This So-Called Post-Post-Racial Life

March 26, 2010

Like White On Rice

or, When a Bad Brand Goes (Even Further) Wrong

I was reminded of this 3-year-old post from my old blog after reading a piece from Stuff White People Do, entitled “describe racism as political incorrectness.” The original post was about an effort to re-brand a staple of US advertising lore as detailed in this story. I was (and remain) not impressed with the effort. By the way, out of curiosity I revisited Uncle Ben’s office to engage him in chat. Below is a transcript of our conversation:

[PPR_Scribe]: hello

[Ben]: Did you have my ORIGINAL CONVERTED® Brand Rice for dinner?

[PPR_Scribe]: no, not tonight

[Ben]: Away accepting another award for my rice. Nice that people still recognize the value of wholesome goodness when they taste it.

[PPR_Scribe]: where are you?

[Ben]: It is difficult to type and eat rice at the same time. Let’s talk when I am done.

[PPR_Scribe]: what are you doing?

[Ben]: Currently being fitted for a new blue suit. Upon returning and hanging up my new coat, will be in touch.

[PPR_Scribe]: so…you’re accepting an award, eating rice, and being fitted for a suit? at the same time?

[Ben]: State dinners would be more diplomatic if they always served my ORIGINAL CONVERTED® Brand Rice.  Can we pick up this conversation when I return?

[PPR_Scribe]: i have the feeling you really don’t want to chat with me at all…

[Ben]: Am attending the Beau Brummell Celebration in London. Will be my pleasure to chat upon my return.

[PPR_Scribe]: well, ok then. bye

[Ben]: Can you come by the office in person?

[PPR_Scribe]: um…no, i’m not really comfortable with that. why?

[Ben]: Out of office for rice harvesting season. My, those combines are loud. Will reply when I return.

[PPR_Scribe]: now you’re just being difficult…

[Ben]: Away accepting another award for my rice. Nice that people still recognize the value of wholesome goodness when they taste it.

[PPR_Scribe]: (???)


Uncle Ben’s Cabin

It is an oddity of the history of advertising that Black folks have been featured so often as part of companies’ brand identity. Apparently, at one point in time nothing could prompt a consumer to snatch a product off of a grocery shelf like a demeaning characterization of a smiling Negro. Of course, two of the better known Black characters are Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben. (No relation? It’s hard to say as neither has ever had a last name. This blogger is trying to match-make them, though, so I hope they are not already kin…) I’ve talked before here about my relationship to the whole history of “racial naming.” Suffice it to say that for certain generations of Blacks, it is not endearing for White folks to refer to us as Uncle or Aunt (unless we are, in fact, their uncle or aunt.)

Uncle Ben’s image is most often discussed as part of the broader “Uncle Tom” racist caricature, seen in everything from advertising to film. This wonderful site sums up the image well. Aunt Jemima is often discussed as characteristic of the “Mammy” caricature. The same site linked in the previous sentence also provides a good description of Mammy depictions in advertising and elsewhere. The interesting thing about the pancake lady is that she underwent a make-over in the late 80s. Slimmed down, dressed up, no kerchief wrapped round her head. According to the company’s History web page, today “the Aunt Jemima products continue to stand for warmth, nourishment and trust – qualities you’ll find in loving moms from diverse backgrounds who care for and want the very best for their families. ”

That’s Chairman Uncle Ben

Enter the rice man’s makeover. According to the NYT story:

A racially charged advertising character, who for decades has been relegated to a minor role in the marketing of the products that still carry his name, is taking center stage in a campaign that gives him a makeover — Madison Avenue style — by promoting him to chairman of the company.

You can visit his virtual office here. I didn’t last very long in his office. With each click the sour taste in my mouth grew fouler and fouler. I expected at any minute to see a cheesin’ and shufflin’, bow-tie clad older virtual Black man jump out from his task of sharpening pencils to greet me by name. This blogger was braver than I, actually using the “chat” feature to engage the new Chairman in conversation. (If you can call it that.) Here’s an excerpt of their exchange:

[Guest]: Hi
[Ben]: In Packaging Department. viewing the new box. It is a remarkable likeness. Will speak with you shortly.
[Guest]: That’s great.
[Ben]: It is difficult to type and eat rice at the same time. Let’s talk when I am done.
[Guest]: I don’t like rice.
[Ben]: Am attending the Beau Brummell Celebration in London. Will be my pleasure to chat upon my return.
[Guest]: Wait — I thought you were in the packaging department!
[Ben]: In Packaging Department. viewing the new box. It is a remarkable likeness. Will speak with you shortly.

Obviously still some bugs to work out. But my guess is Ben’s neither overseeing efforts in the Packaging Department nor sipping wine at some event in England, but–like I said–in an inner office sharpening pencils or involved in some other non-task his higher-ups assigned him as part of his “promotion.” Back to the Times:

“This is an interesting idea, but for me it still has a very high cringe factor,” said Luke Visconti, partner at Diversity Inc. Media in Newark, which publishes a magazine and Web site devoted to diversity in the workplace.

