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The Changing Significance of Race

Fifty years after the advent of the Civil Rights movement, issues of race and culture continue to shape the American experience.

Pancho McFarland, Scott Schaffer, and Tamara Watkins

In 1978, William Julius Wilson, analyzing persistent inner-city poverty, declared the “declining significance of race”.  At about the same time, many U.S. residents began questioning the morality of programs such as affirmative action and denying the persistence of racism.  Culture wars raged over language (English only and official English laws, Ebonics), population growth (immigration), education (bilingual education, school funding, school choice), youth culture (especially rap music) and other cultural hot button issues.  While much of the United States waged the culture wars on behalf of the status quo and encouraged the legislative rollback of the minor gains of the Civil Rights movements, prisons became the option of choice to deal with poor Black and Brown communities, a new era of xenophobic immigrant-baiting developed, drugs inundated communities of color, and poverty grew among Black and Latina/o people.  It seems that instead of the declining significance of race we have seen, as Cornel West suggests, that “race matters” perhaps more than ever.

Recognizing that race still matters, perhaps even more than ever, in the “post-9/11 era”, we at Bad Subjects felt an issue dealing with the changing significance of race was in order.  We sought articles, essays and art that examined how race and ethnicity have changed in recent years.  Given that understandings of race and ethnicity change over time and place, time plays an important role in the new racisms and race relations.  Many of the essays in this issue raise questions about the “timelessness” of race and racism while other essays show how race and racism change as economic, political and cultural changes occur in our society.

The work of speculative fiction writer, Octavia Butler, has always linked time, place, race and space.  As Beauty Bragg notes in her essay “The Importance of Speculation, or Octavia Butler as King figure,” her discussion of the prophetic voice in Butler’s recent works, Butler’s ingenious use of time and prophetic voice Tassists readers in developing new insights into race and justice.  Butler’s writing presents our world in ways that are strange yet eerily familiar to people of color and our allies.  As such her writing presents new solutions to old problems of racism.  Additionally, questions of gender are paramount in Butler’s “prophetic” writing.  Her central characters are strong, women of color who use their racialized experiences to develop important insight into racisms and strategies for combating them.

Arturo Aldama’s essay poses important questions about the relationships between time and racist violence.  He uses a racist incident as a jumping off point to interrogate the common assumption that the era of racist violence exemplified by the KKK, racist police practices and White individual and community violence against people of color is over.  Examining the many cases of racist violence in our country ever year suggests that perhaps time has changed very little when it comes to race in the United States.

Robert Soza examines similar issues in his essay, “Where Does One Begin?”  Exploring the effect the historical primacy of white America has had on domestic and international race relations, Soza explores the connection between seemingly disparate topics.  By deftly connecting the war on “radical” Islam, the tradition of “paternalistic and condescending” Western intervention, and the American Civil Rights movement’s shift from well-intended to white status quo-enabling, Soza demonstrates that racism does not exist in a vacuum, nor does it leave any group untouched or unaffected.

Writing about Lawrence Welk, Mike Mosher uses nostalgia and memory to discuss his racialized experiences.  In his essay about growing up Polish and Catholic in the Midwest, Mosher analyzes the roles media and religion play in cultural self-identification.  With the help of PBS and documentaries, the author rediscovers his cultural heritage and explores the value of racial and religious inclusiveness.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”  Carrie Smith’s essay “The New Racism and the Changing Beauty Norm” examines the changing beauty norms exemplified by this timeless adage.  Women in our country have for many years had to deal with achieving a standard of beauty that is nearly impossible to achieve; itT is a central way in which women are socially controlled.  For women of color the beauty standard has been impossible since the standard was based on whiteness.  For years women of color have used makeup, hair products, skin lighteners and other tricks to approximate whiteness and the beauty standard.  Today things have changed--sort of.  As the author explains, like many things in this “multicultural” society, standards of beauty have become more inclusive with women with darker skin tones being hailed as icons of beauty.  Now little girls of color have someone beautiful to aspire to, someone darker-skinned like them who others see as beautiful. Now there are plenty of Black, Brown, Asian and other women starlets to take pride in and try to emulate.  The question is: Is it any better for little girls of color to try to imitate the new multicultural beauty standard than the old exclusive standard based on whiteness?  Is it any better to not live up to the impossibly beautiful Salma Hayek or Halle Berry instead of the white beauty queens of the past?

Nothing has changed and stayed the same quite like questions of gender and race.  Several pieces in this issue deal directly with issues of gender.  The fear of miscegenation and dark-skinned others having sexual relationships with white women is as old as slavery.  The oversexed Black man and woman were myths developed to justify the sexual violence meted out by slave owners to their slaves.  Over the centuries this myth has also been transferred to Latinas/os.  Latin lovers and cantina girls were an important part of the ideology of superiority that allowed white settlers to rape Mexicans and Natives and steal their land.  The violence of the conquest also led to the myth of the hyperviolent Mexican man.  The legacy of that mythology can be seen in the case of the “runaway bride.”  Jennifer Wilbanks, as the pieces by Bill Fisher and Richard Lou show, went to great lengths to implicate a heavy-set Mexican man with missing teeth.  She even implicated Mexican culture as she described the music the abductors were playing when they captured her.  Of course, we find that Wilbanks used the prejudices that many have against swarthy, Mexican men to create sympathy for herself and cover up the facts of her running away.  The Quinlan Museum in Duluth, Georgia added insult to injury when Fisher and Lou’s exhibit was censored after board members found the pieces to be too much truth-telling about the state of race relations today.  The pieces published here are part of Lou and Fisher’s response to the censorship.

