Saturday, November 11, 2006

What's the Matter with Texas -- Part One

Several news stories from Texas brought my gravitas back in full force this past week. Each one raised serious issues about the current battles for Social Justice not only in the Lone Star State, but the larger nation. This is the first of three entries about these news stories. Taken together, these stories confirm that I would really, really, really prefer not to return to Texas next Fall. That, though, might be inevitable. Beyond my personal circumstances, though, these stories also indicate the struggles that face those of us interested in Social Justice.

As I have mentioned previously, people often ask me if “Texas really is that bad.” I consider it worse than many people think possible for 2006. Yet, presuming that Texas is an anomalous “backward” or “regressive” state might not be accurate. I often wonder if Texas actually serves as a harbinger of what will come for the rest of the nation. The first of these three blog entries focuses on race the latter two will focus on queer issues.

Perhaps the most disturbing of these three stories involved several students at Texas A&M University (one of the state’s two flagship universities) making a video entitled “The Adventures of Jaraboem.” A white, male student portrayed the title character in shoe-polish blackface. Within the video, the white student in blackface pretended to be enslaved, prayed to an idol asking to be made a white man, ate a banana, and then cowered as his “white master “ whipped and raped him. The students considered this film “comedy.” Youtube distributed the video until Texas A&M asked it to be removed.

When such events occur, it’s tempting for us to dismiss them as a “few bad apples.” I am here to tell you the U.S. has a whole orchard of these folk. Others simply want to toss up their hands in frustration, saying “That’s just the way some people are in Texas.” I am not convinced, however, by these suggestions. Indeed, this is not even the first time that CoG has addressed issues of blackface minstrelsy. A year ago, I had fears about the return of blackface minstrelsy.

Texas A&M’s video is just the most graphic demonstration of the anxieties or hatred that exists within many white, heterosexual men in this country. All across the nation, college students have been sponsoring “ghetto parties” for the past several years. These events involve students dressing in a combination of blackface or stereotypical costumes with “bling” and “pimp” styles. Both the University of Texas (the allegedly “liberal” alternative to A&M) and Texas A&M witnessed such events. Before you cluck-cluck at Texas, though, similar events appeared at state and private universities in the Midwest and the east coast.

The most recent “ghetto party” occurred on October 28 at Johns Hopkins University. In that case, Sigma Chi Fraternity called the event “Halloween in the Hood” and asked its mostly white invitees to dress as ““macks,” or “hustlas,” or “hoochies.” During the party, the fraternity also hanged the figure of a black man in effigy.

Given the frequency and geographic diversity of these events, we can't just shrug them off as isolated incidents. Blackface performances first appeared in the U.S. shortly before the Civil War. White slaveholders, contrary to popular expectation, did not originate this form of entertainment. Rather, urban northerners both developed and attended blackface minstrelsy in the nineteenth-century. The white, working-class became the most devout audience members of this form of entertainment.

At best, we might conclude that these students are simply ignorant of the long and complicated history of blackface. This lack of awareness of stereotypes as stereotypes, however, suggests that racism persists without check. A more sinister interpretation of these events could suggest that the students intentionally mock people of color to enforce their own sense of racial and class superiority.

In either instance, the students had an underlying presumption about African Americans as ragged and marginal figures on the far-outside of U.S. society. These students drew from the most prolific images of African Americans that circulate in the larger media. The blackface video and the “ghetto parties” shows the continued intersection of race and economic class in the United States.

Obviously, I can’t say that I have specific solutions that will solve racism. If I did, you wouldn’t find me writing a blog. Still, I would suggest that many of us genuinely interested in Social Justice might be asleep or not entirely aware of the depth of hatred and racial animosity that still exists in this country. The fact that these events emerged on university campuses should trouble us all the more. We often imagine universities to be sites far removed from such unthinking racism. Yet, this particular generation of students seems more inclined to these performances than we have seen in decades.

Explanations from students who organize the ghetto parties or make the videos often are not heard. Yet, I think we need to understand what motivates this type of thinking. They might claim that they intended only “to be funny,” but why did they think this particular brand of racial mocking would be so hilarious? What did they imagine to be at stake here? How did they come to the point where they could so callously dehumanize another group of people? We have to understand their thinking if we are ever going to address racism effectively.

Answering these questions requires all of us to once again interrogate the real ways that race and economic class informs our daily lives. At times uncomfortable, we will need to break the fear of discussing the meanings ascribed to racial difference.

We can also eschew well-meaning efforts to claim that racial difference is “meaningless” or “irrelevant” in the modern nation. Ghetto parties and other blackface entertainments highlight that race still has tremendous currency in the United States. Racist stereotypes from a century ago prove durable as white college-students currently reformulate them for their own amusement. Wishing for a color-blind society only makes us blind to racism, not racial difference.


Anonymous said...

Hmm? The plot of 'The Adventures of Jaraboem' sounds oddly similar to 'Waiting for Godot'. I didn't understand that either.

Could 'ghetto parties' be trying to negate the stereotype by poking fun at the ridiculousness of the stereotype? I hope that's the case.

Anonymous said...

We often imagine universities to be sites far removed from such unthinking racism.
I don't know about "we," but, being from Texas, I see universities as sites which perpetuate such unthinking racism.
And please address, blacks in whiteface, blacks in blackface, whites in white face, and my new favorite, yellows in redface (a Rice frat in Houston mocking Injuns).
I don't know if I believe racism is what you belive it is. Emory in GA (somewhere) had blacks doing blackface and whites doing whiteface. To think that any of these kids know anything about the minstrel shows is giving them *way* too much credit. Racism today, in my opinion, is classism.
The Jaraboem kid is obviously just acting out because of his backne.
That shit is sick. Someone send him some Zirh body scrub and end racism 4eva.

GayProf said...

Wayout: Could 'ghetto parties' be trying to negate the stereotype by poking fun at the ridiculousness of the stereotype?

This would be a generous reading of their motives. None of the defenses offered for these parties, however, suggest such an attempt. I doubt they had noble ambitions. Moreover, such a parody by itself does not mean its subversive. The meaning would depend on the context and reception of such an attempt. In this case, a moment to drink and party does not suggest a well-thought-out political or social statement to me.

Jeremy: Some African Americans and other people of color have also had a long history of performing in blackface. Such performances, though, does not negate the racism in such cultural acts. Just as not every white person is a member of the Klan, not every person of color is a champion of Social Justice. Some can collaborate with the existing racist power structure.

I also notice the backne. It might explain a lot about his motives. Yuck.

Sfrajett said...

Jeezopete. My school recently had a frat party with illegal immigrant pedros and slutty mexican pregnant mamas. Nice. All I can say is that the anti-immigrant and racist discourse of the right has made it seem ok to these kids to parody and reify racist stereotypes. Our government believes in them. So why shouldn't the kids?

Anonymous said...

Huh. I wonder whether there aren't several opposed tendencies here.

I have been struck by how much more culturally progressive many U.S. undergrads are than my peers were in the late 80s and early 90s. It's impressionistic (and I teach African history, so I'm in touch with a self-selected group), but I see more openness and less white ethnocentrism masked by faux-liberal niceness than my cohort had. But then there's this stuff.

Perhaps this "ghetto party" idiocy is part of the violent extremism that's spreading and being winked at by large portions of the establishment--so today's undergrad George Allens feel able to do this in public. I'd really like to hope that my sense of a general improvement isn't an illusion!

Anonymous said...

Welfare,Crack and Aids.
Nothing has done more to marginalize the African-American community in the eyes of "white" society.
The republican "southern strategy" emerged when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.
Regan kicked of his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi.Ever wonder why?
Welfare queens and Willie Horton got him elected.
During his administration, the double headed hydra of crack cocaine and aids reared it's ugly and fatal head.
Mandatory sentences for crack and silence on aids were the preferred methods for handling each.
The children of crack are today's "rappers".Raised,for all intents and purposes,by themselves,they glorify streetlife and criminal culture. They glory in excess, be it "Bling", "Cristal",or"Booty".Their parents never taught them the meaning of altruism.
Neither did their white republican counterparts teach their children its meaning.
Today, white kids purchase "rap" music,fashions and images and think they represent "Black" culture.
Black kids are ignorant of the sacrifices made by their ancestors to vote,to serve in the armed forces,to be able to receive an education,to own property,and to participate in their own destiny.
When these youths interact it's a perfect storm of selfishness.
How truly sad.

Adam said...

Here in DFW, the UBER privleged children of Highland Park had a homecoming themed around dressing up like "thugz" and "hoez." There was a alot of controversy about it in the area newspaper, particularly the independent rag "The Dallas Observer."

