Tuesday, October 7, 2008

History - It exists, use it OR Using Historical Lenses to Assess Modern Racism

I know I haven't blogged in a while, but now that my schedule is somewhat set and the election is nearing, I'm going to try to post on at least a weekly basis (and possibly continue that on through graduation). This week's post will be a brief one. Topic: using historical lenses to assess modern interactions in terms of racism.

The Biden/Palin debate has received a great deal of press and assessment over the weekend, but I'd like to jump back to the first Obama/McCain debate. The Angry Black Woman analyzed McCain's body language through the filter of Jim Crow etiquette and Old South racism. In short: don't look at or address the uppity nigger daring to talk to you, because he is not your equal and you should not address him as such. Given McCain's legendary temper and his portrayal of Obama as an upstart, there are other readings for this body language, but they do not make the Jim Crow throwback reading less valid.

Each time I see someone make this reading, I also see someone wondering why race has to play into it. The simple answer is that no matter how much we would like to pretend we extist in a colorblind world, race matters in today's American society, and ignoring that fact does all Americans a disservice and greatly hinders race relations. We also have to deal with the fact that we have a history of racism. That history informs the behaviours of the American people today, for good or for ill. And even if one person in particular isn't familiar with a racial filter, that doesn't mean other people aren't familiar with that filter, and won't be using it to assess a situation.

In this instance, that filter is Jim Crow etiquette. As a black woman who grew up in the South with a black family that has been in the area for generations, I am very familiar with the way blacks were expected to behave towards whites. As both someone who has grown up in the South and someone who has studied Black literature and Southern literature (and occasionally Black Southern literature), I am familiar with the ideas of humility and subservience, or shuffling and bowed heads. And even were it not for my academic studies, as a person from Alabama, I would be familiar with the idea. And as someone familiar with the idea, the thought that popped into my head every time McCain clenched his jaw and refused to look at Obama was, "How dare this uppity nigger speak to me! I'm John McCain." (or alternately, "I'm white male secure in my sense of white male entitlement and this black boy is screwing it up.") That is body language that has resonance with the Southern population. I do not know if McCain was doing it intentionally or not (I suspect he was), and I do not know if his body language was intended to serve that function (I suspect "yes" on disrespecting the upstart, but I don't know if the racial part was considered). I do know how it came across. And I know I'm not the only one who felt that way.

There are people in America who remember Jim Crow. There are people in America who remember segregation. My mother, who is not a particularly old woman, went to an all-black Catholic high-school and was a member of the last graduating class before the diocese integrated the schools. My uncles were among the earlier graduating classes at the integrated high school, and had a hell of a difficult time there. This resonates with a great deal of Americans, and whether or not the racial reading is the intended reading, it is a valid one. And it is one I hope I won't get a chance to use when I watch the debates tonight, though it's a point on which I'm not too optimistic.

1 comment:

rmberra said...

Everyone seems to be in agreement that the debate last night was boring; people were hoping for a confrontation. I know you thought Obama was not forceful enough but I also think he hit that stride about halfway through and didn't allow McCain to get away with mischaracterizations.

I can't wait to read more from you.