Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A well-intentioned white southerner's education on racism

Please understand that I'm not being sarcastic here, because if I were reading this post, I think I would think it was sarcastic in parts.

I grew up in northeastern Kentucky around a bunch of white people and a handful of Asian doctors' kids. I think there were some black kids in some of the neighboring school systems, but I don't think any stayed at Russell for more than a few years. I didn't really know any of them. So sure, I was ignorant about race in the classical sense. I wasn't exposed to race issues personally in any meaningful way, and the little I knew about race issues came from books and TV and bad jokes.

So stuff I've learned this year:
-The world 'articulate' has some sort of weird history (predating Barry-O) as a derogatory term for well-spoken folks who are African American. Didn't know that.
-Tar-baby from Song of the South, which I knew in its situational context, has a racial context as well. Didn't know that. I remember singing Zip-A-Dee-Do-Da a lot when I was kid, because it was a catchy tune. I knew Brer Rabbit was a rabbit, Brer Bear a bear, Brer Fox a fox, and Uncle Remus, well, somebody's uncle, and a farmer. Black sharecropper didn't really mean anything different than the farmer in the dell. And Song of the South really wasn't something on the forefront of my brain to really reconsider.
-Nappy refers to, according to wiki, the texture of African hair which has not been altered chemically. I knew that nappy hair was similar to hair that was in dreads, and I guess I knew
that dreads had African roots. But I don't think I necessarily understood that there was a necessarily negative connection there. And when I first read the whole Imus thing, I don't think I really understood that his "nappy-headed ho" comment was really any more inflammatory than the entirely disgusting and uncalled-for stuff he says every day.

My wife asked me why I was even writing this post, what I possibly hoped to accomplish by a) painting myself as a dumb hick, b) risking giving the impression that I somehow tolerated things that other folks found hurtful, c) rambling.

A) My thesis is not that white southerners are dumb hicks, but that some aspects of the white southern experience differ meaningfully than that of folks who grew up in relatively progressive urban environments, and can easily include minimal exposure to race issues in a meaningful way. I think it's non-obvious to folks who have only lived in progressive areas that reasonably intelligent and even well-intentioned people can be ignorant about the finer points of race issues due simply to lack of exposure.
B) Each of the three controversial points above could elude a well-intentioned person with minimal exposure to race issues. My initial reaction to all three was generally dismissive until I saw that reasonably mainstream folks with more direct experience with race issues could find the usages undesirable. I'm not convinced that "articulate" and "tar-baby" are inherently racist words, but I am convinced that it's probably not worth using them in these contexts, because there are intelligent folk who could reasonably feel marginalized by their usage.
C) Well, yeah.


Michael said...
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Michael said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael said...

Ignorance is not necessarily a bad thing, as you correctly imply. We should all be so lucky as to be ignorant of hateful derogatory names and not even have them in our vocabulary.

I also think that we should all be willing to empathize before getting upset when it comes to unintentional use of certain terms. For example, when I see people getting upset at being called Oriental instead of Asian, I think that's dumb. Every single time I've heard an Asian person being called Oriental, it has been due to ignorance and not malicious intent. I think the negative connotations are far enough removed, and without any inherent distinction between the terms, people are making an issue out of nothing. Sure many people still think Asians are exotic or whatever, but that has nothing to do with how we currently use the term Oriental/Asian. But maybe there's some sociologist at Berkeley who thinks otherwise.

Sorry for the mess above.

Bo said...


Kyle said...

Hey, I get it.

I have family members who are quite comfortable using racial slurs, but in the average month never encounter the folks to whom they mean to apply them.