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Power, Powerlessness, and the Myth of Oppression

August 13, 2009 14 comments

Power and powerlessness both lay at the heart of our ongoing cultural discussion of equality among the sexes.  Too often we perceive this as a somewhat binary distinction—one group as the oppressor, the other as the oppressed—and thus one gender’s power tends to be defined by another group’s powerlessness.  Typical of this line of thought is the claim that men have held the majority of the power for millennia, which has made women powerless by default.   However, this oversimplification of sex and gender can be counterproductive in many important ways.  Considering women to have been at the brunt end of oppression for all these years is actually both insulting and demeaning to the female gender.  While there are certainly many genuine cases of both men and women being violently oppressed throughout history, we must avoid the temptation to think of either gender’s history as merely one of oppression.  History is not a story of men oppressing women for thousands of years, and then collectively waking up to the folly of our ways.  Men and women were both being oppressed—by each other, and more importantly, by the challenge of survival in a mysterious and hostile world.

In order to get a full grasp of this complex and fairly volatile issue, we must consider two different types of power and powerlessness, one type belonging to men, and the other to women.  Since the very first waves of feminism, women began comparing their public roles to those belonging to men, and began to perceive a very real imbalance of opportunities for women to excel in the workplace.  This, many people claimed, was testament to the outright dis-empowerment of women everywhere.  A man’s success was viewed as the only power that carried any real currency in society, and so a movement was born—or rather multiple movements, each building upon the triumphs and trappings of the last.  Women’s liberation allowed women to suddenly move into the workplace, more than ever before in history, and is now viewed as one of the most remarkable victories of the human spirit.  Together, men and women began to view the public sphere as the arena of power itself—where all the gaps between oppressor and oppressed ultimately dwell, and the only place where they can be resolved.  As a result, the “invisible power” of women was often devalued, if acknowledged at all.

However, once women began moving en masse into positions of social authority, many began to realize that men’s ostensible “success” in the public sphere was not necessarily a product of male power, but rather of male powerlessness—one of few highly disposable roles that society offers to men.  These roles often require a considerable sacrifice of time, energy, and happiness, as well as frequent abandonment of interest in things like music, poetry, dance, and other artistic expressions.  Such material success often requires men to cut themselves off from all the qualities that are commonly associated with female power—namely love, connection, and compassion—and often replace them with the sort of hyper-masculine pathologies perceived as necessary to ensure financial prosperity such as callousness, ruthlessness, and an unhealthy predisposition to avarice.  These traits started to define success for a great many people, traits that were in actuality a portent of how little power men really had.

When trying to weigh the distribution of power between men and women, we might suggest a very interesting metric: life expectancy.  For example, we can point to the significantly lower life expectancies among African Americans when compared to Caucasians as a valid measure of dis-empowerment—it could be surmised that because African Americans tend to have notably less societal power on average than Caucasians, they are subject to more stress and hardship throughout a lifetime, leading to more exhaustion, illness, and thus reduced life-spans.  But the fact that men of all races can expect considerably shorter life-spans than women is not often regarded as symptomatic of this same sort of power imbalance, despite the fact that there appears to be no real biological reason why this should be the case.

Of course it is entirely too simplistic to say that, since women tend to live longer lives, they therefore have more power—but we might be able to infer that, of the power men and women do already have, women’s power may be more healthfully wielded.

Just as we might look to life expectancy as a measure of male vs. female power, we might also consider suicide rates as an indicator of overall powerlessness.  Here too we find a tremendous imbalance between male suicide rates and female suicide rates, which predict that adolescent men are as much as four times more likely to kill themselves as women—and the ratio only becomes greater with age, with elderly men being more than one thousand percent more likely to commit suicide than women of the same age.  Just as a woman’s power can be characterized as being “invisible” and therefore all-too-easy to overlook, men’s powerlessness has become invisible to the majority of society, even while it is being confused for his power.  Again, it would be simplistic as to think that, since men kill themselves more often than women, they are more powerless than women.  But perhaps we can suggest that the lack of recognition of this powerlessness is what causes so many males to prematurely end their own lives.  The case could be made that the expectations for males to conform to the rigidly defined societal pressures of sexuality, success, and service are much greater than they are for females.

Which is certainly not to say that women do not have their own sets of societal pressures bearing down upon them from all angles, often coercing women to adopt identities they are not at all comfortable with—but these pressures tend to carry different sorts of consequence in the public sphere. This brings us to one of the most universal and fundamental misconceptions in virtually all of feminist thought, what we might call “the myth of oppression.”  In order for one group of people to be truly oppressed, at least one of three possibilities is true: they are either dumber, weaker, or fewer in numbers than their oppressors.  It is doubtful that we could find any sane person, male or female, who would suggest that women have ever fallen into any of these categories—and yet the myth of oppression lives on, a grim parody of the real oppression that men and women have both experienced throughout our shared history.

It is crucial to emphasize the following: though we may find it necessary to reframe our popular conceptions of male/female oppression, debunking the myth of women as perennial victim, at no point are we diminishing the very real experiences of oppression women encounter every day, all over the world.  At every moment women are being demoralized.  Her identity is being commodified, packaged, and sold for a quick profit.  Her sexuality is either being forced upon her or ripped away, her soul ravaged by senseless acts of physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse.  There is no denying that oppression exists in this world, that countless instances of exploitation and inequity persist to this very day, and that women are too often the victims of this oppression. It obliterates my heart whenever i open myself to even a fraction of the full severity of women’s suffering, if even for just a moment.  And it is clear that men everywhere need to recognize these genuine instances of violence, find a way to collectively “man up” and take more ownership and responsibility for his gender’s behaviors, and begin to consciously redefine the male identity, just as women have been doing for generations.

