France’s Approach to Fighting Racism: Pretty Words and Magical Thinking

I first came to France twelve years ago during my junior year abroad. I was the first person in my family to get a passport and I could barely contain my excitement. In the winter of 2003, two years before the riots that followed the untimely deaths of 15 year old Zyed Benna and 17 year old Bouna Traore, I landed in Paris bright-eyed and bushy tailed, armed with a very shaky grasp of French and a naive fascination with this beautiful country.

As an African-American, I was vaguely aware that France did not deal with issues of race the way we do in the United States. And when I happened to forget, French white people were keen to remind me. In one of the sociology classes I took at a university in the south of France, I hesitantly raised my hand to ask a question. The white French professor had been lecturing on youth and delinquency. I asked, in my broken French, if the dynamics he described had any relation to racial or ethnic belonging. “We don’t have that kind of problem here,” he said, adding: “This isn’t the United States.” Embarrassed and flustered, I nodded and continued taking notes. After class, one of the only other black students pulled me aside: “We do have those kinds of problems here. Hang out with me and I’ll tell you about it.”

resurrecting-slavery_sm

My new friend was from Cameroon and had moved to France along with her sister and brother several years prior. Over the course of the semester, her family basically adopted me, inviting me to dinners, showing me the area and telling me about their lives. I learned that despite the fact that each of them had white French partners and white close friends, they nonetheless experienced racism. But, as I learned in that sociology class that day, many French people denied that racism was actually a problem in their supposedly colorblind society.

Twelve years later, I am now a sociologist and professor finishing a book on racism and the legacies of slavery in France. And while some things have changed here, many French people are still in denial. Over the past decade, French minority groups have made important gains. 2005 was a water-shed year for raising consciousness about the weight of racism in France. In addition to the riots sparked by the death of French minority youth fleeing the police, new anti-racist groups emerged, such as the Representative Council of Black Associations and Indigenes de la République. There is now a national day of memory for slavery and the slavey trade (May 10th) thanks to a law proposed by Christiana Taubira, now France’s first black (and female) Minister of Justice. New, powerful minority voices have emerged in the public sphere, including filmmaker, TV personality and activist Rokhaya Diallo and scholar-activist Maboula Soumahoro (who spearheaded France’s first “Black History Month” in 2012).

Ten years after the riots, the police involved in chasing Zyed Benna, Bouna Traore and their friends are finally being tried for negligence. Ten years later, it is more difficult for the French to deny the plight of ethnic and racial minorities — though some, especially conservatives, deny this reality daily.

Yet, despite these transformations, the French government seems to have almost entirely abdicated its responsibility for dealing with racism. In terms of policy, French “anti-racism” is a total disaster. Instead of formulating anti-racist policies and collecting anti-discrimination statistics, the country contents itself with anti-racist discourse and magical thinking. In 2011, the U.N. issued a report condemning France for its “racist climate” and lack of “real political will” to address racial discrimination. In 2013, French politicians took steps to remove the word “race” from its laws, apparently guided by the magical belief that changing words is enough to fight racism.

In France, it is illegal for the government to include race or ethnicity on the census, as doing so is framed as a violation of so-called “Republican” values, which insist that the French Republic is “indivisible” and should not be distinguished in terms of race or ethnic origin. The problem with this is that the majority population fails to acknowledge that the Republic has been making racial and ethnic distinctions for a very long time. This, too, stems from denial and ignorance. The truth is that French people who cherish dominant interpretations of “colorblind” Republicanism help maintain the racial status quo. By refusing to support the collection of statistics that could be used to generate policies and measure their effectiveness, they undermine the work of minorities and activists who are working hard to counteract the tide of Republican denial.

While some argue that France doesn’t need more data to fight racism, this almost argument is never made concerning sexism. Most people are aware that sexism exists, but it would be absurd to say: “We already know sexism exists and therefore don’t need data on gender discrimination..”Yet, this is the same kind of magical thinking that prevails in much of the so-called “anti-racist” discourse one encounters in France.

Some of France’s most visible “anti-racist groups” have continually opposed anti-discrimination statistics. Just this week, I appeared on France24 to debate the issue with Hadrien Lenoir, a representative of SOS Racisme — one of the most vocal critics of ethnoracial statistics. During the lively debate, Lenoir presented SOS Racisme as supporting such statistics “in research” — as long as they’re not collected by the government. What he did not admit is that SOS Racisme virulently opposed the cutting edge work of French scholars who produced, for the first time, a large scale study of discrimination in France using ethnoracial statistics. Even if the group claims to have changed its position, the reality is that most French research is sponsored by the government. Thus, expressing support for ethnoracial stats “in research” as long as the government is not involved is nonsensical in a nation where most research is funded by the state. These are the kinds of mind-boggling contradictions that anyone studying French racism has to confront—contradictions that, for many years, made me never want to study race in France again.

It is true that some French people still deny that racism exists—despite the many studies that have documented discrimination. But other groups, like SOSRacisme, actually use their fear of racism in the government to argue against the collection of ethnoracial statistics. They point to the racism of the government during the Vichy regime of World War II as proof that the state cannot be trusted. Most recently, when Robert Menard, a far-right mayor of the town of Beziers, admitted to ethnoracially profiling Muslim children, groups like SOSRacisme argued that this, too, was proof that the government had no business counting people by race or religion. Of course, in making this argument, they draw a false equivalence anti-racist and racist usage of statistics.

