Race and Republicanism

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Philosophy, Social Science on 2015-04-20 18:34Z by Steven

Race and Republicanism

Books & Ideas
2015-02-23 (Originally published in laviedesidees.fr on February 17, 2014.)

Dominique Schnapper, Director of Studies
École des hautes études en sciences sociales, Paris, France

Translated by (with the support of the Florence Gould Foundation):

Michael C. Behrent

Though race is socially constructed, it nonetheless really exists: consequently, Magali Bessone argues, the concept of race must be taken into consideration when fighting racism. But what positive content can be given to the “critical republicanism” she advocates?

Reviewed: Magali Bessone, Sans distinction de race ? Une analyse critique du concept de race et de ses effets pratiques, [Without Race Distinctions? A Critical Analysis of the Concept of Race and its Practical Effects] Paris, Vrin, “Philosophie concrète”, 2013. 240 p., 24 €.

On a topic that might seem rather overdone, Magali Bessone has written a remarkable book, one that sparkles with intelligence and culture. She seeks to deconstruct a concept that has become taboo in France, though it is commonly used by English-speaking scholars and statisticians. With great flair, she proposes an analysis that can be summed up in several propositions encompassing the very core of her arguments.

  1. Biologists have now established that racial categories (not to be confused with racism, despite complex affinities with it), which became systematic following the encounter with the Other during the Age of Discovery and the eighteenth-century attempt to classify species, do not exist. There are no homogeneous populations groups that can be defined once and for all, and which are different from and unequal to others. Skin color, which for a long time was used to distinguish human races (depending on the author, there were four, five, or seven races, thus proving that race is not self-evident), is but one marker of geographic and historical affiliation among others. Essentialist ways of thinking, which attribute specific and final characteristics to particular population groups, have no biological basis. Differences between individuals are greater than differences between groups, and the boundaries between human groups are porous. “There is no racial essence that can be defined coherently from a biological point of view” (p. 71).
  2. As a result of the atrocities that have been committed in the name of certain races’ claims to superiority, the French have generally replaced the term “race” with “ethnicity” or “culture.” Scholars are afraid that they will be accused of believing race exists if they use a term that, as biologists have shown, lacks any scientific basis and, as historians have demonstrated, was used to justify colonialism and genocide. Yet, as Pierre-André Taguieff has already argued, these terms are not immune to the criticisms directed against race, since ethnicity and culture are characterized by permanent and inherited traits. Consequently, this strategy does not lead to the abandonment of essentialist ways of thinking, which are constitutive of racial thinking. This is the reason I proposed getting beyond the American sociological debate over the validity of the concepts of “racial” or “ethnic group” by proposing that of “historical collectivity.”…

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Breathing Race into the Machine: The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics by Lundy Braun (review)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Health/Medicine/Genetics, History, Media Archive, United Kingdom, United States on 2015-04-03 19:37Z by Steven

Breathing Race into the Machine: The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics by Lundy Braun (review)

Configurations
Volume 23, Number 1, Winter 2015
pages 127-130
DOI: 10.1353/con.2015.0000

Lindsey Andrews, Visiting Scholar of English
Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Science and Cultural Theory
Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

Braun, Lundy, Breathing Race into the Machine: The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).

Lundy Braun’s account of the ongoing and often invisible implementation of race-correction in pulmonary medicine is as much about the absence of the spirometer—a machine developed to measure lung function with accuracy—as it is about its presence. Breathing Race into the Machine: The Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics asks how it is possible that, well into the twenty-first century, doctors continue to use technologies that “correct” for racial differences in lung function despite no existing physiological difference. How did buttons establishing separate norms based on race and sex come to be a surreptitious, yet pervasive feature of diagnostic machinery? The answer lies in a much larger story about the desirability, across multiple domains and professions, of a technically precise means for measuring the elusive quality that physicians, scientists, and insurance companies came to think of as “vital capacity” or “fitness.” Building explicitly on Keith Wailoo’s Drawing Blood: Technology and Disease Identity in Twentieth-Century America (1997) and contributing to a growing body of literature on race in science and technology, Braun’s study “examine[s] the complex and contradictory historical processes by which differences such as race, class, and gender actually get embedded into the very architecture of scientific instruments” (p. xxi).

