Quickies: Racism During Black History Month

Besides the ongoing saga of “I’m not an a**hole” John Mayer (yes, that’s a direct quote from Mayer’s concert last night, which was preceded by three different concerts/events were he gave a young male audience member his guitar on stage, paused for a photo op with a differently-abled male child and tweeted links to the pics, and featured his black female back up singers as he talked abt how they “support his work” tho not his words), and Vanity Fair’s insistence that no women of color in Hollywood count as movers and shakers in a year where a young black woman is up for the Oscar’s top honor and another was in the 2 top grossing films of the year, there are other ppl mucking up this BHM season.

I started to write individual posts about each, but then, I shook my head and said nope, spending my energy elsewhere. So here are the stories in quickie form:

  • Gerard Depardieu will appear in black face (“kinky wig and dark make up”) as author Alexandre Dumas in the film The Other Dumas.

While originally released photos for the film appeared as described in the heading, the newest shots of Depardieu show a much lighter toned skin color, closer to Depardieu’s own, and a wig that also more closely mirrors his own hair while still remaining “coarse”. Under these new circumstances, the issue seems two-fold:

  1. the ongoing problem of limited roles specifically for black people and the overwhelming failure to do race blind casting when casting actors of color – under such scarcity black characters/roles become all the more precious to black actors and yet are increasingly given to white actors (Jolie & Zellwegger being two modern examples) who have a much wider opportunity to act in general
  2. the concept for the film – Dumas is not a literary genius but a fraud capitalizing on a white ghost writer’s real talent

The latter has been completely ignored in the media and on blogs in order to debate whether the original and the current make up issue is legitimate or “overreaction”. It is almost as if the director and star knew they’d get in trouble for racial passing, so they started out in a place they never intended to stay (with dark makeup and a coarse wig) and moved to a place that would look like compromise (much lighter makeup and toned down wig). By seeming to be attentive to their audience on the black face issue, they could then remind people that they were not racist when they saw the film and questioned is potentially racist plot.  The film is based on a controversial book that argues Haitian Creole Alexandre Dumas actually had none of the literary talent for which he is famous; instead it is Dumas who is doing the passing, providing a black face to acclaimed literary achievement actually written by his white ghost writer, who in turn gets no credit. In looking to the primary and secondary materials available on Dumas, it is clear there is far less material to support this argument than any other historical accounts of Dumas’ life.  Yet, a filmmaker who casts a blonde blue-eyed actor in the role of a Haitian Creole, whose neither of these things, chooses a story that argues the black man is a liar and a fraud passing of white male creativity for his own. Coincidence? I think not.

  • UCSD’s multiple racism incidents

UCSD, who will forever be the school that did not tenure Pat Washington, caused ridiculously self-serving infighting at the NWSA, and put a gag order on all of its graduates and current students in the WS program while also actively encouraging them to sing the praises of the program during the initial outbreak of the controversy, has had multiple racism incidents this month.

On Feb 16, 2010 members of the UCSD student body advertised a “Compton Cookout Party” in honor of Black History Month. The invitations included the following explanation and directions:

wear cheap baggy clothes, chains and other clothing stereotypically thought to be worn by rappers and black males […and…] talk loudly and for women to act like “ghetto chicks-Ghetto chicks usually have gold teeth, start fights and drama, and wear cheap clothes…”

When student’s protested, including sending in the invitation to the school paper so that there would be documentation, the Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs said that the school could do nothing about a private party. (Sadly this is true, university’s have no ability or say in what people do at private parties; however, Director Gattas could have spoken out against racism and the university could have initiated awareness events and discussions about race and racism and how they intersect with gender and sexism.)

Sometime between Feb 17 and 19, organizers of the party and other UCSD students used hate speech language to advertise the party and ridicule the complaints of anti-racist students on the University owned and operated television station. The University did not issue an immediate response. While the part was outside of the jurisdiction of the University, the use of the University owned TV station to demean other students and use racist language should fall under “code of conduct” violations and may even be governed by the FCC regulations related to Federal discrimination laws.

On Feb 19, 200 students including representatives from the Black student organizations marched against racism on UCSD’s campus. They also released a statement addressing both the racism and sexism involved in the event and the lack of accountability the University appeared to be implicated in.

On Feb 25, 2010 someone hung a noose in the main library at UCSD. As seen in the picture above, white students continued to study in the library without taking it down. It is unclear how many students who saw the noose reported it to the librarians and how many did not. However for anyone denying the racism seething under the belly of the “Compton Cookout”, it should be clear that there is a larger problem here.

After being slow to do anything publicly about the racial climate on campus, UCSD officials have now put up a website calling students to “stop the hate” and “learn about diversity”; they also held a racism teach-in the day before the noose incident for 2 whole hours. After being served with a statement from the Black Student Union and others, they also claim they were doing a private investigation into Code of Conduct violations for several of the students involved in the University tv channel incident.

  • Female professor shoots mostly people of color colleagues over tenure decision

I was on the phone with a colleague catching up when she said “Oh no, some one on the faculty just opened fire at a staff meeting in Alabama.” My first thought was that now the violence had moved from students to staff and we were in big trouble. My second thought, upon hearing the shooter was a woman, was that it was probably tenure related. Truthfully, no matter how many academic bloggers pretend otherwise, tenure is often a contentious process in which more times than not denial is not based on merit but rather one’s ability to squeeze a marginalized body into a centered box. (And no, unlike others who have forgotten what it is like to teach as a junior faculty from the position of marginalization, or never knew, I don’t think the problematics of tenure warrant doing away with it; until the issues that often make it problematic are dealt with tenure is the only stop gap between traditionally marginalized faculty and/or radical or marginalized ideas and sub-fields and unemployment.)

