Tag Archives: racism

Let’s Talk About Race

We talk about race constantly with our kids.  We’ve talked about how race is a social construct that helps the dominant group to establish and maintain its boundaries based on perceived cultural or ancestral similarity.  We’ve talked about how the color of an individual’s skin doesn’t always track with their racial identity, and we’ve talked about how race is often performative, and we’ve talked about how race, like gender, is a convenient shorthand for social purposes but isn’t actually real.

But I still wasn’t expecting Númenor– catching a glimpse of How To Get Away With Murder over my shoulder– to come out with one of the hardest questions he’s ever asked.

“What are all the different races?  Can you make a list for me?”

Oh, child.  Oh honey, sweet, baby, child, with your lisp and your first loose tooth.

I know he wants to understand the world.  He wants a logical, discrete system.  He wants it to make sense.  But that’s not the way it is.

There are whole graduate-level seminars on this topic.  There’s no pat answer.  I don’t know how to render my response in small-child vocabulary.

I answered him, because the biggest single responsibility of unschooling is answering questions, but I wanted to think about my answer more, so I’m going to explore it here.

Hold on tight.

  1. Remember that race is a social construct, and as such it is different in every cultural context.  The racial categories in mid-20th-century London and the racial categories in rural Oregon in 2016 are not the same.  If you compared either of them to the racial categories of ancient Rome or late classical Maya, you would find almost no common ground.  The dominant group varies between places and times, and is always defining and redefining itself, and therefore constantly amending and adapting the divisions and stereotypes it practices.
  2. What racial categories an individual person’s brain is socialized to recognize is even more specific and variable than that.  Someone who grew up in a Tongan-American community in Portland might racially distinguish Samoan, Tongan, and Hawaiian people but be unable to distinguish between European origins, whereas someone who grew up in a white suburb of Chicago might lump Tongan, along with Kazakh and Han and Japanese and Maori, into the umbrella racial category of AAPI, but hold Polish people and Irish people in separate racial categories.
  3. Race isn’t idempotent.  In the 19th century, many light-skinned people were legally categorized as racially black in the American South (see the “one-drop rule”), but were able to migrate to states with less stringent legal standards and “become” white.  An individual’s understanding of and identification with different elements of their ancestry may change over time.  Mixed-race is currently the fastest-growing racial identity in the United States, which means an increasing number of people have two or more significant racial backgrounds.
  4. Some racial categories supersede others or rely on a secret code to make sense.  Mixed race people in the US who have significant black ancestry often experience the invisibilization of the rest of their racial background, as do mixed race people who “pass” for white.  The racial category “Hispanic” is a hot mess that cannot be understood unless you hear the racist dogwhistle embedded in it.
  5. Fiction muddies the waters.  American Indian characters have been played by Italian, Latinx, and mixed-race people overwhelmingly more often than they have been played by American Indian people.  American families of color on TV often have a striking and unrealistic similarity in skin color between members– actors are cast “Pantone-matched” between characters’ relationship partners or family members.  Mixed race people are cast to play a variety of races over the course of their careers.

What all of this means is that race could be as varied and as specific as to put practically every individual on earth in their own category, and this would be neither more nor less accurate than the “Mongoloids and Negritoes” system of Thomas Huxley, because race isn’t real.

We can talk about the racial categories I recognize, or the racial categories available on the US census (although their “mixed race” category has, so far, been an othering, invisiblizing sham), but neither of these would be a full and accurate list of all the races people can have.

The fact is that there is no system.  There is no list.  There is no rubric.  It’s all just layer upon layer of euphemism and inspeak, seeking to reduce humans to checkboxes in an effort to control them and practice social grouping.

And just like with gender, you can guess about someone’s identity by looking for their cues, but the only way to know someone’s race for sure is to ask how they identify.

About that patriotic stuff

The word “patriotic” is an adjective used to describe things that are patriot-like.  The word patriot was loaned into English from middle French patriote, but its lineage can be traced back to Latin and Greek words for father, making the meaning of the word less about being proud of one’s homeland (or patria), and more about it being a feeling one has in conjunction with others who are of one’s father.  It’s about human relationships, common history, shared identity.

It’s not the opposite of “terrorist,” “godless,” or “anarchist.”

For European Americans, the 4th of July is a celebration of their people’s victory over their oppressive colonial rulers.  For people of African and Native descent, it is, at best, meaningless.

That’s patriotic all around.

After the Declaration [of Independence] there is a long list of justification given for why the colonies were declaring their independence from the control of England. And the 7th justification reads:
“He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”

13 years prior, King George issued the Proclamation of 1763. In this proclamation a line was drawn down the Appalachian Mountains and the colonies were essentially told that they no longer had the right of discovery of the Indian Lands west of Appalachia. Only the crown could thereafter negotiate treaties and buy or sell those lands. This deeply upset the colonies. For they wanted those empty Indian lands and King George was “raising the conditions of new Appropriations of (their rightful) Lands.”