The “pimp” has entered the consciousness of our country in important ways over the last decade.  With the rise in pimp narratives in corporate rap music and the selling of pimp images on t-shirts, buttons, hats and bumper stickers, the pimp has become our friendly, next-door, exploiter of women.  And few seem to care.  Kids as young as four years old use the word “pimpin” to mean something good, valuable or cool.  White men dress up as pimps in Blackface and afros replete with “hos” for Halloween. It’s all in fun, people say.  But what does the pimp figure and its adoption say about gender and race in our society?  Looking at Hollywood depictions of the pimp, Nate Garrelts attempts to answer this question.  He contends Hollywood images of the pimp “cater to the ideology of white heterosexual patriarchy, reaffirm a supposed white male sex right, and ultimately venerate the pimp.

While pimps are symbols of hypersexual heterosexuality, they’re only one aspect of the race and sexuality framework.  Chong-Suk Han explores the timelessness of homophobia and the changing conditions for gays of color in his essay “A Different Shade of Queer: Race, Sexuality, and Marginalizing by the Marginalized”. The nature of sexuality and homophobia also tell us a great deal about the changing (or not) times.  Gays of color often feel doubly, evenly triply, oppressed.  The dominant heterosexual society denies them full citizenship rights.  And those who it might seem at first glance would be natural allies, people of color and the poor who have also suffered discrimination, are extremely homophobic as a group.  Gays of color today feel marginalized, oppressed and segregated.  It makes all the more difficult that “their own”, people of their own race or ethnicity, are often the most hostile. 

Popular culture, the media and literature are important sites where we “learn” about race and where people of color can express themselves concerning issues of race and racism.  The aforementioned Octavia Butler offers important insight and vision toward a more just future in her numerous works.  The versions of race presented by Hollywood (as suggested by Garrelts' piece on pimps) are often stereotypical and damaging to race relations and people of color.  Images of violent Black and Brown men and oversexed women of color and their “welfare babies” abound in Hollywood and other arenas of the culture industries.  Rarely do movies, television shows or other forms of entertainment present complex depictions of the complicated web of racial categories that most of us find ourselves in. 

Janice Wolff also explores the treatment of race relations in popular culture in her nuanced reading of the hit movie, Crash.  The award-winning movie presents issues of race in ways that are much more complicated than the standard Hollywood fare.  Wolff helps readers and viewers understand the accomplishments of this film by highlighting the importance of “awareness narratives.” These kinds of personal narratives, demonstrated by nearly every character in the film in some way, imbue the film with a pedagogy of racial awareness that Wolff uses in the classroom--and we can use in our daily lives--to recognize the ways in which we are both constrained by and exist beyond racialized stereotypes or characters.

Zack Furness’ essay “Race, Class and Bicycling” examines the connection between transportation and issues of race and class. Access to transportation are dependent upon one’s economic situation and, often, these economic factors are closely tied to issues of race. African-American urban communities, for example, are some of the poorest, most poverty stricken communities in the United States. While certain transportation options exist for people in poor and/or minority neighborhoods, a lack of access to transportation resources are not unlike the disproportionate lack of access that African-Americans and Latinos have to other basic, daily goods and services.

In her essay “English, Please?: Thoughts on Pedagogy and Cultural Assimilation in Adult ESL Education,” Tamara Watkins examines the ways English as a Second Language (ESL) instructors act as agents of change and bridge gaps between racial and cultural groups present in ESL classrooms.  Confronted with legal, social, and cultural quandaries, ESL instructors often reluctantly toe the line between legal advisor and teacher.  Because they are thrust into this precarious position, ESL instructors are caught in the middle of a cultural shift.  By being mindful of the cultural and political issues at hand, ESL instructors can help shape the outcome of that shift.

In her essay “‘Eh Haole, You Want One Soda?’: On Being White and British in Hawai‘i,” Lucy Pickering explores the use of pejorative terms and intercultural communication, and their roots in post-colonial Hawai’i.  In particular, Pickering pays close attention to the use of the word “haole,” the word Hawaiians use to code white people that can be applied as a descriptive or pejorative term, depending on contexts.  Using “haole” has the basis of her analysis, she examines two related issues, what it means to be white and British in modern Hawai’i, as well as what it means to be “haole”.

If there is a theme to this issue, it is that race and culture should be valued and used as parts of individuals’ identity, but not as a way to oppress individuals of dissimilar backgrounds. The variety of ways in which race constructs and is deconstructed by people’s lives--demonstrated over and over again in each of these articles--shows that it is still a significant facet of American social life. We are warned that Americans must still be mindful of the racial and cultural mine field that still exists in the United States.  As Virginians argue over the meaning of the racial slurs and recently uncovered Jewish heritage of Senator George Allen, and Minnesotans contemplate electing Keith Ellison as the first Muslim in Congress, and as American foreign policy, divorced as ever from the will of the American people, continues to unabashedly use race as a determinant of whether people live or die in our names, the issue of race and culture is as topical as ever.