But when trying to identify the source of this oppression, we must be careful not to allow ourselves to get swept away by the difficult emotions surrounding male/female oppression, or succumb to the glib oversimplifications presented by so many feminist thinkers: namely, the popular narrative that human history is one giant plot concocted by men to keep women under his thumb.  Make no mistake, men and women are both oppressed, by ourselves, by each other, and by the forces of history.  The dreaded patriarchy and all it is associated with—the sharp divisions between labor, gender roles, sexuality, temperament, etc.—men and women have created this mess together, out of sheer necessity of human survival, and both suffer under its weight.  Thus, a comprehensive approach to feminism would not frame the issue as a woman’s struggle to escape her historical oppression by men, but as both men and women together struggling to escape the oppression of history itself.

The weakness of men is the facade of strength, while the strength of women is the facade of weakness.  The goal, obviously, is to thoroughly understand power and powerlessness as they relate to both men and women, thus enabling both sexes to move beyond the often-constricting roles we have created for ourselves.  Some may consider it odd or disingenuous to have men discussing feminism—it is not unusual in academia to believe that only women should deal with women’s issues, and only men with men’s issues, as neither can speak to the experience of the other.  These rules of engagement have only reinforced the enormous divide between us, and it is only through self-awareness and inter-gender dialogue that we will strengthen our ability to honor and cultivate the brilliance inherent within both genders.  The fact remains that both men and women are in this together—we created the mess together, step-by-stumbling-step, all throughout history—and therefore such identity politics have no place in this conversation.  There can be no real progress for women without men’s own progress taking place right alongside, just as there can be no real progress for men without honoring and deepening the many victories women have created for themselves in recent decades.  We are defined only in relation to each other.  Only together are we whole, completing the most sacred circuit the universe has ever known—a circuit through which life continues to proliferate, consciousness continues to amplify, and history continues to whisper its secrets to future generations.

Originally published on Integral Life: Redefining the Relationships Between Men and Women. Part 3: Power and Powerlessness (w/ Warren Farrell and Ken Wilber)

Previously:

Redefining the Relationships Between Men and Women

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Categories: Social Justice Tags:

Redefining the Relationships Between Men and Women

August 11, 2009 10 comments

It is amazing to consider how much has changed in the past five decades in regard to sexual liberation and empowerment.  The woman’s role in today’s society is almost unrecognizable compared to the early 20th century, and would be wholly unimaginable in the centuries prior.  In America, attitudes toward sexuality and gender began to dramatically shift with the Boomer generation (and the newly emerging pluralistic values they brought with them), as birth control, free love, and several new schools of “second wave” feminism began to challenge the traditional attitudes that defined preceding generations.  Since the early sixties, there has been a tremendous amount of movement toward redefining ourselves as men and women—some forward, some backward, and plenty of treadmills with no discernible movement at all.  In the ensuing decades, we have witnessed the masculinization of women, the feminization of men, the neutralization of both genders, the roles of helpless victim set upon women, the witch hunts of fallacious prosecution set against men, genuine transformation of attitudes and behaviors of both sexes, the movement to procure equal rights for homosexuals, the advent of sex-change surgery, the rise of pornography as a multi-billion dollar industry, and the capitalization of just about every kink, fetish, and fixation imaginable.  And through it all, not surprisingly, men and women in the 21st century still seem to look at each other with the same bewilderment they did 20,000 years ago.

“It’s definitely true that men, as a rule today in industrialized societies, are basically where women were in the 1950’s, psychologically and socially. Part of what is keeping men there is being blamed for having power that is really a camouflage for the powerlessness. Real power is control over my own life.” – Warren Farrell

In order to come to any coherent definition of ourselves as sexual beings, we must take as comprehensive a view of sexuality as possible. Ken Wilber has developed a theoretical model known as the “Four Quadrants,” which, when applied to nearly any field of human knowledge, offers a very simple way to ensure that all bases are being covered and that nothing is being left out. The Four Quadrant model accounts for the interior and exterior dimensions of both the individual and the collective, yielding four major realms of consciousness: intentional, cultural, behavioral, and social (or “I”, “we”, “it”, and “its”, respectively, for those interested in tracking pronouns). All four of these dimensions are closely related, with each quadrant having strong correlates in the others—though none of these quadrants can be reduced to each other (despite the entire history of human thought being essentially an attempt to do exactly this.)

When applied to human sexuality, the Four Quadrants allow us to clearly see the respective roles of biological sex (male vs. female), interior sexuality (masculine vs. feminine), and sexual gender (man vs. woman, as defined by cultural beliefs and expectations), while also accounting for the various technological and economic systems all of these are situated in. By differentiating each of these important dimensions of sexuality, we are able to see how each is able to develop along its own trajectory, with its own history, without needing to confuse one’s sexual orientation with one’s sense of “manliness,” one’s secret desires with one’s cultural taboos, or even one’s gender with one’s genitals.

As previously mentioned, each of these major dimensions of human sexuality (sex, sexuality, gender, and sociological factors) grows through several distinct stages of unfolding. Just as the human body grows through stages of physical maturity—from fetal to infancy, to toddler-hood, to adolescence, to reproductive maturity—so do we grow psychologically, culturally, and socially. In fact, it is only toward the higher reaches of psychological growth that these sorts of important differentiations between biology, psychology, culture, and society can be made—and only from within a relatively advanced culture can significant strides be made on behalf of sexual identity, expression, and liberation. Both men and women evolve through ego-centric, ethno-centric, and world-centric stages of development, creating cultures that reflect these ever-deepening and increasingly inclusive values as they go.