In my view, the lesson gleaned from Menard’s racism is simple: People in power will gather data to profile minorities whether or not the government calls itself colorblind. Indeed, 13 Black and Arab men are currently suing the French state itself for engaging in racial profiling.

The more time I spend in France, the more it seems to me that some French people (especially politicians) are extraordinarily skilled at talking about principles that they have no intention of doing anything about. Perhaps the French are stuck because they are far too philosophical and not at all practical when it comes to anti-discrimination. I don’t doubt the sincerity of most anti-racist groups that oppose policies that would actually expose and address racism. I have not always had the policy positions I have now. Certainly when I started my research in France, I did not have strong opinions. While I always saw myself as anti-racist, I was not informed enough to have a clear sense of whether ethnoracial statistics or “American-style” policies were needed in France. But after spending nearly three years living in France and interviewing over 100 French activists and ordinary people, my views began to change. It became increasingly obvious that the French population is mired in ignorance about the social and historical reality of race. Even moreso than in the United States, French discourse “about race” is incredibly superficial, asociological and ahistorical. Of course they don’t know how to fight racism.

I denounce white supremacy in the United States on a daily basis and I have no illusions that numbers will save the day. But it matters that activists and scholars in the United States can point to statistics within communities, organizations and institutions to measure just how much has changed — and just how much has not. It matters that we can use these numbers to inform policies and measure their effectiveness (or lack thereof). No, these statistics are not a panacea. Yes, black people and other minorities continue to experience the on-going racial tyranny of white supremacy. But the numbers help combat the denial and magical thinking frequently found among white people and other dominant groups — denial that would have you believe that centuries of race-making can be undone with beautiful principles and kumbaya colorblindness.

For a country that presents itself as secular, France nonetheless asserts religious conviction in the power of words to erase social and historical realities. In terms of dealing (or rather, not dealing) with racism, France is like a country that prefers faith-based healing over modern medicine for its ailing children. To take the analogy even further — the French political establishment is like a parent who infected their own children with an illness — only to refuse diagnostic tests and treatment.

It’s amazing, really — this intransigent, irrational belief that the language of “colorblindness” can actually undo centuries of race-making. The French seem to believe, that through the magical power of language alone, they can talk racism into oblivion. Nevermind the fact that France spent centuries establishing racial hierarchies at home and in its colonial empire for the purpose of enriching the state. Some truly believe that words like “Republic” and “citizenship” and “indivisible” can suddenly undo processes that were produced and institutionalized over the course of four hundred years.

In my view, French magical thinking about race is reinforced by the near total ignorance of the population with regard to its racial past. The French are struggling, in part, because they do not have widely read sociologists or historians of race. During my time in France this spring, I’ve met young French scholars of race who are doing really important, desperately needed work. But the political and intellectual landscape in which they must work is absolutely depressing. Not only does the French academy lack serious programs in race, but it is also overwhelmingly white and elite. One does not need statistics to see this. Enter any French elite university and you will find very few minority professors, chairs of departments or administrators. There are only a few books that could fall under the umbrella of “Black Studies” in France. Not only is there nothing even approaching “post-colonial studies” — the history of colonialism itself is mostly a non-lieu de memoire : barely taught in schools, mostly forgotten and marginalized in the nation’s collective memory. There is no French equivalent of W.E.B. Du Bois (who essentially founded urban sociology in the United States and pioneered studies of race, racism and whiteness). And there has not yet emerged a French equivalent of Kimberlé Crenshaw or Patricia Hill Collins — scholars who have revolutionized entire fields of thought through their contributions to Black Feminist scholarship and critical race theory. Yes, the Nardal Sisters and Cesaire and Fanon exist, but French scholars of color are still mostly ignored by white French people. Indeed, negritude was far more influential outside of hexagonal France than within it.

The only thing most French people seem to know about race is that racial categories were used against the Jews during WW II. That’s it. If you ask French people to tell you about racism in French colonialism, racial exclusion in the metropole prior to WW II, most probably would have little to say. Most French people can’t explain in any degree of detail where the concept of race came from, how racism perpetuates itself over time or how it is institutionalized. How could they? They do not (and, with few exceptions, cannot) learn about these things at school. But they think they can “fight” racism in a context of near complete social and historical ignorance about what race means and where it came from.

If there was ever a case study in the epistemology of ignorance — and its relationship to white supremacy — France is it. As I argue in the book I’m finishing now, white supremacy and racial ignorance are both key to understanding race in France. Already in the United States, racial ignorance and denial run wide and deep. And yet, despite these challenges, we have intellectual resources and minority networks the French can’t even dream of. And I don’t say this to brag — it’s not like these intellectual resources have saved us. They haven’t. But they matter. They help.

I don’t think most people (French or otherwise) understand that it takes centuries of diligent activism, statistical tracking, policy making and scholarship to even begin to address the damage of racism. The U.S. case shows that it is extremely difficult to confront and combat racism, even when you have the intellectual resources and data. But the French case shows that it is impossible to effectively identify and challenge racism without these things.

