September 17, 2008

Conceptualizing "Race" and "Ethnicity"

The readings from Ore for this week discuss racial paradigms within the United States and how they’ve been shaped and changed throughout history. Together the readings de-essentialize notions of race and put forth multifaceted and “unstable? ways of understanding racial identities. Key themes in Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s essay “Racial Formations? include race as a social construction, race as ideology, history of racial paradigm in United States. Mary C. Waters discusses the invisibility of white ethnicity, symbolic white ethnicity privilege, and how individualism and plurualism are tied to the unequal structures of capitalism in her essay “Optional Ethnicities: For Whites Only??. In “How Did Jews Become White Folks??, Karen Brodkin writes about the history of anti-semitism in U.S. and Jewish ethnic identity as it has been “whitened? to match hegemonic American beliefs.

To conceptualize race as a social construction means to reject biological or essentialist understandings of race, and instead recognize race as something which exists within the cultural imaginary and is held in place by centuries of “scientific? propaganda, legal structure, and cultural norms. The authors present a cultural legacy which has helped to perpetuate essentialism and racism, Marvin Harris’ principle of hypo-descent. Hypo-descent is a concept which racially categorizes a person based on the identity of whatever parent is most socially disenfranchised (i.e. “the one-drop rule?). The authors of this section presents how these pseudo-scientific beliefs have shaped our cultural norms and have together formed a system of racial meaning which is oppressive and hierarchical. Omi and Winant talk about how racial paradigms shift based on changes in the economy. Recently, the U.S.’s turn towards neoliberalism has stereotyped Black people as “dependents? and part of an “underclass?. These stereotypes are shaped by and simultaneously perpetuate the laws which result from neoliberalism’s New Urbanism (i.e. the 100:1 policy for possession of crack vs. cocaine). Similarly, Karen Brodkin discusses how Jewish identity has “whitened? as state policy and economics have varied over time.

Mary C. Waters discusses what it means for white people to claim an ethnic background. She asserts (and I agree) that individuals who are (un)marked as white have agency to select which (if any) ethnicities with which they would like to identify. White privilege is highlighted in ability to pick and choose what and when to be marked as a “hyphenated? white American. Unlike the ways ethnicity is often assigned to people of color in ways they may not appreciate or have little control over, white people who wish to claim an ethnicity often do so symbolically. Symbolic ethnicity is individualistic, and has little social cost for the person who claims it. In this model, people can select which parts of their ethnicity to promote (i.e. cultural practices that are generally regarded as positive) and ignore/make invisible the parts of their ethnicity that are less socially well-regarded.

While reading this essay I was reminded of someone I met in my first year of college who very often identified as a German-American. Her family would serve traditional German foods during holidays, and she owned many items which pictured the German flag or other nationalist images. However, she would decide when and how her ethnicity would be deployed, and for that reason she enjoyed the privilege of not having stereotypes and racist legacies ascribed upon her.

Regardless of privilege, institutions of power ask us to rely on cultural pluralism (and/or multiculturalism) to negotiate legacies of institutional racism. This model does not require individuals to alter their beliefs but rather “be more inclusive? on the surface-level of their interactions. Like capitalism, pluralism relies on an “invisible hand? which regulates outside forces to ensure a common good. Like capitalism, this notion is flawed at its core, as it cannot account for “externalities? which occur because of unequal and invisible power structures which perpetuate inequities.

