et al, I thought I’d write something about the relation between race and class in the books and films we’ve watched over the course of the semester.

Overall, I’ve noticed that race has been less and less of a limit for successful blacks. That is, in books and films set in earlier times, it was impossible for any black to attain a high status in society, while later on it became more possible for blacks to “make it” in society. For instance, in Pudd’nhead Wilson, there are literally no successful blacks at all. All of the ones portrayed in the book (with the exception of Tom, who passed) were either slaves or steamboat workers. Likewise, in The House Behind the Cedars, set soon after the Civil War, there is a sharp divide between the wealth that blacks and whites were capable of attaining. Of course, there are many poor whites as well as poor blacks, but the upper limit of what members of the two races have is sharply defined. Even to become a lawyer requires passing. By contrast, in Passing, Brian and Irene are able to live a fairly comfortable middle class life in Harlem. Their family is not as wealthy as Bellew’s, of course, but Brian, although visibly black, is a doctor and apparently well-to-do enough that traveling to Brazil is not a financial impossibility. And, finally, by the time we get to The Black Notebooks, we have Bruce Derricotte working as vice president of a bank. Or Whiteboyz, where Khalid’s family is considerably wealthier than any of the boys’.

Still, even though race is evidently less of a barrier for highly intelligent black individuals, it is not the case that race is by the end disaggregated from class. Even in recent works, there is a significant relation between race and class/lifestyle. The Black Notebooks, for instance, describes the social gap between blacks and whites. She describes segregationist clubs that only admit white members, and segregationist housing policies where black house buyers are always brought to all-black neighborhoods and always taken away from predominantly white neighborhoods. In Twilight one of the Korean women interviewed says that she finds herself simply unable to connect with the black community: they simply live in a different world.

In addition to real economic and social differences between races, there are also imagined differences. Whiteboyz in particular illustrates the imagined and its role in constructing race. Flip and the others associate blackness with a particular kind of lifestyle: bikini-clad women, violence, rapping, illegally-obtained wealth. And it is this imagined life that becomes, for them, what blackness really is. The slippage between what is real and what is believed to be real is rapid: we never see Flip consider that there might be more to blackness than rapping with Snoop Dogg, even when one of his friends angrily asks him “have you ever been to Chicago?” or when he sees Khalid’s fine house. In some sense, the imagined becomes the real: Flip et al’s beliefs about race are reflected in their performance of black identity.

Whiteboyz

May 11, 2007

I was surprised to hear that Whiteboyz was really a movie about class. As I watched whiteboys I couldnt help but think that they reminded me the white boys I went to private school with. The boys and my school definately made the same claims that their white skin color was a birthmark adn that their real skin color was that tiny dot on their forearm. Now these kids came from rich families so im even more confused if the movie was mainly about race or class..

I was rather curious about the conversation that we had in class about

    Erasure

tand the trend of “street literature”. I wanted to understand how this trend works in life outside of the novel. I came across a public library’s page and i found their definition of street lit:

“Called street literature, urban drama, and hip-hop literature, this exciting genre features fast-paced action, gritty ghetto realism, and social messages about the high price of gangsta life. Following in the tradition of Iceberg Slim and Donald Goines, the new generation of street lit writers speaks to the experiences of a wide range of characters – from the ordinary people trying to get by in the projects to hard-core drug dealers, prostitutes, pimps, and gangbangers.”–Madison Public Library

From a little more research online, it is quite clear that street lit is a popular genre attracting people from the ages of 14-34. But there are also people who don’t like the recent influx of this kind of literature. An African American writer, Nick Chiles is quoted in this article. He is very reminiscent of the narrator of

    Earasure

. http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA6299839.html

Interestingly enough, he goes into borders and gets upset that his novels and novels by Toni Morrison are “swallowed up” by the bright covers of street lit novels.

Authentically Black

May 8, 2007

I dont know if this has anything to do with the course, but I found it online and thought it might be relevant to our discussions lately. After watching Whiteboyz I began to think about the ways in which a white Rush Limbaugh with this video understands blackness. Now that I am aware that Whiteboyz is a comedy serious film, this parody attacking Obama’s authenticity as a black man seems more problematic. Because Barack is not from the “hood” and does not associate himself with the typical negative story of rags to riches like Al Sharpton or Snoop, Rush Limbaugh thought it would be appropriate to pit Barack Obama and Al Sharpton against each other with these racially tinged verses. Not only does he make Sharpton seem like a bumbling fool but he paints Obama’s success as something undesired in the black community. Limbaugh thinks he has successfully parodied the opposing qualities of Barack and Sharpton, but he was unable to subvert any positive message about race through comedy. I would rather watch the white characters in Whiteboyz misappropriate blackness and hip hop culture than be subjected to Rush Limbaugh’s terrible and offensive attempt at humor.

1. When I watched the first few minutes of the movie, I thought it was really annoying. Usually I can get over “annoying” and find out things about the movie that will get me thinking about other things. What I found out about this movie is that i really didn’t like watching it. I thought it was vaguely painful and I kept wanting it to end. I guess what I got out of the movie was the reality check about race that the boys faced when they got to Chicago. Flip “playing black” isn’t the same as actually being black. We see that the cops treat Flip differently than Kalid at the party. We also see the cops shooting at the black man in Chicago instead of Flip.

2. I’ve looked up reviews online and I found one that says the movie has trouble “decid[ing] whether it wants to be a sort of Friday for the Limp Bizkit set or a serious social satire about the aimlessness and delusion of today’s lost youth.” I don’t know if I like that review of the movie. How does a white person pretending to be black = aimless, maybe deluted, but aimless? I just don’t see the correlation. Anyway, I agree with this reviewer because I don’t think the movie really achieves much of anything.

3. Im having some trouble thinking about the part in the movie when Flip says that he really is black and that his skin doesn’t mean anything. I remember that he seemed so serious and intent on the other person believing him. It seemed like he really thought that. It makes me think differently about Flip and the movie, but I don’t know how it makes me thing…it just is kind of unsettling.