Feb 18, 2006

The Rap on Race and Identity Politics

There's been quite a bit of blogging around the politics of race and identity vis-a-vis notions of solidarity, discourses of racism, etc. I want to add my two cents...

I identify as a light-skinned woman of color. Lighter Shade of Brown (LSB) as my sister calls it. I have an olive tone that pales in comparison to some of my sisters of color. I have privileges because of this paleness, I know this. I also have complex negotiations of this understanding...afterall, I am not white. I don't identify as white.

The story I want to share with you is one that is close to my heart. It's the beginning of those complex articulations of identity and the discourses of race and racism that took place far before I identified as a "radical, woman of color", far before I had the tools (i.e. academic jargon) to articulate my experiences and those of the loved ones around me.

After moving to Canada in '87, my family settled in a predominantly WASP (white anglo-saxon protestant) neighbourhood, where having an "eye-ranian" family as a neighbour wasn't taken too well. Of course, in the proper bourgeois, Victorian manner of vancouverite wasps, the racism was never overt, but subtle in its cruelty...it stung nevertheless.

Dealing with cultural gaps and language barriers, I became a bit of a loner, watched a lot of TV (which helped my English!) and had few friends for the remainder of the elementary school years. I was the FOB girl who the "cool" kids teased but were equally fascinated with (i.e. did you ride camels?). Of course, no boys crushed on me, unless they were asking me out as a funny joke (or a dare, as it happened on one occasion).

I moved on to junior high school and realized I had to fit in. I was tired of being anti-social, there was so much of me to share with people. At this point, I had become close with a couple of Iranian girls (who had lived in Canada longer than me) who helped "de-Fob" me...showed me the path to "assimilation." We breathed the same need/desire to fit in, albeit we exhaled it differently. We ended up in different cliques in different parts of town, however, each of us having to deal with a lot of privileged white kids.

At this point in time, I became obsessed with "coolness" and tried fitting in within a group of very (very) privileged white girls at my pre-dominantly white school. Went through brief phases of rock, grunge and folk/hippie...all the while, not relating! I didn't get them, and I knew they wouldn't get me (if they'd gotten to know the 'real' me, that is). I didn't look like them, they didn't look like me. They didn't carry the "ethnic baggage" I did. They didn't wear the ethnicity I wore (no matter how hard I tried to hide it).

This is where music played a crucial role in my life. From my b-boying cousins in Iran and my "canadian" cousins who listened to Public Enemy, NWA, BDP and EPMD, I was well aware of the grassroots culture of resistance that cultivated Hip Hop music. This is the time when Hip Hop wasn't as trendy and commercial, when whities hadn't fully caught on yet but were slowly beginning to.

Inevitably, I gravitated towards the Hip Hop scene...all ages jams, shows, concerts, tapes, tapes and more tapes (I'm talking pre-CD era of 1990). I entered a space where whiteness was challenged. It was a space for people of color, made by people of color - namely, Blacks and Latinos. It was (is, and always will be) a space owned by people of color. This space invited me in, welcomed me and allowed me to belong (as much as I could). Dope beats and rhymes, graffiti and breaking became the tools to articulate politics of identity, race, racism, oppression, privilege...

Your ethnicity (particularly how you wore it in terms of skin color, features, etc.) was at the core of this scene I grew up in. If you were ambiguously brown like me, then you often got the "What are you?" question: "hispanic?" "half-Indian?" "Arab?"

The farther from white, the more legit your presence in that space. That's how it was. A radical space where white kids were challenged...they were called out on their privilege...they had to "prove" themselves worthy to be in that space.

Mind you, I've shared with you my particular experience of a particular era in a particular city. Unlike Toronto (where I am now), Vancouver is a city which reeks of middle-class whiteness. Also, this was a time when the race politics were much much much more overt in rap music.