“There’s a lot of baggage associated with the image,” Mr. Visconti said, which the makeover “is glossing over.”

Uncle Ben, who first appeared in ads in 1946, is being reborn as Ben, an accomplished businessman with an opulent office, a busy schedule, an extensive travel itinerary and a penchant for sharing what the company calls his “grains of wisdom” about rice and life. A crucial aspect of his biography remains the same, though: He has no last name.


And the “cringe factor” just multiplies and multiplies. For example, asks one commenter to this site, “Does anyone else see irony in the company’s name — MasterFoods?” And several commenters elsewhere in the blogosphere have re-dubbed the company “Massafoods.”

I am no advertising executive. But this does not appear to be a re-branding effort that is destined to bear much fruit. Or grains of converted rice, as the case may be.

Ben There; Dumb, That

I do not buy Uncle Ben’s Rice. Never have. (And at this rate, never will.) I also do not buy any Aunt Jemima products. And if any of the products below were still available today, I wouldn’t buy them either. I come by this aversion to financing my own denigration honestly. As a child when we would travel the country by car, my father would drive 50 miles out of the way to avoid having us stop at a Sambo’s Restaurant for a meal or bathroom break.

The restaurant, perhaps not surprisingly, is also involved in a re-branding effort. This site attempts to set the story straight. Sambo’s, we’re told, was based on the names of the eatery’s founders, and the use of the book’s characters came about only later. (The whole story of The Story of Little Black Sambo is an interesting tale in its own right, but beyond this blog post. Begin here for further reading.) I’m not sure how helpful this re-telling is for understanding the restaurant–or the book and its many incarnations, for that matter. Why and how did folks running the company think that adorning their restaurant with images of “picanninies” would be a good marketing move? How do they now think that hearkening back to India’s colonial past would be a better or more sensitive move?

Beauty and the Brand

Companies, universities, and all manner of other entities spend millions in efforts to establish, redirect, and update their images. The book that I discuss in my still-draft blog post about re-branding is about what is being called “the attention economy.” In the Information Age, the scarce commodity that becomes extremely valuable is human attention. Not money, not information, not even “knowledge.” And certainly not an awareness of history. What matters is eyeballs to content. And when that is what matters, image is everything. (The book I’ll talk about speaks of this in terms of “fluff over stuff.”)

So what do we make of companies’ apparent reluctance to totally excise images of slavery and Jim Crow in trying to focus consumers’ eyeballs on products on crowded grocery shelves? I have framed the Uncle Ben’s effort as a potential fiasco, a massive marketing mistake. But what if it is, instead, a savvy business move? What if the company has discovered via its focus groups that images that remind people of the good old days of subservient, happy Blacks (who could sho-nuff cook!) continue to be comforting and endearing to many modern consumers?

Perhaps advertising’s racist past not even past, but only an old package in need of re-branding.

For further information on this topic, see the book Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.

February 9, 2010

Hi-Tech Fruit and Strange Lynchings

This is another post from my old blog. I was reminded of it recently when I read this excellent post at Sociological Images. Lately my mind has been on all things NOLA. (Our Colts’ loss to the wonderful and well-deserving Saints is only part of the reason.) So this post caught my eye. In particular, this slant makes me ponder my old post in a new way:

For someone who was harmed by a hurricane, using the imagery is a way of reclaiming the hurt they suffered, even appropriating the strength of the force that hurt them.  But, for others to use it, it is trivializing that same hurt, re-imagining the destruction they suffered.  It is not funny, from this perspective, to imagine that New Orleans could be hit again.

I was reminded while reading that of some of my (Black) family and friends using “slave” in an in-group, joking kind of way. I’m OK with that, but bristle when I hear others use it. For example, at a recent swim meet, one of the other parents (a White woman) said something about not doing “X” because we would get yelled at by the person in charge of the meet. She said, “We’re liable to get lynched behind that.” All of my crew sitting there—me, my husband, and my father—were taken aback. My father said, “Oh, you probably don’t want to say that.” The woman totally didn’t get it: She thought he was talking about not saying that the person would be angry with us. He kept at it: “No. I mean, you shouldn’t be saying that—to us [motioning to him, my husband, and me].” The woman, light dawning, turned all shades of red.

The in-group/out-group dimension was not something I considered when I first wrote this piece years ago. But I’m thinking of it today. And today I am (still) wondering: What’s in a song? What’s in a phrase?

"Broken Branch" PPR_Scribe

I. Some Background

The summer before I left home for college I raided my parents’ music collection, choosing dozens of albums (yes, albums: black vinyl, 12 inches, 33-and-a-third rotations per minute: LPs) that I wanted to “borrow” and take to Boston with me on my great adventure in adulthood.

One of those albums I chose from that raided collection was by Billie Holiday. One of the songs on that album from that raided collection was “Strange Fruit.”

