Edgar C and I disagree about a fundamental issue; whether mustaches (unattached to a beard of some sort, of course) are aesthetically pleasing or not.  He votes yes, I vote very much no.  There is one issue he and I do agree on.  White Americans, by and large, suck at talking about race.

Feel free to click the clicky.  Also, I fully expect that if this does for some reason garner any comments, half of them will be TL;DR.

mustacheOn this, we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

I include myself in the above statement re. talking about race and sucking at it.  Outside of an academic context I feel incredibly uncomfortable talking about race.  At worst I’m oblivious.  At best I’m racked with guilt as I do so.  This is probably an integral general part of my overall thesis, with an emphasis on the nitty gritty of the form it takes in the particular regions in which I do my research.  I will now attempt to take a step back and focus on the historic narrative rather than the regional memory.

Jezebel has done an exemplary job of dissecting how much we suck at talking about race.  It also provides a neat clincher for the fact that racism is not purely the domain of klansmen in the sticks.  Know what, I’m gonna stop trying to synopsize it.  Just . . . read the article.  Trust me.

It seems to me that one of the major facts we suck at talking about race is because our entire national historic narrative depends on us <i>not having</i> to talk about race.  Institutionalized racism — not to mention slavery — were simply anomalous blips.  Asterisks in our history textbooks.  Certainly nothing to make a fuss about.

Smith and Delgado* write that the idea that racism is done and over with confirms the idea that we truly do live in a color-blind society.  This serves to absolve the state of any blame it might share in perpetuating racial stratification.  We remain a proper “settler colony,” settled by people who pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make it by their own merits.  In fact, Delgado notes a 2010 survey revealing that the majority of Americans view America as a “land of equality” and racism as “[an] individual action” as well as “socially unacceptable and rare.”  In this way, colorblindness becomes a subtle way of admonishing “people of color to ‘get over it’ . . . slavery was abolished long ago and discrimination is now illegal” (170).  Note the words “now” and “long ago” in the quotation from Delgado.  We’ve been talking about progress and an upward/forward trajectory.  Those indications of a forward temporal trajectory are probably intentional.

Spickard*** takes this concept further by likening America to a “giant metaphoric escalator.  Each new group starts at the bottom and makes its way inexorably up to the top . . . along the way . . . each group must jettison the things that distinguish it from other Americans . . . at the top, people are all the same and cease to have ethnicity” (8).  They are simply Americans, and being American looks suspiciously like the “default setting” of Anglo-American.

To me, this metaphor of an escalator is very useful.  The image of upward and forward trajectory fits neatly with the idea of social evolution and progress, hearkening to an upward-trending line on a graph.  It takes progress for granted.  It also omits certain groups from its paradigm; among them, African-Americans.  Unlike the immigrants who willingly stood in line at Ellis Island African-Americans did not, by and large, come to this hemisphere willingly.  African-Americans therefore have a “delayed placement” on Spickard’s escalator, with many seeming to decide that they didn’t “really” step onto it “until the early decades of the 20th century, when large numbers migrated from the rural south to the urban north . . . if they are a people apart still in America, it is only because of their . . . late entry . . . noone is to blame” (9).  Again, we are able to “contain” slavery to certain times, places and situations.  It allows to ignore how firmly embedded the Triangle Trade was within the system of early American capitalism.  It allows us to see mercantilism is merely the exchange of goods from the Caribbean, to the American East Coast, to Europe and to West Africa without dwelling on the fact that much, if not all of this, was designed to support an unpaid workforce built around the notions of racial and ethnic inferiority.  It allows us to gloss over the fact that slavery was “the anchor of capitalism” in the words of Smith.**  The plantation economy that fueled the development of modern society is glossed over by official history, if even mentioned at all.  Concepts such as modernity, progress and the universal viability of capitalism — referred to as “North Atlantic Universals” by Trouillot — are exonerated.  Meanwhile, when slavery does “pop-up” up north, it is quickly hammered down onto populations viewed as “non-normative” and therefore contained.  Okay, now I’m mixing metaphors.  I suppose you could also picture populations like Tories and the New York Dutch being shoved off the escalator?  Maybe?  Ugh . . . I need to work on this. Anyway, suffice to say that no one of note is to blame: not capitalism, certainly not the North, and only incidentally the contemporary South.

Meanwhile, back in reality, African-Americans may have only just gotten on Spickard’s escalator in the early 20th century.  However, this was after needing to climb their way up the elevator shaft from the sub basement, pick their way through some darkened offices, fight their way past a half-starved leopard on the first floor and swim their way through a lava pit.  Backward.  While reciting the Odyssey from memory.  In Farsi.  This part is not acknowledged because, as stated above, no one is to blame.  So just “get over it.”  The only reason I introduce you as “my black friend” is to be ironic and to show how totally un-preoccupied I am with your race!  Ha ha ha . . . funny!  I mean, we’re both in college so we’re totally the same, here in these modern and progressive times at the top of that pretend escalator Jonathan is hammering home to death.  Meanwhile, yeah, Newt Gingrich referred to Pres. Obama as the “food stamp president” which is kinda bad but still!  Obama was elected!  Racism is all better, right?  He and Condi Rice and Colin Powell and Clarence Thomas prove it!

Except it’s not.  Because we still can’t really have a true and open discussion of race.  We can only point to individual examples as ways things are “obviously” getting better, in ways that fit very neatly with the American narrative of the triumph of the individual, ignoring the systemic problems that remain.  I certainly can’t talk about, unless I’m doing so in an academic way with sources, and citations, and everything!  Speaking of which:

*Delgado in HoSang, Daniel Martinez; Oneka LaBennett and Laura Pulido (eds) (2012).  <i>Racial Formation in the 21st Century.</i> Berkeley: University of California Press.

**Smith in HoSang, Daniel Martinez et al.

***Spickard, Paul (2007). <i>Almost All Aliens: Immigration, Race, and Colonialism in American History and Identity.</i> New York: Routledge.

Erm . . . this is a blog, so don’t expect such thorough citations all the time (psst . . . that’s my wry way of saying that I’m lazy).  Thoughts?  Comments?  Feel free to pick this apart.