I still say it, Hip Hop is a space created by people of color for people of color: a grassroots culture of resistance through artistic expression. White folks were/are welcome to this space but they did not/will never have ownership over this space. White hip hoppers (i.e. nerd hopping, back-packer white boys/girls) need to recognize their privilege in terms of owning dominant spaces in society and how those spaces actively, systematically exclude people of color. This is how they should enter the space. White people also need to recognize the roots of this culture and how, and by whom, it came to exist. This is how they should take part in the space.

Anyway, just ranting away...

I guess all this partly came out of the fact that I missed an incredible show with M1 (from Dead Prez) and other talented conscious artists. A group of us went down there, and found that tickets were sold out. What sucked though wasn't just not getting in, but watching a crew of white activists (I'd done union activism with) get in to the show. These were the same white folks who, a while back, attempted to silence me for calling out their racism/sexism within the activist, union space. The bitter irony of watching them get into the show, and not me, stung man, it really did.

Oh well.
Es la vida, no?



Blogger nubian said...

excellent post!

one of my professors claims that hip hop is not a social movement. i think he has been brainwashed by corporate bullshit fake ass wack RAPPERS.

speaking to the white kids and hip hop: there are shows that take place in ny, kill whitey parties. i'm sure you know of this---white kids get all "crunked up" and party with lame corporate rap songs in order to make fun of racism--which, i only see it as racist itself.

anyways, i love dead prez man. i still bump them everday, especially their first album.
i'm an african, i'm an african, and i know what's happening?

4:30 PM  
Blogger Pomegranate Queen said...

thanks nubian...

yeah i've heard of the "kill whitey" parties and was going to post something a while back...they're trying to be all "ironic" but in reality, it's just racist...they're reasserting racist stereotypes of what it means to be "Black".

there's nothing more annoying/fucked up than a white person making fun of their whiteness by trying to be "cool" (i.e. being "Black") - a friend of mine used to say how he hated it when white people around him started being all apologetic about not being "cool enough"...as in "oh man, i'm just a nerdy white guy with no rhythmn"

don't know if you saw the Kanye interview with Barbara Walters...but he was saying how he was not as offended by the "n" word as he was when white people started speaking in (their version) of Ebonics around him (i.e. I "be" doing this)...fuck man, I totally see that all the time here in Canada...do you know how many little white wannabe emcees here talk like they've lived in Queensbridge all their lives when in reality they come from a little tiny whitie-town in BC, Canada???!!

"erasing whiteness" by performing "Blackness"...it's racist man, simple and plain.

btw - I saw a promo flyer for a Kill Whitey party and on it they had plastered the words "Kill Whitey" over the backside of a woman...another flyer offered free admission to anyone with a bucket of fried chicken.


11:22 AM  
Blogger rabfish said...

bucket of chicken: how fucking ironic. that puts a nasty taste in my mouth. holy fuck.


at least we had a good fuckin' night anyway tearing up people's ears about woc and sex:)

10:46 PM  
Blogger Kalimba said...

"'Erasing whiteness' by performing 'Blackness'...it's racist man, simple and plain."

It is simple, in the context of the twisted ritual you describe... As a light brown moc who came up in an environment where I was taught to perform whiteness by default, you quote resonates in different, strange ways. More on that at another point... Awesome post!

2:52 PM  
Blogger Pomegranate Queen said...

Rab girl, yes we did tear up people's ears - LOL! ;)

Kalimba wow, i'd love it if you expanded on that...perhaps an entry on your blog?? :)

as always thanks for the comments people...

most of my posts are thoughts in progress and I really appreciate the feedback.


4:20 PM  
Anonymous fournier said...

i just wanted to let you know how much i appreciate this post (and your blog in general).

as a white guy who tries to be an ally whenever possible, it's good to hear of situations when people are challenged on their privilege but coexistence is negotiated. i'm not sure i would go unless i was invited, and even then, i think i'd mostly observe and listen; participating as myself (and not someone else).

i agree that whites trying to "act black" is incredibly offensive, because it looks like they're trying to claim a shared identity that they really have no understanding of. they're also just reinforcing BS stereotypes.

thank you for sharing.

(the story of the white union activists is galling, talk about being unaware of one's own privilege.)

