Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A New Twist on "Acting White"

CNN's Political Ticker blog reports that the Rev. Jesse Jackson has accused Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama of "acting White" by not taking a more vocal stand on the Jena Six case. It's worth noting that Jackson says that he "does not recall" making such a statement, but I see no real reason to doubt the newspaper coverage.

My TMV co-blogger Angela Winters commented on the story, saying that epithets like "acting white" are simply "juvenile" and that Jackson is "assuming that any black public figure who doesn’t act in the way he thinks they should isn’t 'authentically black' because somehow he is the barometer of whatever 'authentically black' is."

All fair points, perhaps. But I think this particular iteration is an interesting twist on the "acting White" rhetorical saga that's worth noting in a bit more detail.

Generally, the phrase "acting White" has entered the public eye as a referent to Black youth seeking to tar their peers who excel academically. This, of course, is a bad thing, for it implies that authentic Blackness stands in opposition to intellectual pursuits. Thus, it is detrimental the construction of a positive, flourishing Black identity.

But Jackson's claim, as reported, is different. He's not arguing that Obama is "acting White" because he's too erudite. He's saying Obama is "acting White" because he's showing insufficient concern for social and racial justice. And as Angela says (and I agree), the Jena Six certainly is something that Presidential candidates should be speaking out on, because it is an appalling case of blatant injustice and Jim Crow railroading the likes of which should never be seen in contemporary America. Of course, as a White person, I'm not entirely thrilled that "lack of concern about racial justice" is considered to be a trait of my race. But I can't really deny that a strong segment of the White population does generally prefer to ignore these issues. And in any event, I can suck it up. But Jackson's definition of "authentic Blackness" is one that encompasses concern for justice, looking out for those who are still being oppressed in America's racial hierarchy, and not pulling the ladder up behind you once you've made it. Angela is perhaps right that Jackson doesn't really have the standing to issue such a decree. But would it really be such a bad thing for the Black community to construct its identity around these guidelines?

I definitely believe that a true Jew must show concern for the marginalized and the stranger even if our own position is secure ("for you were once strangers in a strange land"; the ethical relationship between Jews and strangers is one of the most repeated Biblical injunctions, appearing 35-40 times, far more often than the prohibition against killing). I construct the identity of "Jew" not solely in terms of biological properties or chanting certain words at certain times, but also a broader set of ethical and moral commitments which are every bit as integral to my Jewish personhood as are the more "traditional" ritualistic components. And in general, I have little real objection to constructing communal membership, at least in part, around certain shared ethical commitments that we can then press against our supposed compatriots ("press" not as physical coercion, but rather moral suasion). Indeed, so long as these principles are dynamic and open to analysis, debate, and critique, this strikes me as a better grounding for group membership than biological or ethnic essentialism. In any event, is it really that bad when the Black community expects/demands of its people that, regardless of power or position, they still remember their brothers and sisters who haven't yet made it, who are still (literally, in this case) in chains?

Even within this framework, I still think group identity should be constructed positively as who we are ("this is what it means to be Black") rather than who we're not ("not doing this makes you White"), because the latter denies the ability for intergroup commonalities and the capacity of people from all communities to learn and grow from each other. But that notwithstanding, I have trouble objecting to a vision of Blackness that incorporates social justice for all as part of its parameters. Certainly, its better than Blackness defined as opposing academic excellence. Perhaps we should try and nurture this thread, rather than stifle it at birth.

No comments: