Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Brilliant Post on The Angry Black Woman Blog

Nojojojo, who writes science fiction and fantasy under the byline N. K. Jemisin, is guest blogging at the Angry Black Woman blog. (Readers may be interested to know that Nora has a story in the all female-authored issue of Helix that I wrote about a few days ago.)

Nora writes about the recent supreme court blows against desegregation. She looks at segregation through a lens rarely discussed.

The bulk of my reaction is this: fuck it. Just let all the schools in the US re-segregate. Black students did better academically before integration anyway. It’s a lot easier to achieve when you’re not bombarded with negative cultural messages and social isolation if you do well. When I was in elementary school, I knew a few black and Latina kids who tested into the gifted program around the same time that I did. Most turned it down. I couldn’t understand why — until the day I walked into my first gifted class and realized I was one of only two people of color there. (There weren’t even any Asians; this was Alabama, remember. Though I hear a good-sized Asian population has developed down there in the twenty years since.) The next year I was the only one; the other kid dropped out. I stayed and did fine — academically, at least. Socially… well, there were consequences. My decision to stay in the gifted program branded me a sellout, because I didn’t do what the other kids had done. I was accused of “trying to be white” and worse. I had no black friends until late middle school. Some of the white kids were friendly, but it was a superficial kind of thing — there were certain things we just couldn’t talk about, and there was some inherent objectification that came with being “the black friend”. I got a lot of “Can I touch your hair?” and “Wow, I didn’t realize black people like to read!” Even for the handful who might’ve become true friends, their parents weren’t all that happy when they brought me home (to be fair, neither was my mother, when I brought white friends home). So while I did well in middle and high school, I often wonder how much better I could’ve done if I hadn’t been a treated like a freakish aberration.

Nora adds that she's not "seriously advocating an end to integration. Too many people, black and allies, have shed too much blood to get this far. And there’s lots of evidence to show that Tatum’s model of education does work — I wouldn’t be here if it didn’t. It just takes time, money, and persistence."

Still, like most things, the effects of racialization and segregation are more complicated than they appear at first glance. Nora refers extensively to Beverly Tatum's Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? as she examines how the formation of race identity interacts with segregated, and unsegregated, environments. Tatum starts with the notion that "all Americans go through predictable patterns of awareness and internalization about race." Nora draws on Tatum's structural support, and moves to talking about her own experiences in education.

[At the end of the predictable pattern of awareness and internalization abotu race, is people] “becoming black”, “becoming white”... the pattern of development is relatively similar in whites vs peole of color — for example, both start out in a state of racial unawareness. For white people this is a general sense of racelessness — not so much being willfully “colorblind” as simply not noticing people of color as anything other than background noise. For black people (and Tatum does spend some time on Hispanics, Natives, recent immigrants, and Asians, but her expertise is clearly with African-American non-recent-immigrants), the initial state is called pre-encounter — they’re aware of race because it’s impossible to not notice if you’re black in this society, but they haven’t yet experienced any of the consequences of being black...

The breakdown of the “racially unaware” state for both whites and PoC is usually some kind of triggering event — a sudden, undeniable confrontation with the inequities of race. For PoC, this is usually their first encounter with racism. By the time black kids get to high school, they’re usually in another phase of identity development — immersion, in which they feel compelled to band together with others of their culture in order to survive an environment newly understood to be hostile. This small group then begins developing a collective sense of identity about what it means to be black. This group sense serves as a kind of protective shield until the individual is ready to develop his/her own personal definition of blackness. After that the group definition can safely be shed.

Tatum confronts the unspoken assumption of the “Why are all the black kids sitting together” question, which is “…and what can we do about this problem?” She explains that it isn’t a problem; that after being slapped in the face with the trauma of racism, kids of color need support to recover from that trauma, and the best people to help them do that is other kids who are going through the same thing. This way, they can reject the wrongness of racism and develop needed defenses against it, such as a stronger understanding of their own culture and its benefits. Because most white kids haven’t yet progressed beyond the raceless stage at this point — they typically don’t until closer to college — they’re no help even if they mean well, because their natural reaction is to dismiss or downgrade the traumatic experience (”Are you sure it was because you were black?” or “But I’ve eaten there all the time, and they’ve always been nice to me…” and so on). So the black kids seek solace from each other.

But here’s the thing. Immersion is, in its own way, incredibly superficial. Kids in immersion have no real clue how to be black; they’ve been whacked with a societal interpretation of blackness as “bad”, but they’re not yet sure how to counter that interpretation. So they cobble together their own definition of blackness, drawing on what they know and what society tells them about themselves. If they’ve been exposed to positive knowledge about their culture, they embrace positive manifestations as the norm. But when they’re bombarded with stereotypes and negativity about their culture, they end up embracing that as their standard. This is what I fell afoul of as a child — the kids around me had absorbed the racist notion that black people weren’t smart, were lazy, didn’t “talk proper”, etc. Because I rejected this, I was deemed insufficiently black.