That song is something I could not ignore. At the time, I was not too enamored of Lady Day’s voice: It seemed a little scratchy to me, and wispy…without the force, range and rhythm of female jazz vocalists like Ella and Sarah and Dinah and others who I was getting into at the time. (It didn’t help, I guess, that my image of Billie Holliday and what her voice must have sounded like was colored by my having first seen and heard her in the guise of Diana Ross in “Lady Sings the Blues.”)

But that song, “Strange Fruit,” I had to listen to.

Since that time I have come to appreciate Billie Holiday. And I have continued to be fascinated by that song. I have recordings of it by at least three different artists. And a recent search of the song on iTunes revealed more than a dozen different versions, by a very strange and eclectic mix of artists. There is even a group, The Strange Fruit Project, hailing from Waco, Texas.

In addition, I am glad to see that there is a scholarly interest in the song as well as the phenomenon “Strange Fruit” so eerily bore witness to: the widespread lynching campaigns of African American men, women, and children in this country. (See resources below.)

II. But, What Does (Can) It Mean?

I have to admit, I am not sure what all these artists intend when they invoke these images:

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

What is it about these words that makes the song relevant for an artist—of any background—living today? What does the history of the lynching of Black Americans mean to a 50-something White European rocker, or a 20-something Black American rapper?

Is it even about “lynching” at all?

III. Lynching as Metaphor

Whatever you think of Clarence Thomas, his was–hands-down–the most brilliant use of lynching as a metaphor ever. In one swoop he galvanized a deep memory in African Americans and scared off White Americans who saw themselves as exactly opposite of those Whites of days gone by who were the perpetrators of lynchings with ropes, guns, fire, and tree branches.

Hard to believe that almost 15 years have passed since Thomas’s confirmation hearings. A little memory-refresher from the 10/11/91 hearing session (Note the words I emphasize in bold):

Mr. Chairman, I am a victim of this process and my name has been harmed, my integrity has been harmed, my character has been harmed, my family has been harmed, my friends have been harmed. There is nothing this committee, this body or this country can do to give me my good name back, nothing.

I will not provide the rope for my own lynching or for further humiliation. I am not going to engage in discussions, nor will I submit to roving questions of what goes on in the most intimate parts of my private live or the sanctity of my bedroom. These are the most intimate parts of my privacy, and they will remain just that, private.

In that evening’s hearing session he evoked this metaphor again in his now (in)famous and classic “high-tech lynching” statement:

There was an FBI investigation. This is not an opportunity to talk about difficult matters privately or in a closed environment. This is a circus. It is a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I am concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity-blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that, unless you kow-tow to an old order, this is what will happen to you, you will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate, rather than hung from a tree.

One book specifically takes on the idea of the use of “lynching” in metaphorical contexts, “Legacies of Lynching: Racial Violence and Memory” by Jonathan Markovitz

...Examines the evolution of lynching as a symbol of racial hatred and a metaphor for race relations in popular culture, art, literature, and political speech. Markovitz credits the efforts of the antilynching movement with helping to ensure that lynching would be understood not as a method of punishment for black rapists but as a terrorist practice that provided stark evidence of the brutality of Southern racism and as America’s most vivid symbol of racial oppression. Cinematic representations of lynching, from “Birth of a Nation” to “Do the Right Thing,” he contends, further transform the ways that American audiences remember and understand lynching, as have disturbing recent cases in which alleged or actual acts of racial violence reconfigured stereotypes of black criminality. Markovitz’s original and brilliant reinterpretations of the media spectacles surrounding Bernhard Goetz, Susan Smith, and Tawana Brawley provide subtle and compelling examples of the continuing stakes of political battles waged over imagery of race and gender nearly a century ago. Markovitz further reveals how lynching imagery has been politicized in contemporary society with the example of Clarence Thomas, who condemned the Senate’s investigation into allegations of sexual harassment during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings as a “high-tech lynching.” (Source)

If you do a little window shopping in the blogosphere and other media you’ll find Thomas’s “high tech lynching” metaphor/accusation invoked all over in all sorts of situations, by both those on the political left and those on the political right. In no case are any of these uses about actual people being burned, their genitals cut from their bodies, their necks broken from being snapped by a rope looped over a tree branch. In these cases, like that of Justice Thomas, the appeal is to the perception that “mobs” of media folks or government officials or university professors or other elite others in positions of power are using sophisticated tools and tactics to unfairly attack the ideas and integrity of some “victim.”

Whatever you may think of the individual cases, is this deployment of “lynching” as a means of description an appropriate use of history? Not: “effective” use–appropriate

I am all for the use of metaphor in rhetoric. But in most of these cases this particular use of lynching as metaphor sickens me. Comparing a “good name” or a well-paying job to skin, genitals and a beating heart is definitely a case of evaluating apples in terms of oranges.

Very strange fruit, indeed.