Further, French chauvinism prevents many people here from actually embracing a global understanding of racial processes and white supremacy. References to race in the United States or the UK are portrayed as too foreign — imposing an “anglosaxon” lens. White French people will sometimes say that their country can’t learn anything about race from the United States because the two societies are so different. And yet, the same people point to the continued existence of racism in the U.S. as “proof” that our approach to using ethnoracial statistics “hasn’t helped”. But if the U.S. is “too different” to teach anything to the French about race, then it cannot also be used by the French as “evidence” that ethnoracial statistics are a bad idea. It is intellectually dishonest to claim that one can’t learn anything from another society, yet also use that same society to justify one’s position. Further, the fact that France does not collect ethnoracial data means that it is impossible to seriously compare the situation of minorities in most spheres of life (e.g. housing and employment discrimination, political representation and so on). But the French think that they don’t need data to say that their society is less racist than the U.S. — all they need are Republican words. Thus, instead of learning from other nations that have a much longer history of studying race, many of the French prefer their colorblind ignorance.

The bottom line is that from what I have seen, the French majority population does not think racism affecting people of color is important. The reason the French majority population doesn’t think racism is important is because they have not been made to believe it is important. French people of color currently lack the political power and internal organization to compel the majority population to care about addressing racism. And, the French government’s role in suppressing ethnoracial statistics continues to undermine people of color who are organizing to fight racism.

The irony of all this is that the French are currently moving forward with an intelligence law that rivals the Patriot Act in its blatant disregard for civil liberties. The French government wants to collect data on almost everything French people think, write or say but – but no data on racism! When it comes to fighting terror, the French know very well that knowledge is power. But when it comes to fighting racism? Data? Knowledge? Not necessary.

Too many French people seem to imagine that if they close their eyes to race, click their heels three times and repeat the words “Liberty”, “Equality” and “Brotherhood”, the boogeyman of racism will simply vanish and disappear. No systematic data or policies necessary. Only pretty, magical, colorblind words.

Temple University Press staff picks for Black History Month

This week in North Philly Notes, Temple University Press staff members select their favorite titles for Black History Month

Ann-Marie Anderson, Marketing Director

I was totThe_Parker_Sisters_emboss_smally captivated by Lucy Maddox’s The Parker Sisters! In 1851, the two free black sisters were kidnapped from a farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania, and sold back into slavery for a full year. Their story reads like a novel with twists and turns at every angle as the true story of the two young sisters unfolds. True freedom was not to be had for many African Americans during that time, and for both the free and fugitive living in border areas like here in Pennsylvania and nearby Maryland, danger lurked everywhere. Slave catchers were a mighty force, getting legal and illegal assistance from both black and white. Through newspaper accounts, diaries, and courtroom documents, Maddox traces the sisters harrowing experiences and provides a glimpse into what life was like in mid-19th century America.

Gary Kramer, Publicity Manager

I’m a complete sucker for Sandra Bullock and her film The Blind Side. But after reading Matthew Hughey’s The White Savior Film, I can’t look at this (or any other) film about racial uplift the same way again. Hughey’s cogent unpacking of “saviorism” has prompted me to call it out whenHughey_front_012814_sm I write about film, and also to find films that eschew this trope that perpetrates stereotypes about race, class (and even gender). Reading Hughey’s book makes me even more conscientious of racial equality in film. And “The DuVernay Test,” named for African American filmmaker Ava DuVernay (I Will Follow, Selma), was devised to monitor films to ensure “African Americans and other minorities have fully realized lives rather than serve as scenLayout 1ery in white stories.” The current Oscar-nominated film Hidden Figures, which features a trio of female African American mathematicians playing vital roles at NASA, passes the DuVernay test, and despite scenes of saviorism, is decidedly not a White Savior film. These women were real people whose abilities paved their way to success. Incidentally, Hidden Figures also evokes another Temple University Press title, Swimming Against the Tideby Sandra Hanson, about African American girls and science education, which also demands reader’s attention.

Mary Rose Muccie, Director

Aden_2.inddThousands of people come to Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia each year to visit the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and the nation’s first White House, known as the President’s House.  There they’ll also see the only memorial to slavery on federal land.  As Roger Aden explains in his book, Upon the Ruins of Liberty: Slavery, the President’s House at Independence National Historical Park, and Public History, the memorial’s location is more than a gesture. When he came from Virginia to live in the President’s House, George Washington brought with him nine African slaves and later found a loophole in Pennsylvania state law that allowed him to avoid granting them their freedom.  The stories of freedom and liberty associated with the events that took place in Philadelphia rarely if ever acknowledged the existence of the slaves present as history was being made, and Aden’s book speaks to the importance of expanding the “history” commemorated at the site and describes the perhaps unexpected issues around doing so.  Its discussion of the sometimes uncomfortable presentation of this piece of our history speaks to many of the threads woven into Black History Month and to the need to change what we’re taught about how the notion of  liberty was applied.

Ryan Mulligan, Editor

Layout 1We’ve seen sports serve as an intensely visible and symbolic ground to showcase the slow march towards progress that has, in fits and starts, propelled black history. In sports we’ve seen exclusion become segregation, participation met with resistance, success met with fear, and finally and most ironically racial pride become national pride. This last transition is visible in the distance between now and the 1968 Olympics, when Tommie Smith scandalized America by celebrating his gold medal in the 200-meter dash with a raised fist gloved in black as the National Anthem played. That scandal forced spectators to reconcile America’s progress with its work to be done, that if it wanted to take pride in its native son’s achievement, it would also need to hear his protest. This seems to me emblematic not only of a step in black history but also in the telling of black history. Black history, taught and learned well, cannot be restricted to a story white people tell about statuesque historical figures frozen in time but must give a platform for those figures to speak for themselves. That is why I’d like to call attention to Silent Gesturewhich Temple published 10 years ago in which Tommie Smith tells his own story and his silent gesture takes on a living voice.