When the discipline of the victims and shooter were revealed, I again found myself thinking about how credentialing works in academe. Women are few and far between in the sciences not because, as one Harvard professor once insinuated in public, we are lesser thinkers than men, but because science remains one of many disciplines unapologetically dominated by men. So-called “hazing” in the sciences often takes on particular misogynist aspects for both men and women, meaning that sexism permeates the ways established scholars and soon to be established scholars discipline new ones regardless of their gender. Add to that the ways in which women and girls are discouraged from pursuing science as early as grade school, through a series of systemic and individual measures and popular discourses about men’s “natural aptitude” for science vis-a-vis women’s and you can begin to imagine the pressure female scientists feel. Add to that the ways in which women are generally policed in academe and you have a recipe for sexist abuse of female faculty in the sciences that may or may not have been present in her Bishop’s current appointment but was likely a part of her overall career.

Then they released the image of the victims. It seems that this “random shooting” left 4 of 5 people of color in the department shot or dead. (3 were killed instantly, one was wounded, and she aimed at the other one but had run out of bullets)

There are several ways in which this information can be interpreted as racist:

  1. the shooting was random despite her training up for it at a shooting range but the racial milieu in the department meant that “all of the black kids were sitting together” when she opened fire (alternatively, they were clumped together due to either group-lateness or desire to exit quickly that would also be related to milieu in or outside of the dept)
  2. the shooting was intentional and Dr. Amy Bishop targeted faculty of color because she internalized the message that faculty of color are “affirmative action hires” standing in the way of her “legitimate” claims to tenure (alternatively, she is invested in a racial narrative in which she believes poc are “more sexist” than white people and therefore they were directly responsible for her no vote)

Who is to say which or any of these motivated her to potentially target professors of color when she went on her shooting rampage. What seems to be clear however is that she tried to shoot every single person of color in the room, one person did not get shot only because she ran out of bullets but she did try to shoot at them as well. Had she been mindlessly shooting, this would have been nearly impossible without the aid of a racialized environment in which her colleagues were clumped together as explained above. Even then she would have to choose an area to begin shooting and the area chosen seems to be where faculty of color were seated, blurring the lines between intentionality and environment all the more.

What also seems to be clear, is that while everyone discussing the case agrees that Bishop seems to have a long history of documented violence (she shot her own brother, stole a car at gunpoint, and was involved in several inappropriately heated altercations with colleagues throughout her career) so far most, if not all, of the people discussing the racial aspects of the case are faculty of color. For some reason, “crazy” trumps racist as if one cannot be both. Interestingly, “crazy” also seems to trump sexism in this case, because very few people across the board are discussing the overall culture of sexism in the sciences in relation to this case either. Yet both race and gender are at play in this event even if ultimately it boils down to the actions of a single unstable member of the faculty with access to weapons.

The sad truth is, Amy Bishop shot her colleagues over tenure. No matter what her reasons, none justify killing or terrorizing people. Of the people killed that day, the overwhelming majority were faculty of color despite their not having been a majority in the department. According to initial reports every single faculty of color present was aimed at, and all but one, were shot. And, the police have decided not to pursue the Hate Crimes angle because a hate crime requires one to intentionally target a protected group and it is more than likely Bishop would have shot at her colleagues no matter what their background. While I understand this distinction, I think it misses key subtleties in the outcome.

  • late editions:

  1. a respected academic blogger uses the last days of black history month to call klan “progressive” because even tho they hate Jewish ppl (and Asian ppl who she does not mention even though she quotes an anti-Asian comment) some of them like or can tolerate gay ppl (this of course assumes gay ppl are neither Jewish nor poc); worse, the tongue-in-cheek post assumes that we can all find something amusing about an organization and a website that has actively advocated the rape, torture, and murder of our community members (they have made hit lists on that site and bragged abt violence on that site), and if you can, then her post may seem “harmless” but you might want ask yourself why you can.
  2. PETA once again mobilizes racism for animal rights, this time resurrecting the eugenicist idea of who can and should reproduce and who should not in order to promote spaying or neutering animals. read more about the latter at Renee’s Blog.
  3. On Friday 2/27/10 the last week day of BHM, the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center at Missouri University was vandalized; unidentified people dumped cotton outside the center in the early morning harkening back to the images of slavery and the belief the once widely held N. American belief that all black people “were good for was picking cotton.” While this represents the height of stupid racism, my mother was a sharecropper in her youth and 1 thing I always remembered as a kid was the piece of unrefined cotton she kept with her to remind her of how far and how little we have come as a nation. read more at The Maneater
  • old news I missed

Chris Matthews “forgets Obama is black for a moment” as a “compliment” about how great and wonderful the President is, in other words his broad base appeal, persuasive speaking style, and intelligence about the issues transcends the ignorant black criminal that Matthews comments clearly reveal he is still invested in deep down, even if not on the surface.

    4 thoughts on “Quickies: Racism During Black History Month

    1. I may be the only person in the country who didn’t see video footage and had only read about this through blogs, but it’s ‘interesting’ that I never read anything about the race of the victims until now. Seems like you nailed it: She may be crazy, but that does not preclude sexism having been directed at her, nor racism coming from her. Sad.

    2. What a great post, thank you. Especially (for me) your analysis of the Alabama shooting.

      Very glad I found you here.(FYI: I followed a link a friend tweeted so…yay, social media) I’ll definitely be back.

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