Braun tracks the proliferation of spirometric uses, from the machine’s earliest emergence as a tool for monitoring laborers’ fitness in the middle of the nineteenth century, through its development as a medical diagnostic tool in the twentieth century, to its contemporary role in adjudicating worker’s compensation claims. One of the most intriguing aspects of Braun’s book—and at times its most challenging feature—is its attempt to account for the ways in which the spirometer’s flexibility (rather than its specificity) as a precision tool and its unclear object of measurement (vital capacity) made it, in fact, such a powerful tool that would come to play a crucial global role in health- and insurance-policy decisions. What Braun ultimately shows is that separate though related epistemological problems regarding vital capacity emerged across multiple fields—including labor surveillance, fitness culture, and diagnostic medicine—to which precision and numeracy appeared to be the answer. The spirometer provided both. As Braun notes, spirometry was not central to any one discipline, but instead found myriad uses in physical education, military testing and training, and insurance assessment. “As its epistemological relevance faded in one domain,” she writes, “it was taken up, adapted, and investigated in another” (p. xxv). Whether shoring up Anglo-Saxon masculinity by establishing the superiority of upper-class white lungs in nineteenth-century physical culture or enforcing anti-black workers’ compensation policies that required blacks to demonstrate even lower lung functioning than similarly positioned white workers in order to receive remuneration, the capacity of the spirometer to produce numeric data was both its appeal in terms of authority and simultaneously its most easily racialized feature—a feature made invisible in the apparent “value neutrality” of a scientific virtue (a concept that Braun draws from Lorainne Daston and Peter Galison) like precision.

Tracing the international and professional border-crossing of the spirometer is one of the book’s primary accomplishments, but also one of its challenges for readers. In the course of seven chapters, Braun is tasked with moving back and forth from the twenty-first to the early nineteenth century, and from Wales, to the US South, to South Africa, negotiating a narrative that is neither straightforward nor linear, although always following a through-line in which assessment of the laboring body and management of the laboring class drive spirometric racialization. Early chapters cover the stabilization of whiteness as a meaning of lung-capacity measurements. In the first chapter, Braun shows how John Hutchinson, a Victorian scientist and early developer of the spirometer, reconfigured pulmonary studies in terms of physiological functioning rather than anatomical construction, thus tapping into growing investments in scientific experimentalism and the “quantifying spirit” of the Victorian era by adapting the spirometer’s use to large-scale population studies. Chapter 1 thus lays the groundwork for the third and fourth chapters, which also detail the ways in which lung-capacity measurements, along with anthropometry

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New Book Explores Role of Race for First Lady Michelle Obama

Posted in Articles, Biography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2015-04-01 01:23Z by Steven

New Book Explores Role of Race for First Lady Michelle Obama

Time
2015-03-30

Maya Rhodan, Reporter

Author paints the First Lady as the President’s rock, notes the impact her background would have on her future as the nation’s first black First Lady

During her senior year at Princeton University, First Lady Michelle Obama couldn’t imagine she would live to see the election of the nation’s first African American, let alone be married to him. “To say that during her Princeton years she could not envision an African American president is like saying that the sun rises and sets every day,” writes Northwestern University Professor Peter Slevin in his upcoming biography, Michelle Obama: A Life

…Even in a short blurb about the Obamas’ budding romance, the author notes that Michelle’s mother Marian at one point worried that Barack’s biracial background would make navigating society’s prejudices difficult. In the end, though, she accepted the future President who she said “shared the values of [their] family.”…

Read the entire article here.

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The Disappearing Mestizo: Configuring Difference in the Colonial New Kingdom of Granada by Joanne Rappaport (review) [von Germeten]

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Media Archive on 2015-03-25 14:59Z by Steven

The Disappearing Mestizo: Configuring Difference in the Colonial New Kingdom of Granada by Joanne Rappaport (review) [von Germeten]

The Americas
Volume 72, Number 1, January 2015
pages 159-160

Nicole von Germeten, Associate Professor of History
Oregon State University

Rappaport, Joanne, The Disappearing Mestizo: Configuring Difference in the Colonial New Kingdom of Granada (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).

Joanne Rappaport argues that even in the seventeenth-century classic satire known as El Carnero, set in what is now Colombia, the main character avoids identification as a mestiza, demonstrating the disappearing elusiveness of this term. The fact that readers cannot be sure if Inés de Hinojosa’s mother was or was not an indigenous woman brings directly to life the point Rappaport explores throughout her book. Subjects of the Spanish crown living in the sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and even eighteenth-century New Kingdom of Granada avoided categorization as mestizo when it suited them, although they sometimes took on the label if it seemed expedient at a particular moment. Rappaport effectively proves that identification as mestizo, mulatto, or even the more basic categories of Spanish, Indian, and black, does not equate to a stable, genetic, or genealogical “race” in the modern sense of the word. These categories are beyond fluid or malleable, the common explanation for why one individual might receive several different “racial” identifications during their lifespan.