Aaron Javsicas, Editor in Chief

Tasting Freedom_AD(12-16-09) finalDan Biddle and Murray Dubin’s Tasting Freedom: Octavius Catto and the Battle for Equality in Civil War America is a masterfully told story about this important figure in both Philadelphia and American history. Catto’s heroic activism and tragic murder at the hands of a racist mob on election day in 1871 foreshadowed the century of civil rights struggle to come. As Philadelphia prepares to unveil a statue memorializing Catto’s life later this spring on the grounds of City Hall, please consider picking up a copy of this engrossing and important biography.

Books of critical importance in the era of Trump from Temple University Press

This week in North Philly Notes, we showcase books of importance in the era of Trump.

Undocumented Fears: Immigration and the Politics of Divide and Conquer in Hazleton, Pennsylvania
Jamie Longazel
Longazel uses the debate around Hazleton, Pennsylvania’s controversial Illegal Immigration Relief Act as a case study that reveals the mechanics of contemporary divide and conquer politics, making important connection between immigration politics and the perpetuation of racial and economic inequality.

The Gendered Executive: A Comparative Analysis of Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Chief Executives
Edited by Janet M. Martin and MaryAnne Borrelli
A critical examination of national executives, focusing on matters of identity, representation, and power. The editors and contributors address the impact of female executives through political mobilization and participation, policy- and decision-making, and institutional change.

The Great Refusal: Herbert Marcuse and Contemporary Social Movements
Edited by Andrew T. Lamas, Todd Wolfson, and Peter N. Funke
With a Foreword by Angela Y. Davis
The Great Refusal provides an analysis of contemporary social movements around the world—such as the Zapatistas in Mexico, the Arab Spring, and the Occupy movement—with particular reference to Marcuse’s revolutionary concept.

Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the New York City Hyperghetto
Eric Tang
Eric Tang tells the harrowing and inspiring stories of Cambodian refugees to make sense of how and why the displaced migrants have been resettled in New York City’s “hyperghetto.”

Terrorizing Latina/o Immigrants; Race, Gender, and Immigration Politics in the Age of Security
Anna Sampaio
Winner! American Political Science Association’s Latino Politics Best Book Prize, 2016
Immigration politics has been significantly altered by the advent of America’s war on terror and the proliferation of security measures. Terrorizing Latina/o Immigrants examines how these processes are racialized and gendered and how they impose inequitable burdens on Latina/o immigrants.

Vanishing Eden: White Construction of Memory, Meaning, and Identity in a Racially Changing City
Michael T. Maly and Heather M. Dalmage
Examining how racial solidarity and whiteness were created and maintained, the authors provide an intriguing analysis of the experiences and memories of whites who lived in Chicago neighborhoods experiencing racial change during the 1950s through the 1980s.

Deregulating Desire: Flight Attendant Activism, Family Politics, and Workplace Justice
Ryan Patrick Murphy
Situating the flight attendant union movement in the history of debates about family and work, Ryan Patrick Murphy offers an economic and a cultural analysis to show how the workplace has been the primary venue to enact feminist and LGBTQ politics.

The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics
Revised and Expanded Edition
George Lipsitz
In this unflinching look at white supremacy, Lipsitz argues that racism is a matter of interests as well as attitudes. He analyzes the centrality of whiteness to U.S. culture, and identifies the sustained and perceptive critique of white privilege.

Look, a White!: Philosophical Essays on Whiteness
George Yancy
Foreword by Naomi Zack
Look, a White! returns the problem of whiteness to white people. Prompted by Eric Holder’s charge, that as Americans, we are cowards when it comes to discussing the issue of race, Yancy identifies the ways white power and privilege operate.

What Temple University Press staff wants to give and read this holiday season

This week in North Philly Notes, the staff at Temple University Press suggest the Temple University Press books they would give along with some non-Temple University Press titles they hope to read this holiday season. 

Mary Rose Muccie, Director

audacity-of-hoop_smGive: As a recent Press tweet suggested, I’d give Alexander Wolff’s The Audacity of Hoop to those on my list who’ve been in a funk since November 8.

Read:  A review of Maria Semple’s new book, Today Will Be Different, pointed me to an earlier book, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, and I’ve had it on my list ever since. I love smart, witty, satirical contemporary novels and this looks to be just that.


Karen Baker, Financial Manager
building-drexel_032816_smGive:
 Boathouse Row  by Dotty Brown and Building Drexel, edited by Richardson Dilworth and Scott Gabriel Knowles, as both of these books are beautiful. Since all of my family are born and raised in Philadelphia, they will make great gifts for them.

Read: A Dog’s Purpose: A Novel for Humans. This book was just brought to my attention because it is about to be made into a movie, and it looks like a fun read.

