Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Cultural Expression, Oppression, and Transcendance

Will Willkinson talks to Andrew Potter about his book, The Authenticity Hoax on Bloggingheads.  The discussion is fascinating, until Potter wanders into some really stupid commentary on race.  Potter, in trying to parse what "black authenticity" might be - a very valid discussion -  makes the nebulous claim that
this idea of black authenticity, if one connects it up with the slave heritage has some really pernicious social effects.

Both Wilkinson and Potter are clearly out of their depth here - as am I. Race is a difficult subject that requires a lot of heavy lifting.  But I think it is exactly right that "black authenticity" isn't connected to the slave heritage. Actually, I should say *necessarily*, because the legacy of discrimination certainly is.

The main problem is that it defines black ethnicity down, which is actually a larger racist notion (let me be clear that I think racism is a part of all our consciousnesses, black and white). Potter literally says that you can "decode" the way black men walk and dress by assuming that "they are trying to signal one of three things: that they don't have a job, they've been to jail, or that they deal drugs".

Yet how is this different than the essence of "cool"? Certainly there are a disproportionate number of black men in prison, dealing drugs, etc. And this is part of a legacy of discrimination that has its roots in slavery. But black culture is so much more complex than this! "Blackness" is many things: it is a healthy organic culture, it is a dysfunctional culture from oppression, and it is an epic culture of transcendence.

And each of these things are in every ethnic culture to varying degrees. The only reason we seem them so strongly in black culture is because the history has been so powerfully direct. As an example of a powerful, yet lesser historical force, there are elements of femininity that are the product of a legacy of misogyny. When a woman doesn't speak up enough in class, she is under this influence. Yet, like black culture, there is transcendence in femininity, as when the same woman in class might work harder at her notes or listen more intently to the speaker.

1 comment:

  1. "...it is a healthy organic culture, it is a dysfunctional culture from oppression, and it is an epic culture of transcendence."

    Good Lord, that's brilliant.

    Are you really non-black? (See what I did there? Get it?)