Tuesday, August 16, 2011

LIT: Band of Brothers

Seven years ago I got to see Lit in concert for the first time and meet the guys outside of the Bowery Ballroom in New York City with my wife (then girlfriend). Five years ago we took our first cross-country trip and made the Slide Bar in Fullteron our ultimate destination before heading back. Last year, after our son was born, I played him every album from New Vibe Revolution through the self-titled one. And, tomorrow, I'll be showing him the first demo from the new album on Youtube. Amazing how time flies and life changes, man.

R.I.P. Allen.  Still can't believe it's been two years.  I hope you're at peace and that you're still with your brothers in spirit. 

Friday, August 5, 2011

Breaking The Mold

So I read an article last night about a Heterosexual Pride Day being proposed in Brazil on Ultimate-Guitar.com.  I know--weird place to find it, right?  The article itself was about Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford's reaction to the parade/pride day, basically decrying it as childish.  Based on the information provided in the article, it does appear that the reasoning behind the event is suspect, as evidenced mostly by this snippet:

"In late June, the Washington Post reported that evangelical leaders in São Paulo were pushing a "Heterosexual Pride Day" after being unable to rid the city of its "Gay Pride" parade." [Emphasis not added.] 

Now, it wasn't the article that got me thinking so much as the comments beneath it.  Surprisingly, the majority were mostly tame and thought-provoking (as opposed to the juvenile flaming that often occurs on such messageboards).  I saw a number of people defending the Heterosexual Pride Day and asking what would be wrong with having such a thing.  Some conversations turned to race or religion and, again, people proposed and defended the idea of having White History Month alongside other races or Christian events with other creeds.

Is there anything inherently wrong with having a Heterosexual Pride Day or parade?  Not at all.  Or a White History Month?  No, again.  The issue, though, is that it would be redundant and that is why such things are rare.

Now here's where it starts to get touchy, so take a deep breath before continuing.

As I see it, the problem is that whites, as a group, are mostly reluctant to admit or completely ignorant of the fact that they are the dominant culture and thus central source of power in the United States.  It makes people (again, mostly white) uncomfortable to discuss the idea that whites enjoy a level of privilege that is unavailable to most if not all other groups in the country.  There's no judgment value being placed here, it's just a simple fact.  Don't believe me?  Ask any non-white person and see what answer you get.

The truth is that whites enjoy an unconscious and perhaps even subliminal position of power in this country.  They are catered to in so many ways it is ridiculous and most don't even realize it.  The most obvious example would be major network television.  If you were white and born in the early '80s, the odds are that you watched some or most of the following shows:

The Wonder Years
Saved By The Bell
Perfect Strangers
Home Improvement
Charles In Charge
Diff'rent Strokes
Doogie Howser, M.D.
Empty Nest
The Golden Girls
Family Ties
Family Matters
Full House
Growing Pains
Night Court
Three's Company
Mr. Belvedere
Murphy Brown
Step By Step
The Cosby Show
The Jeffersons
The Odd Couple
Who's The Boss?

There are plenty of other shows but this is a representative-enough list for our purposes here.  Many of these shows dominated television during the height of their respective popularity.  Most were on during the weeknight-evening hours, some were part of that great line-up called "TGIF," and some appeared on the weekends.  What's the common denominator between 90% of the shows listed above?

They were mostly about middle-class, heterosexual, Christian, white characters facing typically white problems or situations, which, in turn, appealed to its mostly white audience. 

It might not have appeared obvious at the time but it's remarkably obvious in hindsight.

Some more food for thought:

How many Asian characters can you recall from Home Improvement or Saved By The Bell?
How many recurring black characters were there on Seinfeld or Friends--two of the most popular shows of all-time?
How many homosexual characters can you recall from Doogie Howser, M.D.?  (Okay, a bit of an inside joke with that one but you get my point.)

Whatever characters you do see are often simple stereotypes of that particular group; they embody only the most popular (and often inaccurate) conceptions of people.  Sure there is programming geared towards the oppressed voices but the master narrative of television is still the white experience; the counter-narratives of the essentially colonized people are relegated to single channels like Telemundo or Univision.

Television is just one example of many.  Music is another, albeit slightly weaker one.  Most of the radio stations that you will find play Top-40 pop music, country music (outside of the city), and rock/alternative music.  Of course you will find stations dedicated to other types of music but they will be far fewer in number.  One more quiz question for the road:

Why are so many suburban white teenagers attracted to rap and hip-hop when it stands almost completely at odds with the experiences of their daily lives?