A special note should be made in regards to our techno-economic development, which arguably has the most influence upon development in the other quadrants, for a variety of reasons. By looking to the history of economic production, we can find the history of gender roles themselves—in the earliest stages of civilization, men and women were able to produce food fairly equally, as men would hunt and women would gather, and even later when we moved into the horticultural stage and both men and women could use a digging stick to grow crops. Things changed, however, when we moved into agricultural mode of production, requiring the training of large animals to pull heavy plows through the fields. As men possess more upper-body strength than women, and women were much more susceptible to birth complications under this sort of physical labor, men and women both made the mutual decision to each tend to different spheres of life. This is we begin to see our first true divisions of labor, with men becoming responsible for the public sphere, and women for the private sphere. (And as an interesting footnote, most of the cultures from the early foraging and horticultural eras worshiped gods that were predominantly matriarchal or evenly split between male and female deities, as opposed to agrarian societies who typically only worshiped male deities.) In societies still struggling with survivalist needs, women became valued as humanity’s most precious resource, and men became valued for their disposability, and are expected to compete for the opportunity to protect these resources.

For the next several thousand years, men did what they do best: kill, compete, and construct rigid and elaborate patriarchies, in all flavors of tribalism, nationalism, religion, aristocracies, meritocracies, and steel cage matches. And, in these testosterone-driven social hierarchies, a woman’s proper place in the public sphere was all too clear: she had none whatsoever. And though modern and post-modern feminists can (and do) scoff at the unabashed sexual inequities within these patriarchies, the fact that this was an intentional, necessary, and mutually beneficial decision made by both sexes early in history is regrettably forgotten. Most men aren’t the oppressive beasts they are often made out to be, and most women aren’t the helpless victims of men’s oppression that they are often made out to be.

Of course, we are now in a completely different era of history, with modes of technology that have rendered many, if not all, of these prior decisions about labor division obsolete. Much of the physical labor men traditionally had to do has been replaced first by the steam engine, then by combustion, and now by the microchip. This is probably the single most important factor in terms of the rise of women’s liberation, and has brought into relief one of the most frustrating aspects of collective transformation: although the technology can change overnight, the culture is much more slow to adapt, often requiring entire generations to die off before real change can be enacted throughout society. Or, as Ken has bleakly joked elsewhere: “the knowledge quest can only proceed funeral by funeral….”

All in all, it is an amazing time to be alive—to be a man or a woman, male or a female, masculine or feminine, gay or straight. We are bearing witness to an entire new wave of individual and collective values, an Integral wave of development which, when it reaches the tipping point of its emergence, will make just as extraordinary a splash upon history as the European renaissance or the postmodern revolution of the sixties. And while each previous revolution has occurred only to steer the world away from the pathologies and excesses of what came before, the Integral revolution will be markedly different—while creating a space of personal and collective transformation that is radically and unmistakably new, Integral consciousness will also help to bring a tremendous amount of healing, stability, and sanity to the rest of the world, with the crucial understanding that everyone must start at square one before evolving to Integral consciousness. With as comprehensive a view of human sexuality as Integral consciousness provides, it becomes apparent that all of our old and apparently obsolete methods of relating to each other will always exist, and we must therefore allow them to exist on their own terms, while simultaneously liberating ourselves from definitions of sexual maturity that no longer seem to apply to us or our relationships, and finding new ways to relate to each other with more authenticity, more wholeness, and more erotic passion than ever before possible….

Originally published on Integral Life: Does Feminism Discriminate Against Men? (w/ Warren Farrell & Ken Wilber)

Categories: Social Justice Tags:

Race, Privilege, and Color-Blindness: A White Boy’s Perspective

August 8, 2009 18 comments

Responding to a previous post titled “Deconstructing Niggy: A Brief Exploration of Race and Hip Hop,” a friend asked me: “Why do you like to discuss race?  I’m curious about that more so than the race issues themselves—what’s your own background anyway?”

Here is my response.  Before you read it, you should know that i hereby acknowledge that a) i am white, b) i have been white my entire life, and c) i still carry a LOT of naivete around the subject of racism and oppression. That said, i think there are obviously a tremendous amount of cultural taboos that continue to cloud this subject, and i have always been a fan of trying to look at those spaces between us where most spend a lavish amount of time and energy trying not to see. I have largely grown up in the cultural vacuum of identity politics, in which you are not allowed to say anything about anyone else’s experience, culturally or personally, other than your own—and so i feel like i am sitting on the end of a particularly wobbly branch, completely unsure if the winds will knock me off.  But i guess this is an effort to cut through my own fear of personal expression, and probe a bit deeper into the sensitive wounds that continue to exist beneath our cultural scabs.

Why do i like to discuss race—that is a really difficult question to answer!  A quick response might be to say that i think part of it has to do with my relationship with music and trying to take a “trans-genre” approach to djing.  Music has long been a sort of window into other cultures, perspectives, and ways of being for me.  And as i see it, the “conscious dj” has an enormous amount of responsibility when it comes to not just playing music that sounds good and has a catchy beat, but having a very real, in-depth understanding of the artists and cultures s/he is representing.

Being a good dj is sort of like being a cultural archivist (for good examples, check out Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, among many others). DJ’s are usually looked to for their cultural expertise, as they are typically the ones who are most passionate about music and music culture, and therefore the most knowledgeable. They tend to represent some form of “lower-left quadrant” mastery, and are looked to for this expertise, in much the same way that listeners form kinships with certain music reviewers who are trusted for their meta-perspectives on cultural trends and innovations. In this sense, dj’s are rather like the “Mavens” described in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, acting as trusted cultural experts to help expose people to artists they would never have been exposed to by the mainstream industry-controlled channels—and in order to live up to that responsibility, he or she needs to be exposed to as many different subcultures as possible.  And once you start stepping into subcultures other than your own, you inevitably bump into the often tricky business of race and racism.

For example, i find it fascinating that, in hip hop culture, just about any race can find acceptance as a dj, but it is very very difficult to gain the same level of recognition and acceptance as an mc if you are not black. I think much of this has to do with economic advantage—turntables, mixers, and crates of records are expensive, and it’s no secret that black communities have historically remained on the shit end of the socio-economic stick.  (In fact, hip hop as an artform exploded throughout New York City following a massive two-day blackout in 1977, during which the looting of music stores by impoverished blacks brought new technology to poor neighborhoods and ghettos for the first time ever.)  Because technology is so expensive, yet everyone is born with a voice, it is much easier for the art of rapping to remain anchored in ethnocentric thinking—making it more difficult for non-black mc’s to be accepted by the hip hop community.