Other Resources:

January 30, 2010

Justice Denied: Black Women and Reproductive (non)Choice

Sometimes justice can be so elusive, can’t it? Bad enough that often it is overdue. But then, when it finally seems within our reach, it sometimes slips away…or we’re only able to grab hold of a little piece of it… That’s how I opened this post when I first wrote it for my old blog years ago. I posted it during Black History Month and, as Black History Month is almost upon us, thought I’d re-post it here. I like to begin with something like this to remind myself that Black History Month, in 2010, should be as much about justice as it is about remembering and celebration.

(I am currently searching for updates to this story and will update this blog with any new information.)


These days eyes tend to be directed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the future of the battle over abortion choice and access. In this social context, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that historically, for many women the central reproductive struggle has not involved abortion rights. Instead it has involved the right to conceive, bear, and provide for their children, as well as the right to maintain the authority to be parents of their children. From the buying and selling of the children of African-ancestry parents, to the forced placement into “boarding schools” of the children of Native American parents, to current day social service practices regarding the termination of parental rights that disproportionately affect parents of color—This country has a pretty shameful history when it comes to disallowing some people their rights to become and remain parents.

A particularly egregious example of this is the history of forced sterilizations in this country in the name of “genetic fitness”–otherwise known as eugenics.

The targets of these forced sterilizations were folks who evidenced various combinations of being Black, poor, uneducated, deemed to be “promiscuous” or potentially promiscuous, deemed to be “feeble-minded” or potentially so. These practices of sterilizing women and girls (and some men and boys) against their will and often without their knowledge sometimes went by the name “Mississippi appendectomies.” A particularly aggressive program, however, occurred in North Carolina. From an excellent multi-part program on the North Carolina efforts, “Against Their Will“:

They were wives and daughters. Sisters. Unwed mothers. Children. Even a 10-year-old boy. Some were blind or mentally retarded. Toward the end they were mostly black and poor. North Carolina sterilized them all, more than 7,600 people.

For more than 40 years North Carolina ran one of the nation’s largest and most aggressive sterilization programs. It expanded after World War II, even as most other states pulled back in light of the horrors of Hitler’s Germany.

Some of these folks are still alive, still seeking justice–which means, of course, that they have had to come forward and publicly share their stories:

In the file of Ernestine Moore, for instance, who was sterilized in 1965 in Pitt County at the age of 14, a social worker wrote that the people who lived near her were “of low incomes and low morals.” Moore was classified as feebleminded, even though she wasn’t.

In fact, the social worker wrote, “Ernestine has no appearance of retardation.” Upon reading what was written in her file, Ms. Moore, 54, told The Journal that North Carolina should “pay for the pain” and suffering she’s gone through since her sterilization.

In recent years, the state of North Carolina has agreed. But, as fate would have it, carrying out this justice has not gone smoothly. Issues abound, regarding such things as where to get medical records to prove forced sterilization, whether or not such records are still available or had ever been kept at all, and adequately staffing efforts to process claims.

All signs look like justice will be delayed. Again. And my cynical side is whispering that there’s a good chance justice may not come at all for these folks. Once again, they may have to make do with an official apology. For whatever (if anything) that is worth.

But. The hopeful side of me still has…hope. In the meantime, I will enjoy our State Fair this year much as I have every year since I began learning more about this country’s eugenics past: With the ghostly narration in my mind of contests aimed at promoting good human stock along with the best ears of corn or plumpest sows.

(Image ID: 14) Title: Kansas State Free Fair, Topeka, Fitter Families Contest examining staff and "sweepstakes" winning family; Archival Information: AES,Am3,575.06,55

From the excellent site Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement:

At most contests, competitors submitted an “Abridged Record of Family Traits,” and a team of medical doctors performed psychological and physical exams on family members. Each family member was given an overall letter grade of eugenic health, and the family with the highest grade average was awarded a silver trophy. Trophies were typically awarded in three family categories: small (1 child), medium (2-4 children), and large (5 or more children).

All contestants with a B+ or better received bronze medals bearing the inscription, “Yea, I have a goodly heritage.” Childless couples were eligible for prizes in contests held in some states. As expected, the Fitter Families Contest mirrored the eugenics movement itself; winners were invariably White with western and northern European heritage.

I’ve mentioned before about how important it is for me to keep such history in my mind as I continue with my interests in researching issues of families and genetics. Late summer, right before the start of another school year is as good a time as any to give myself a booster shot of memory. Memory for the “non-placers” in the clean genes fairground competitions. Memory for the folks who were denied the chance to bear children to take to fairs in the first place.

January 18, 2010


Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — pprscribe @ 1:57 pm

As I have said here in the past, I am ambivalent about Twitter. I have been tweeting, and I even have a couple handsful of followers—who are not trying to sell me herbal v-eye-ah-grah and foolproof investment advice. But I would not yet say that I am committed to doing so long-term. We’ll just have to see.

