Friday, August 27, 2010

You might be a Taoseno if . . . (an on-going saga)

The Police Blotter in your local paper includes the following entries (these ARE real):

"Caller reported that his brother was 'messing with his head.' " (You go ahead and run with this one.)

"Caller reported that someone dumped trash in the Dumpster and 'made a mess.' " (Umm . . . it's in a dumpster.)

"Caller reported that a 'bald-looking guy' had been in the park 'for a while.' " (Was he bald or just bald-looking? Is that some form of profiling?)

"Caller reported that there was noise that was not coming from her house." (I have never heard noises that weren't coming from my house . . .)

"Caller reported that a young man called her and asked if she wanted to take a sex survey." (I'm guessing a middle-schooler.)

"Caller reported she wanted the number for a suicide hotline after her landlady threatened to kill her." (I think the hotline for that situation is 911.)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

What Dr. Laura Can Say and Can't Say

     Most of us have now seen and heard, multiple times, Dr. Laura Schlesinger getting into an argument, during her radio show, about whether it's appropriate to use the "n . . ." word and why. We all now know, if we weren't counting the first time we heard or saw it, that she used the "n . . ." word eleven (or was it fifteen?) times in a very short period of time. We all know that she's been publicly chastised by all sorts of people simply for speaking the word. We all know now, if we didn't before, that there are many people within the African-American "community", in its largest sense, that are working to abolish the word in any and every context. Interestingly, though, only a few folks have actually tried to address the issue she raised: why is it okay for some folks to use that word but not for others? Comedian and actor Chris Rock probably said it most succinctly -- he can use it, she cannot. Dr. Laura's question is left begging.
     There are probably many reasons why Chris Rock can use the "n . . ." word and Dr. Laura (indeed, virtually everyone not of African-American background) cannot. Some are historical, some are sociological, some are economic, and some are anthropological. One anthropological reason, which is also historical in nature, has to do with the formation, evolution, and maintenance of African-American culture. This is not the venue for details so let me simply say that because of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century slavery in North America, people from numerous tribal groups in west Africa were removed from their native cultural milieus and forced into situations in which they were assumed to be just like each other simply because they came from Africa and had darker skins than their new owners. Those circumstances resulted in a variety of responses and expressions of those responses as African people and their progeny adapted to interactions with their owners and other non-African people (including, by the way, Native Americans) and with Africans from other cultural backgrounds. Over time, those responses and their expressions created a new, unique, cultural milieu with its own language and dialects, social structure and organization(s), stories, beliefs, and behaviors. Within the broadest range of those manifestations was the formation of African-American culture.
     Culture is remarkably dynamic; the only thing that doesn't change is change. Please don't assume that I'm saying that there developed a single, monolithic, cultural group of African-Americans, or that such a thing exists today. Not so. Nonetheless, the effects of slavery on generations of Africans and their progeny, as well as on people of African descent even if their families were not slaves, can hardly be overestimated or overstated, even in circumstances in which people had very different experiences. One of those effects was the formation of culture. How do we know? Because Chris Rock can use the "n . . ." word and Dr. Laura cannot.
     I think that Dr. Laura was voicing the feelings of many Americans of non-African descent: "Oh, come on, that was then, this is now. I'm not a slave-trader or owner, I'm not responsible for the actions of slave-traders or owners. If we're ever going to move beyond the tragedy of slavery and post-slavery, Jim Crow discrimination, we have to stop the discriminatory use of certain words. If Chris Rock can use the "n . . ." word, so can Dr. Laura. If Dr. Laura can't use it, then neither can Chris Rock."
     Well . . . not so much. Anthropologist Roy Rappaport identified what he called canonical and indexical aspects of culture. The former are those aspects which are deeply embedded, which reflect cultural foundations, the beliefs, values, and behaviors upon which culture stands. Canonical aspects are very, very difficult to change because doing so potentially threatens the foundations of culture. Indexical aspects of culture, on the other hand, are, as the name implies, indexed to circumstances, sometimes specific and sometimes general. That is, they can shift and change in response to shifting, changing circumstances. Rappaport presented these aspects as a dichotomy but recognized that, in fact, they represent a continuum. Over time, even cultural aspects that have been remarkably canonical can and will change if they become increasingly less relevant to succeeding generations. That's part of the dynamism of culture.