10:02 PM  
Blogger Pomegranate Queen said...

thanks fournier, I appreciate the comments...more importantly, I appreciate that you hear what i'm trying to say.

i've been trying to break down white privilege to some of my white students and it's been rough...some of them just don't seem to get it. anyway, i'm going to post something about that soon...perhaps i'll hear from you again! :)

also ust to add to your comment about "negotiating coexistence",
"coexistence" should be about acknowledging privileges, naming/recognizing power struggles/oppression and fighting for justice. At least, that's how I see it.

thanks again!


4:35 PM  
Anonymous fournier said...

i absolutely agree. i'm reminded of a quote:

"If you have come to help me, please go home. But if you have come because your liberation is somehow bound with mine, then we may work together." (i've seen it attributed to several different sources, so i'm not sure where it originated.)

too many folks involved in justice struggles are patronizing and paternalistic about it, and it makes me ill. i try to be as aware as possible, and to not be defensive when i'm corrected. (nor to expect that anyone has an obligation to educate me. (that's my job.) i'm grateful when it happens.)

looking forward to your next post! i'm really interested to hear about how you unpack white privilege with your students. i recently had a "conversation" with poorboy over on eric stoller's blog about white privilege that went exactly nowhere. while i'm sure that some people genuinely "don't get it," i'm pretty sure much of it is deliberate ignorance...

7:47 PM  
Blogger Pomegranate Queen said...

Fournier! I just checked out part of the "convo" with poorboy on Stoller's blog (argh!)...your responses were right on...he just doesn't want to hear it...some of the things he was saying is similar to what a couple of my students were arguing...it's all about class and being poor as they said...it unites all races...but we know that is so NOT true. I tried to explain how there are complex intersections of race, class, gender, etc. that play into power struggles, but it just went over their head...or perhaps they were too "threatened" by having their worldview challenged...afterall, they would see themselves as "not being racist".

I'm only a teaching assistant at this point in time (teacher in training), but i'm going to suggest that the teacher does some "unpacking white privilege" readings with these kids. It's fucking important man...even if it calls for a super uncomfortable situation in the classroom...but isn't that what education is supposed to be all about...well, it would be at least in my classroom!

11:10 AM  
Blogger fiercelyfab said...

"too many folks involved in justice struggles are patronizing and paternalistic about it, and it makes me ill."

This is so true, and this hits home. And yes, it is uncomfortable. Currenlty I'm involved in organizing in downtown LA, five minutes away from my home...and it is a world of a difference and I'm realizing how my privileges as a college educated woman--kinda lower middle class with a stable home is clashing with mostly extremely low income in residential hotels/transitional homes tenants without the "skills" to even have an interview for a decent paying job.

We're currently on the verge of conversing about this--and honestly I'm ready to leave after the conversation and see what I can do here very locally. Tough I do question community as geography. At the same time most of the people in my own community are recent immigrants with a wide range of differing issues--how do we meet our differences even though let's say we are all "people of color" when folks are monolingual, immediate issues are immigration, etc.

In the light of the anti-racist and violence work I'm doing, I'm coming off very privileged and it is making me, yes, uncomfortable. Though there are many struggles of mine that end up not in the limelight because there are more 'pertinent' struggles than my own--like access to housing, healthy foods, working around criminalization of communities and safety from violence. Things that I do happen to enjoy at the moment--difficult to make connections when folks see you and yes you also see yourself in a much better position though--though structurally speaking one is pretty vulnerable as well.

2:26 PM  
Blogger Free To Be... said...

It can be extremely unsettling when some people do not recognize their privledge and act like they are some kind of saint for choosing to work in the social service field doing organizing, etc. Especially when they act like because they shop at the thrift store or because they don't have a car or whatever they can totally identify. These are the people that want recognition for all good deeds they have done. It's not about the deeds though it's about their sick need for self fullfillment at the expense of someone "less fortunate" than themself. And, it can be just so belittling to the people they are working along side. It's painful to see the injustices continue because of naivity or pure ignorance.