But I am glad that I am at least familiar enough with the concept of Twitter to be able to get the humor of this Vanity Fair piece from Baratunde Thurston.

It was just the laugh I needed today while contemplating posting an angry, perhaps not-appropriate-for-MLK-Day post. I may still post it (working title: “Don’t Call It a Movement”). In the meantime while I try to get my heart and mind right I’ll leave you with this wonderful, hypothetical Tweet from Dr. King that pretty much sums that draft post quite nicely.

January 5, 2010

Racism: A Love Story

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — pprscribe @ 2:20 pm

In the beginning, Dear Beloved, there was a lack of knowing, an absence of seeing. You were but a fanciful tale told to me in the kitchen over morning grits and cheese by my Elders, read about in tattered self-published paperbacks with yellow and brittle pages that I found on my radical Uncle’s bookshelf, and witnessed in herky-jerky black and white news reels from years Before I Was Born. I had not (yet) met you, known you, experienced your hot embrace.

But you knew me.

You longed for me, secretly. You saw me striding through my child’s life with confidence (or arrogance?) and singing my child’s song with gusto (or greed?)—yet I strode and I sang alone, without your companionship. You saw me in my childish flirtations with others: Altruism and Kindness and Empathy. You knew these relationships would be short-lived and fastened by tenuous bonds. You  knew what I really needed to be whole was you.

Your first introductions to me were tentative. First I did not want to recognize you: Surely you were still the myth, the story, the fable. You were Misunderstanding in costume, Ignorance in drag. It really couldn’t be you, I thought. You did not exist.

But eventually you made your feelings known more vocally to me and I had no choice but to believe it was, really and truly, you. You had arrived to court me formally. And you have been pursuing me ever since.

You are strong beyond any strength that Mighty can muster. You sustain my rebukes and fend off my attempts to lose you. I condemn you and curse you and still you declare your everlasting love for me. I mock you and attempt to maim you, and still you stand—ready to walk proudly by my side when my fit is over. I am indifferent to you, I am dispassionate to the point where I can turn soup fresh off the stove to ice in a bowl. But still you wait in the wings, ready to woo me over in wild and dramatic fashion when I least expect it.

I know you have other objects of your affection. I am often, quite inexplicably, incensed by this: I do not want your attentions, so why should I care if your eyes behold others? Yet I do care. I do not want you for them. I do not want you for me—but not for them either. Instead, I wish for Loneliness, Obsolescence, and Isolation to be your only friends.

Even this does not bother you. You have enough capacity to love me and many, many others at once. In fact, your love grows stronger the more lovers you have.

You know me. You do not understand me. Otherwise why would you continue to woo me when I have not returned your heart? Why would you stalk me, attend to me, try to dazzle me with blinding displays of your prowess? Why do you continue to call me your pet names when you know I will not answer to them?

I have sometimes, during very quiet moments, asked myself if I do, in fact, love you in return? I search my face in the mirror…my hair…my choices in music or clothing…my address…other things…and I wonder if I have not accepted you into my life after all. Do I, possibly, love you in return, crave this partnering? By my very actions am I performing a predetermined role in a twisted affaire de coeur?

Currently you have left me. You are attending to your other lovers, or perhaps resting up for your next attempt at seduction of me. I know you will be back and I know I will, again, push you away. I refuse to submit; You refuse to surrender.

This is what we do, you and I.

I tell my children about you. In the kitchen over granola and yogurt, via the pages of glossy full-color award-winning picture books, with YouTube clips and cable movies. They listen dutifully, but still their strides are confident and their songs are strong. Some days I think they may never grow to be loved by you. I think they are sure to never know you as their would-be lover and personal pursuer. But you are strong. You’ll be there to catch them when they rise. Just as you have been there for me.

If I have my way, they will rebuke you—just as I have and will continue to do.

December 17, 2009

Should We Try a ‘Class’ for ‘Race’ Switcheroo?

I think the time has long passed for adding socioeconomic status to the categories of affirmative action, but it must not and cannot be viewed as a replacement for race. Poverty is not a proxy for race, and to pretend that it is would eradicate the initial rationale for affirmative action—to correct for society’s demonstrable biases against people of color regardless of their socioeconomic status.

The murder some years ago of Bill Cosby’s son by a white racist who later bragged about the shooting to his friends shows how feeble the Cosbys’s great wealth was in protecting their son against this ugly virus. The recent news that black graduates of prestigious colleges and universities feel they must “whiten” their résumés to hide their blackness demonstrates how little effect affirmative action in its original iteration has today, and how our current substitution of “diversity” for actual race-based affirmative action has rendered the latter almost useless. How many of our colleges count students from Africa and elsewhere toward their “affirmative action” goals?

So bring on socioeconomic status. And while you’re at it, bring back race-based policies—you cannot get beyond race without going to race.

~Julian Bond, Chronicle of Higher Education,
Reactions: Is It Time for Class-Based Affirmative Action?