The kids just thought it would be fun to dress in a style totally opposite to their lifestyle of Burberry, Lacoste, and Juicy Couture. I remember that a majority of the students and the parents of the students felt like the dance was in bad taste (money doesn't buy everything) and HP school officials were acting as if they were powerless to change the theme since it was chosen by the students (daddy will sue your ass teach if you don't bow down to me).

I find it repulsive and tantamount to how Marie Antoinette, and many other despotic monarchs, would play in their make believe hamlet villages and "live like peasants" on the grounds of their sprawling palatial grounds while real people were actually struggling to survive.

Anonymous said...

Weirdly enough, something very similar happened here at George Mason University, with a fraternity brother (of course) dressing up as an "escaped slave" and placing the pictures online.

Maybe like the bizarre "I'm not a feminist!" movement, now there's a backlash that encourages open expressons of racism under the excuse of "Un-PC humor." God knows this kind of thing has been tolerated in our cultural products and by our government.

Anonymous said...

I don't even know where to begin with this one. Social justice is something that must always be fought for I know, but I had no idea we had a group, a generation, which fallen this far down the rathole.

This is painful. I'm looking forward to parts II and III and yet I'm not.

Castle of Stink said...

In the era of Borat, none of this surprises me...

Racism is a complicated issue.

At students' requests, I recently joined facebook. As a white professor in a very diverse university (35% African-American), I was surprised by some things I found there.

Some of the groups within our university community included titles like "Do you wish this university were blacker?" Though some of the questions they raised (Do you ever wonder why we don't have more black professors? Along with questions about divisiveness with the fraternity/sorority crowd...) may have been valid, some questions seemed to be trying to create controversy rather than open dialogues...

And all I could think was, "Is this how it feels?" I'm teaching at a university, giving my all, and students would rather be somewhere I'm not just because of the color of my skin? And that is how it feels.

Do I ever wish I taught at a "whiter" university? I wish I taught at a University with higher standards sometimes. I wish I taught at a school in a larger city sometimes. I wish I taught in a different state almost all the time. But whiter? No.

On the other hand, these are students. They're younger. They're still trying to find their identity. The idea of being in a "blacker" college has little to do with education in the classroom, but culturally, outside of the classroom, I can see why they feel this campus is lacking.

Still, I feel slightly offended. Am I free to say anything? I don't feel like I am. If there were a group called "Do you wish this university were whiter?", how would people react? I know... it's different. It is, but in someways it's not... And I know, it's natural for a culture that has been treated so badly for so many years to react in this way, simply because they can.

But it's still painful to experience and watch. And I don't know how to fix it.

GayProf said...

Sfrajett: I had not heard about the immigrant parties. Ugh – That sounds like another turn of the “ghetto parties,” but towards a different racialized group.

Anon: Contact with students leaves me uncertain which direction they are heading. In my upper level classes (which are also self-selecting), there is a desire to learn and grapple with different viewpoints. My freshmen classes, however, suggest the opposite.

Brian: I agree that Reagan/Bush-I era had a great deal of influence on current images of African Americans (Willie Horton, btw, was from Bush I’s 1988 campaign against Dukakis).

Another problem, though, is that the majority of the African American community is not addicted to crack/fighting AIDS/ or on welfare. Yet, those are the only images that people discuss.

Adam: I think that I remember you mentioning the high school party on your blog, no? Ugh – You are right to point out the ways that the upper classes are able to “play” at being poor and use poverty as a costume.

Chad: One of the problems I think that we have is that those who dress up in these ways aren’t asked to really explain their actions. Like at A&M, the focus is on condemning the racism (which is good). Until, though, we hear what motivates these racist expressions, we won’t know how we can address them.

Laura Elizabeth: This should be the most painful of the three. The others, while still serious, don’t have the extremeness of the A&M video.

Castle of Stink: I think that there are ways to bring up these issues in a pedagogically sound way. As you note, the African American students at the school have some serious concerns, especially with the lack of minority faculty. Their attempts at making the college “blacker” probably is their means of expressing legitimate frustration with the system. If they don’t recognize the way that it can potentially turn off their white allies (which probably is not their goal), then some discussion could be useful.

Seeker Onos said...

Here is where my big conservative streak comes out...

I offer this not in defense of Texas or racism... but rather, against one particular thing that may be at the root of this ill-behaviour:

That thing thing is that which is simultanouesly aggravating and enlightening about our American society: the mixing of diverse races and ethnicities.