 

 

Aaron Javsicas, Editor-in-Chief

boathouse-row_smGive: Boathouse Row, by Dottie Brown. We at Temple University Press have done our part to make holiday gift giving a little easier on Philadelphians this year. Dottie is a terrific writer who is passionate about rowing, the book is gorgeous, and it’s the first full exploration of this fascinating and unique Philadelphia institution. Giving Boathouse Row is practically a required act of Philadelphia civic pride.

Read: American Amnesia, by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson. These authors argue we have apparently forgotten how a “mixed economy” — with a substantial role for public intervention as well as for free markets — was crucial to achieving American prosperity in the twentieth century. It’s hard to know where we’re headed these days, but with seemingly everything up for grabs this looks like the sort of fundamental civics lesson we could all use.

Sara Cohen, Editor

Ghostly Encounters_smGive: I’ll be giving folks copies of Dennis and Michele Waskul’s Ghostly Encounters.  It’s fascinating, readable, and (at least as far as I’m concerned) nothing says “holiday season” like ghosts.

Read:  I’ll be reading Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl and Tom McCarthy’s Remainderthe latter of which I received as an early holiday gift from a good friend.

 

 

 

Ryan Mulligan, Editor

will-big-league-baseball-survive_smGive: Will Big League Baseball Survive? The World Series this year brought in so many viewers and gave them such a sublime show at just the moment that football looks like it might be losing a shade of its luster. Will baseball fandom remain arcane to casual audiences? Is a breakthrough imminent, possible, or even necessary? Lincoln Mitchell sees the path forward. His book is perfect for the baseball evangelists I know.

Read: Colson Whitehead’s NBA-winning (no – we’re not talking about sports anymore) Underground Railroad and Zadie Smith’s new Swing Time (read her speech on hope and history ) in fiction and I’m curious about Michael Lewis’s take on Kahneman and Tversky in The Undoing Project.


Nikki Miller, Rights and Contracts Manager

Give: Dotty Brown’s Boathouse Row, which takes you through the history of rowing with beautiful pictures along the Schuylkill.  It offers a relaxing balance of history and storytelling which makes it a perfect read for the holiday season.
Read: The holidays give me an excuse to lay by the fire and reread my favorite book: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah.


Joan Vidal, Senior Production Editor

suicide-squeeze_smGive: Suicide Squeeze: Taylor Hooton, Rob Garibaldi, and the Fight against Teenage Steroid Abuse, by William C. Kashatus. This important story of the tragic steroids-related suicides of two up-and-coming student-athletes is an essential addition to the continuing education on the widespread problem of steroid abuse among young people.

Read: I hope to receive The Boys from Eighth and Carpenter, by Tom Mendicino, a novel about two brothers who grow up in 1960s South Philadelphia and then go their separate ways: one staying and taking over their father’s barbershop and the other moving away and becoming a high-society lawyer. When life goes awry, they reveal the strength of the bond between them.


Kate Nichols,  Art Manager
Give: I would give George Lipstiz’s How Racism Takes Place.
 
Read: I have already given myself Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen (through a donation to WXPN).

Dave Wilson, Senior Production Editor

City in a Park_smGive: I thoroughly enjoyed working on and reading City in a Park: A History of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park System by Lynn Miller and Jim McClelland. The authors recount a fascinating story of the birth of the park system, and I found myself wanting to visit the many places and houses so vividly depicted by the authors. The accompanying talks the authors gave made me more aware of one of the world’s greatest park systems, one that I didn’t fully appreciate until I had read this book.

 

 

Ann-Marie Anderson, Marketing Director

possessive_investment_rev_ed_smGive: I’d like to give a few of my friends copies of The Possessive Investment of Whiteness, by George Lipsitz, a book that illustrates the injustices suffered by and the advantages of white supremacy.

Read: I’m trying to catch up on my reading, so from the 2015 New York Times Book Review 100 Notable Books list, I just bought Loving Day by Mat Johnson to read over the holiday break.  Peace and love to all this holiday season!

 

 

 

Emma Pilker, Editorial Assistant

framing-the-audience_smGive: Framing the Audience by Isadora Anderson Helfgott, to my art history colleagues. Anyone interested in the social history of art will appreciate Helfgott’s analysis of pivotal 20th century movements that shaped today’s art world.

Read: I have been putting off reading Fox Girl by Nora Okja Keller because of the heavy themes, but the end of the year is the perfect time to commit to some historical reflection and cultural

 


Gary Kramer, Publicity Manager

consuming-catastrophe_smGive: Considering how 2016 was, Timothy Recuber’s Consuming Catastrophe: Mass Culture in America’s Decade of Disaster an appropriate gift. Recuber looks at how the media covered four crises–the 9/11 attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the Virginia Tech shootings and the 2008 financial crisis–and how our concern for the suffering of others help soothe our own emotional turmoil.

south-philadelphia

Read: I just started read Michael Chabon’s Moonglow, which actually acknowledges a Temple University Press book–Murray Dubin’s South Philadelphiaas source material for the depiction of South Philadelphia in the book. This video of Chabon, made during his Free Library of Philadelphia appearance on December 8 opens with him talking about how Dubin’s South Philadelphia influenced his “autobiographical novel.”

Temple University Press is having a Back-to-School SALE!

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Black People, Sexuality, and Myths of Homophobia

This week in North Philly Notes, we re-post Unbought and Unbossed author Trimiko Melancon’s blog entry for the Good Men’s Project entited, “Black People, Sexuality, and Myths of Homophobia,” which combats stereotypes of African Americans.