December 16, 2009

Race Play on Broadway

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — pprscribe @ 11:03 am

In Race, [David Alan] Grier rarely smiles — he practically scowls as he tussles with the man he’s defending. His character tells his client, “Do I hate white folks? Is that your question? Do all black people hate whites? Let me put your mind at rest — you bet we do.”

~NPR, “In ‘Race,’ David Alan Grier Confronts Painful Issues”

December 15, 2009

What Comes After “Post-Racial”? (re-post)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — pprscribe @ 11:05 am


On the 14th of January of this year, I posted my first entry to this blog. Prior to that post I had thought long and hard about what I would name it. Seems everyone has a blog, and so many good names are taken by bloggers who have come before me. I had decided on a theme and a focus for the content, and had early on developed a loose rationale for this space—one that I purposefully left rather open-ended to allow for further development:

…Some claim that we have been a post-racial society for some longer period of time and, in fact, continue to exist in such an epoch. Still others claim that “post-racialism” is purely the stuff of mythology…or wishful thinking…or willful ignorance…or cunning malice. Or some combination of the above.

Myself, I’ll grant we may have had a post-racial moment. But I am calling it over.

So now we are in a state of post-post-racialism. What will that mean? What adventures await us in this new era of racial relations and racial perceptions?

I knew I should restrict my choices to a name that would reflect that theme. We are not (if we were ever) “beyond race.” But we may be beyond that moment where (some) of us (not me, though) thought we might be beyond race or at least headed in that direction. So the “post-post-racial” part of the blog title was easy once I figured out a loose definition of what that means. But what goes with post-post-racialism?

I decided early on that I did not want the blog name to have anything to do with me personally. I decided my pseudonym would be PPR_Scribe, but I did not want the blog title to be that pseudonym. I am Black and I am a woman and I am a mother…but I did not necessarily want the blog name to declare these or any other of my identities. I sought to shift the focus away from me and towards the content.

And anyway—other bloggers have personality to spare, so it is fitting that their blog names reflect who they are personally. In contrast, I consider myself rather dry to some extent and in some social situations. Rather quiet. I was often the kid sitting on the side observing and writing in my head for later. Even when I am involved I can be somewhat out-of, as if interacting with others just outside of myself. In high school I got into photography and this, too, fit with my observe-but-don’t-be-noticed personality. So anyway, that is why the blog is not named after me—and, indeed, why the blog is “this” post-post-racial life instead of “my.”

I also decided that I would give my new space a kind of stripped-down, minimalist feel. Embedded videos are everywhere on the ‘Net, and on my previous blog I greatly enjoyed posting them. But I decided against posting them here. Thus, for example, when I participate in Old School Fridays I post links to audio instead of embedding video.

I also decided that I would only post black and white images here. First of all, I am drawn to black and white photography. I think the lack of color forces one to look at content, contrast, texture, line, light, and shadow—all things that I find most interesting about visual images. Additionally, there are so many shades of white, gray, and black that I do not feel any “lack” of color at all in these images.

I chose a WordPress theme for the blog that reflects this minimalism. No fancy banner images. No color. And the name of the theme was perfect: The Journalist. Yes! That’s who PPR_Scribe is: a journalist, just reporting from the racial front.

What about the “so-called” in the title? Well, I am not entirely convinced we live in a post-anything society. In fact, I find it pretty presumptuous to give a name to a time in which one is currently living. Surely that is a job for those at a much later date, looking back. So, this life—for now—is just post-post-racial in air quotes: so-called, but not yet proven.

There. The obligatory blogging self-assessing, self-disclosing, navel-gazing post is now over. My blog title has been chosen and whatever regrets I have after seeing everyone else’s cool blog titles have long since been stifled. Seven words, three hyphens. A work still very much in progress, but the blogger is definitely enjoying the journey.

Thanks to everyone who drops in to see how it’s going. Please accept this as an invitation to de-lurk and say hello.

And if you don’t mind sharing with me how you came upon your own blog title, I’d love to hear it.

December 14, 2009

Telling Good Spit from the Bad: Productive Discussions about Race

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — pprscribe @ 5:19 pm

In “post-racial America” we talk as much or even more about race than we used to—often so long as we preface our talk with a phrase like “Despite the fact that we are in a post-racial era…” Race of all sorts seem to be all the rage in terms of news coverage. Some people may think that current discussions around race have not been that productive.

What is meant by “productive”?

Living in a medical household I hear that term a lot when Mr. Scribe is on call via telephone: “Is his cough productive?” he’ll ask the nursing home attendant about a patient. You’ve had these kinds of coughs before, I am sure. They sound loud and wet. You feel it in your chest. Your ears may pop. Afterwards you will have some sort of thick fluid that you then have to decide whether or not to spit out somewhere discretely, or swallow back into your body.

