Saturday, January 21, 2012

Segregation, Black Culture, and Conservative Colorblindness

Today, as I was on the stationary bike trying to get in shape, lose some pounds, and meet my New Year's resolution, I was listening (again) to an NPR Jazz Profiles episode.  This particular episode focused on Nat King Cole as a singer.  As usual, the profile was simply outstanding, as every single one of them is.

But what got me thinking as I listened to the profile (and it could have been any number of profiles about pre-Civil Rights black jazz musicians) is how disingenuous and thoughtless is the current conservative pretension to embrace a kind of "colorblindness" when it comes to race -- even in matters of cultural expression and identity.  I have argued on any number of occasions about the existence and value of expressions of ethnic and racial identity through social and cultural outlets and traditions.  I contend that there is such a thing as culture linked to race and that not only is this not a bad thing, but should actually be embraced and celebrated as part of the rich diversity of our country's racial and ethnic heritage.

But I can't tell you how many times I've been called a "racist" by conservatives who pretend to embrace a "colorblind" attitude when they read my thoughts on the subject and think that my position amounts to perpetuating a society where things are determined exclusively by skin color.  I think these people conflate and confuse racism with simple racial identity.  There is a difference between political oppression and discrimination on the basis of race and an acknowledgment that black culture exists and that black people identify with this culture because of their race.

And as I was listening to Nancy Wilson narrate the profile of Nat King Cole, it dawned on me that the history of racial segregation and discrimination must be considered as a force that actually conditioned the creation of black culture.  A shared culture linked exclusively to race was, I think, partly born of black people (and other marginalized peoples) forced to live in a segregated world that was defined by race and ethnicity.  Let's just take music as an example (and jazz music in particular).  White jazz performers who catered to white audiences were identified by a particular kind of jazz music.  Just listen to Stan Kenton and his orchestra, or Benny Goodman and his orchestra, or Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, etc., to get a feel for the way white jazz bands performed.  On the other hand, black jazz performers who catered to black audiences were identified by a very different style of music.  Chick Webb and his orchestra, Louis Jordan and his "tympany five," Cab Callaway and his orchestra, Count Basie and his orchestra, Duke Ellington and his orchestra, etc.  Even the musicians and commentators in the Jazz Profile series often speak of this difference.  And we can apply this differentiation to other aspects of culture as well -- food, religious traditions, dance, linguistics, etc.

The difference in culture was born out of a forced difference in association.  Might I be so bold as to suggest that if there weren't racial segregation and discrimination in this country, there might be a more universal "American" culture shared by all without disaggregations because of race.  But we have what we have today because of our history of racial segregation and discrimination.

Yes, there is a black culture shared by the young black woman in Oregon and the elderly black man in Georgia.  This shared culture is defined by race.  Being "black" has meaning.  And to try to "erase" that shared culture by adopting this contemporary conservative meme of "colorblindness" is not only naive (in that it ignores history) but it is also, I would argue, racist in and of itself.  It's basically a claim, under the insidious guise of colorblind equality, that being culturally black in America, even given the realities of our history, is an unacceptable expression of racism.  The conservative folks whose ancestors demanded a separate world for black people because of race now seek to claim that the cultural legacies of this world that was forced on black people by segregation, legacies that remind and celebrate the black experience in America, should cease to exist.  And how arrogant, patronizing, condescending, and outlandish is that?!?!

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