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Musings on Minstrelsy: "Ironic" Racism in America
by Lula Belle
July 24, 2012
This past spring, something happened where I live, something perhaps unexpected in my adopted hometown of liberal-minded Charlottesville, Virginia.
Billed as a "Poetry Review of R. Kelly," it featured about 12 white men and women, standing on stage and reciting some of the rapper's lyrics in a deadpan "white person" voice. The performance had some potential — a light jab on the "Poetry Voice" and academia's appropriation of hip-hop — and could have easily taken the route of a Saturday Night Live skit poking fun at racial stereotypes, if interspersed with a complementary reading along the lines of people of color with bad teeth reading lyrics from Hank Williams, Jr. Instead, the evening constituted an "ironic" commentary -- a critique of African-American culture.
Some of the actors were in hip-hop attire (that is, stuff they thought black people might wear) and some had their hair in cornrows; one skit involved hair braiding. In short, it was a minstrel show. Nobody wore blackface paint that night, but it was white people performing to a white audience while spoofing a black artist and his culture. The whole thing made me feel dirty, and that by attending I'd just participated in something very wrong.
I was one of only a few people of color in the audience, but few people would have known that about me. That's because if Facebook ever came up with a profile question asking about race, my answer would be: It's complicated. I've been the same color my entire life, but the boxes I've checked to define my race have changed frequently, and the only one that really works to describe me on any of those forms is "other." My father is from Afghanistan and my mother is Caucasian (Irish, French, Swedish).
Once, when I was applying to college, I checked the box for Asian (Afghanistan is on that continent), but in America, "Asia" means East or Southeastern Asia, thus decreasing my chances of getting in by placing me in the most academically competitive minority group. Thanks, University of Virginia, for letting me in anyway.
In America being half-Afghan, half-Caucasian is actually classified as Caucasian, yet my looks are "exotic" enough to raise questions for some (mostly well-intentioned) people. Growing up in Minnesota, I identified as Caucasian but in reality, I have always been non-white, other, brown, different.
President Barack Obama knows what I'm talking about. Half-Caucasian like me, he is still brown enough to be disrespected by some — Fox commentators, the finger-pointing Arizona governor Jan Brewer, "birthers" claiming Obama wasn't born in America. Of course, none of those people would ever be quoted as saying they don't respect him because he is African American. But it still amounts to overwhelming disrespect for a president.
I link this epidemic of disrespect to the existence of the "one drop" rule, an antiquated law from the early 1900s stating a person need only possess "one drop" of African blood to be considered black.
What it would be like for Obama (and for me) if the legacy of "one drop" didn't exist? Instead, as noted by Stephen Therstrom in the National Review, the principle gained force for some after 2008: "The United States is the only country in the world in which a white mother can have a black child but a black mother cannot have a white child."
Many make decisions along the lines of author Thomas Chatterton Williams, who wrote in the New York Times: "Interracial couples share a moral imperative to inculcate certain ideas of black heritage and racial identity in their mixed-race children."
Like Obama, I, too, was mostly abandoned by my father and raised by my white, single mother and my white grandparents. If I were elected president some day and people identified me as America's first Afghan-American president, it wouldn't necessarily feel right to me, though I understand such a distinction would be a useful reminder that our nation of many colors should be represented as such by its elected individuals. Further, I need to bear witness to racism when I see it, even in its most "ironic" forms.
While the 2008 election was, and still is, huge for people of color in America -- especially for people of African descent -- the election of President Obama is a tiny band-aid on the gaping wound of America's racial legacy.
It's certainly way too early for wanna-be hipsters to indulge in "ironic racism," which seems suddenly in vogue — whether it be Virginia minstrelsy, recently-headlined messages on Twitter from from HBO writer Lesley Arfiin referring to President Obama as a piece of poop, or disbelieving tweets about the black character in The Hunger Games.
How is it that white people so quickly felt they could lift the lid off a Pandora's box filled with racist tidbits, tics and quips for all of us to see? Did I miss something? At the outset of Obama's presidency, was there some collective thought among some white liberals that "A black president— yay! Can we feel less guilty now about white privilege and let loose that load of ironic racism we've been keeping pent up all this time?"
It's a teaching moment of sorts, turning me to resources like Eric Lott's Love and Theft: Black Face Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. The scary, yet illuminating, part of "ironic racism" is that its perpetrators are seemingly unaware of their role in it, just as comedians (like Daniel Tosh) can somehow not realize that they've reinforced rape culture and misogyny.