So there’s one example of my interest in race and racism, from an artistic perspective.

On a personal level, i guess it comes down to becoming increasingly aware of my own “white privilege”—which is why i find the question fascinating: “Have you had any experiences which forced you to deeply acknowledge, confront, or even simply feel your skin color?”  My guess is that, for most white Americans (at least those who have not traveled beyond the borders of the U.S.) the honest answer would be “never.”  Which is a bit of a luxury, you know what i mean?  Most minorities are made to feel the color of their skin on a daily basis, from subtle cultural biases to flagrant racial profiling.

This is why when people ask me why i moved from Boulder to Denver, i often half-jokingly respond “too many white people.”  Or, if i’m feeling a little more socially lubricated, “too many self-assured white people who think they are above racism, without ever having to interact with people who don’t look like them.” I can be an elitist asshole when i am socially lubricated.

I remember the first time i ever felt the color of my skin.  I was in 9th grade, and though i came from a pretty racist family, my mother and stepfather were very careful to keep me away from such toxic values.  As a result, i was raised to be “color-blind” to questions of race.  It was all very naive, as i was largely unconscious of the struggles minorites were experiencing every day.  I think there is a sort of expectancy for post-amber whites to become “color-blind” to racial differences—especially in the zeitgeist of postmodernism.  But i think that such “color-blindness” is a sort of covert racism—after all, the only people who can afford to be “color-blind” are the ones who never have to even think about the color of their skin.  The ones who aren’t forced to confront their own identity on a daily basis in the same way that minorities are.  “Color-blindness” is just another perk of white privilege, along with mortgages, small classroom sizes, and free access to the country club pool.

Then, the Rodney King trial went down.  Four white cops beat a black man within an inch of his life, with no reasonable threat made to them.  Although a bystander recorded the entire incident, the four white cops were found innocent, the entire city of Los Angeles exploded in mass riots, while many other parts of the country trembled in the aftermath. It was as though decades of repressed anger and rage had exploded through the whole nation, and people were finally given license to say something about it.

A few days after the riots began i was sent to the vice-principal’s office.  I was late to school that day. Clumsy and awkward, i walked across a row of seated students and accidentally stepped on some black kid’s foot. (Again, my identity politics made me hesitate to say “on some black kid’s foot,” because the phrase “some black kid” may sound condescending or lead the reader to believe that skin color is my primary way of relating to him as a human being, and that all my culturally-inherited fears and half-truths around the word “black” color my perception of “black people” in general—thereby making me only able to see their blackness, instead of their full humanness.  But as it turns out, his skin color is about the only thing i knew about him as a human being, other than the fact that he definitely had a foot, and that i had indeed stepped upon that foot. But i couldn’t very well describe him as “some footed kid’s foot;” that’s just redundant.)

Anyway, i accidentally stepped on his foot, and was promptly reminded that i was, in fact, a stupid motherfucker. As if i didn’t already know. I stammered a nervous apology and took my seat at the end of the row.

After detention at the end of the school day, i was walking alone down the sunlit hallway connecting the cafeteria to the classrooms when i saw the kid whose shoe i had earlier accidentally stepped on.  He was with about a half dozen of his friends, all human beings who happened to be black.  He pointed me out, and they all ran at me.

There was a very funny episode of the animated series Boondocks in which one of the characters said: “I’ve said it before, expensive sneakers are like $150 land mines. Step on one and BOOM! A perfectly rational black man can explode.” This whole thing kind of reminds me of that.  (I should mention that i edited out of the quote the part that referred to these shoe-related explosions as an example of “nigger moments,” because that is an identity politic i am particularly sensitive about as a white person, and personally think that is a cultural taboo that whites should continue to respect.  But i included it in this parenthetical because i am edgy like that.)

Next thing i knew, the dude i stepped on punched me in the jaw, and i dropped to the floor like a sack of meat, whereupon they all proceeded to kick the living shit out of me—in the ribs, in the back, and in the head.  Fortunately, just a minute or two into my beating, Taharka—another melanin-abundant guy and the only name i remember from the entire incident—pulled them all off me, and brought me to the nurse’s office.

It was horrifying.  I was just a bit bruised up, no real damage at all, but i was so shocked and confused—i was fourteen years old, i had never hurt anyone, i was just a shy and socially awkward white kid trying to keep his head down and avoid being noticed by anyone.  But on that day, i stood out—i was the enemy, and for a moment was offered a circus-mirror glimpse of how minorities must feel almost every day: singled out for no other reason than the color of my skin.

I cried when my dad came to the school to pick me up.  It was one of the most important days of my life.

***

I believe that the civil rights movement is not over, but is a struggle that must be fought every single day.  By everyone.  It’s not enough for blacks, or asians, or latinos, or any ethnic group to fight the battle alone, which i think has largely been the case since the late sixties/early seventies.  Meanwhile many young whites take the revolutions of the sixties for granted, as if it were our parent’s struggle, and not our own.  As a result, much of the progress from that era is taken completely for granted—and i have the sense that many whites believe that the major victories have already been won, and silently wonder why non-whites aren’t somehow “over it” by now, especially in Obama’s America.

But the civil rights movement is barely half a century old—a tiny sliver of human history—and though the seeds have already been planted and are even now taking root deep in our collective psyche, the fruit of a genuinely post-racial America will only be tasted by unborn generations.

Whites can no longer lean upon the accomplishments of our parents and grandparents as justification for no longer thinking critically about the subject.  In much the same way that a healthy feminism can only flourish alongside a healthy masculism, i believe that questions of race and racism must be as much of a struggle for whites as it is for anyone else.  If civil rights are to continue to flourish in the future, whites need to be just as invested in the discussion as anyone else.  And i just don’t see that happening within mainstream white culture.

