Thursday, March 19, 2009

Reflections on Hip-Hop

In the company of my boyfriend, who is African-American, I watched part of a documentary on the history of hip-hop music, followed by a countdown show of "The 100 Greatest Hip-Hop Songs." It was interesting to see the differences in the way he and I experienced the music being highlighted on these shows.

To me, what is now considered "old school" hip-hop music was part of the culture of youth in the 1980s. When I originally heard this music, it was part of the soundtrack of my life. It was a new, youthful music style. It was cool. I learned to break-dance (there is an extremely goofy photograph of me, age 8, backspinning on a flattened cardboard box); I wanted to decorate my bedroom walls with graffiti a la New York subway cars. (My parents wouldn't let me actually spray-paint my walls, so I faked it. I made poster boards of graffiti and tacked them to my walls.)

Part of it is that radio was not as genre-fied then as now; when I was growing up, and really up until about the time that alternative rock burst upon the popular consciousness, the pop/rock radio station might play Salt 'N Pepa, followed by Def Leppard, followed by Janet Jackson, followed by the Eagles. No present-day commercial radio station would play Disturbed and follow up with Nas. You might get that kind of variety out of an independent online radio station, or a college radio station, but not commercial radio these days. And that's a shame, although it is reflective of the changes that technology has brought to music; there are other ways besides commercial radio for an artist to get his/her music to the listening public, but that's headed for a digression and not my point right now.

Anyway, it didn't really occur to me in the 80s that I was listening to black music. It was just good music, new, interesting, fun music. And I don't think that's a bad way to see hip-hop. But it's a viewpoint that is made possible by being white, to be able to see music by black artists about black issues as just good music. (And yes, I know there are white hip-hop artists, but they are the minority.)

And the experience of hip-hop music is very different for someone who didn't come up as a middle-class white girl. Hip-hop music is neither part of nor reflective of my ethnic identity, and that makes a difference to the experience of the music.

And I don't know that you can separate black music from American music. Music historians say that jazz is the first "American" music style. Well, white people did not come up with that one, folks. Rock and roll itself came from blues, which has its roots in the spirituals of black slaves. Elvis was said, even then, to be a white boy singing black music. And separate hip-hop from pop and rock now. Without hip-hop, there would be no rap/rock-fusion-type music, like the Beastie Boys or Linkin Park. And certainly no Kid Rock or Eminem.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Knapsack Thoughts

I've been having a bit of a think (and a re-think) about racism and bigotry.

Let me set out some definitions, first off. When I say racism, I mean prejudice plus power and privilege. When I say bigotry, I mean individual prejudice from members of groups other than the privileged group. Neither of these is a positive trait, but I feel the need to distinguish between the two for the sake of clarity.

People judge each other. This is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. We have to make judgments about each other. On a basic biological level, we have to evaluate other people, animals, and objects for possible threat to our personal safety. We also evaluate other people for potential relationships, be they friendships, romantic relationships, working relationships, what have you. What we do not have to do is make judgments about each other based upon anything but demonstrated individual behavior. For example, a job interviewer SHOULD select the applicant who is best qualified for the job, regardless of race, sex, sexual orientation, religion/personal philosophy or lack thereof, nation(s) of origin, or any other trait that does not relate to the ability to perform the job. We all know it doesn't work this way in actual practice, but that's the ideal.

Let me reiterate. We, as human beings, should not decide anything about another human being based upon anything but that person's behavior. We should not decide that someone is a threat to our personal safety based upon anything but that person's behavior. We should not decide that someone is a potential friend, or partner, or supervisor/co-worker/employee, or whatever, based upon anything but that person's behavior.

Prejudice is wrong, be it in the form of institutional racism, or individual bigotry. As institutional racism, prejudice is also insidious.

I am a white woman in the United States of America. I am of mixed ethnic ancestry, mostly northwestern European, but I have fair skin and Caucasian physical features.

It's hard to admit that I reap the benefits of racism, but I do. I am a member of the privileged race.

I am also in love with an African-American man. This has given me a kick in the ass to make me think about the differences in experience of life that being white makes.

Yesterday, I read this list, excerpted from Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, about, to put it simply, the cultural/social goodies that racism confers upon white people.

It's a tough pill to swallow, but with one exception, I can't say it's not true.