I saw a different example of immersion when I went to college. Tulane was a predominantly white school, but it had a large (for a white school) black population, mostly because New Orleans was majority black and the school accepted a lot of bright local kids. Apparently that population reached a kind of critical mass, because the instant all of us stepped on the yard it was like some kind of racial Singularity — we were somehow all drawn together into a weird gestalt consciousness. There was a series of benches in front of the student center, and this one corner bench suddenly became “the black bench”. Everyone knew it and gathered there between classes. In the cafeteria — yeah, it happened in college too — one black person couldn’t just sit by herself. It was as if her solitude triggered some kind of disturbance in the Force; suddenly a dozen other black people would just appear and come sit with her. One time I was walking through the experimental psych building, humming “Summertime” by Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, and I heard the same humming from the labs on either side of me, and two other black students poked their heads out and said something like, “Whoa, I was just thinking of that song.” And they became my study partners.

When I was reading this, I tried to understand what Nora was saying by analogizing through the imperfect tool of my experience. I'm a non-practicing Jew who is ethnically Ashkenazic on my mother's side. Culturally, I'm distant from any religious practice of Judaism -- my grandfather was raised as an orthodox Jew, but became an atheist as a young man.

Still, I found that many of my friends when I was growing up were Jewish-derived, like me. Most of them were atheists, or Jews who practiced a reform variant of the religion. We (especially me) were isolated from the history of what it meant to be Jewish, and were left with certain tatters that we'd picked up from our parents, or from media stereotypes. What we created out of those experiences were remarkably similar. We saw ourselves as intelligent, academically oriented, interested in high art and culture, well-read, unathletic, calm and rational.

As Jewish children, we were able to create these good stereotypes for ourselves because it's what we saw of ourselves reflected back at us. Jews were brainy, but not brawny. We didn't get much of the penny-pinching thing, but most of us were from upper-middle class backgrounds.

In college, I found a mirror of this, except that the stakes now included some level of support for Israel (at least in my social group). I went to two colleges with large Jewish populations. In one, I found a group of Jewish friends who later ended up forming a pro-Israel group (I left the college before the group was formally begun, but later learned that it became quite extremist). In the other, I sought out a pre-existing group and went to work for the Jewish newspaper (which I eventually left due to its extremist position).

These cultures were something of a respite for me, particularly as a child, because I didn't cope well with mainstream expectations of what children were supposed to be. I preferred books to running around, and was more interested in theater than pop music (which I've never gotten into) or the kinds of television my peers were watching. I was permanently lost on the concept of fashion, and tended to be yelled at for using large vocabulary words which were presumed to be curse words. Also, I was fat, and this study rings very true to me.

I wonder what kind of culture fat children would make for themselves. Would they segregate by gender? How would they reflect back the negative stereotypes of the media? Would they become consciously gross? Would they eat the way that the media suggests they do? Would the heterosexual boys act like Chris Farley while the gay boys and most of the girls traded tips on how to get away with bulimia or extreme diet plans?

And how would that culture evolve in college? I have no idea.

OK, that's just where I go when I play with these concepts of grouping. To return to Nora's brilliant essay:

Tatum makes the point that what I experienced at Tulane is common in HBCUs like Spelman, and in other environments in which a sufficiently large population of black students come together and are encouraged to positively express their blackness. This kind of thing used to be common, in fact, before integration. Once upon a time, academic achievement was as much a cultural ethic in the black community as it still is in the Jewish and some Asian communities. (Note that this hasn’t faded in more recent African immigrant communities, either.) It’s the sense of community that’s key. Many Asian communities seem to achieve this through the reinforcement of the extended family; many Jewish communities do the same, plus stuff like Hebrew school. But when integration ended, black communities fragmented; we stopped living in black neighborhoods, stopped patronizing black businesses. Black families, already fragile, fragmented as well, for a whole other set of reasons that’s a different rant for a different day. But perhaps the greatest loss was black schools, because that meant a whole generation of black children — my generation, and the ones just before and just after — grew up with no clear sense of who they were or what they were capable of.

Which is a tragedy, particularly since the model replacing it (integration) hasn't been allowed to flourish long enough for its benefits to really take hold. The supreme court decision is a particular insult to Nora's generation, who had to sacrifice the positive tools that were already in place in hope of something better. They and their parents gave up something important, but the primarily white folks who sit on the supreme court decided the rest of us white folk were sick of doing our part.

I urge you to read the whole of Nora's essay. And add The Angry Black Woman to your daily reading too, if you haven't. Their entries are always thought-provoking -- and often funny or beautiful, too.


Luke said...

That was beautiful. I will add "Angry Black Woman" as a member.

Nora said...

Oh, dear -- just noticed this. Rachel, can you remove my family name from this post? I try to keep my non-writer day-job life and my writer/blogger life separate. When I'm job searching it doesn't do for potential employers to find my blog posts full of angry profanities, or at least not in the first 5 Google search results. =P There's quite a few Jemis-o-ns out there in webland, granted, but that's even more reason for me to keep that part of my life separate.

In writer/blogger life I'm "Nora" or "Nojojojo" or "N. K. Jemisin" (that spelling is deliberate, not a typo). Could you use one of those instead?

Cat Rambo said...

Nora, I fixed this, let me know if there are any other fixes needed. -Cat