And since the Integral movement is currently composed mostly of male white perspectives, it is very important to me personally to emphasize these sorts of civil responsibilities to everyone in the community—especially since Integral consciousness is vastly more capable of understanding and addressing the roots of racial injustice.

Many of us have learned to be accountable to our upper quadrants in relation to race and racism—cultivating certain sense of “Right Thoughts” and “Right Behaviors,” to use Buddhist terms.  But the lower-quadrants—the invisible bedrock of racial biases, socio-economic imbalances, and historical circumstance—has remained fairly untouched in recent decades, especially in white cultures.  Much of this, i believe, stems from the vigorously-enforced identity politics found in academia, which ironically prevents any real perspective-taking from occurring.  I could feel this sort of unseen tension as i was writing this piece—as i pointed out, even using the words “black man” feels like i am betraying the politically-correct superego i was indoctrinated with, as though it were inappropriate to ever use one’s racial heritage as a descriptive qualifier.  But it is exactly this sort of sterilized relationship with language that prevents any genuine conversations around race to move forward in a constructive and meaningful way.

That said, i do think identity politics has it’s place.  As i said, i think it is extremely inappropriate for whites to use the “n-word.”  It will likely take many generations before that radioactive word is able to cool down enough for whites to be able to use it casually and in good taste.  If black communities wish to transmute for themselves the tremendous pain and gravity that word continues to carry (as Saul Williams attempts to do with The Rise and Inevitable Liberation of Niggy Tardust) that is obviously acceptable and their own right to do so.  We can clearly argue that slavery in general is NOT a white vs. black issue, but a developmental issue of both values and technological capacity—but until some of the cultural scars around that word have begun to heal, it should be voluntarily relinquished from the vocabularies of those directly descending from people who have used it as a euphemism for the enslavement and dehumanization of an entire people.

That said, any of you can totally feel free to call me a cracka.  It’s open season for crackas everywhere.  Cracka with an “a” that is—don’t you dare try calling me a “cracker.”  That one is ours.

Related:

Deconstructing Niggy: A Brief Exploration of Race and Hip Hop
Race, Stereotyping, and Socially-Constructed Knowledge by Sean Yang (KenWilber.com)
Beyond Race and Racism with Mark Palmer and Ken Wilber (Integral Naked)

Categories: Personal, Social Justice Tags:

Race, Privilege, and Color-Blindness: A White Boy's Perspective

August 8, 2009 18 comments

Responding to a previous post titled “Deconstructing Niggy: A Brief Exploration of Race and Hip Hop,” a friend asked me: “Why do you like to discuss race?  I’m curious about that more so than the race issues themselves—what’s your own background anyway?”

Here is my response.  Before you read it, you should know that i hereby acknowledge that a) i am white, b) i have been white my entire life, and c) i still carry a LOT of naivete around the subject of racism and oppression. That said, i think there are obviously a tremendous amount of cultural taboos that continue to cloud this subject, and i have always been a fan of trying to look at those spaces between us where most spend a lavish amount of time and energy trying not to see. I have largely grown up in the cultural vacuum of identity politics, in which you are not allowed to say anything about anyone else’s experience, culturally or personally, other than your own—and so i feel like i am sitting on the end of a particularly wobbly branch, completely unsure if the winds will knock me off.  But i guess this is an effort to cut through my own fear of personal expression, and probe a bit deeper into the sensitive wounds that continue to exist beneath our cultural scabs.

Why do i like to discuss race—that is a really difficult question to answer!  A quick response might be to say that i think part of it has to do with my relationship with music and trying to take a “trans-genre” approach to djing.  Music has long been a sort of window into other cultures, perspectives, and ways of being for me.  And as i see it, the “conscious dj” has an enormous amount of responsibility when it comes to not just playing music that sounds good and has a catchy beat, but having a very real, in-depth understanding of the artists and cultures s/he is representing.

Being a good dj is sort of like being a cultural archivist (for good examples, check out Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, among many others). DJ’s are usually looked to for their cultural expertise, as they are typically the ones who are most passionate about music and music culture, and therefore the most knowledgeable. They tend to represent some form of “lower-left quadrant” mastery, and are looked to for this expertise, in much the same way that listeners form kinships with certain music reviewers who are trusted for their meta-perspectives on cultural trends and innovations. In this sense, dj’s are rather like the “Mavens” described in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, acting as trusted cultural experts to help expose people to artists they would never have been exposed to by the mainstream industry-controlled channels—and in order to live up to that responsibility, he or she needs to be exposed to as many different subcultures as possible.  And once you start stepping into subcultures other than your own, you inevitably bump into the often tricky business of race and racism.

For example, i find it fascinating that, in hip hop culture, just about any race can find acceptance as a dj, but it is very very difficult to gain the same level of recognition and acceptance as an mc if you are not black. I think much of this has to do with economic advantage—turntables, mixers, and crates of records are expensive, and it’s no secret that black communities have historically remained on the shit end of the socio-economic stick.  (In fact, hip hop as an artform exploded throughout New York City following a massive two-day blackout in 1977, during which the looting of music stores by impoverished blacks brought new technology to poor neighborhoods and ghettos for the first time ever.)  Because technology is so expensive, yet everyone is born with a voice, it is much easier for the art of rapping to remain anchored in ethnocentric thinking—making it more difficult for non-black mc’s to be accepted by the hip hop community.

So there’s one example of my interest in race and racism, from an artistic perspective.

On a personal level, i guess it comes down to becoming increasingly aware of my own “white privilege”—which is why i find the question fascinating: “Have you had any experiences which forced you to deeply acknowledge, confront, or even simply feel your skin color?”  My guess is that, for most white Americans (at least those who have not traveled beyond the borders of the U.S.) the honest answer would be “never.”  Which is a bit of a luxury, you know what i mean?  Most minorities are made to feel the color of their skin on a daily basis, from subtle cultural biases to flagrant racial profiling.

