African Americans, and a new racism

This is a post about African Americans.  I begin with a caveat: I am white, Canadian and mostly clueless in these matters.  I proceed with caution.  But I will not honor the prohibition now enforced in some circles, the one that says, you may not write about African Americans unless you are African American.  This is wrong headed.  It creates excluded status, when we want to end excluded status.  And that’s just stupid, a political correctness that accomplishes the opposite of what it intends. 

There is, I think, a contradiction in the world of some African Americans who have undergone career advancement, higher education, upward mobility.  I am not talking about the notion that says  successful African Americans must  "share the wealth," "send the ladder back down," and otherwise serve as facilitators and leaders of the African American community.  (It’s not wrong to suggest the virtue of these activities.  It is just wrong to make them obligations.  Certainly, most non African Americans would regard this sort of thing as an unreasonable tax, something that looks, as an obligation, a lot like a punishment for success.)

No, I am talking about a different problem.  This is the one that happens when an African American ascends the ladder of career mobility and suddenly hits that "jet stream" where wealth, experience, education, and opportunity conspire to expand the definitional possibilites at hand.   Once people  hit this jet stream, they can cultivate a new set of identities.  Now a certain experiential mobility and certain range of selves becomes possible.  This is not to say that the African American communities do not have mobility and range within themselves.  It is to say that participation in the mainstreams opens up new mobilities and range. 

Mainstream cultures are sometimes unconfortable with this.  For there has been an inclination to suppose that the American African community is attractive, interesting, compelling as a cultural presence, as a cultural innovator, because it is untouched by the fripperies and arbitrariness induced in mainstream communities by the post modernist moment.  The African American world, the argument says, has an authenticity, a groundedness, a rootedness.  It is, the argument goes, a community defined with special clarity by hardship, racism, privation, exclusion. 

Yes, these are racist suppositions.  Oddly, they are made by people who would be really  uncomfortable with the idea that they are being racist.  (The notion seems to be that it’s only racist when you are generalizing in a negative way for derogatory purposes.  If you are being laudatory, well, then, by all means, feel free to let fly and make up anything you want.)

I think it goes like this.  At the moment that some African Americans undertake upward mobility, they are, on the one side, seen by some to have "abandoned their community"  and on the other by others  to have forsaken their cultural identity.  "That post modern mobility of the self, that’s not for an African American!" says the mainstream.  After all, African Americans are more forged by history and suffering and racism.  If they take up the multiple selves of the post modern world, well, they would cease to be African Americans (as we have constructed this out of liberal prejudice.) 

In effect, by insisting on who can and cannot exercise the postmodernist liberty of self invention, we create a new kind of racism.  Even as African Amreicans break into professional domains once denied them, a new exclusion is put in place.  How very, very strange. 

post script

These reflections come from data collected for other purposes here in Chicago.  I can’t identify the larger project and I won’t identity the respondent who was gracious enough to give me a glimpse of her experience.  I hope I have captured something useful here.

6 thoughts on “African Americans, and a new racism

  1. Anonymous

    There’s a really good ethnography of how exactly these contradictory kinds of contradictory ideas and pressures are reflected in the way people interpret language choice and other aspects of language use among Puerto Ricans in NYC: Bonnie Urciuoli’s _Exposing Prejudice: Puerto Rican Experiences of Language, Race, and Class_ (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1998). Part of what Urciuoli argues is that we end up conflating race and ethnicity with class and use the former to talk about the latter, which is part of what seems to be going on in your example (this oversimplifies her argument: there is also a nice discussion of “race” vs “ethnicity” as ways of thinking about difference)

  2. jens

    it would also be interesting to have a look at the sub-cultures that you find once racial minorities are flowting in the mainstream. how do their children for example create their identity in their youth and later on in life? is there a significant difference to their caucasian peers of similar background?

  3. Overworm

    Good topic, Grant. For the record, let me state I am African-American and that I have worked both among the well off and the unwell off. Your article opens so many touchpoints for me I’m having a hard time restraining myself to one or two salient points.

    My father was one of seven children and the first person of his family to attend college. He earned his BS, then earned his masters, then became a college professor. At the time I was born, he was working as a professor at a HBCU and working on his PhD at the most prestigious white public university in the state. He was on track to become the first black man to earn a PhD from this institution. Just inches from the finish line, he abandoned the effort, divorced my mother, and moved to DC where he became an alcoholic mechanic at his brother’s gas station. My mother said he always had a hard time abandoned the down-to-earth (not her term) friends of the sort he grew up with and accepting the well-off, well educated people with whom a college professor was expected to associate.