The "Melting Pot". Although in recent years, it is more like a salad bowl, or a Mars (chocloate) bar... it has a lot of things in it, but nobody is assimilating very nicely.

America is, and shall remain, if only for the near future, largely defined by the middle class Anglo-Saxon mass consumer identity, and framed by Judeo-Protestant values (albeit very much more loosely than in generations past).

To follow the chocolate bar metaphor, the dominant component of the bar determines the basic taste of the confection. Other ingredients add accents and highlights to break up the otherwise bland taste of the majority ingredient.

But when one or more of the other ingredients is suddenly added and overpowers the base ingredient... strange and often unpleasant tasting candy is the result.

Due to the loose - soon to be thrown wide open like "opened floodgates" of immigration... (thank you, Donkey Kongress) this will probably change in the next 20-30 years if not sooner... and probably for the worse.

For a peek at this odious future, one need look no further than the quick Islamification of Europe. Unable to outbreed the Islamists, or economically survive should it forcibly deport its new Islamist supermajority... with a few years, a couple of decades at most... I expect France to become an Islamic Republic. With the rest of the EU not far behind.

The way I see it, both the (declining) white majority and the newcomers who have radically different ideas on how the universe works. At the fringes we will have the Old Judeo-Christian Right vs. Islamists vs. Aztlan separatists seeking to reclaim everything SW of the Colorado River back as a resurrected Aztec Empire, hold the human sacrfices.

Expect more of this sort of stupidity to happen in the future, unless the newcomers are willing to assimilate into mainstream America just as our ancestors did when they came from Germany, Italy, Russia, Ireland, Japan, China, Norway, and Poland, and etc.

And while we are at it... stop sublimating the American identity away to something that it is not. We are not, and never have been an Islamic country, nor a country that has ever spoken anything other than English as its majority language of business and instruction.

I'm not saying the blackface/whiteface stuff is right (I think it is rather stupid and immature actually)... but it is a backlash against a perceived wave of foreign influences and unchecked illegal immigration - and not all of it clearly being benign.

Ah yes... Pelosi & Co. may bring the boys home from Iraq, but if they open the immigration floodgates, it won't be all nice little grannies streaming through Customs. Many will be angry young extremists, much like the ones who gained admission and visas under Clinton's watch, the same angry men who steered jet liners into certain tall buildings not too long ago.

Call me xenophobic or evil for thinking this way... but I'd rather enjoy the distinctive culture of middle America much over living in a nation with Sharia Law, or having to worry that I am in mortal danger for being a white man when I step outside my door in the next 20 years.

witchtrivets said...

I had no idea. Although I'm not surprised to see this happening in afraternity (or sorority). It's like these kids have no basis in reality. My sister, for instance, somehow got herself into a sorority when she was in college and started telling me that everything lame was "so gay." When I remarked that I must be pretty lame being so gay myself, she switched to "so ghetto."

GayProf said...

Seeker Onos: I appreciate your candor. Too often, I think, people are fearful of expressing their viewpoint, especially if they imagine that it does not fit with the current political mode. Until we can discuss our disagreements in a rational way, there will be no hope of solving the current divides.

Of course, I do see the current situation differently. For one, I don’t imagine that a unified “American” culture ever existed based exclusively on European Judeo-Christian assumptions. Indeed, people of African descent and indigenous people have been part of this nation as long as it has existed. In some areas, they were even the majority of the population. Likewise, my home state, New Mexico, did not willingly join this nation. Mexicans, the majority of the population there, did not find much pleasure in Euro Americans invading their lands. Remember, also, that Islam shares common origins with Judaism and Christianity.

For this particular A&M video, the creators specifically mocked African Americans. This is not a group perceived as “immigrant.”

Finally, I feel national borderlines have become antiquated. We live in an era of a global economy. Our choices now center on deciding what standard of life should exist for all people in the world. Until we address global poverty, immigration will be the best option for many people.

Witchtrivets: Yes, sororities and fraternities do often elicit some of the worst behavior. The video, though, did not involve a fraternity.

Anonymous said...

Texas A&M University is one of the oldest, and definately the most conservative school in Texas. No one identifies with Texas A&M students. Groups on Facebook poke fun at A&M, "Texas A&M is A Joke", etc. The students at A&M shouldn't be considered representative of Texans, nor should Texas A&M be considered a flagship University. The University of Texas is the only school in Texas worthy of being labeled a flagship institution, and I go to Texas Tech.

The video serves as a fine example of the Aggie mindset.