This is why when people ask me why i moved from Boulder to Denver, i often half-jokingly respond “too many white people.”  Or, if i’m feeling a little more socially lubricated, “too many self-assured white people who think they are above racism, without ever having to interact with people who don’t look like them.” I can be an elitist asshole when i am socially lubricated.

I remember the first time i ever felt the color of my skin.  I was in 9th grade, and though i came from a pretty racist family, my mother and stepfather were very careful to keep me away from such toxic values.  As a result, i was raised to be “color-blind” to questions of race.  It was all very naive, as i was largely unconscious of the struggles minorites were experiencing every day.  I think there is a sort of expectancy for post-amber whites to become “color-blind” to racial differences—especially in the zeitgeist of postmodernism.  But i think that such “color-blindness” is a sort of covert racism—after all, the only people who can afford to be “color-blind” are the ones who never have to even think about the color of their skin.  The ones who aren’t forced to confront their own identity on a daily basis in the same way that minorities are.  “Color-blindness” is just another perk of white privilege, along with mortgages, small classroom sizes, and free access to the country club pool.

Then, the Rodney King trial went down.  Four white cops beat a black man within an inch of his life, with no reasonable threat made to them.  Although a bystander recorded the entire incident, the four white cops were found innocent, the entire city of Los Angeles exploded in mass riots, while many other parts of the country trembled in the aftermath. It was as though decades of repressed anger and rage had exploded through the whole nation, and people were finally given license to say something about it.

A few days after the riots began i was sent to the vice-principal’s office.  I was late to school that day. Clumsy and awkward, i walked across a row of seated students and accidentally stepped on some black kid’s foot. (Again, my identity politics made me hesitate to say “on some black kid’s foot,” because the phrase “some black kid” may sound condescending or lead the reader to believe that skin color is my primary way of relating to him as a human being, and that all my culturally-inherited fears and half-truths around the word “black” color my perception of “black people” in general—thereby making me only able to see their blackness, instead of their full humanness.  But as it turns out, his skin color is about the only thing i knew about him as a human being, other than the fact that he definitely had a foot, and that i had indeed stepped upon that foot. But i couldn’t very well describe him as “some footed kid’s foot;” that’s just redundant.)

Anyway, i accidentally stepped on his foot, and was promptly reminded that i was, in fact, a stupid motherfucker. As if i didn’t already know. I stammered a nervous apology and took my seat at the end of the row.

After detention at the end of the school day, i was walking alone down the sunlit hallway connecting the cafeteria to the classrooms when i saw the kid whose shoe i had earlier accidentally stepped on.  He was with about a half dozen of his friends, all human beings who happened to be black.  He pointed me out, and they all ran at me.

There was a very funny episode of the animated series Boondocks in which one of the characters said: “I’ve said it before, expensive sneakers are like $150 land mines. Step on one and BOOM! A perfectly rational black man can explode.” This whole thing kind of reminds me of that.  (I should mention that i edited out of the quote the part that referred to these shoe-related explosions as an example of “nigger moments,” because that is an identity politic i am particularly sensitive about as a white person, and personally think that is a cultural taboo that whites should continue to respect.  But i included it in this parenthetical because i am edgy like that.)

Next thing i knew, the dude i stepped on punched me in the jaw, and i dropped to the floor like a sack of meat, whereupon they all proceeded to kick the living shit out of me—in the ribs, in the back, and in the head.  Fortunately, just a minute or two into my beating, Taharka—another melanin-abundant guy and the only name i remember from the entire incident—pulled them all off me, and brought me to the nurse’s office.

It was horrifying.  I was just a bit bruised up, no real damage at all, but i was so shocked and confused—i was fourteen years old, i had never hurt anyone, i was just a shy and socially awkward white kid trying to keep his head down and avoid being noticed by anyone.  But on that day, i stood out—i was the enemy, and for a moment was offered a circus-mirror glimpse of how minorities must feel almost every day: singled out for no other reason than the color of my skin.

I cried when my dad came to the school to pick me up.  It was one of the most important days of my life.

***

I believe that the civil rights movement is not over, but is a struggle that must be fought every single day.  By everyone.  It’s not enough for blacks, or asians, or latinos, or any ethnic group to fight the battle alone, which i think has largely been the case since the late sixties/early seventies.  Meanwhile many young whites take the revolutions of the sixties for granted, as if it were our parent’s struggle, and not our own.  As a result, much of the progress from that era is taken completely for granted—and i have the sense that many whites believe that the major victories have already been won, and silently wonder why non-whites aren’t somehow “over it” by now, especially in Obama’s America.

But the civil rights movement is barely half a century old—a tiny sliver of human history—and though the seeds have already been planted and are even now taking root deep in our collective psyche, the fruit of a genuinely post-racial America will only be tasted by unborn generations.

Whites can no longer lean upon the accomplishments of our parents and grandparents as justification for no longer thinking critically about the subject.  In much the same way that a healthy feminism can only flourish alongside a healthy masculism, i believe that questions of race and racism must be as much of a struggle for whites as it is for anyone else.  If civil rights are to continue to flourish in the future, whites need to be just as invested in the discussion as anyone else.  And i just don’t see that happening within mainstream white culture.

And since the Integral movement is currently composed mostly of male white perspectives, it is very important to me personally to emphasize these sorts of civil responsibilities to everyone in the community—especially since Integral consciousness is vastly more capable of understanding and addressing the roots of racial injustice.