I experience this occassionally but one particular situation comes to mind when I was working for a non - profit here in the midwest. Some of the employees were reeking of such privledge and habits. I'm talking about co-workers who could have not worked a day and would have been comfortably financially stable or at least taken care of financially. Working there was just for sport it seemed like. They would try to "be cool" with the people who actually lived in the neighborhoods they were canvassing which is fine but when they left for the evening it made me want to vomit listening to the ignorant comments which spewed from their lips.(Many staff members who were not "organizers" were from the neighborhoods being canvassed.)

I'm not saying that I am not without privlege of my own and I try to be aware of my actions and words. I realize that I cannot personally identify or try to own everyone else's struggles. I have dealt with my own pain with blatant and underlying racism. I don't expect anyone to personally understand but share similar experiences that are relevant and that's great! I know I will most likely continue to have internal conflict with my judgements on such types of encounters. I'm not even sure if such patronizing do -gooders realize the permanent pain they are causing.

Sorry, I know I may have gone way off into left field! Thank you for the post and I'm lovin' your blog!

4:47 PM  
Blogger brownfemipower said...

Free to be, I hear you on the not for profits...I don't want to say how I know this person, but I know this person who is about one of the worst people in the world to be working with the population that this person works with...there have been a lot of racist comments and non STOP comments like "those people"--oh, and the "those people are *proud* to be milking the system!"
I'm like, if it's so damned offensive to you, then why the hell are you doing it????
but like free to be and fab have both said, people are *paid well* to work for those rotten underpriviledge people.

it's disgusting to me.
and why I try my very best to avoid even looking at non-profits as a job option--although I will be the very first to admit that it's hard to do, because it would be *very* nice to be paid to do activist work...

8:35 PM  
Blogger Abdul-Halim V. said...

Actually, recently I've been seeing similar things (to the kill whitey parties) in that SNL video for Lazy Sunday (which has two white comedians rapping about their day and using the hook the Chronic-WHAT!-cles of Narnia)

There is a fine line between flattery through immitation and disrespect.

2:04 PM  
Blogger Free To Be... said...

BFP- I love working in Non - Profit and I can truly say I did not go into this field for the money(: I simply like people and I value their views on life. Whether similar or different lifestyles from my own. However, it is definitely not for the weak at heart or for the ones we have all mentioned in prior comments. I would love to live my life as a activist too but there are bills, bugeting has not been a skill I've aquired as of yet, and no one is coming forward begging to give me financial stability. Thumbs up to those who has discovered a way to make it happen.

11:45 PM  
Blogger Pomegranate Queen said...

Brownfemipower, I hear you, it definitely would be nice to be a fulltime paid activist...but we both know there's a reality check there...that's why many of us are in spaces we don't really want to be working in.

Free to be, i'm glad you enjoy being in the space...we need critical folks in those spaces too...and i've been in non-profit/NGO spaces and had mixed feelings about them...but they had been meaningful work on some level. And I have come across good peoples doing solid work with their hearts fully in it.

3:21 PM  
Blogger Pomegranate Queen said...

Abdul-Halim, i've seen that SNL video you're talking about...and I have to admit I was laughing at it...
you are absolutely right, there is definitely a fine line between flattery through imitation and disrespect...no doubt.
what do you think of the Ali G show?

3:28 PM  
Blogger brownfemipower said...

oh my gosh pq, i just saw the ali g show for the first time about a month ago...what kinda mess is that???? i was laughing my butt of in some places and praying nobody was watching me watch that crap in other places...

5:19 PM  
Blogger Pomegranate Queen said...

BFP, i'm so there with you and i don't know what kind of mess it is! believe me, i was asking myself the same thing! i'm guilty of the same thing! TV...i've got to stop watching it! ;)

7:05 PM  
Blogger Free To Be... said...

You are right there are definitely some exceptional service providers out there. It's unfortunate that there are the few that perhaps have let's say peculiar ways of dealing with others who are in their most fragile state. I'm not sure where it stems from wanting to kick others while their down. Maybe it's the worker's own internal struggles. Let's hope the exceptional folks outweigh the not so exceptional.

9:38 PM  

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