R’s of American Racism:
Representation, Rejection, and Realization
Racism is a system of meaning that promotes and legitimated the domination of one racially defined group over another. Racism assigns values to both real and imagined cultural and physical differences, benefitting the dominant party and making negative claims about the subordinate, so that this dominance may be justified ideologically. The seeming illogical or even counterproductive nature of racism may be explained in that it comes in the wake of more concrete oppression. (Shohat & Stam, 1995) Through the last five or six centuries, and possibly earlier if one includes the history of the Crusades and anti-Semitism, light skinned Europeans have had a history of oppressing other nations and ethnicities through conquest, colonization, and enslavement. As the thin justification of religious zealotry wore increasingly thin through the ages, the justification of inferior race was no doubt especially important. So, the theory holds, light skinned Europeans who had previously been divided by tribal nationalities and seemingly disparate ethnicities increasingly came together under a single banner of “whiteness.” This process was especially noticeable in America, where the polarity of “white” and “black” had unusually powerful legal ramifications. Racist ideology and imagery has historically (and contemporaneously) been used to legitimate such injustice in the United States by creating representational images of each racial underclass as somehow deserving of its lower status, placing the blame for injustice on the victim while theoretically rejecting the very category of race, and subsequently realizing these negative stereotype-prophecies through the maintenance of social division of economic and political power and domination.
To understand the reality of racism in America today, one must first understand the precarious position of the so-called “white man.”
To perhaps even a greater degree than the other races and ethnicities to be considered, the whiteness which is defended by ideological racism is a construct. According to many writers, such as Jan Nederween Piererse (1992) & David Roedigger (1994, 1998), whiteness was cobbled together out of the disparate pieces of European ethnicity, and does not have its own independent identity. Whiteness is a “melting pot” of various cultures which have become formless and without personal definition. This leads to vicious hatred of other races who retain any sort of racial memory and identity. So black writers and others on the cutting edge of racial understanding speak of whiteness as something which must be eradicated, not as a racial identity or as a matter of eugenics, but as something which is neither an identity nor a genome but a construct defined entirely in its relationship to an imagined assortment of dark-skinned others, and this relationship is one of dominance and cruelty. “Whiteness describes…not a culture but precisely the absence of culture. It is the empty and therefore terrifying attempt to build an identity based on what one isn’t and on whom one can hold back.” (Roediger, 1994, 13)
That whiteness is not so much a skin color as it as a status of privilege is made evident in the way in which blackness (as the binary opposite of whiteness) and its attendant stereotypes have traditionally been assigned to any party to which the dominant “white” class is finding itself in opposition. So, for example, it has been said with a straight face by very traditional writers that “The poor are the negroes of Europe,” (Chamfort, in Nederween Piererse, 1992, 212) and again that “the british upper classes also regarded their own working class as almost a race apart, and claimed that they had darker skin and hair than themselves.” (215, Nederween, 1992) In the same way that Africans were consistently referred to with denigrating stereotypes concerning their physical resemblance to apes, Irish people during the height of British imperialism towards Ireland were said to have an ape-like figure and to resemble gorillas. This sort of class prejudice leads to the existence of racial epithets and stereotyping aimed at lower class white people. They maybe referred to as rednecks or crackers or other such dismissive titles with even more social acceptance than other races may be dismissed openly as gooks or niggers. The idea of “white niggers” shows that race and class collide to a great degree. Similarly, women have been at various times compared in terms of temperament, intelligence, and sexuality to nonwhite races (and nonwhite races to women as well!), as well as having their accoutrements (such as dressing in feathers and beads) compared to those of “savages.” For in the end the privileged “white man” is precisely that, both privileged in class birth and wealth and exclusively male.
So one might dismiss race as a being a mere construct or speak of the way in which whiteness is a class rather than genetic issue, but this would not be entirely accurate. It remains true that while the actual visible aspects of race and skin-color do not in themselves define “whiteness” and “blackness,” racism and prejudice is nonetheless represented to the common mind by these things. In some sense poor or ethnic whites may become “black” and truly wealthy minorities raised among the upper class may become somehow endowed with “whiteness” of a sort. However, the representations which define the black and the white are still drawn in terms of color, and to ignore these representations is to ignore the core of the power struggle and the engrained racism in America. So from this point when speaking of whiteness, it should be assumed to be a reference to the dominant existence of the more powerful white male and those that identify themselves as part of that dominance. This white culture is defined as being a sort of invisible standard by which other work ethics, family values, sexuality, and so forth may all be defined as more or less. Each other culture is interpreted in the media in relationship to that invisible standard.
Other cultures and races are given symbolic representations — stories, myths, and stereotypes — which are repeated throughout the media and the common mind until they may even be believed by the minority group themselves. These representations provide a way for the treatment of the minority group to be rationalized. For example, African-Americans are frequently stereotyped as having poor family values and uncontrolled sexuality, which allows for the rationalization of denying support for African-American children whose parents are seen as irresponsible. In a related example, Native Americans were believed to be barbarous and have no sense of value for their land, so that it might be rationalized that they were herded into reservations where they could be Christianized. These symbolic representations also serve to maintain economic, social, and political power and domination through creating a subtle system by which individuals of a race may be denied “white” privileges not on the basis of their race but on the basis of supposed character flaws (which are assumed by virtue of that race). This may take on particularly systematic qualities. This is referred to in literature as a “possessive investment in whiteness.” (Lipsitz, 1998) For example, the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) has been known throughout its history to deny loans in areas populated largely by black people by saying that it does not finance in high-risk areas or in bad neighborhoods, though the “risk” and “quality” of the neighborhood is determined by appraisers often based solely on racial makeup. This funnels money away from black potential homeowners into the pockets of white buyers. Even positive stereotypes, such as those concerning Asian-Americans and their academic and economic abilities, can be used as a justification for systematic prejudice, such as that which fails to recognize the serious needs in many parts of the Asian immigrant community which is obscured by the success of those who immigrated straight into the middle class. (“Model Minority…”)
Each of these stereotypes which feeds the institutionalization of prejudice is perpetuated not just by hand-me-down racism of the antebellum variety, but in the far more sinister realm of popular and even supposedly liberal and sympathetic media such as films and popular culture entertainment. “Cinema…became the epistemological mediator between the cultural space of the Western spectator and that of the cultures represented on the screen, linking separate spaces and figurally separate temporalities in a single moment of exposure.” (Shohat & Stam, 1995) So it is no accident that many writers in discussing the realities of racism must also deal with the representation in media which is at least theoretically concerned with a rejection of the excesses of racism.