Rappaport suggests instead that, at least in the New Kingdom of Granada, terms such as mestizo and mulatto do not necessarily represent an easily definable or cohesive group of individuals. In other words, regardless of what a person might call him or herself, or “pass” as within the Spanish world, we cannot hope to ascertain their “real race” from such a limited term, within this particular historical context. The designation of mestizo especially represents nothing other than an allusion, because this category did not carry a specific legal status or set of privileges within Spanish law. Therefore, students and scholars who wish to understand personal identity and society in the Spanish American viceroyalties must set aside our modern obsession with race as a simple unchanging way to categorize human beings. In fact, calidad, a broad range of attributes including stage of life, gender, occupation, personal wealth, spousal choice, place of residence, domestic setting, literacy, speech patterns, and style of dress, may have held more weight than what we call “race.”

Rappoport supports these arguments with ethnographic explorations of several suggestive case studies, in a far more effective and readable style than would be provided by the tiresome citation of innumerable confusing examples, or even worse statistical analysis. At the end of the book, the reader actually remembers the individuals under discussion and feels a sense of knowing them as well as possible and understanding how their life experiences elucidate why mestizos represent a “disappearing” category. Rappaport’s analytical narratives include individuals sometimes classed as mestizos, but otherwise known as a duped doncella, a politically engaged cacique, an adulterous widow, a frustrated, blustering upwardly mobile Bogotá alderman, a man who just wants to stay with his family and friends in an indigenous village, and even the stereotypical abusive, rabble-rousing mulatto. Rappaport also takes a look at the physical descriptions contained in casa de la contratación travel documents, the early modern version of passport photos, expressed in standardized verbiage describing hair texture, skin tone, and most importantly, beards. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the most common color used to describe Spanish skin was brown [moreno].

This book corrects simplistic ideas about the timelessness of racial categorization, even including previous efforts to historicize the alleged “hardening” of race designations in the eighteenth century. Rappaport makes an excellent point that historians of other parts of Spanish America should not assume the sistema de castas applied beyond New Spain, although it is even doubtful that it works as an analytical framework there. Even if Bourbon reformers attempted to “harden” racial lines or put a “caste system” into effect, scholars who spend their time in archives already know the need to question the effectiveness of these efforts. This book offers an important contribution to the historiography of Spanish rule in the Americas, and might even challenge and complicate undergraduate thinking on race. Understanding the history of the Spanish viceroyalties demands mental flexibility, and this book does an essential job of exposing where, through lazy thinking, we still hold onto rigid, anachronistic interpretations…

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San Francisco Lithographer: African American Artist Grafton Tyler Brown

Posted in Biography, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, United States on 2015-03-12 20:39Z by Steven

San Francisco Lithographer: African American Artist Grafton Tyler Brown

Arts Libraries Society of North America (ARLIS/NA)
July 2014

Amy De Simone, Research Consultant
Kansas State University

by Robert J. Chandler. University of Oklahoma Press, February 2014. 264 p. ill. ISBN 9780806144108 (cl.), $36.95.

More than just a book about one man, San Francisco Lithographer: African American Artist Grafton Tyler Brown is about the emerging lithography scene in nineteenth-century San Francisco and Brown’s role in it as a mixed race artist and businessman. Author Robert J. Chandler, previously the senior research historian for Wells Fargo Bank, has done extensive research on the life and times of Brown. Though other scholars have written about Brown, Chandler’s work is the first comprehensive biography, which seamlessly references appropriate field literature to piece together Brown’s life from his birth in Pennsylvania to his death in Minnesota

Read the entire review here.

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Land of the Cosmic Race

Posted in Anthropology, Book/Video Reviews, Caribbean/Latin America, Media Archive, Mexico, Social Science on 2015-03-08 01:34Z by Steven

Land of the Cosmic Race

Sociological Forum
Volume 30, Issue 1 (March 2015)
pages 248-251
DOI: 10.1111/socf.12157

Martha King
Graduate Center
City University of New York

Land of the Cosmic Race: Race Mixture, Racism, and Blackness in Mexico. Christina A. Sue. New York: University of Oxford Press, 2013.