September 18, 2008

Comments on Optional Ethnicities

Ignorance is a hard thing to admit. However, the more I read and learn in this class, the more I realize that I am not even aware of the issues some people deal with on a daily basis.
One of the topics that never crossed my mind before the reading was the idea of an optional ethnicity (Ore, 29). It is so true but I have never been conscious of this concept. For example, I consider myself a “white, middle-class female?. However, my family’s heritage is deeply rooted in the German culture. Both sets of my grandparents grew up speaking German. I still have distant (2nd cousins or such) that live in Germany that I had the privilege of meeting. Yet, for the most part, I am never viewed as “German,? unless of course I am craving for the feelings of “specialness? (Ore, 33) that can be associated with having a cultural identity.
I never considered this voluntary association with my German heritage as a privilege, but it truly is an option that some people may not have. Because I do not look, speak, or act differently, I guess my ethnic heritage is not of importance and does not affect my day-to-day activities. However, if I had evident traits, perhaps I would not have the privilege of choice.
The fact that not all people are free to decide when to identify with their ethnicity became apparent in the class video, “Murder on a Sunday Morning?. Brenton was not choosing to identify himself as an African-American when he was walking to Blockbuster. However, the police force immediately discriminated against him because his ethnicity was visible to them. It is embarrassing to say this directly, but honestly, that never would have happened to me or frankly probably to anyone that is white. I am sure some who are reading this are appalled by the fact that I am saying things that are so obvious, but growing up in a small town without minorities, the reality that this really happens is something that is still shocking for me.
In addition, I still cannot grasp the fact that he did not rebel against the police. He was so calm; his family came and prayed with him at the jail. I would have been livid. My parents would have demanded my release. Perhaps someone that is more culturally knowledgeable than me can help me understand. Why did he not argue? Does this happen so often it is almost expected that the color of your skin means you could be a murder suspect at any moment? Did he think it would be a losing battle if he rebelled? Is the police force that unjust that no one would realize what is happening? (Clearly in this case it was since Brenton was even abused.)
Overall, the concept of an optional ethnicity is fascinating to me since I cannot believe it is something I have never thought about before. Those without the option seem to be targeted and discriminated against; those that can hide behind a blanket of whiteness are invisible to the ethnic-targeted discrimination. I cannot even imagine the rage and anger I would feel as a Somali person after 9/11 that was stolen from my home because I was thought to look remotely like a terrorist. I cannot imagine recovering from a situation like the one that Brenton faced with outright discrimination and disrespect. I may be 99% German, but because to the naked eye I appear “white,? I guess I have the privilege of choosing when I want to be ethnic without the negative consequences.

September 19, 2008

The Invisible Lines of Media Magic

The powerful institution that drives the cultural ideologies and mythology can almost always be derived from the media. The role that the media plays to our understanding of the American culture is immensely manipulative with an intent to reinforce believes that are concentrated on the differences between race, class, gender, sexuality...Mantsois does a very good job of explaining how the information we receive from the media is clearly distorted with many loopholes that steers the audience away from problems that the country chooses to leave in the dark. Problems of racism, and poverty are made to co exist with one another in such a way that portrays minorities in a certain light. The media chooses to show audiences this side of poverty without thoroughly explaining the institutions that brought them there and they promote the idea that the victims themselves should be able to get out of their situations, therefore creating an illusion to the public that they got themselves in it in the first place. It is also interesting to view the subtle ways in which racism plays out in such a powerful machine of information , because the media wants us to believe that their stories ring truth. But we should not forget about the audiences they are trying to reach, the purpose behind their stories, and the people that have ultimate control behind the scenes of what gets to be aired and what doesn't.
Another way to look at this can through media coverage. How many times have we heard a story of a young white girl being either kidnapped or murdered broad casted on a national scale to heighten the importance and tragedy (not in any way denying that its not) but at the same time ignoring stories in such a national level as the little black girl getting shot in North Minneapolis?
Another example would be the tragic events of hurricane Katrina, and what the people of New Orleans had to endure, the media coverage of this horrible disaster and very disorganized response to aid the people of New Orleans was minimal in the fact that it didn't spend enough time actually showing the different cases of disease, homelessness, poverty, property damage, amount of help received or given to aid in all the people of New Orleans into a somewhat smooth transition, but it had enough time to cover the looting and 'mischievous acts' going on in the area. How often do we get both sides of the story? What does that show? We need to be conscious and aware of how the media works and who they work for because sadly cases like this are intentional and they happen all the time!

The Privilege to “Pick and Choose"

