Saturday, January 24, 2009

Obama and the Post-Racial Narrative

Oyster over at Your Right Hand Thief has put up a very interesting posting on the recent Atlantic article by Hua Hsu titled "The End of Whiteness?" and which explores race and identity in the Obama era. Even though the title has that question mark at the end, Hsu's article is kind of counterintuitive in that you expect it to be some celebration of the end of racialized identity politics in America. But, in fact, Hsu doesn't quite make that case. He points to things like the rise of NASCAR and the popularity of country music and the McCain/Palin campaign's cultural version of John Edwards's "Two Americas" theme (i.e. Culturally and racially homogenous rural Viriginia of the South and the interior of the state is the "real America" as opposed the multicultural and racially heterogenous urban Virginia of the northern part of the state which is, by contrast, NOT the real America.) that all point to a persistent, if obfuscated, "whiteness" identity narrative that exists alongside persistent non-white ethnic and cultural identity narratives. Hsu thus seems to argue we're definitely not at the end of racialized identity narratives, but that we have crossed some kind of bridge in which such narratives are becoming blended and appropriated across racial divides. That's an interesting perspective. It somewhat dovetails with mine, but not entirely.

For my part, I like to think of this whole subject not in terms of bridges to cross, ends/beginnings, or racial/cultural blendings in an inexorable process of appropriation and assimilation. That all seems so linear and staccato and has an air of the inevitability of racial/cultural identity loss and/or reimaginings beyond race. Hsu's conclusions seem to give some opening to the specious arguments that many conservatives are making that an Obama Presidency means we have arrived and that racism is thus dead. Such arguments are just silly, as is that other conservative meme of desiring a "color-blind" society in all aspects of life. I do agree with Hsu's claim that we cling to racial identity markers; but, unlike Hsu, I don't see this as inherently problematic. I don't think it's necessarily some bridge that needs to be crossed. I have thought for a while on this subject and I have come to the (tentative -- I'm still pondering --) conclusion that we can and will live in a kind of circular world when it comes to race and identity. In other words, we don't need to cross lines to get to some ideal "post-racial" world. We don't need to subvert racial/cultural identity markers either to some kind of blended multicultural identity framework represented by post-racial left-leaning cultural relativists (i.e. the "Bill Clinton is the first 'black' President" line of thinking), or, alternatively, to some kind of non-racialized and "color-blind" identity framework cynically (and absurdly) espoused by conservatives who think that being non-racist means erasing race (as opposed to racism) completely from the process of social relations and individual identity formation. In fact, I think we don't even need to get "post-racial" at all to live in a world of mutual respect and understanding irrespective of race.

I believe that race has significant positive meaning to people. [And the fact that we can do nothing about our race, why shouldn't we find some positive meaning in that? That's better than hating ourselves for it, or simply ignoring it altogether as if it isn't part of us.] Because of that, I am leery of the "post-Racial" narrative that may sacrifice this positive for some other elusive a-racial end. I also hold that there is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with giving some kind of positive meaning to race as important to individual identity as long as (and this is the BIG qualifier) this meaning doesn't include diminishing, devaluing, or discriminating against others because of their race or the meaning they ascribe to their identity because of their race. For instance, I don't believe that a black person expressing "black pride" necessarily means "hating whitey" -- or even vice versa. [Of course, it can mean that, which is something to deplore and reject as racist; but that's not what I'm talking about when I talk of giving "positive" meaning to racial identity.] In essence, identifying blackness or whiteness or brownness as meaningful in a cultural sense, much like identifying left-handedness or maleness or Southernness or urbanness, etc., as being culturally meaningful, and even expressing this meaningfulness, can be just fine. In fact, the plurality inherent in a diverse society where all kinds of differences (not just racial difference) can be celebrated and can be independently meaningful in the context of equality, and not diminished by the process of crossing lines or bridges, or by ignoring the obvious, can be enriching to one's own cultural identity. We are all of us essentially self-constructed identities because of our immutable characteristics -- all of which have given some meaning to our identity. We are white or black, male or female, gay or straight, left-handed or right-handed, urban or rural, bald or hairy, red-headed or blond -- and to deny that this has cultural significance and meaning is to deny identity completely. But the kicker is that we have to respect this difference and not see it as a threat to our own identity such that we feel the need to squelch this difference or to construct hierarchies as to the value of this difference through repression, oppression, and the many "ism" forms of social/political/economic discriminations. As long as we can do this -- as long as we can respect and not be threatened by cultural expressions of identity associated with race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., we can have a world that is not post-racial, but a world that celebrates race (among other identity markers) without all the nastiness. And that's a world I'd much rather live in than either a "color-blind" world or an "everyone is everything" world. I'd much rather live in a world where I can be happy for those who find pride and meaning in being black, or being female, or being gay, and even want to celebrate that pride, even if I could never really share in that pride in the same way for lack of that identity marker in myself.

No comments: