Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Baptism of America

Free Post - Loose Threads in My Head

Race is one of those weird constructions of the mind that we rarely discuss but is almost constantly on our minds. Third wave feminism has made it clear that what the women's rights movement stands for is not biological equality but simply gender equality. Gender is a social convention, a set of expectations we place upon a certain group of people. It's ideology or hegemony or what have you. Just as you act a certain way around a cop, a man acts a certain way around a woman and vice versa. So calling for gender equality is asking a male-driven society to accept and not malign women based solely on their gender. Biological equality isn't going to happen and we can live with that. What we can't live with is repressing women because they have periods, birth babies, have different emotional outlooks (partly due to our expectations of gender) and generally act differently than men. It's not an attack on masculinity (although many men have taken it as such). It is just asking for men not to denigrate women because they are women.
Race, on the other hand, has been handled in a far different way, even though it is, for the most part, a social construction as well. Race is more about culture than it is about skin color but it so happens that skin color plays a vital role in the social construct. Black culture is different than white culture and white culture is different than latino culture. To say so is completely obvious but misses the point, I think. White culture has this habit, just as white male culture does, of expecting different cultures to either act like them or act in a way that somehow threatens white male culture. The same goes for black culture as well.
The issue of race in America has often been packed away, hidden from public view, but arising in strange and sometimes destructive ways. The events of the 1950s and 60s are examples of how racial issues could find no other outlet other than protest, sometimes violent protest. And through speeches, through sit-ins, through water hoses and dogs and tear gas America moved beyond Jim Crow and his separate but equal ways. We were no longer separate but the equal part we're still having problems with. And it's a problem for both blacks and whites.
When white culture put away their debate on race before they got to the equal part America was left with an open wound, a wound that was previously scabbed over and unhealed. And we have let it scab over again. Black anger at whites isn't surprising in this light. Nor is the white anger at blacks who insist on continuing the debate. We must have this debate though. Sen. Obama has given America an opening, a chance to start this debate again on even ground. We cannot simply air our grievances and expect that to be enough. We must arrive at new solutions and a new dialogue, one that whites can't simply put away again. In this world of changing identities and centuries old questions of person, existence and consciousness, we must deal with the issues of race quickly.
One way to confront race in America is to treat it much like we have with gender constructions. If we accept that race is in part a social construct then we can deal with how race is something that is culturally ingrained. Once we accept that then we can begin the work of shifting the culture towards one of race equality in the same sense of gender equality. It's one path we can take to deal with the difficulties of race, of resentment and hatred. It's a way we can craft new identities that are beyond the simple white/black dichotomies of the past. What's more, it's a way that we can deal with even the issues of brown/black/white differences, religious differences and nationality differences. It's a new dialogue and its final shape is no where close to complete.

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