Justification 27, the final justification in the list, states:
“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

How can a declaration that begins by stating “All men are created equal” go on to include justifications that dehumanize the Indian tribes and peoples who were already living in this land? Clearly the founding Fathers had a very narrow definition of who qualified as human. Therefore they could state “ALL men are created equal” because they did not believe that the “merciless Indian Savages” who occupied the empty Indian lands west of the Appalachian Mountains were actually human.

— Mark Charles, Navajo scholar, “The Doctrine of Discovery: A Buried Apology and an Empty Chair

 

Given the current state of race relations in the US and the heatwave, I would like to remind people, especially white males and others with privilege, that there is much to criticize about this country, its history, and the conduct of its modern state.  Try to hear criticisms and anti-nationalist sentiments as an ally, or at least a neutral bystander.

The 4th of July isn’t for everyone, just as the Declaration of Independence wasn’t about the self-evident and inalienable rights of women, slaves, native peoples, and other marginalized people.  So don’t be an asshole to people who choose not to be excited about what is, in reality, a celebration for a small number of already privileged people that they worked up the courage to challenge a far-distant government for dominion over a vast and diversely-peopled continent none of them had any right to claim.

Have a safe weekend, everyone.

The Boxtrolls is on the Problematic list

I was extremely displeased today to discover that yet ANOTHER kids’ movie has to go on the list of Movies Too Problematic for Small Children.

I had seen previews for The Boxtrolls, and it looked cute, and like perhaps it would have some good messages about identity and performance/presentation, or family and belonging.  I was excited to maybe see it for myself later in the year depending on what our drive-in theater chooses to show.  But apparently the movie has been manipulated into essentially one long reinforcement of harmful cultural narratives about gender nonconformity/trans*ism.

So…we won’t be seeing that movie.

The Problematic list is a long one.  I’m not overly choosy, but I have this thing about media sources teaching my children that excitement, adventure, and fun are the handmaidens of hate.  We are the parents who LOUDLY criticized the preview of Earth to Echo for the joke about femininity degrading a masculine character.  We are the people won’t stop talking about the sexual hyper-dimorphism in Brave and Frozen.  We are the family who refused to see Planes: Search and Rescue because the preview was sexually objectifying, racist, and hyper-masculine.

Now, my standards are far from exacting– our beloved local film The Goonies doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, and neither does the oh-so-fun Monsters, Inc.  We adore Brave and Frozen.  The Emperor’s New Groove doesn’t make the Problematic list for a few unnecessary jokes about sexual objectification.  There are some questionable colonial elements and some consent problems in Lilo and Stitch, but it’s still allowed.  We loved Maleficient, despite the innocuous portrayal of a sex crime.

The question is, are there are few iffy spots that I can make sure to talk to my kids about, or would I need to debrief the entire message of the movie or the way a whole character is portrayed?

One of the reasons we go to the drive-in rather than a conventional theater is so that I have my own mostly-soundproof viewing box in which I can debrief and discuss with (and for the benefit of) my children.  Frequently, the preview seems okay, but the actual film has big issues, so I feel that it’s essential for me and Robert to have the freedom to call things bad, unfunny, hurtful, damaging, dangerous, stupid, bigoted, and unacceptable when they are so.  This way, while our children are exposed to the film, they are simultaneously exposed to our criticisms of it and are less likely to model their behavior after the bad examples on the screen.

I wish there were content ratings that actually addressed this stuff.  I don’t care if there are nipples visible, if the story deals with death, or if someone says “fuck”, but I care deeply about whether people are casually or “hilariously” exploited, othered, and shamed based on their identities.  I am glad to have had a heads-up about The Boxtrolls, because evidently it is very transmisogynist.  I have the opportunity to choose not to see it based on its message being damaging.

When entire characters have no relevance to the plot besides a joke about othering them, when characters are functionally more like props due to an inappropriate lack of agency, when hate is consistently portrayed as funny or meritorious or (perhaps worst of all) unremarkable, those works go on the Too Problematic for Small Children list.

And I am upset about the length of the list.

Ferguson

This is an article about the failings of the “objective” official report on the Watts riots in LA in 1965. I know this is old news, but read it.  This article is nearly 50 years old, and the parallels between the situation it describes and the situation this month in Ferguson are many.  Racism is not defunct– in many ways, things are worse now than they were before the Civil Rights Act, and in many ways, as you can tell reading this article with modern eyes, they are unchanged.

Police to Al Jazeera Journalist near Ferguson: ‘I’ll bust your head’

A former marine explains all the weapons of war being used in Ferguson

Why the Fires in Ferguson won’t End Soon

Finally, here’s an opportunity to teaspoon: http://www.change.org/p/national-action-against-police-brutality