That’s a productive cough. (I know it sounds gross to speak of discussions with an image of spit hacked up from your lungs as a reference, but bear with me.) And I think that should also be the definition of “productive discussions” about race. If some metaphorical spit comes up during the discussion, then it is a productive discussion. No matter how disgusting that spit is, or how often we have seen that same slimy goo before.

See, it is important that we know why a cough is “productive” because the stuff that comes up helps doctors diagnose what might be wrong with the patient, thus making effective treatment more likely. Green or yellow mucous in your hankie? That might mean one thing. Red-tinged secretions? That means quite a different thing.

And, I propose, so it is with productive race discussions.

We often get frustrated that the same topics are discussed. The same insults. The same misunderstandings. The same hurts and slights. It often all feels like the same s***, only a different day. A reaction to all this is to assume that our race-related conversations are not “productive.”

I think, however, that we might be able to learn a lot about race and racism by paying more attention to the aftereffects of our disagreements: the spit. Not all post-discussion spit is the same, even when that spit is preceded by familiar sounding discussion. Personally, I do not think difficult conversations about race will ever go away. Like coughs, racial tensions will flare up from time to time within our societal body. We can be healed (relatively), and for a time. But another time, when our immunity is low or when we are exposed to a particularly nasty bug, it will flare up again.

A “productive cough” is not one that has been resolved or cured. It is merely a symptom of further illness that allows for proper diagnosis. A “productive race conversation,” similarly, probably will not be one that somehow results in magical “closure.” We may still feel very bad and very raw-throated afterwards. But if we’ve hacked up enough phlegm that we are willing to examine, then we may get enough diagnosis information to eventually get over our illness for the time being.

But we’ve got to look at the spit. No matter how gross it may be.

December 11, 2009

“They don’t know how to respond to you…”

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — pprscribe @ 2:06 pm

…For example, when I was making a reference to the rapper Lil’ Wayne in a class, some of my students laughed. One even asked me what I knew about Lil’ Wayne, thinking I was some geek who never heard of him. I explained that Lil’ Wayne has been popular since I was in college in the 1990s, reminding them I had grown up on hip-hop before they were born.

I learned that beyond legitimizing myself as an educator by narrating my professional experiences, I had to walk a fine line between being the Other in the classroom and someone whose experience was in some way similar to theirs. I realize some of my African-American colleagues have a tougher line to walk, which has helped me to understand how identity and cultural experience define the teacher-student relationship.

I also know that I can’t try to be “too hip,” because my students are smart enough to see when their professors are trying too hard to relate to them.

I guess I can’t make any more T-Pain or Drake references in class. At least I can blast my 1990s rap music on the 40-minute drive home, recalling the days when I wasn’t such a nerd.

~Dr. Murali Balaji, “Understanding Identity Politics in a Classroom

November 30, 2009

Catch a Tiger By His Toe: Speaking Back to the Woods Affair

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — pprscribe @ 2:22 pm

Heard on this morning’s TJMS:

Tom Joyner: What’s the n-word in Swedish?

Sybil Wilkes: The same. It’s universal.

There seems to be a certain level of glee in the discussions about what might or might not have contributed to golfer Tiger Woods’ car accident near his home. Glee from all sorts of places, but right now I am interested in the glee coming from some quarters of Black folks.

I guess I should speak for myself in admitting that I have had an ambivalent relationship with Woods over the years. I am speaking for myself—but suspect others feel similarly.

I have rooted for him, and taken some level of satisfaction when he has achieved at the top of his field. I do not like golf one bit. Once when my father-in-law—an avid golfer since his childhood days—took me out to the course with him I got sunstroke and swore no golfing green would ever see my body again. Watching televised golf for me is only slightly more exciting than watching TV test color bars. But still I rooted for him and even watched SportsCenter highlight of his shots.

I have grieved for him. I sensed how close he and his father had been and knew what he must have been feeling when his first and biggest fan died. To me they made the cutest pair: the pride emanating from the elder man, Tiger with his baby face and broad grin by his side. I am not one to talk about folks “looking down from heaven” and being pleased (or displeased). I generally hope that if there is a heaven, there will be something more and better to do than keep tabs on the goings-on here on earth. But in Tiger’s case, I generally have hoped that his Dad was tuning in to tournaments and continuing to take pride in his boy’s accomplishments.

I have scratched my head at him. His characterizations of his racial identity have challenged me to walk my talk. I firmly believe that people should have the freedom to self-identify as they please, in such a way that feels authentic to them—the rest of us be damned. At the same time, I feel that choosing to self-identify as Black in a nation in which Black is degraded can be an important—and brave—political act. I believe that people should have the freedom to love who they want to love and who loves them back—the rest of us be damned. At the same time I am aware that some people in our society are deemed more “lovable” than others, and Black women are often holding the short end of the dating game desirability stick.

So against this context I took in the initial reports of Woods’ one-car collision. My first thought centered on the initial reports that his injuries were “serious.” I thought about how none of us really knows what is in store for us by dusk when we rise out of bed at dawn. How each moment is precious. How money and fame cannot protect us against the great equalizers.