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.
3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
7. When I am told about our national heritage or about "civilization," I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
9. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.
10. I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.
11. I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person's voice in a group in which s/he is the only member of his/her race.
12. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser's shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
13. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
14. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
15. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.
16. I can be pretty sure that my children's teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others' attitudes toward their race.
17. I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color. This is the exception. Before I read this list, I had not once in my life ever heard of anyone thinking that talking with one's mouth full had anything to do with one's ethnicity.
18. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.
19. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
20. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
21. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
22. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world's majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.
23. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
24. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the "person in charge", I will be facing a person of my race.
25. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven't been singled out because of my race.
26. I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children's magazines featuring people of my race.
27. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.
28. I can be pretty sure that an argument with a colleague of another race is more likely to jeopardize her/his chances for advancement than to jeopardize mine.
29. I can be pretty sure that if I argue for the promotion of a person of another race, or a program centering on race, this is not likely to cost me heavily within my present setting, even if my colleagues disagree with me.
30. If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn't a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.
31. I can choose to ignore developments in minority writing and minority activist programs, or disparage them, or learn from them, but in any case, I can find ways to be more or less protected from negative consequences of any of these choices.
32. My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races.
33. I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing or body odor will be taken as a reflection on my race.
34. I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
35. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.
36. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.
37. I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps, professionally.
38. I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.
39. I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.
40. I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
41. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
42. I can arrange my activities so that I will never have to experience feelings of rejection owing to my race.
43. If I have low credibility as a leader I can be sure that my race is not the problem.
44. I can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of my race.
45. I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.
46. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in "flesh" color and have them more or less match my skin.
47. I can travel alone or with my spouse without expecting embarrassment or hostility in those who deal with us.
48. I have no difficulty finding neighborhoods where people approve of our household.
49. My children are given texts and classes which implicitly support our kind of family unit and do not turn them against my choice of domestic partnership.
50.I will feel welcomed and "normal" in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.

It really made me think about things I never even noticed, things that society gives me, as a white person, that any non-white person does not get.

So I'm trying to be conscious. In order for people of color to be on a level playing field with white people, white people must first be conscious of the advantages attached to being white.

Having read this list, I noticed something that I doubt I would have noticed before. In my doctor's office, I saw a little clip on TV featuring the actress S. Epatha Merkerson, who plays Lt. Anita Van Buren on the original (and beloved by me at least) “Law and Order” TV series. (The clip was actually about Ms. Merkerson's struggle to quit smoking cigarettes, for the record.) What struck me is that when they spoke to her out of costume, her hair was in dreadlocks. When she is in costume, her hair is in a short hairstyle requiring relaxed hair (I assume it's a wig). It bothered me that, in order to portray a professionally successful African-American, she has to wear relaxed hair, which process (relaxing African textured hair) as I understand it is a way in which African-Americans are encouraged by society to appear more like white people. So in order to portray a professionally successful person, she had to appear more white. That's not fair, and it's wrong.
It's quite a paradigm shift, and it's been on my mind for days. I've been turning it around and around in my head, shifting my thought processes to include thinking about the way that being white makes life different for me than life is for people of color.

In order for the world to come to be the way I would like it to be (amongst other things, for people to be judged on their behavior and not on any other trait), I have to, as a white person, be conscious.

That's not enough. I have to take many more steps to try to bring about the change I'd like to see. I have to live the change in my thinking. I have to try to help other people see what I've seen. But the first step in bringing about change is to be conscious of what exactly needs to change.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

An Almost-Argument with a Pro-Life Man

I almost got into an argument over abortion last night. The other party to said discussion is militantly Catholic and therefore pro-life to the point of believing that not even rape victims should be allowed to terminate a pregnancy caused by the rape (not that this situation occurs that often in the real world anyway, and more and more rapists are using condoms these days to avoid leaving their DNA with their victims). The only reason it didn't turn into a loud and vociferous debate (at the very least) was that I cut it short with the excuse that it was late at night and people were trying to sleep and would not appreciate said debate/argument. I really wanted to tear him a new one, though. Pro-life men drive me even crazier than pro-lifers in general; men are not the ones who have to carry a pregnancy. They have no clue what it's like, especially not someone his age (early 20s). And yes, I know men can be raped and I have every sympathy in the world for any victim of any sort of assault, but the plain fact is, women are hurt in that way much more often than men. His argument (re: pregnancy as a result of rape) was that the unborn is not responsible for the crime of its father. Mine is that rape is not just a physical and sexual crime; it is deeply emotional. Pregnancy is also a deeply emotional experience, and I don't think that a woman who is trying to recover from a rape should have to carry the child of her rapist. She can if she wants to, but she shouldn't be forced to. It comes down to this. The needs of a living woman are more important, to my way of thinking, than the needs of a cluster of cells, albeit a cluster of cells that will one day become a human being. We count life from the date of birth, not the date of conception, which can't usually be nailed down anyway. There are just too many situations in which abortion is a viable--and in some cases, the best--option. What about a pregnancy that endangers the mother's life? Why should a 12-year-old incest victim have to bear her stepfather's child? I used to know someone who had been in that situation. It is not healthy to carry a pregnancy so young, and her body paid for it in later years. And when you really get down to it, why should any woman have to bear a child she does not want or cannot afford?