After reading about “optional ethnicities? (Ore 29), things I buried in the back of my mind began to surface. I have always known that whites had privileged and in some cases people of color have privilege in other arenas, such as gender, or class. But the privilege to pick and choose what ethnicity one is from was something I have noticed but did not care to acknowledge. For people of color our ethnicity is something we cannot escape and in some cases do not want to escape. My culture (being an African American) has been altered throughout my people’s time in the United States. I do not know where my original roots started so my family embraced our history and our struggles as our culture. Because my ethnicity and culture is who I am, I cannot turn my ethnicity off. When I walk into a conference room, people will know I am African American. On the other hand if an Italian American walks in a room, his/her culture can be left at the door. The reason for this is simple: Our race. The complexion of our skin is not only a definite (in most cases) sign of our ethnicity it cannot be ignored. For example, I am African American and my culture is connected to that. When I walk in a room there is no doubt that I am African American. A white man can walk into a room and he just looks white, so therefore he is white and nothing else. The fact is that white people can turn on and off their ethnicity when they want with no consequence in their daily life (racial profiling, stereotypes, etc).
Something that was said in the reading that I really believed was that these people who pick ethnicities as options rather than something that is truly a part of their everyday life do so because they want to feel “special? (Ore 35). There is nothing wrong with claiming an ethnicity in my eyes, but if you are doing so for superficial reasons that is a problem. People of color who truly embrace their culture and ethnicity are the ones who suffer racial profiling, hurtful stereotyping, and loss of rights (example Muslims). The fact that white people can “work and reside within the mainstream of American middle class, yet retain the interesting “benefits? of ethic allegiance, without any of its drawbacks? (Ore 35) is unfair.
But ignorance is bliss and for people who claim not to know the struggles that others face because of their race and culture can go about their lives claiming something that makes them feel like a part of something unique, when in reality it does nothing but a name. Culture is something that people should hold dear and it should not be something that is convenient in making one feel “special? because in the end it takes the importance away from culture and ethnicity.

Another portion of the reading I want to touch on is college life for black students and white students. Being at a predominately white school I face challenges everyday, especially in the classroom. This college campus has so many people that one would think that there will also be a lot of students of color. Well I was wrong. Coming to this school, I found myself on a search for people that look like me. During the orientations it seemed as if everyone knew each other previously (and they did not) and would not talk to me, and some wouldn’t even acknowledge my presence. Whatever the reason for this was, I will never know for sure, (but I have an idea) it pushed me to find people I can bond with and will be on my side just in case something bad happened.
White students do not have to worry about finding people who look like them or understand them because they surround them on a daily basis. So a big part of the “black college experience? is the search for acceptance and community on a college campus that does not value your history or makes you feel out of place. Some may ask “if you feel out of place why not go to a Historically black college?? The answer is why should I limit myself because others do not want to acknowledge my presence or are run by ignorance. The only way to get rid of ignorance is to interact with different types of people. Although many times that does not work, the fact that black people are on campus is better than not having us at all.

September 26, 2008

Social Class

Throughout all of the documentary “People Like Us? I was amazed at the lack of my own knowledge and conviction with class in the United States. I knew it existed but I never have seen it blatantly laid out before me. I guess one could say that I am an ignorant middle class individual—just like all the rest. I probably wouldn’t put up much of an argument against that. In Gregory Mantsios article “Social Class?, he talks about how the poor really do stay invisible in the United States. Also, how any portrayals of them are through the eyes of white middle class media (89). Mantsios makes a great argument about how media as an apparatus forms the social consciousness about class. Poor, lower class people are portrayed as a problem to the society—driving up taxes to pay for welfare programs, bugging people on the street for money and alcoholics/druggies. Media highly influences people and people’s views on other individuals. Which leads me to my observation of our class when we watched the documentary.
I could not help but noticed how certain comments and laughter were made when certain types of people were portrayed in the documentary. I am not talking about when there were random interviews with people giving quick judgments about other people of class—that was quite appalling and so harsh that I laughed at the people’s ignorance too. What I am talking about is when we saw the poor-working class individuals at their festival games of some sorts. There were judgments being made when we watched them being interviewed and watching them partaking in spiting contest or bobbing for pig’s feet. I do not believe anyone was mean heartedly making fun of those people—far from that. What I do think happened was a reaction that we as “middle class, educated? people are taught to do. The classes’ reaction represents a greater parallel to how class differences are socially constructed in the States.
‘We’ are taught that it is the lower class fault for being poor. That ‘they’ didn’t work hard enough to work their way up to the middle class. ‘We’ are taught to think that the poor are a burden to the society. ‘We’ are taught to think that the poor will always be with us and they will have to be, if we continue to live in a capitalist society. Marxist theory touches on this idea that says: without the exploitation of the working class, the middle to upper class would not have what they have (money). The exploitation of the many rewards the few at the top. I believe it is important to expose these systematic ways in which people are exploited for the good of a few.