Because rap and hip-hop represent black culture, which, to those suburbanites, in turn represents a counter-culture: a rebellion against the things that their parents or authority figures stand for or enjoy.

So the reason that there are such things as Black History Month, Hispanic History Month, and Gay Pride Parades is that they are opportunities for the voices and faces of these silently (or not) oppressed groups to be heard and seen.  The reason that you don't see White History Month or Heterosexual Pride Parades is because history, whether the subject taught in school or the programs on the eponymous channel, tends to refer, by default, to white history. 

So where does this leave us?  What's the point?

For me, the heart of the matter is this: there is too much attention being paid to differences between us and separations among us.  Do various groups--underrepresented or otherwise--deserve their own parades/days/months/recognition?  Undoubtedly.  But should they (including whites) have it?  I don't think so.  The problem, as I see it, is that we are loyal to labels.  We identify ourselves based upon our affiliations with various groups, each of which is inherently inclined to exclude and to create social rifts.  Ask someone "So what are you?" and they will invariably run through a litany of identifications.  They are Irish-Catholics from New York, African-Americans from the South, Orthodox Jews from the Midwest.  No one ever says, "I'm a person" or "I'm a member of the human race" even though they clearly are those things first and foremost.  Perhaps that's the reason why they don't make such qualifications for themselves--why state the obvious?

Group affiliations clearly help to establish some sort of cultural-religious-ethnic identity but, again, they force exclusions and produce only further differences.  Identifications based upon skin color are the worst because they lend automatically to the creation or perpetuation of stereotypes.  "I'm black" will bring about a string of stereotypical characteristics of that group for non-members just like "I'm white" or "I'm Asian/Hispanic/Native American" will.  Stereotypes, for all their misrepresentation, do have some truth to them...but only from a statistical standpoint.  The odds are that a number of people who are black/white/etc. behave in a certain way or like certain things...but it's strictly numbers.  When you take people individually you begin to find that these things are not necessarily true or, more importantly, that the stereotypes have nothing to do with their race/creed.

Take me for example.  I'm a white Catholic with a mostly Irish/German heritage.  The stereotype for white Irish Catholics is that they love to drink to excess or simply that they love to drink.  The syllogism for me would be:

Matt is Irish.
Irish people drink alcohol.
Matt drinks alcohol.

The problem is that it's not true as written.  I am Irish and I do enjoy consuming alcohol but, and this is an enormous but, I do not consume alcohol because I am Irish.  That's where the stereotype falls apart for me.  Now, that's not to say that other Irish Catholics don't drink because of their heritage but it's not true for me, even though I drink AND I am Irish.  On the other hand, the stereotype that all Irish people drink Guinness does apply to me.  Guinness is my favorite beer not only because of the flavor, texture, etc. but because of its cultural significance and importance in Irish history.  When I drink a pint, part of me feels like I am in communion with my Irish ancestry.  But, again, this isn't true for everyone and thus only at the individual level can such generalizations be assessed and evaluated.

Modern, Western organized religion is perhaps the second worst culprit of creating divisions among people, right after or behind skin color.  The "major" religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam revolve around precepts, not concepts and thus seek to establish what is "right" and "wrong."  The problem, though, is that, in so doing, they are creating separations between groups.  It becomes the whole "my God is better than your God" or "you're wrong because" scenario, excluding others by creating otherness and they-ness.  "They don't believe in the Ten Commandments (or whatever) and so they must be wrong."  Organized religion is, at its core, a popularity contest (or at least for some Christian sects hellbent on missionary work) that focuses on the for-or-against mentality necessary for such groups to thrive.  That's not to elevate Eastern religions, necessarily: those that are based on concepts of self-improvement through the idealization of spiritual states and ideas over historical figures and allegorical people, it's just that they tend to be a lot less severe about differences; there's far less judgment from a Buddhist towards non-Buddhists than there is between Christians/Jews/Muslims and non-members of their respective faiths.

Think about it: the white Irish Catholic from New York.  What do those designations really say?

If you're pigmented, you're different.
If you're a non-Christian, you're different.
If you're from a rural, small town, you're different.

And what do those differences imply?

We cannot relate.

And THAT'S the problem.  There is too much difference in the world.  Do you know what two of the ugliest words in the English language are when paired together?  Racial tolerance.  Is that really the message that we want to be spreading?  Tolerance?  Think about a small party that you're attending at a friend's house.  There are maybe ten people there, all of whom you are acquainted with.  Your friend's brother-in-law was invited--you know, the creepy, obnoxious one who makes everyone feel uncomfortable, especially the ladies.  You'll stay at the party because you can still have a good time...but what do you do about the brother-in-law's presence?