Many of us have learned to be accountable to our upper quadrants in relation to race and racism—cultivating certain sense of “Right Thoughts” and “Right Behaviors,” to use Buddhist terms.  But the lower-quadrants—the invisible bedrock of racial biases, socio-economic imbalances, and historical circumstance—has remained fairly untouched in recent decades, especially in white cultures.  Much of this, i believe, stems from the vigorously-enforced identity politics found in academia, which ironically prevents any real perspective-taking from occurring.  I could feel this sort of unseen tension as i was writing this piece—as i pointed out, even using the words “black man” feels like i am betraying the politically-correct superego i was indoctrinated with, as though it were inappropriate to ever use one’s racial heritage as a descriptive qualifier.  But it is exactly this sort of sterilized relationship with language that prevents any genuine conversations around race to move forward in a constructive and meaningful way.

That said, i do think identity politics has it’s place.  As i said, i think it is extremely inappropriate for whites to use the “n-word.”  It will likely take many generations before that radioactive word is able to cool down enough for whites to be able to use it casually and in good taste.  If black communities wish to transmute for themselves the tremendous pain and gravity that word continues to carry (as Saul Williams attempts to do with The Rise and Inevitable Liberation of Niggy Tardust) that is obviously acceptable and their own right to do so.  We can clearly argue that slavery in general is NOT a white vs. black issue, but a developmental issue of both values and technological capacity—but until some of the cultural scars around that word have begun to heal, it should be voluntarily relinquished from the vocabularies of those directly descending from people who have used it as a euphemism for the enslavement and dehumanization of an entire people.

That said, any of you can totally feel free to call me a cracka.  It’s open season for crackas everywhere.  Cracka with an “a” that is—don’t you dare try calling me a “cracker.”  That one is ours.

Related:

Deconstructing Niggy: A Brief Exploration of Race and Hip Hop
Race, Stereotyping, and Socially-Constructed Knowledge by Sean Yang (KenWilber.com)
Beyond Race and Racism with Mark Palmer and Ken Wilber (Integral Naked)

Categories: Personal, Social Justice Tags:

Deconstructing Niggy: A Brief Exploration of Race and Hip Hop

July 22, 2009 2 comments

Deconstructing Niggy

There is much talk in America these days around the issue of race. With Barack Hussein Obama as the elected President of the United States, we have begun to collectively reflect upon our relationship with race and racism—and the conversation seems to have polarized into two radically different positions. On one hand, Obama’s viability as a presidential candidate across a wide range of demographics prompts liberals to proudly declare that, finally, we live in a “post-racial” America, no longer tethered to the racial divisiveness that has infected our political systems since the country’s inception. On the other hand, a great number of people are still asking the question “are we ready for a black president?,” which itself seems to indicate that a genuine “post-racial” America is still on the horizon of human evolution. The truth, of course, lies somewhere between, or beyond, these two extremes—we have certainly made some tremendous strides in our collective attitudes toward race and racism, but we cannot confuse our accomplishments with outright victory. There can be no singular victory over racism, but like peace itself, it is a victory that must be won again and again, perpetually into the future.

Niggy Tardust is about what it means to look at history and the present as a whole, as opposed to running away in disgust or bowing one’s head in guilt—saying ‘yes’ to all that has been, in full acknowledgement; saying ‘yes, all of those things convene in me….’” -Saul Williams

In furthering the dialogue on race and racism, Hip Hop culture offers a fascinating means of exploring the subject, as racial identity has always been at the front and center of the art form. Just as in any genre of art, Hip Hop is capable of reflecting the entirety of the human condition—all of our beauty, all of our misery, all of our scars and scabs, all of our boundless creativity and limitless potential. Consider the wide range of conscious depth as expressed through Hip Hop—developmental studies have consistently shown that human beings develop through several distinct stages of consciousness and identity: from ego-centric consciousness (“me”), to ethno-centric consciousness (“others like me,” in terms of race, religion, nationality, etc.), to world-centric consciousness (“all of us”), to Kosmo-centric consciousness (“all of existence”).

Each of these broad stages of human development open us to radically different ways of perceiving ourselves and the world around us, with our entire sense of identity being the interface between the two. And we can find all of it within Hip Hop—from the power-driven thug mentality of ego-centrism, to the rivalries, racism, and misogyny of ethno-centrism, to the more conscious expressions of world-centrism often found in underground Hip Hop, to the rare but remarkable few who, like Saul, are using the art as a genuine means of embodied mysticism and Self realization.

Hip Hop culture includes all of these very different attitudes and altitudes of consciousness, which has made it one of the most controversial art forms in the modern world, and especially frustrating to those who want to either idealize it, demonize it, or dismiss it altogether. With roots extending deep into the core of African-American oppression, Hip Hop offers us a fascinating glimpse into the problems of race and racism in the world, as well as a means of overcoming our limited perceptions of reality by simply opening ourselves to all of the different voices the genre has to offer, and integrating these perspectives into a cohesive understanding of ourselves and each other. From this integration we can begin to see the subtleties that exist between, for example, the well-known Hip Hop groups N.W.A. and Public Enemy, the former offering a 1st-person account of life in the ghetto from an ego/ethnocentric point of view, and the latter offering a more 3rd-person view of the ghetto from a largely world-centric perspective. Both accounts are necessary for a full picture to emerge, which Hip Hop culture is more than happy to serve up.

While studying the Integral model, it can be easy to mistake “race” as a notion which, once we move past the ethno-centric stage of development, is something we no longer need to concern ourselves with. (Speaking in the context of the U.S., this is probably more true for whites than minorities, simply because minorities often report being subtly reminded of the color of their skin on a daily basis, simply from living in a white-majority mainstream culture.) But it is important to remember that even if we have moved beyond our exclusive identity with our own racial heritage, that aspect of our identity does not simply vanish, but instead becomes even more textured and nuanced than ever before. We also have the ability to more deeply explore other racial identities, cultures, and heritages, further enriching our own, and slowly peeling back many of the residual filters we unconsciously place over our perceptions of reality. The goal is not to be color-blind, as our politically-correct society often tells us to be, but to allow ourselves to see the entire spectrum of color, much more vividly than ever before. From this integral vantage point, we can see that our similarities are where we find Truth, our differences are where we find Beauty, and navigating between the two is where we find our Goodness.