In the wake of last year’s Baltimore protests for Freddie Gray, black people challenged their mischaracterizations as “thugs” and “rioters.” These monikers, which came from various segments of the population and media, stigmatized blacks as inherently criminal, violent, and disorderly. While black men and women rightfully contested such labels, another one has circulated generally and goes largely uncontested as if it’s conventional wisdom: that is, the labeling of black people, particularly black men, as the most homophobic racial group—ever. (Or, in other words, the false idea that they are somehow the epitome of excessive fear, prejudice, hatred, or violence against gays and lesbians—or, pretty much the LGBTQ community as a whole).

Much like the racially coded labels “thugs” and “rioters,” exaggerated claims of black homophobia achieve similar false propaganda and dangerous stereotypes. They ascribe a backwardness to blacks, conflate them with excessive homophobia, and cast homophobia as a black phenomenon, while simultaneously minimizing other homophobic attitudes in our society.

We are, to be clear, in an era when the first-known black U.S. President, Barack Obama, endorsed same-sex marriage and is the first to use “lesbian,” “bisexual,” and “transgender” in the State of the Union address. Civil rights organizations and leaders—the NAACP and Rep. John Lewis, the late Coretta Scott King, Julian Bond and others—have publicly championed LGBT rights. Young queer black women founded the Black Lives Matter movement to protest state violence against black bodies (cis and trans), celebrate black humanity, and challenge anti-black racism. 

And, black male hip hop artists from Jay-Z to Kanye West (whom Bruce Jenner credited for Kim Kardashian West’s acceptance of Jenner’s gender transition to Caitlyn Jenner) have expressed support and, in the process, challenged black men, black masculinity, and hip hop as viciously hyper (hetero) sexual, hypermasculine, and homophobic. As Jay-Z noted, “What people do in their own homes is their business and you can choose to love whoever you love.”

Why, then, do black men and black folks generally get such a “bad rep” regarding homophobia? And, why is there such historical oversights of their championing sexual liberation or gender fluidity as Jaden Smith has recently done in his modeling debut, in traditional women’s clothing, for Louis Vuitton?

This is not new. In fact, more than four decades ago, during the black power movement, Huey P. Newton—as supreme commander of the Black Panther Party, known for its conspicuously hyper-masculine and revolutionary black nationalist approach to liberation—expressed support for gay liberation. In his 1970, “A Letter from Huey to the Revolutionary Brothers and Sisters about the Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements,” Newton asserted: “We haven’t said much about the homosexual at all and we must relate to the homosexual movement” and “must understand [homosexuality] in its purest form; that is, a person should have the freedom to use his body whatever way he wants to.” “Homosexuals,” he continues, “are not enemies of the people.”

So, surely some folks will suggest that black religiosity or organized religion accounts for excessive black homophobia. But, let’s be clear: these alone are shortsighted and do not quantify the myths. According to the Pew Research Center, 21% of white Evangelical Protestants and 41% of black Protestants supported same-sex marriage in 2014, while 13% of white Evangelical Protestants and 30% of black Protestants did so in 2001. Simply put, black Protestants’ support of same-sex marriage has been consistently higher than their counterparts. And, generational attitudes, religiously unaffiliated blacks, and other variables further debunk myths.

Why, then, we might ask, are there such historical oversights, limited representations (of black men and masculinity—and black women, too), as well as inattention to black people’s nuanced responses to and support of LGBTQ folks and concerns? And what are the underlying consequences?

When we sensationalize black homophobia or stigmatize black people as homophobic collectively, we not only stereotype black men and women; we neglect and do a disservice to black people’s complex history of advocacy for civil and human rights, gay liberation, and equality for all. Second, we condition ourselves to accept, justify, or normalize hatred and deadly violence against black gay, trans, and queer bodies like Michelle Vash Payne, Ty Underwood, Monica Roberts, and others whose names and murders we seldom know.

Equally problematic, we ignore the contours and realities of homophobia in America—the same dynamics and realities that account for NFL players like Odell Beckham Jr. having to contend with derogatory gay slurs or vicious invectives when he dares to dance with men, don honey-blonde-dyed hair, or refuse to deny himself or be encumbered by rather limited constructions of (black) manhood

We cannot afford to be uncritical, blind sighted, or to accept homophobia or heterosexist sentiments in any shape, form, or variation; nor can we succumb to the hype of black homophobia. When black people are called out of their names and labeled the epitome of homophobia, we should be as offended as when called “thugs” or other racially-charged insults. And, we should respond in similar fashion as when black bodies—male or female, young and old—are targets of attack and violence: whether in a crowd in Chicago, on a bicycle in Baltimore, atpool party in McKinney, Texas, or on a playground in Cleveland, Ohio.

After all, the fact of the matter is simple. Stereotypes and labels are not innocuous. They are far from harmless. Not as long as they have the power to color perceptions, invoke slurs, incite brutality and compromise one’s safety, or to cause black and LGBTQ folks their very lives.

Dear White America

This week in North Philly Notes, we re-post Look, a White! author George Yancy’s provocative New York Times Opinionator blog from December 24, 2015 entitled, “Dear White America.”