That's right.

You tolerate it.

Pretty shitty message to be conveying when you're attempting to forge unity among groups.  Although, I take pause with that term too: unity.  Unity implies otherness, separateness, two things that seek to be joined but are not because they are different and thus are detached from one another.  There is a void between them, a gulf, that needs to be crossed so that they can be "united."

Again: the focus is on what is different--on the things that are separate instead of shared.

I had many conversations with an awesome, awesome woman when I worked at Baruch.  She worked in another department located in the same office as mine.  There would often be groups of people congregating around her desk, almost always engaged in some thought-provoking conversation.  One day, the conversation was about race and how people identify themselves and each other.  Someone argued that you have to identify people by race; she called bullshit.  She used me as an example.  She said something along the lines of:

"When someone comes into the office looking for College Now, I don't tell them to go over to the white guy in the back.  I tell them to look for the man in the hat, or the green tie, or the tall guy."

That always stuck with me.  Never the white guy in the hat or green tie, nor the tall white guy.  Sure the hat/tie/height are still descriptors...but they lack the weight--the gravitas--of a racial/skin-tone-oriented identification.  As soon as I become the "white guy," I am immediately categorized in that person's mind as whatever collection of stereotypes and experiences that they have had with caucasians.  Sure that could still happen when they eventually find me and see that I am a white guy...but maybe they won't?  Maybe they'll hear the music I have playing at my desk, or see the photos I have up on my cubicle wall, and thus that will alter their perception of me.

Perception trumps preconception every time.

And thus my overarching point of this rant: we need to stop focusing on stereotypes and on designations and identifications that seek only to foster separation and "otherness" among us.  You know how you end "black and white" racism?  You stop identifying people, first, as either black or white.  We are more global now than at any point in the history of the human race.  In a way, racial and even ethnic identities are becoming obsolete.  When you play a video game online, you might be playing with someone in Vietnam, Russia, Ecuador, and Australia--Buddhists, Muslims, Pagans.  But when you're playing those games you're playing with, simply, other people.  That's all that matters.

The problems in this country stem from a dogged persistence in perpetuating the histories associated with skin tones and cultures.  The concept of white guilt or certain racial groups deserving special treatment for things that happened in the past is ludicrous.  Whites engaged in slavery over one hundred and fifty years ago.  Was it a terrible thing--something inexcusable to the modern, cosmopolitan mind?  Absolutely.  Have whites committed heinous acts of violence?  Things so reprehensible that they would make even a hardened criminal cringe?  Without question.  But these things happened in the past; there's no changing them.  The only thing we can do is to learn from them and use that knowledge to influence the present. 

Should I feel guilty because my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather might have been a slave owner?  Absolutely not.  I have as much control over that man's actions and beliefs as I do over Alexander the Great's or Cleopatra.  Should a black person claim that he or she is oppressed because his or her ancestor was a slave?  No way.  That genealogical fact has no influence over his or her present condition.  Whites are often made to feel guilty for the crimes that they have committed historically (ignoring recent activity, of course.  We're looking at you, President Bush) but it's ridiculous and it's caused whites to become so skittish when it comes to discussing race that it's almost comical.  Go and talk to the Aztecs or Mayans about whether or not they feel guilty for committing genocide, see if the Ancient Egyptians become abashed about their slavery practices.

So much emphasis is paid to the stereotypes of being white, black, or whatever, and to the historical horrors that have befallen those races or been caused by them...but there's no way we'll be able to move forward, as a race, if we keep looking back at the past.  You can't demonize a group because of the things that they've done, only for things that they continue to do.  Hating white people as a group because of what a percentage of the white population did sixty, a hundred-and-sixty, or six-hundred years ago doesn't accomplish anything.  Ditto for hating on blacks, Hispanics, Asians, or any other group.  We have to stop prejudging people that we have never met based upon the history of their skin color, and start judging people based upon our personal interactions with them.  Stop viewing them as part of a larger group and allow them the opportunity to be the individuals that they are!

Now, there is still plenty of white/black racism in this country but it's because (in part) each group still chooses to look at the other as just that: other.  The biggest contributing factor to racism is simply ignorance--not knowing about another group of people.  The reason for that lack of knowledge and experience is, in part, the fact that they are viewed as different (being afraid to go to a "black" neighborhood, or to eat at a "Hispanic" restaurant for example) and are thus set apart.