A shamelessly self-indulgent photo of me and Saul, just to show you all how cool i am.

There aren’t many artists in the world today who more fully exemplify this integrative consciousness in Hip Hop than Saul Williams. His capacity to so fully engage the “language of the mystics” of the spiritual realm, to pull it down through the sounds and visions of the mental realm, and to push the transcendent clarity of consciousness through your entire body, is absolutely unparalleled. And while he is pushing spirit all the way down through our souls, through our minds, and into our feet, he is simultaneously pulling some of our darkest shadows up through consciousness, using art to disarm much of the fear and resentment that has prevented our collective dialogue around race and racism from moving forward for decades. I highly recommend you pick up his latest album, a collaboration with Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails, titled The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust.

Here is a short clip of Saul and Ken Wilber discussing race and racism from an Integral point of view:

A Brief Exploration of Race and Hip Hop

Hip hop is a natural evolution of 20th century music, which is itself considered by many to have been derived almost entirely from the legacy of black music and culture. In the early 1950’s, much of America was becoming fascinated by the new sounds they began to hear on local radio stations around the country, which were playing an exciting mix of black music, including gospel, blues, and boogie-woogie. In 1954, Sam Phillips, the head of Sun Records, was searching for someone who could translate these new sounds into something he could sell to white people. Despite the remarkable influence black music was having upon American culture, the Civil Rights movement had yet to hit its stride, and there was still as of yet no place for black artists within the newly-emerging mainstream of popular culture. To be blunt, black culture was simply not marketable. So Sam found the perfect man to help bring black music into the larger culture—and that man was Elvis Presley.

Remaining one of the most controversial figures in modern music, Elvis has been accused on the one hand of “stealing” black music and diluting it to the point where it was finally acceptable to the sensibilities of white America. Elvis himself is quoted as saying “The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I’m doin’ now, man, for more years than I know. They played it like that in their shanties and in their juke joints and nobody paid it no mind ’til I goosed it up. I got it from them.” On the other hand, Elvis is credited as being a genuine step forward for black and white culture alike; as Little Richard said: “He was an integrator. Elvis was a blessing. They wouldn’t let black music through. He opened the door for black music.”

Whether or not we perceive Elvis as a thief or as an innovator, one thing remains certain—almost the entire legacy of Rock and Roll can be attributed to his magnificent wake. Rock music itself became the soundtrack to the Civil Rights movements in the late fifties and sixties, and its unique confluence of black and white art may have actually contributed to the culture of racial equality that was beginning to emerge at this time.

Fast forwarding through five decades of music culture, it isn’t hard to see the natural progression of black music through many different forms of music, wildly mutating and undulating into almost as many different sorts of sounds as the human ear is capable of hearing. Blues and boogie-woogie became Rockabilly in the 1950’s, which became Rock and Roll in the late 50’s and 60’s, branching out into soul, funk, R&B, and disco in the 70’s. It was here that Hip Hop began to take its roots, naturally evolving out of Rock and Roll into an utterly novel genre of music—even though Rock and Hip Hop continue to share some very deep similarities, most notably in the verse-chorus-verse song structure and predominantly 4/4 timing (so much so that it might be said that the primary difference between them is in overall aesthetic directionality—while many prefer to Rock from side to side, Hip Hop moves your inner b-boy up and down….)

The massive success of Hip Hop as a global art form causes many people to proclaim Hip Hop to be the return of Rock and Roll to the people who created it in the first place. At the same time, Hip Hop has already escaped these sorts of ethnocentric notions of cultural ownership, and is currently blossoming as a genuine global art form. There are much-debated statistics that report 70% of Hip Hop sales coming from white people, one of the most significant examples ever of this sort of cross-pollination of perspectives through popular culture. But this is not as idyllic as it may sound, and continues to cause much uneasiness in black culture. Adding to the complexity of race in Hip Hop, many of the more “conscious” Hip Hop artists report a largely white turnout at live shows—which isn’t a bad thing from a world-centric perspective, but can be very frustrating for black artists trying to convey a message to their own culture. At the same time, criticism from within black communities has also been leveled against certain so-called “Gangsta rappers” who, far from keeping it real, are creating larger-than life personas and exaggerated theatrics based upon negative stereotypes, for the sake of selling music to white people. This, these critics argue, perpetuates those stereotypes in much the same way the racist “minstrel shows” of the 19th and early 20th century did, in which whites and even blacks would wear “blackface” and perform extremely racist skits, acts, and songs. In fact, the parallels between much of mainstream Hip Hop and minstrelsy can be summed up in this quote from Wikipedia:

“Blackface minstrelsy was the first distinctly American theatrical form. In the 1830s and 1840s, it was at the core of the rise of an American music industry, and for several decades it provided the lens through which white America saw black America. On the one hand, it had strong racist aspects; on the other, it resulted in the first broad awareness by white Americans of aspects of black folk culture.”

But let us not forget all those artists who, like Saul, continue to bring genuine artistry, creativity, and spirituality to the art, despite the fact that the radio is dominated by the same shallowness and superficiality that dominated the 80’s music scene. While “conscious” Hip Hop artists like Saul, Blackalicious, Lyrics Born, Lupe Fiasco, The Coup, Talib Kweli, Immortal Technique, and many others are pushed to the wayside of a mainstream which once reflected our stream-of-collective-consciousness—but has now been reduced to lowest-common-denominator marketing—let’s also remember that the music industry’s grasp over mainstream culture is beginning to crumble, creating more and more ways for these more enlightened artists to bring their art to the masses.


Originally published on Integral Life: Introducing Niggy Tardust (w/ Saul Williams and Ken Wilber)