This Land…

11 05 2010

[As a precursor to my forthcoming thesis on Whiteness, this is a blog post I never published from last summer. I was preparing the material for my thesis and working on Stanford Summer Theater when these conversations came up. Enjoy!]

God blessed me with an adversary recently, a friend really, who I work with and whose company I’ve enjoyed very much over the last six months. He’s a nice enough guy, self-identified liberal, frat boy, from a privileged white background in Seattle, though he went to an urban public high school in the area, which he says was predominantly people of color. Certainly there are other identifiers of interest, but I choose these because I think they are significant in forming his view of the world.

A series of disdainful sighs and shaking of head at culturally insensitive jokes or references, and I was labeled hypersensitive of all things P.C. This is not an uncommon occurrence with my white friends. I think my argument for why white people are ill-disposed to make snide cultural references or joke about stereotypes should be self evident by now. Regardless, I acknowledge that many from my background find it perfectly acceptable to make “edgy” statements or push the envelope of the politically correct in order to demonstrate how educated and progressive they think they are. That being said, as unpopular as my voice may be in such cases, it has become an almost knee jerk reaction for me to question the effects of the privileged class making such culturally stereotyped comments, humorous or otherwise, however progressively informed or ironic they may seem. I say this very conscious of my own position in the matter.

So, my foil and I have spent the better part of a week hotly debating such issues as cultural and racial sovereignty, nation-state legitimacy, and white privilege, particularly as they manifest themselves at Stanford. Suffice to say, I find his views in all three areas problematically apologetic, the challenges of which are paralleled only by his adamance that my views are unrealistically radical (my wording, not his. He said “illogical,” but i take the liberty of interpretation). For example, in a discussion pertaining to the legitimacy or efficacy of Stanford’s Ethnic Theme Dorms (itself a problematic premise for a discussion), he argued that the self-secluded nature of Stanford’s communities of color precluded sufficient racial integration of the campus, such that it allowed those communities to persist in a fashion that did not reflect the realities outside of Stanford, namely an integrated society (…right). Furthermore, rebuttals including the right for sovereignty over non-normative (read: non-white) histories collected in a community outside the colonial elements of mainstream culture were attacked as segregationist (!). “Like, they should have a separate, but equal, culture?” he said, arms crossed, eyes wide with a satisfying feigned surprise. “I just think it’s ridiculous. I had so many black friends in high school, and when we got to Stanford, I almost invariably lost touch with them because they were suddenly sucked into this black-centrist community that I couldn’t be a part of. Plus, if you’re a white kid put in Uj, it’s totally unlikely you’ll be accepted unless you go way out of your way,” he continued. When I questioned the possible experience of a person of color being forced into an otherwise white dominated culture or community, I was told, “but that’s different. Mainstream isn’t necessarily white. It’s just American.” Indeed the argument continues that constant comment (like mine) on issues of so-called political correctness fuels and reinforces racial tensions rather than disassembles them. I, as you may guess, respectfully disagree and you see where it goes from there.

It’s clearly not for me to represent the views of any community, on campus or otherwise, and I don’t intend to. I can only speak to my own experience, having been recently exposed to many of the histories that the American experiment has attempted to bury over the last 500 years. These histories are not held by text books or the academy, but by the decedents who have survived and opposed the (spoken and) unspoken policies of American enculturation and its associated mechanisms.  Indeed, the communities of color at Stanford play a vital role in preserving and continuing non-normative/non-white histories that might otherwise fade into the amnesic abyss of American cultural memory. As playwright and poet Cherríe Moraga wrote in her 2005 essay, Indígena as Scribe, “I believe the United States intends to disappear its colored inhabitants and our non-western ways of knowing,” a process that is most efficaciously carried out by destroying histories and identities. Bonfil Batalla’s seminal work, México Profundo, strikingly recounts the national project of literally fabricating a Mexican identity in place of the numerous indigenous identities present in that part of Mesoamerica for centuries and the relative minority of Spanish blooded decedents, while the latter maintained almost complete cultural dominance.

I am dubious to even say the words slavery, Jim Crow, la frontera, conquest, internment camps, boarding schools, deportation, or any of the other inadequate devices we use to describe the ways in which we have threatened and betrayed this nation’s people of color with death or ejection. Most insidious perhaps in this (ongoing) process of attempted extermination is its conspicuous absence from the consciousness of White America. Most of us will concede some portion of the social inequality dialectic citing race as a persistent factor of America’s power and resource strata, but few of us can fathom that our country really has it out for its people of color – “But I don’t want America’s people of color to disappear,” the cry of defense usually goes, “I have black friends!”

I was challenged by my friend/adversary to give an example of a nation that has offered just rule better than the United States (this was in response to my comment about the illegitimacy of the modern nation state). He pressed me, as any good liberal would, to acknowledge, at least, the freedoms and democracy afforded us by espousing an umbrella allegiance to an American Identity. At least, he might say, this isn’t genocidal Rwanda or Nazi Germany or fascist North Korea. My only response is that an absence of perfectly functional or just governance from any nation cannot be an excuse for its status quo, nor is it a defacto justification for its existance. America is a nation built on stolen land by slave labor but, as my friend suggested, the statute of limitations for returning the land has expired. Send the white people back to Europe? The black people back to Africa? The sheer ridiculousness of the proposal sends most of us into a frenzy wherein the only possible solution we can see is to saddle down and look to the future. “It wasn’t me, after all, who stole the land, right?” that apologist story goes.

This collapse in the consciousness of White America, the sudden inability to hold difficult and, at times, conflicting realities is perhaps the single largest exacerbator in the ongoing narrative of American racism. Political Correctness (which, according to my friend, is my actual course of study) is now relegated to the land of pastiche, so absurd in its minutiae that we are safer in its transgression than in its dialogue. Those who consider thoughtfulness in their speech, mindfulness in the context of their conversations are, at best, the squares of the day; at worst, communists out to dismantle our God-given freedom of speech. Besides, political correctness, obviously comes down to opinion, so why defend it?