There's that void again.

Without question there are other factors that contribute to racism: socio-economic status, personal history with particular groups of people, previous upbringing if raised in a sheltered culture.  Still, though, most, if not all, can be tied back to two things: ignorance (which I would define as a lack of knowledge or simply accepting gross generalizations about a group of people without seeking any factual basis to back them up) and a lack of personal, hands-on experience.  The former tends to break pretty quickly when the latter is attained but it's taking that leap of faith, of actually seeking out that new experience with a different group that prevents it from happening.  This, in turn, is due mostly to fear: fear of the unknown, perhaps fear of rejection.  But the easiest way to overcome that fear is to stop focusing on the differences!  Start thinking of people simply as people and not white people, black people, or whatever kind of people! 

When I'm on line at the DMV and I strike up a conversation with someone, I don't assess the crowd and look for only one type of person.  Usually it just happens to be the person closest in proximity to me.  I never say to myself, "Gee...I can't talk to that black guy about the heat wave or that Jewish woman about how crowded it is here today."  To me, they're all people, stuck waiting in the same godforsaken line that I am, all tending to various errands, seeking to achieve a multitude of goals.

And at the end of the day, isn't that what we are all doing?

So the next time you go to describe someone as something other than just a person, or find yourself inclined to judge someone you've never met personally with a generalization, take a step back, stop for a moment, and think of the hierarchy.  We're human beings first, part of a global species, and individuals second, unique personalities that will fit some but not all of the molds. 

Everything else is just unnecessary nomenclature.


My boy Adrian Vaughan Scott is a wise, perceptive man and he wrote an excellent piece on the state of Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn.  The core of his argument pertains to what I am trying to say; we're speaking to the same issue.  In a way, his piece is microcosm to my macrocosm.  Scope it out below:
Newcomers and a Kinder Gentler Racismcopyright 2011, Adrian Vaughan-Scott

“Number three is the unconscious racist

Not knowin' they're racist they invade your spaces

They say, ‘I'm not a racist, I'm not a bigot’

Yet they allow it to go on and won't admit it”

-      KRS-One, The Racist, 1990

Brooklyn has undergone changes.  It used to be the borough that the rest of New York City was afraid of, maintaining its criminology core well beyond the old 40-deuce and what once was Hell’s Kitchen.  This seemed to remain true all the way up until the tragedy of September 11th, 2001, after which all of New York would change forever – some for the better, some for the worse.  Without denying the fact that pockets of BK still remain nothing shy of dangerous, it’s in central Brooklyn (Bed-Stuy, Bushwick, Crown Heights, and parts of Flatbush) where the taming of the Borough of Kings has become the most insidious.  It is within the grasp of gentrification and the invasion of naïve hipsters not quite in the know that has turned the once infamous “Bucktown” into a bridled, muzzled amusement park for college kids, artists and European tourists, and it is under this shadow of whiteness that we find the most dangerous forms of racism.
Make no mistake, Brooklyn needed to change.  The level of poverty and street crime that became synonymous with neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy only developed out of a systematic neglect by city leaders, following a nation-wide trend where problems connected to black communities were not of great concern as long as they stay confined to black communities.  This was only further echoed by racial conflicts and confrontations in BK exemplified in the Crown Heights riots and the murdering of Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst.  Brooklyn needed to change.  Along comes gentrification in the wake of 9/11 and the acquisition of property in low-income neighborhoods.  The purpose of this… tangent… is not to blather on about the ills of gentrification because it’s simply too late for that.  And the excellent point was made on more than one occasion that the infusion of new ethnicities and new businesses have made neighborhoods like the Stuy safer for long-time residents who remember all too well the wild west it once was.  What is important to look at are the subtleties of contemporary, liberal racism as it further invades Brooklyn under the guise of artist communities and alternative lifestyles.  It’s no longer the blatant hatred of central Brooklyn’s surrounding areas that threaten the borough’s black and brown communities, but the kinder, gentler invading force of young white people and urban professionals who love to say that they live in Brooklyn, but never intended to be immersed within the communities they now find themselves occupying.
 Returning to the quote from rapper KRS-One above, it’s the unconscious racists that can often be the most perilous to communities of color.  Similar to what  Malcolm X would refer to as the liberal fox vs. the obviously dangerous wolf.  By no stretch of the imagination is it the intention of the unconscious racist to dislike people of color or cause any harm in the neighborhoods they move into, but their naïve disregard for the culture of the neighborhood can only be viewed as a symptom of their own privilege.  At no time in American history have people of color been able to move to a white neighborhood and not have to be acutely aware of what they are stepping into.  It’s one thing if an individual from outside the neighborhood purposely packs up and moves into the neighborhood to experience it, but it is altogether another thing if an individual only moves into the neighborhood because there are others like themselves already here.  This smacks of racism.  Not intentional, overt, cross-burning racism like Hollywood likes to relieve white people by showing, but rather a general xenophobia that would have prohibited that individual from moving to an area like central Brooklyn when there were next to no other white people here.  In its shortest form, that simply means that many hipsters, artists, and alternative heads (especially those from out of state) who would tout Brooklyn as the home of rebelliousness and creativity succeeded in doing the least rebellious and creative thing they possibly could, which is to surround themselves with people just like themselves… where it is safe.  This unfortunate set of circumstances shows itself all too clearly when the new white people in the neighborhood can never be seen anywhere with anybody other than other white people – on the street, on the train platform, and especially after dark.  They are polite, jovial, often considerate, and certainly liberal and well-read, but ultimately shielded by their unacknowledged fear and trying desperately to maintain the bubble they knew all too well before they ever set foot in Brooklyn.  But how is this insidious and dangerous, especially if they keep to themselves? 