    My mother was adopted by my grandparents. Her birth mother gave her up because she was white and she conceived my mother with a black man, and that was unacceptable to my mother’s mother’s parents in the old South at the time. My mother’s adopted parents (my grandparents) were both college educated; a teacher and a principal/businessman. To them, upward mobility was a natural goal and they instilled that belief in my mother, while also imparting the skill of utilizing multiple personalities. Knowing them as well as I do, it’s crystal clear to me that my mother and father could never have remained happy together because their beliefs in how one should adapt one’s persona to fit different situations were so different.

    I’ve done a pretty good job utilizing shifting personae to fit whatever job I might have at the time. I’ve even used different names for different types of jobs; using my first name for “professional” gigs and my middle name for other jobs. I’ve worked as a Marketing Manager where I flew the country and had an expense account, and I’ve worked in a warehouse shipping packages.

    Here’s the rub: I don’t think the act of chasing “mobility and range” by reinventing how one wants to be perceived is limited to minorities. The novel THE GREAT GATSBY focused on a man reinventing himself in his pursuit of mobility and range. It happens among all people of all strata. And, I would guess that all the people who are left behind by the newly-mobile person hold conflicting feelings about his/her “success”. On the one hand, they feel proud that someone with their background made good; On the other hand they feel abandoned, especially if the escaper doesn’t lower the ladder and dissiminate directions on following his path.

    I’d agree that that duality may be stronger among the African-American culture, but I’m not sure. I see a lot of Latino immigrants who house newly-arrived immigrants in their homes for as long as it takes to get on their feet. I’ve read stories of Jewish immigrants who, as much as they could, shopped only at Jewish stores to keep the money in the “family.”

    I think the difference may be that blacks have sometimes felt cautious about passing down the ladder for fear their new collegues will view them as holding open the door for more blacks. That, I have found, is a real fear. Many times, I have been the only black man at a company. Many times, when a new position opens and a black man is qualified, I’ve seen him bypassed.

    Personally, I don’t begrudge anyone for not trying to help others reach their level of success. It’s a nice gesture if they do, but it’s certainly not a required effort to prove their history/culture. I think the difference is that people in power view it differently if a white person from a small town recommends a friend from that town for hire than if a black person recommends a black friend for hire. In some instances, that different feeling is very different. In some instances, it may be less different. But in most cases I’ve seen, the difference exists.

    That it exists may explain why some blacks don’t work as hard to lower the ladder, and it may explain why they don’t work as hard at maintaining ties to who they once were. Some achievers do, but many don’t. I understand why each does what they do. And I understand (if not agree with) why those left behind often bitterly accuse the achievers of “acting white.”; because those left behind equate success with white people, but they also expect their friends who succeed to be “better” than white and not act as if they (the achievers) are better than those they left behind.

    I could type a thesis on this topic, but I’ll end here before I branch off into other themes.


  4. Unai

    As an African American myself, I just dont see where the word racism fits into this at all? Where does racism pervail in a context that as far as I can see only addresses mobility or lack thereof with African Americans? And what do you mean when you say mobility? Mobility in America? Mobility in Canada? Mobility in South Africa? Are you suggesting that African Americans are no longer African Americans when they go to another country ( and have mobility)even if they are from America? When you say mobility are you talking about african americans that submit to racial heirarchy… AFrican Americans who sell their color to the highest bidder? I am not clear on your definition of racism. I am not clear on what type of racism you are talking about. I am also not clear on where you as a white canadian get off dishing out social commentary on African American Mobility when you are not (even as a white person) subjected to first hand authentic American experience as it relates to a perspective that is even remotely similar to that of an African American. Do you think that mobility as it relates to African American is the same as Mobility as it relates to white americans? Can you as a white canadian define those terms for me?

  5. Candy Minx

    hmm…I’ve been unable to stay online much and am catching up here and way too late for the party…but I tend to agree with overworm…and might file this topic under class rather than race. I am also a little surprised that anyone actually thinks multiple human primates have different races. One race, human race, one world one love and all that. Seriously it’s kind of embarassing to hear superficial environmental adaptations being used to separate people from each other.

    I don’t think it matters what my skin colour or gender or religion is to take a stand and say…it’s perfectly natural for all of us to want the best for our family and friends. It is often seen that the very best people in life help each other especially when they feel they have a lot to give. It is only the stingy of heart who do not practice charity and kindness. I don’t give a fuck how much money you have or what colour you think your skin is. Being a cool person and being a hero doesn’t cost a cent…or the skin off your back for that matter.

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