Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Over the years, much has been written about the American racial question and its impact on life in the United States. Conspicuously absent from the debate has been a recognition of how racism may now be but a convenient proxy for cultural marginalization. When racial minorities experience discrimination today, the cause is most likely rooted in differences of culture rather than differences in inherited physical characteristics. Perhaps the time has finally come to attribute American intergroup tensions to “culturism” vice racism. The difference is far more than semantic and it could suggest that America has unknowingly turned the corner in regard to relations between racial groups.
It is well settled that race has been the historically predominant factor negatively impacting the lives of racial minorities. However, upon close examination of the current condition of let’s say, blacks, it becomes increasingly clear that we are most likely to be discriminated against if and when we function outside of what is considered the cultural mainstream. If this is indeed true, the implications would be profoundly positive. Race is an immutable characteristic that one cannot change; culture however, is very changeable through familiarity and conditioning.
When whites discriminate against blacks today, it is likely that they do so because of negative perceptions of differing attitudes, behaviors and communication styles, whether real or imagined. It is rare today for whites to discriminate against blacks due solely to the physical traits associated with being black.
For example, there exists a sizable and growing class of affluent and successful blacks who have sufficiently adopted the practices and mores of mainstream society. Their adoptions of corporate language, etiquette, and values have equipped them to persevere in America’s competitive environment despite their racial differences. In contrast, the most underachieving strata of blacks tend to function farthest from the cultural mainstream core. Does it follow that a possible solution to the discrimination that blacks and others experience is mainstream acculturization?
Sadly, vehement and defiant resistance to mainstream acculturization remain the rule in many black communities. Years of continual exclusion from American mainstream life has given rise to a vibrant black sub-culture that, among other things, prides itself in rejecting vestiges of the cultural mainstream. That this rejection stifles upward mobility is seldom considered in some black communities. Therein dwells the new American dilemma. To expect these blacks to abandon their familiar culture in favor of a historically hostile mainstream would be truly ambitious. This difficulty notwithstanding, this should be increasingly acknowledged as a critical cultural goal to be pursued.
Some critics might consider this mainstream acculturization to be a form of denial of ethnic heritage. This need not be the case. Obtaining the ability to function in a different cultural milieu does not necessarily displace one’s original cultural disposition. For example, when foreign businessmen come to the United States, they quickly realize that they must adopt American corporate modes of dress, speech, behavior if they expect to make positive impressions in the business world. Are these foreign businessmen thereby rejecting the heritage from which they came? Surly they are not.
Further, notable figures like Denzel Washington, Condolezza Rice and Michael Jordan are respected and admired by Americans across the demographic spectrum. Are they any less Black by heritage and culture as a result? Again, this is not the case.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that racism no longer exists in American life. In some environments, it continues to be an everyday phenomenon. More often than not however, American racism now consists of slights and indignities rather than systemic measures used to subjugate people as in years past. This fact alone demonstrates just how far American society has come in lessening the relevance of race, per se, as a barrier to equal participation in the American dream. And despite the protestations racial pessimists would have us believe, we are obviously well along the right path.
Throughout its history, the n-word's usage was primarily meant to dehumanize, debase and dishonor African-Americans. In the "good old days," the word was used by bigots with either contempt or patronization. Its underlying meaning, however, was always the same.
Increasingly, many African-Americans use the n-word as if to say, "Yes, we are worthy of dehumanization, debasement and dishonor and we're darn proud of it." It's now even used to identify a friend or associate. What they don't acknowledge is how they still might fire off that word during heated altercations and conflicts, which suggest the word is not still quite the term of endearment that may maintain it is at other times.
Some within the ghetto subculture try to rationalize the continued use of the n-word by claiming that an alternate spelling - "nigga" - signifies a positive meaning.
Is the ghetto underclass that desperate for positivity? The word "sucker" has just as negative a connotation when it's spelled "sucka," so the alternate spelling argument holds no water with me. That these people can muster any justification at all for using the n-word is surprising, but that justification fails when it is juxtaposed with the vile historical origin of the word.
The truth of the matter surrounding the n-word is that the black ghetto subculture has willingly internalized its meaning. John McWhorter, author of acclaimed book Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America discusses the concept of therapeutic alienation in black America. He says this alienation prioritizes social defiance over social progress, and manifests itself in the ever-present exaggeration of all that is negative in black America. By calling themselves and others the n-word, members of the black ghetto subculture reinforce and comfort themselves with the therapeutic alienation that is at the very core of that subculture.
Black America has historically allowed itself to be defined by its worst and least-respected citizens, not its best and brightest. This strategy, in my opinion, has actually hastened the attainment of some political and legal victories over the years. But black America now suffers from a dictatorship of the black lower class so well-entrenched it would make Karl Marx himself proud.
This black lower class has appropriated the n-word, and the ineffectual black middle and upper classes can do nothing to wrestle the animal back into the cage. Bill Cosby was skewered in his attempt to publically castigate the destructive practices of the black underclass.
We now have white youngsters who throw around the n-word with their friends of all ethnic backgrounds. I never thought I would live to see the day when a white teenage waiter would find it acceptable to use the term in my presence as a customer, but it happened. The teen explained that he meant no harm by using the word in my presence, and I that should "get over" my complex about the term. I opted to simply leave it to his employer to resolve his naiveté.
Clear-thinking people need to call out this new use of the term. Simply mentioning that it is unacceptable in polite usage will at least prompt some to reconsider its use. Alternatives should be suggested, and - where possible - people should be held accountable until they realize that even "nigga" is viewed by most as an offense ethic slur.
Unfortunately, thanks to the long marriage of mass media to black ghetto subculture, black Americans can increasingly expect to be greeted with "Hey, my nigga," "Good morning, my nigga" and "How can I help you, my nigga" all around the world. For that, blacks have themselves to blame for permitting it for so long.
But if there is one thing that whites enjoy that let's say blacks do not, it is respect for their individualism. By this I mean, a white person can choose to be a redneck, a wall street banker, a conservative, a liberal, or a hermit and society does not castigate them for not adhering to a predetermined role assigned to whiteness.
Blacks on the other hand, are expected to think a certain way, assume certain characteristics, and embody stereotype. For example, Barney Frank and Rush Limbaugh are polar opposites. One is a gay, left-wing Member of Congress and the other is a heterosexual, right-wing political pundit. They have nothing in common, yet they are both full-fledged whites. On the other hand, Al Sharpton and Clarence Thomas represent the same continuum in Black America. However, Thomas is castigated as "not authentically Black," as a racial turncoat, and as some sort of an anomoly by both many blacks and whites. Sharpton, eccentricities and all, would be viewed as the true black of the two.
What is going on here? On the black side, there is an unabashed collectivist mindset that deems any black person as a single part of the whole, a "brother" if you will.
On the white side, it is a bit different. Most whites take their cue about blacks from limited personal experience and politically correct practices demanded by blacks. Whites are thus conditioned and encouraged by blacks to view blacks in a collectivist manner.
Both are misguided. Until Americans extend the burden of individual assessment to persons of ALL ethnicities, the double standard will persist.