Because they are catered to… and don’t even know it. 

White faces in urban areas make property values go up, and landlords know this.  Even grungy and strange white faces make property value climb more than black or brown faces, and the more that landlords can encourage white people to move in, the more they can charge for rent and the more their property is worth.  Not only has this resulted in many new residents being told lies about what neighborhoods they are actually in, it has also encouraged the city to try and rename certain neighborhoods that have nefarious reputations.  It’s often surprising how many people think Bedford-Stuyvesant is Clinton Hills or East Williamsburg (not unlike how the Lower East Side was dubbed the East Village a few years back).  So the insidiousness becomes two-fold.  On one side, the presence of new white people is desired and catered to, such to the extent that there are entire buildings in neighborhoods surrounded by people of color that are inhabited almost entirely by young white people, which inevitably means that landlords are ultimately discriminating against who they sign on as tenants and alienating the original residents of the neighborhood.  On another side, the hipsters and artists who move to Brooklyn to be surrounded by hipster/artist communities and succeed in finding near all-white niches in central Brooklyn, succeed in developing no empathy for the struggling communities they now find themselves in, let alone any sense of responsibility to participate and contribute beyond trying to turn a Hip-Hop Mecca like Bed-Stuy (home of Big Daddy Kane, Jay-Z, Biggie Smalls, and countless other emcees) into a rock and roll neighborhood.  This lack of empathy and involvement can lead to pure apathy when newcomers sit by and benefit from the actions of the city while long-time residents and communities of color are victimized by them (please read KRS quote again).  Sadly, Williamsburg, a once Latino dominated community is now the shining example of the worst of this in Brooklyn.  Counter-culture needs a home too, and America certainly needs counter-culture, but when counter-culture and hipsters become an unwitting invading force that ultimately changes the entire ethic of the community, then that by definition is simply colonialism – something a good many of the new white people have books on their shelves denouncing.
Brooklyn has undergone changes.  Many of these changes were needed, and the upside to gentrification is that communities of color are no longer isolated to the point of segregated.  New people have moved in, new businesses have flourished, and many parts of BK are safer than they were years ago.  Nonetheless, this is not the result of some revolutionary movement designed to unite people and build a multi-racial and economically viable utopia.  It is largely the product of property grabbing and slightly deceptive marketing, coupled with landlords’ preferential treatment and rent raising.  The new Brooklyn has the potential the be something amazing, even though many nostalgically reminisce over being the borough others feared (including yours truly), but not without honest interaction, which brings us to the point.  By no means is this tangent meant to evoke guilt, point fingers, or alienate the newcomers.  But maybe, with a little luck (and circulation), some of the newcomers might read this and reassess their interaction and involvement with the communities they are flocking to, especially as their privilege continues to benefit them while people they look in the eye every day are pushed to the back of the line, the back burner, and the back of the city’s mind.  Welcome to the neighborhood… if you know what neighborhood you’re in and you meant to come here out of appreciation for what the neighborhood is, not what you want it to be.  Don’t be afraid, history has shown that black and brown communities have always been more welcoming to whites than whites have ever been to black and brown folks.  But if you’re still uncomfortable, then maybe Brooklyn really isn’t the place for you.