In Land of the Cosmic Race: Race Mixture, Racism, and Blackness in Mexico, Christina A. Sue makes significant theoretical and empirical contributions to the field of racial and ethnic studies and to its growing subfield of comparative investigation. These contributions are more impressive because they stem from Sue’s dissertation and compose her first book. Her study is an ambitious ethnography exploring Mexicans’ negotiation of racial and national ideology at a micro level, as well as the themes of mestizaje (race mixture), racism, racial identity construction, and blackness in everyday discourse. Sue’s qualitative approach richly blends various sources: participant observation, interviews, and focus groups. Her fieldwork was conducted between 2003 and 2005 in Mexico’s urbanized Veracruz region, which lies on the coast southeast of Mexico City. As in comparable metropolitan areas in Mexico, the majority of residents are mestizo while a smaller proportion is indigenous. Veracruz, however, is unique because it is home to a higher proportion of people of African descent and its residents have more phenotypical variation. It was a major gateway for African slaves and has acted in recent years as an entry point for migrant black Cubans.

For much of Mexico’s colonial period, blacks outnumbered whites (p. 11). Finding segregation increasingly difficult to maintain because of race mixing, colonial authorities implemented a hierarchical caste system based on race, color, culture, and socioeconomic status with Spaniards at the top, then mixed-race individuals, Indians, and Africans at the bottom. During the postrevolutionary period, Mexican leaders and elites celebrated mestizo identity as the foundation of Mexican nationalism and distinction. This ideological turn was intended to cope with indigenous marginalization and social divisions and evade the period’s rampant scientific racism that would see Mexico as a less capable or worthy nation due to its black and indigenous population.

This postrevolutionary ideology is the foundation for Mexico’s contemporary national ideology. Sue describes contemporary national ideology as composed of three pillars. The first pillar is that of mestizaje, which upholds race mixture as positive and quintessentially Mexican (p. 15). The second pillar is nonracism, meaning Mexico is a country free of racism. Sue’s informants consistently confirm that because Mexico’s national identity is based on race mixture, then racism is inconceivable. The third pillar is nonblackness or the “minimization or erasure of blackness from Mexican national image, both as a separate racial category and as a component of the mestizo population” (p. 16). Sue argues persuasively that these three pillars are complementary in facilitating racial discrimination and the privileging of whiteness in Mexico.

Sue’s overarching question is how do individuals respond to, manage, and resolve the contradictions between Mexico’s national ideology and their daily experiences of white privilege and discrimination toward people of African descent (p. 5). Sue’s data persuasively show that mechanisms and discourse at the micro level play pivotal parts of reproducing ideology and social hierarchy in Mexico. Her work reminds us that elites do not, on their own, develop and maintain dominant ideologies. Instead, “the social force behind ideology lies in the popular realm” (p. 8)…

Read the entire review here.

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Imagining a future where racial reassignment surgery is the norm

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Communications/Media Studies, Media Archive on 2015-03-06 00:32Z by Steven

Imagining a future where racial reassignment surgery is the norm

Quartz
2014-09-27

Marcia Alesan Dawkins, Communications Professor
University of Southern California, Annenberg

Jess Row’s haunting new novel, Your Face In Mine, is an invitation to the future, an era bound only by the limits of imagination, money, and technology. It’s a time when you can edit anything about yourself—your location, occupation, your status and even your race—if you are a part of the right network.

In the future Row casts, some of us have grown accustomed to the sights and sounds of diversity and the ideal that law and culture treat every person equally. While others are experiencing “racial dysphoria,” or significant discontent with the racial identities we’ve been assigned at birth or the stereotypical roles associated with those racial identities. Row’s novel argues that racial dysphoria stems from the failure of racial assimilation in our techno-driven world. It’s a sign that racism persists even as race no longer seems to matter. The future Row casts is eerily reminiscent of what many cultural critics call our “post-racial” present, a time in which real racism persists without any real racists to blame…

Read the entire article here.