Right before that Charlottesville show, I ran into a friend, also a person of color. Like me, she knew some of the actors, but I couldn't talk her into coming with me to watch the show. Afterward, I understood why.
A Charlottesville, Virginia-based writer, Lula Belle (a pseudonym) is the author of the 2011 feminist novel 'Expecting,' tagged by Kirkus Reviews as “a quirky alternate history from the perspective of a precocious, politically astute—and pregnant—teenager” in an alternate-history America in which Sarah Palin is president. Belle has blogged for The Frisky and been excerpted by Feminist.com.
Chinatsu posted: 2012-08-10 11:37:04
To all who hates people lmnpiug the South into one big racist region: I feel ya.As a native of the ATL, I find it quite annoying when people tell me this because it they make it seem that South as the most racially scary region in the US, while racism doesn't exist in non Southern places.My positives here in my home city outweighs any negatives from it. I grew up in a mostly White neighborhood. I never recalled any of my neighbors harassing my family. My folks lived across the street by a mixed couple and their 3 bad sons( They loved setting fires to things. Hmmm . i wondered what ever happened to those boys?).My sister's best friend is from Connecticut. She had the same thoughts about Georgia the redneck thought. She was married to a Latino man,who could have passed for a White man and they didn't think that IR couples existed here. I was almost floored when I heard that and wanted to ask them where they have been?What they didn't realize was that the ATL is highly diverse. Even in the 1970 s, it was Black/White,but I recalled the Asians trickling in, the Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotians, then I remembered the Cubans and the rest was history. With some Northerners, one of the big mistakes they make is treating ATL as a whole. With the city and the whole state you cannot do that and let me tell you why you cannot treat it as such.The state of GA, has over 140 counties,with 28 of them considered to be part of the ATL burbs. Whenever I hear people like my sis's best friend say that she didn't see any biracial couples I'm like we'll did you go to.( what city/county)? . I ask that because you just cannot expect for interracial couples to be in you face. Most people tend to live in the burbs, oddly this is where most of the mixed/single race couples will go, even though you can find then in all of these counties. Basically, they are spreaded out all over the place and maybe that's why to some, supposedly, they don't exist in the ATL.My mom is from a small town in Southwest Georgia, near the Alabama border. Even in the Jim Crow era, there were interracial couples t, although during those times they couldn't be public with it . I've been going there as a child. I'm almost 40. So far, so racially good and even there, I see mixed couples and their mixed Black/White, Black/Latino kids in tow. My cousins goes to a mixed school there. and the Korean population is in there( because of Kia) I've even considered moving there( because of the slow pace)No matter which county you're in , IR couples live in them in them. I ve been to a mostly Historically Black enclave like Cascade/West End, I seen a mixed couple there and even in mostly White Paulding county( though I prefer diversity with both), I've even seen some in mostly Asian/latino Doraville, Ga( DeKalb County. With out being over confident, I have dared in telling my non Southern friends that I will see an interracial couple before the end of the day. I end up winning.IR couples/diversity can exist any where in Georgia, but if you want to go where the bulk of it is, I would suggest the following counties and/or cities:1-Dekalb, Cobb, Clayton and especially Gwinnett counties. Gwinnett is loaded with diversity and you'll notice by the shops stores and definately the people.From time to time, I've attended internationally themed events from counties like Japan, Peru,France, Nigeria, Laos, Russia ,Greece, Ethiopia, Trinidad etc. There are so many that I can't even count them all.There are many and that itself should tell people how diverse the ATL really is.( love myself some of the Caribbean,Greek and Japanese festivals)Realistically, there is NO such thing as a totally racially accepting place. The problem that I have when people say this is that they make it seem that if they move into ( eg. NYC, Hawaii) that automatically everybody in that state/city will welcome them with open arms and that's it, while in the South you have to stay awake and wonder what Redneck will firebomb you home). I don't care what region people live in, you will get stared at( not necessarily because of racism), and there may always be people in this world who may resent you being in an interracial union. That is just the way of the world. People just shouldn't automatically assume that the South is a racist and other parts of the regions are all good with it. I remembered going to Penn State with a friend. I came back to Georgia disgusted because of the racism I contended with there in State College, Pa. I've had a cousin to experience a great deal of racism in Hawaii and his Ir union not accepted by the father of his girlfriend.That lesson just taught me to that racism can exists anywhere and not to be so assuming about a place because of how it appears.it's great to have it,but you still cannot be naive about it.
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