Friday, January 26, 2007

Racing the Whitehouse--Renewed Hope for a Capitol "B"

There is a perrenial two-part "race" question that seems to be emerging again as folks engage the idea of a Black President and what that would mean for the USA historically. The first part of the question is why Black, with a capital "B," is more politically and culturally expedient than just "black," and the second is why the capital "W" is left to more seamy, semiological duties in public discourse these days. (Perhaps, you've heard the question posed, why "white," not "White"?)

A friend sent an article today (see the link below) that takes its departure from a conversation about whether Barack-O is "Black," or even "black." Given the absence of USAmerican slave experience in his ancestry, some have argued, he might be among the few folks for whom "African-American" is truly more descriptive; however, as this author relates, "Black" (and many other group identities that refer to a recent or multi-generational experience of racialized oppression) is more than merely the exact, complementary Other to whiteness.

Why is this? If we accept that slave history is every USAmerican citizen's legacy, we begin to understand why and how "whiteness," as such, disavows history, and why Blackness, perforce, claims it. We also begin to understand how a man, who is of African-descent and a highly, political figure must in many respects be "Black." That is, Black, with a capital "B," is a claimed identity that recognizes the broader history of race and how bodies are marked and how our society must deal with the ongoing, persistent effects of social inequities in a society where race is precisely a cover for reinscribing these inequalities.

The related point, which the attached article raises best through a gentle interrogation of the author's own "mixed-race" experience, is the invisibility factor of whiteness. White, he aruges, is a non-identity, which carries neither the burden of representation (i.e., speaking for the collective with total historical and political awareness at all times) nor the social stigma of being "marked" and "read" through the daily lens of race, racializing institutions, and racism. So, the author, concluding that he does not bear an unequal share of the social, political and economic burden that "race" bestows on racialized subjects, chooses "white" on the required university form, and acknowledges the choice as a privilege. In sum, he argues that white (uncapitalized) is not an acknowledged political identity that explicitly seeks to redress a long history of inequality. (Of course, there are "White" movements.)

In supplement to his argument, I observe that when media celebrate "race" as a significant issue in these upcoming elections, they often divert people's attention from the fact that race issues are unequivocally USAmerican issues, and that "Black" is triangulated into each USAmerican's lived identity, conscious or otherwise. By invoking race, society's most unwieldy, pseudo-scientific tool, media catalyze certain "race effects," including ascribing distinct responsibilities and reinscribing differential power. In the world of politics, neither white nor black mean anything when left outside the context of a struggle for social equality, which is why self-description that clarifies a political position is such significant terrain for non-white people, and why many people who enjoy the benefits of the status quo choose not to acknowledge the difference that a capital "B" proclaims, and, accordingly, why they might like to keep the capital "B" (as in both "Barack" and "Black") out of the capitol, and out of the "White" House!

See "Black" vs. black

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