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BLACK AND WHITE vs BLACK OR WHITE: Bioethics and Mixed Race Families

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Communications/Media Studies, Media Archive, My Articles/Point of View/Activities on 2015-03-03 18:54Z by Steven

BLACK AND WHITE vs BLACK OR WHITE: Bioethics and Mixed Race Families

September Williams’ Bioethics Screen Reflections: Film, Television, and Media Critiques Relevant to Bioethics
2015-03-01

September Williams, MD

Black and White, screened at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival and later at the Mill Valley Film Festival, in October 2014. The same title was also used to discuss the film in various film trade publications. However, the film’s title changed by the time of its USA distribution date, January 30, 2015. The word ‘and’ was replaced with the word ‘or’. That is, the film title became Black or White. Use of the word ‘and’ better reflects the courage of writer-director Mike Bender [Binder] in broaching contemporary issues around race and class. The film only superficially reflects two entities fighting one another. Much more prominent in the story is a struggle for Black and White to save each other. Bender [Binder] dares to suggest, we might all be in this mess together, sinking or swimming. Ignoring antebellum period themes, it’s a new take…

…Obvious bioethical concerns in Black and White include concerns for the best surrogate for a child whose parents are no longer able to parent; the age of autonomous decision making for children and historical injustices inherent in racism and classicism. The role of grief, acute and prolonged, in the context of substance abuse stands out. In the end it is the lagging of social construction, far behind the science of the human genome, that keeps viewers watching.

Stephen [Steven] Riley wrote an analysis of stresses, those identifying as Mixed Race, felt in filling out Box 9 on the 2010 United States census. He describes people agonizing about accurately portraying their racial identity. Riley states “For those who desire to portray their ‘accurate racial’ identity, I have news for you — ‘racial accuracy’ is an oxymoron. ‘Race’ as a biological, or anthropological construct is an utter fallacy”…

Read the entire article here.

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Beyond The Chinese Connection: Contemporary Afro-Asian Cultural Production by Crystal S. Anderson (review)

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Asian Diaspora, Book/Video Reviews, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2015-03-02 20:40Z by Steven

Beyond The Chinese Connection: Contemporary Afro-Asian Cultural Production by Crystal S. Anderson (review)

Journal of Asian American Studies
Volume 18, Number 1, February 2015
pages 107-109
DOI: 10.1353/jaas.2015.0003

Edlie Wong, Associate Professor of English
University of Maryland

Anderson, Crystal S., Beyond The Chinese Connection: Contemporary Afro-Asian Cultural Production (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2013).

Afro-Asian comparative racialization studies have begun to change how we think about race and its multiple and contradictory meanings across different periods of U.S. history. Beyond The Chinese Connection: Contemporary Afro-Asian Cultural Production contributes to this important trend in thinking about comparative constructions of race and cross-racial antagonisms and alliances. Earlier work on Afro-Asian comparative racialization such as Vijay Prashad’s Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting (2001) and Bill Mullen’s Afro-Orientalism (2004) tended to emphasize the revolutionary—indeed, at times utopian—forms of anticolonial transpacific polyculturalism and political collaborations. Anderson’s volume explicitly builds upon and broadens this work. According to Anderson, Afro-Asian comparative racialization studies often favor anticapitalist critiques, taking the 1955 Bandung conference as the storied origins of the global alignment of the political struggles of African and Asian peoples. In contrast, her book offers a self-described cultural approach that emphasizes historical and ethnic specificity, disarticulating the homogenizing panethnicities implied in the term “Afro-Asian” to consider “the way the histories of individual ethnic groups may impact their interaction with one another” (37).

There is perhaps no more fitting figure for this study than the martial arts film star Bruce Lee, whose cross-racial and cross-ethnic appeal transformed him into an Afro-Asian cultural icon in the 1970s. Anderson’s volume stages a series of encounters between Lee’s signature films—one for each of the four chapters—and a range of post-1990s novels, films, and popular culture revealing the complexities of inter- and intraethnic Afro-Asian interactions. Anderson begins with the film Way of the Dragon (1972) and charts Lee’s emergence as a transnational and cross-cultural phenomenon. “Lee’s legacy,” she argues, “functions as a framework to interrogate the contemporary landscape” (5). In chapter 2, Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973) facilitates an exploration of the limits and possibilities of interethnic male friendship in Frank Chin’s novel Gunga Din Highway (1994) and two mainstream Hollywood films, Rush Hour 2 (2001) and Unleashed (2005). In chapter 3, Lee’s The Chinese Connection (1972) allows Anderson to examine the theme of ethnic imperialism in Ishmael Reed’s satirical novel Japanese by Spring (1993) and the Japanese anime series Samurai Champloo (2004), while Lee’s The Big Boss (1971) frames the final chapter on intra- and interethnic conflict and solidarity in Paul Beatty’s novel White Boy Shuffle (1996) and the highly popular Matrix science fiction film trilogy (1999 (2003). These cultural case studies allow Anderson ample opportunity to engage in broader historical contextualization and considerations of Afro-Asian social dynamics. In the case of Rush Hour 2 and Unleashed, Anderson draws attention away from film reception to explore the historical underpinnings of their plots and characterizations, from Rush Hour 2’s eroticization of Chinese women and the 1875 Page Act equating all Chinese women with prostitutes to the economic exploitation of the Chinese coolie reformulated in Unleashed’s plot of human trafficking.