Look a Whitesm

In 2015, I conducted a series of 19 interviews with philosophers and public intellectuals on the issue of race. My aim was to engage, in this very public space, with the often unnamed elephant in the room.

These discussions helped me, and I hope many of our readers, to better understand how race continues to function in painful ways within our country. That was one part of a gift that I wanted to give to readers of The Stone, the larger philosophical community, and the world.

The interviewees themselves — bell hooks, Cornel West, Judith Butler, Peter Singer, David H. Kim, Molefi Kete Asante among them — came from a variety of racial backgrounds, and their concerns and positions were even more diverse. But on the whole I came to see these interviews as linked by a common thread: They were messages to white America — because they often directly expressed the experience of those who live and have lived as people of color in a white-run world, and that is something no white person could ever truly know firsthand.

That is how I want to deliver my own message now.

Dear White America,

I have a weighty request. As you read this letter, I want you to listen with love, a sort of love that demands that you look at parts of yourself that might cause pain and terror, as James Baldwin would say. Did you hear that? You may have missed it. I repeat: I want you to listen with love. Well, at least try.

We don’t talk much about the urgency of love these days, especially within the public sphere. Much of our discourse these days is about revenge, name calling, hate, and divisiveness. I have yet to hear it from our presidential hopefuls, or our political pundits. I don’t mean the Hollywood type of love, but the scary kind, the kind that risks not being reciprocated, the kind that refuses to flee in the face of danger. To make it a bit easier for you, I’ve decided to model, as best as I can, what I’m asking of you. Let me demonstrate the vulnerability that I wish you to show. As a child of Socrates, James Baldwin and Audre Lorde, let me speak the truth, refuse to err on the side of caution.

This letter is a gift for you. Bear in mind, though, that some gifts can be heavy to bear. You don’t have to accept it; there is no obligation. I give it freely, believing that many of you will throw the gift back in my face, saying that I wrongly accuse you, that I am too sensitive, that I’m a race hustler, and that I blame white people (you) for everything.

I have read many of your comments. I have even received some hate mail. In this letter, I ask you to look deep, to look into your souls with silence, to quiet that voice that will speak to you of your white “innocence.” So, as you read this letter, take a deep breath. Make a space for my voice in the deepest part of your psyche. Try to listen, to practice being silent. There are times when you must quiet your own voice to hear from or about those who suffer in ways that you do not.

What if I told you that I’m sexist? Well, I am. Yes. I said it and I mean just that. I have watched my male students squirm in their seats when I’ve asked them to identify and talk about their sexism. There are few men, I suspect, who would say that they are sexists, and even fewer would admit that their sexism actually oppresses women. Certainly not publicly, as I’ve just done. No taking it back now.

To make things worse, I’m an academic, a philosopher. I’m supposed to be one of the “enlightened” ones. Surely, we are beyond being sexists. Some, who may genuinely care about my career, will say that I’m being too risky, that I am jeopardizing my academic livelihood. Some might even say that as a black male, who has already been stereotyped as a “crotch-grabbing, sexual fiend,” that I’m at risk of reinforcing that stereotype. (Let’s be real, that racist stereotype has been around for centuries; it is already part of white America’s imaginary landscape.)

Yet, I refuse to remain a prisoner of the lies that we men like to tell ourselves — that we are beyond the messiness of sexism and male patriarchy, that we don’t oppress women. Let me clarify. This doesn’t mean that I intentionally hate women or that I desire to oppress them. It means that despite my best intentions, I perpetuate sexism every day of my life. Please don’t take this as a confession for which I’m seeking forgiveness. Confessions can be easy, especially when we know that forgiveness is immediately forthcoming.

As a sexist, I have failed women. I have failed to speak out when I should have. I have failed to engage critically and extensively their pain and suffering in my writing. I have failed to transcend the rigidity of gender roles in my own life. I have failed to challenge those poisonous assumptions that women are “inferior” to men or to speak out loudly in the company of male philosophers who believe that feminist philosophy is just a nonphilosophical fad. I have been complicit with, and have allowed myself to be seduced by, a country that makes billions of dollars from sexually objectifying women, from pornography, commercials, video games, to Hollywood movies. I am not innocent.

I have been fed a poisonous diet of images that fragment women into mere body parts. I have also been complicit with a dominant male narrative that says that women enjoy being treated like sexual toys. In our collective male imagination, women are “things” to be used for our visual and physical titillation. And even as I know how poisonous and false these sexist assumptions are, I am often ambushed by my own hidden sexism. I continue to see women through the male gaze that belies my best intentions not to sexually objectify them. Our collective male erotic feelings and fantasies are complicit in the degradation of women. And we must be mindful that not all women endure sexual degradation in the same way.

I recognize how my being a sexist has a differential impact on black women and women of color who are not only victims of racism, but also sexism, my sexism. For example, black women and women of color not only suffer from sexual objectification, but the ways in which they are objectified is linked to how they are racially depicted, some as “exotic” and others as “hyper-sexual.” You see, the complicity, the responsibility, the pain that I cause runs deep. And, get this. I refuse to seek shelter; I refuse to live a lie. So, every day of my life I fight against the dominant male narrative, choosing to see women as subjects, not objects. But even as I fight, there are moments of failure. Just because I fight against sexism does not give me clean hands, as it were, at the end of the day; I continue to falter, and I continue to oppress. And even though the ways in which I oppress women is unintentional, this does not free me of being responsible.