     The point? Culture involves identity. One could say, indeed, that culture is identity. So, people of African descent, during the processes of forming, evolving, and maintaining a culture in North American that provided identities for themselves in non-native circumstances, acquired and created values and expressions that manifested identity. One of those, I suspect, was the "n . . ." word, an apparently common term used by traders, owners, and other non-Africans to identify Africans and their progeny. "Black" and "white" are colors and have different meanings in different contexts (witness the confusion today over whether and how to use them with reference to people). "African" was a term that could not accurately be applied to the next generation (although I have consistently used it in conjunction with "American" in this setting). But "n . . ." is a term specifically used, in North America, to refer to people who were and are "obviously" (not so obvious, as it turns out, but that's another subject) of African descent. When used by non-Africans, then and now, it was and remains a derogatory term intended to demean and diminish Africans and their progeny, to reduce them to a less-than-human status in order to justify subjugating them. When used by Africans and their progeny, on the other hand, it apparently was and continues to be a term of identity. Even with what seem to be obviously derogatory connotations (because of historical circumstances), the word expresses identity.
     Why would slaves and their progeny use a word picked up from traders, owners, and others to express their identity? Because it was not specific to a particular culture back in Africa so it did not give preference to any one African culture over others. Because it accurately reflected the new, overarching, circumstances in which people originally of diverse cultural backgrounds were being forced to create a new culture, in--and this is an important point--a language that all were being forced to learn and use. Language is always cultural expression; otherwise it's just noises.
    The fact that a word that slaves learned in centuries past has been passed down to generations and generations of their progeny, and to people "of color" who are not the progeny of slaves, reveals to us that the word expresses identity and that the identity so expressed is a canonical aspect of African-American culture. Activists like Al Sharpton can try hard to erase it from African-American vocabulary, but they will not succeed until it becomes irrelevant to new generations, and making identity irrelevant is exceedingly difficult. That is, Reverend Al, your task involves finding a way to maintain African-American identity while divorcing that identity from its historical foundation and expression.
     That's why Chris Rock can use the "n . . ." word and Dr. Laura cannot. What Dr. Laura finds difficult to understand is that the "n . . ." word is not canonical to non-African-American identity. Those of us who are not of African descent know that the word had and still has derogatory, demeaning connotations and that use of the word is not acceptable in settings in which people are understood to be people regardless of skin color, genetic descent, language, and so forth. It is not canonical for our identities. Apparently, it is for Chris Rock's. To suggest that it should not be is to suggest that non-African-Americans can decide what are acceptable forms of identity expression. African-Americans have been through that scenario already, as have many other groups of people within what became the United States. What is confusing to Dr. Laura is actually a cultural reaction to cultural domination.
     The actual question to be asked is whether it is possible to form, evolve, and maintain a United States culture. Keeping in mind that Native Americans were not allowed to be United States citizens until 1924 (despite the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, approved in 1868, which had to be enforced by the Indian Civil Rights Act, signed 100 years later in 1968), could not vote until the 1950s (despite the 15th Amendment, approved in 1870, a right that had to be enforced by the Indian Civil Rights Act), that African-Americans' voting rights, ideally secured by the 15th Amendment (1870), had to be enforced by the Voting Rights Act, signed in 1965 (95 years later), and that Japanese-Americans were forced to live in concentration camps during World War II (suspending the right to habeas corpus, secured to citizens in Article 1 of the Constitution, something that President Lincoln also did during the Civil War), it seems unlikely that we are very close to being the racial-ethnic-linguistic melting pot that many of us think we are supposed to be. I have no idea how to accomplish that, and am not sure that we should try, but until it happens, Chris Rock can use the "n . . ." word and Dr. Laura cannot.