Anderson organizes these cultural readings according to how each work constructs Afro-Asian cross-cultural dynamics along a broad “continuum of intercultural interactions” (3). At one end of this spectrum lies what she identifies as “cultural emulsion.” A concept drawn from Homi K. Bhabha’s theory of hybridity, cultural emulsion designates those instances where “cultures come together but do not mix in response to pressures to reinforce ethnic or national boundaries” (3). Against this more limited form of cultural distancing, Anderson counterpoises the concept of “cultural translation,” which “uses one ethnic culture to interpret another ethnic culture” and “recognizes more complex combinations of cultures” across national boundaries (35). This framework of emulsion and translation lends a somewhat static quality to Anderson’s detailed readings, and the most compelling of the case studies predictably land on the cultural translation end of the spectrum. For example, Anderson explores how Samurai Champloo’s uses of African American hip-hop and graffiti aesthetics transform animated tales of eighteenth-century Japan into social commentaries aimed at urban Japanese youth culture. Her reading of White Boy Shuffle emphasizes Beatty’s experimentation with Japanese aesthetics and his encoding of African American political disillusionment in the subplot of ritual suicide and…

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The Lazy Storytelling of ‘Black or White': Love and Justice Are Not Colorblind

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Religion, United States on 2015-02-12 03:23Z by Steven

The Lazy Storytelling of ‘Black or White': Love and Justice Are Not Colorblind

Christ and Pop Culture (CAPC)
2015-02-11

D. L. Mayfield

I was at a writing retreat once where a bunch of us gathered together to talk about how to write well about social justice issues in our world. A young singer-songwriter with a folksy vibe came and played a set for us. He introduced a song as inspired by how sad he was at the racial divide of the city, and how it seemed that white folks and blacks folks didn’t get along. He launched into a song, the chorus going something like this: we used to sing so beautifully together/perhaps one day we’ll sing together again.

After he was done singing, one of my fellow writers—the only black man in our cohort, who also happened to live in North Carolina—asked the singer-songwriter to elaborate on the interactions that inspired the song. The singer stumbled over his words and told a few stories of interacting with African-American folks who to his perception seemed less-than-friendly to white folks. We all sat quietly as he shared his perspective, and later debriefed about that particular song. Why did it make us all feel so uncomfortable? Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, the leader of our group (a man who has been involved in racial reconciliation work for decades now) leaned forward and in his southern drawl poignantly identified the trouble. What I want to know is this: and just when, exactly, did we ever all sing together?

…The recent release starring Kevin Costner, Black or White, is uncomfortable in the exact same way. Ostensibly this is a movie which dares to look at race issues: Costner is a white grandfather parenting his bi-racial granddaughter who becomes entangled in a custody battle by the black father and his extended family. By turns a tragedy, a comedy, a courtroom drama, with a dash of heart-warming family film. Costner plays Elliot Anderson, a wealthy alcoholic lawyer reeling from the sudden death of his wife. Octavia Spencer plays Rowena, the paternal grandmother of Eloise, the girl in Elliot’s sole care. Rowena (Grandma “Wee Wee”) and the extended family she takes care of live in Compton; Elliot lives somewhere else—a better part of LA, we shall say. Rowena and the family want to see more of Eloise but Elliot resists. In exasperation, they retain Rowena’s younger brother, a lawyer, to sue Elliot for full custody of the child. Reggie, the birth dad, shows up halfway through the movie, adding emotional intrigue. The audience is left wondering at the motivations of Reggie, who is introduced as a crack-addict and absentee father (“you’re a stereotype, Reggie—you ruin it for all of us”—his uncle tells him).

The themes explored are certainly worthy of a full-length movie. Eloise and her biracial identity, the way economics affects both parenting and legal procedures, the stereotypes we put onto one another, how certain addictions are more culturally acceptable—these are all fascinating and could prove to be invaluable insights into the pulse of a nation that is currently struggling with racial injustice and unrest. But Black or White addresses all of these issues in both a superficial and strangely maudlin way—so much emotion, but so little truth behind it…

Read the entire article here.

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