Each race has its own story of media ignorance and intolerance, yet certainly the way in which the narratives of the Native American “Indians” has been systematically ignored or falsely romanticized stands among the worst example. According to the predominant media image which has been presented since the coming of Columbus, the indigenous Americans are consistently an almost reflexive and unthinking people who were willing to, metaphorically or really speaking, sell their birthright for a mess of porridge. Shohat and Stam (1995) speak extensively of the way that narratives regarding the “discovery” of the new world ignore the fact that it was already populated, and that its “settlement” and “civilization” was at the price of a holocaust in native blood with tens of millions dead. The natives themselves are marginalized when they are shown into one of two categories, being either noble savants who submit to their own deaths so willingly that one hardly blames the conquerers or as murderous savages who deserve what they get. This duality dates back to the very days of Columbus, whose “split attitude toward the indigenous peoples made them simultaneously the best and worst of humans, at once noble and savage… His radical dichotomizing of the Carib and the Arawak, the fierce cannibal and noble savage, marks a division within European perception of the indigene.” (Shohat & Stam, 1995, 66) Today this attitude on the one hand justifies the commercialization of exoticized and normalized Native American culture and artifacts and religion to an interested white audience, and the maintenance to this day of reservations wherein blatant poverty and illness coincide with government dumping of toxic wastes and illicit experimentations. (Shohat & Stam, 1995)
African-Americans have never really fared better. Perceptions of blacks as clever entertainers with natural talent for sports and music and art make the commercialization of the black possible at the same time that American blacks are castigated as lazy, immoral, and (ironically) ungrateful for the gifts of the white man. Decades of so-called affirmative action have only barely integrated the workplace, and yet are blamed for the loss of white jobs and places in college so that the myth about the “victimization of ‘innocent’ whites by irrational and ungrateful minorities” (Lipsitz, 1998, 20) coexists with myths that all blacks are underclass criminals putting a drain on society’s resources. Many authors such as Roediger (1998) and Nederween-Piererse (1992) discuss the way in which the media image of the black person is reduced to a sort of invisibility where it is not either demonized politely (with excuses about the demonization only of “certain” blacks) or celebrated with a sort of dismissive glance at acceptable venues of success (such as music).
Mexican and other Americans of a more Latin persuasion have a less toxic history of repression and representation in America, due to their relatively more recent entrance into the racist situation in America. Nonetheless, in the media and the popular imagination they are represented with the same sort of prejudice, facing representations of laziness, violence, poor family values, and so forth. Like the Chinese and Asian-Americans, Latinos who entered America found themselves heirs to an already existent set of prejudices and pre-made blackness. Unlike Asian-Americans, Mexicans and Latinos were not so luck as to eventually arrive at a kind of invented model-minority status.
Racial qualities that had been assigned to blacks became Chinese characteristics,” (Nederween, 1992, 215) when the Chinese first arrived in America. However, it is reported that as America was increasingly faced with radical and militant threats from communism, African-American integration, and homosexuality, dominant culture began to look for a minority that could be held up as a nonviolent and even passive model for integration. This was found in Asian immigrants, and heightened by changing immigration laws that promoted the migration of highly educated and skilled Asians who would be quickly integrated. This created a “brain-drain” for Asia, and a model minority for America. Yet at the same time, “the model minority image has coexisted with and reinforced a representation of the Asian-American as the gook” (Yellowface, 11) This is apparent in American media which on the one hand represents Asian-Americans as more intelligent and more economically advantaged than the average white man, and at the same time points to them as a sort of inhuman yellow menace which threatens America’s financial stability. (“model minority as gook”) A similar sort of attack existed in Europe against the financial successful Jews, and here as there it can have deadly effects. In addition to creating divisions between the whites and the yellows, so to speak, the model minority can obscure the actual failings of the community to have integrated experiences.
In all these cases, one can see how the media image perpetuates stereotyping which in turn leads to the sort of rationalization of institutionalized and systemic prejudice mentioned earlier. Each of these representations is subtle, and coexists with a rejection of outright racism which only serves to make the subtle racism more potent. In the end, because of the way that representation creates rationalization and the maintenance of social structures, these representations may self-realize as a sort of terrible social prophecy. Whether or not a solution can be found is impossible to say, but it is certain that if it is to exist that whiteness must be transcended in favor of a more personal definition of culture for white people and a more inclusive definition of power and power maintenance for the country at large.
Lipsitz, George. (1998) The Possessive Investment in Whiteness. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Nederween Piererse, Jan. (1992) White on Black: images of Africa and blacks in western popular culture. Amsterdam, Cosmic Illusion Productions Foundation.
Roediger, David. (1994) Towards the Abolition of Whiteness. London: Verso.
Roediger, David, Ed. (1998) Black on White: Black Writers on What it Means to be White. New York: Schocken Books
Shohat, Ella & Stam, Robert. (1995) Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and media. New York: Routledge.
NEED MORE INFORMATION:
Model Minority as Gook”
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