If you are white, and you are reading this letter, I ask that you don’t run to seek shelter from your own racism. Don’t hide from your responsibility. Rather, begin, right now, to practice being vulnerable. Being neither a “good” white person nor a liberal white person will get you off the proverbial hook. I consider myself to be a decent human being. Yet, I’m sexist. Take another deep breath. I ask that you try to be “un-sutured.” If that term brings to mind a state of pain, open flesh, it is meant to do so. After all, it is painful to let go of your “white innocence,” to use this letter as a mirror, one that refuses to show you what you want to see, one that demands that you look at the lies that you tell yourself so that you don’t feel the weight of responsibility for those who live under the yoke of whiteness, your whiteness.

I can see your anger. I can see that this letter is being misunderstood. This letter is not asking you to feel bad about yourself, to wallow in guilt. That is too easy. I’m asking for you to tarry, to linger, with the ways in which you perpetuate a racist society, the ways in which you are racist. I’m now daring you to face a racist history which, paraphrasing Baldwin, has placed you where you are and that has formed your own racism. Again, in the spirit of Baldwin, I am asking you to enter into battle with your white self. I’m asking that you open yourself up; to speak to, to admit to, the racist poison that is inside of you.

Again, take a deep breath. Don’t tell me about how many black friends you have. Don’t tell me that you are married to someone of color. Don’t tell me that you voted for Obama. Don’t tell me that I’mthe racist. Don’t tell me that you don’t see color. Don’t tell me that I’m blaming whites for everything. To do so is to hide yet again. You may have never used the N-word in your life, you may hate the K.K.K., but that does not mean that you don’t harbor racism and benefit from racism. After all, you are part of a system that allows you to walk into stores where you are not followed, where you get to go for a bank loan and your skin does not count against you, where you don’t need to engage in “the talk” that black people and people of color must tell their children when they are confronted by white police officers.

As you reap comfort from being white, we suffer for being black and people of color. But your comfort is linked to our pain and suffering. Just as my comfort in being male is linked to the suffering of women, which makes me sexist, so, too, you are racist. That is the gift that I want you to accept, to embrace. It is a form of knowledge that is taboo. Imagine the impact that the acceptance of this gift might have on you and the world.

Take another deep breath. I know that there are those who will write to me in the comment section with boiling anger, sarcasm, disbelief, denial. There are those who will say, “Yancy is just an angry black man.” There are others who will say, “Why isn’t Yancy telling black people to be honest about the violence in their own black neighborhoods?” Or, “How can Yancy say that all white people are racists?” If you are saying these things, then you’ve already failed to listen. I come with a gift. You’re already rejecting the gift that I have to offer. This letter is about you. Don’t change the conversation. I assure you that so many black people suffering from poverty and joblessness, which is linked to high levels of crime, are painfully aware of the existential toll that they have had to face because they are black and, as Baldwin adds, “for no other reason.”

Some of your white brothers and sisters have made this leap. The legal scholar Stephanie M. Wildman, has written, “I simply believe that no matter how hard I work at not being racist, I still am. Because part of racism is systemic, I benefit from the privilege that I am struggling to see.” And the journalism professor Robert Jensen: “I like to think I have changed, even though I routinely trip over the lingering effects of that internalized racism and the institutional racism around me. Every time I walk into a store at the same time as a black man and the security guard follows him and leaves me alone to shop, I am benefiting from white privilege.”

What I’m asking is that you first accept the racism within yourself, accept all of the truth about what it means for you to be white in a society that was created for you. I’m asking for you to trace the binds that tie you to forms of domination that you would rather not see. When you walk into the world, you can walk with assurance; you have already signed a contract, so to speak, that guarantees you a certain form of social safety.

Baldwin argues for a form of love that is “a state of being, or state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.” Most of my days, I’m engaged in a personal and societal battle against sexism. So many times, I fail. And so many times, I’m complicit. But I refuse to hide behind that mirror that lies to me about my “non-sexist nobility.” Baldwin says, “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” In my heart, I’m done with the mask of sexism, though I’m tempted every day to wear it. And, there are times when it still gets the better of me.

White America, are you prepared to be at war with yourself, your white identity, your white power, your white privilege? Are you prepared to show me a white self that love has unmasked? I’m asking for love in return for a gift; in fact, I’m hoping that this gift might help you to see yourself in ways that you have not seen before. Of course, the history of white supremacy in America belies this gesture of black gift-giving, this gesture of non-sentimental love. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered even as he loved.

Perhaps the language of this letter will encourage a split — not a split between black and white, but a fissure in your understanding, a space for loving a Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Jones, Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald and others. I’m suggesting a form of love that enables you to see the role that you play (even despite your anti-racist actions) in a system that continues to value black lives on the cheap.

Take one more deep breath. I have another gift.

If you have young children, before you fall off to sleep tonight, I want you to hold your child. Touch your child’s face. Smell your child’s hair. Count the fingers on your child’s hand. See the miracle that is your child. And then, with as much vision as you can muster, I want you to imagine that your child is black.

In peace,

George Yancy

George Yancy is a professor of philosophy at Emory University. He has written, edited and co-edited numerous books, including “Black Bodies, White Gazes,” “Look, a White!” and “Pursuing Trayvon Martin,” co-edited with Janine Jones.

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