Then the story seemed to stray off of the fairway into the rough. The developing story is starting to read like an action movie that starts out great, but then develops so many holes that you are no longer able to enjoy the plot or even the special effects. Your whole viewing experience dissolves into pointing out to your movie mates how implausible different aspects of the film are. This, actually, becomes the source of most of your enjoyment such that if these loose strings were somehow tied logically in the final act, you’d be disappointed. You cannot wait to review the film for all your friends and relations—telling them that they must see it for its non-intended laugh-value alone.

So the story of Tiger’s accident has developed. I’m not so much worried that he has suffered great injuries—and certainly I am no longer worried that he is on death’s door—as I am interested in the story he has given to the police (apparently) and to the public as well as the public’s reaction to that story. Which brings me back to the glee I am detecting in the reactions.

Again, I’ll speak to myself. (Though I think I could ask these same questions of others.)

I ask myself: do I feel vindicated to see that Woods is being exposed, perhaps, as a regular male human being with normal failings? Am I happy that White women may, after these rumors, no longer be perceived by some Black men as the higher value, lower drama alternative to Black women? Am I relieved that whatever happened in that driveway resulted in Tiger wearing cuts and scratched instead of his wife? Am I tickled and entertained at the implausible (though, I must say, still possibly true) details Woods is sharing with us? Am I titillated by the proactive “lawyering up” of the other woman identified in the gossip around this case? Do I secretly wish that through this experience that Woods may realize that no matter how loved and accepted he may be by mainstream media and White fans, he can still be knocked down to size (and race)?

Am I hoping I am the first to think of the following board-game-inspired punchline to some joke about the affair: Mrs. Woods, in the driveway, with a nine iron?

Am I “wrong” for any or all of these reactions?

On the other hand, do I fear that the familiar apologies for domestic violence—e.g., most of the time it’s the woman who starts it—will be given fuel? Am I sad that whatever the case may be, two little children will have to suffer the upset to their family life and privacy? Am I wary that Blacks harboring unresolved ambivalence toward Woods will be singing the same chorus as Whites harboring unresolved bigotry toward him? Will I be tricked, as I have been in the past, by letting my attention drift to this new, shiny thing instead of focusing on more important national and global matters?

November 23, 2009

Hello Kitty and Smurfs: Because Sometimes You Need a Break from the Insanity

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — pprscribe @ 12:10 am

Things have been pretty quiet here at Post-Post-Racial Life. Working on a college campus again means I am once again yoked to the academic calendar and all the work that means for this time of year. I have also been traveling for work. I have also been less than my usual 80%, health-wise; Nothing serious, just a chronic condition flaring up worse than normal. I have also been on a pleasure-reading binge—brought about, I think, by my brilliant though simple move of bringing a comfy chair from the living room and a floor lamp from the office into my bedroom.

But mainly I have been quieter than usual because I have become exhausted by about 99% of the news and analysis in Blogland.

This is no fault of bloggers. Bloggers have been observing and analyzing and discussing the day’s events with skill, sensitivity, and often, humor. But the news they have to report on is just so incredibly heartstucking. From abuse and murder of little kids to continuing racism and veiled (and not-so-veiled) violence against the President. It is all just so…much. As I have said before, sometimes a body needs a break from all this. Sometimes self-care must trump the desire to post—or to even read and comment on other posts.

Research has shown that people who watch a lot of television news have unrealistic perceptions about the prevalence of crime, who commits crime, and where crime is likely to occur. I think the same might be true for bloggers. It may be that heavy diets of blognews and bloganalysis might be warping our views about the amount of nonsense that exists in the “real world.”

Or it may be that we haven’t even scratch the surface.

But whatever the case may be, sometimes we should hit the “re-set” button on our perceptions. Just for our own sanity and piece of mind.

"brainy smurf was a tagger." deepwarren,

Recently a blog friend commented on a post and said her blog had been fluffy and weak as of late. I reiterated my thought that maybe she just needed a break, and opined that “fluffy” does not equal “weak.” I joked that real fluffy blogging would involve posting about Hello Kitty and the Smurfs.

But really—what is so bad about a little “fluff” every now and then? That is one of the things about the Old School Friday meme that I love so much. Even when the weekly theme is pretty serious, being able to express it through music makes blogging soul-enhancing instead of soul-sapping. But I have even missed posting OSF entries lately—two Fridays in a row!

I tell you: That will not happen again, if I can help it!

So what is the point of this post? I am not retiring. I’m not even “resting” per se. But the topics of my posts for the next…how many ever days I need…will be less weighty than is often the case here.

I have photos to share. I’ll catch the blog up on some music offerings. I even will get to Part 2 of my latest “At the Front” tale. And I have a couple other tales that might finally see the light of blog. I do not plan on actual posts on The Smurfs or Hello Kitty or The Care Bears. But I’m warning you: I may come close.

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