Thursday, June 19, 2008

Look Who's Talking

Ta-Nehisi Coates is frustrated with how Barack Obama's Father's Day speech is being covered. Not because the speech was bad, or the message was wrong. Rather, because its as if Obama is the only person talking about the need for fathers to take responsibility in Black America, and that's just false:
Barack Obama is basically touting a message that you will hear coming from any serious black person in any black community. Louis Farrakhan was saying this shit thirteen years ago, but I didn't hear anything about Louis Farrakhan offering "a strong rebuke" to absent black fathers. That's because this isn't really about black fathers, or black families. It's about Barack giving voice to white frustration. That's not a reason for Barack not to say what he's saying. He did it in front of a black crowd, and it was the right thing to say. But reporters need to stop acting like this dude is the only civilized black man in the world.

In my book review of the sermons of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, I noted how many Whites seemed perfectly willing to make assumptions about "what Black people think" without even the slightest engagement with Black people. At the very least, one needs to be reading Black political writers, but, as Coates writes in a different post, even that is incomplete exposure because it only gathers the political outlook of a particular class of Blacks (those who "think for a living" versus "work for a living"). In a segregated society such as ours, Whites and Blacks by and large to not engage in mutual deliberation together, and there are few opportunities for Whites to garner reliable knowledge about the (various!) thought-processes and value metrics held by the Black community. This effects Black perceptions of Whites as well, but not to as intense a degree, just because the presence of Whites and White culture on the mainstream media makes up for far more of the gap (particularly in showcasing the pluralism of perspectives Whites hold. Nobody will mistake Spike TV as the be-all-end-all of White culture, but I know many Whites who would make that mistake about BET).

George Yancy argues, "whiteness admits of no ignorance vis-à-vis the black. Hence, there is no need for white silence, a moment of quietude that encourages listening to the black." This, perhaps more than anything, is what grates me about the manner in which racial conversation plays out in America. "Whites admit no ignorance of the Black." We assume knowledge we do not have. We fill in these gaps with stereotypes and prejudice, not empirically crafted evidence, not even (usually) personal experience. Mark Olson's rant about how much poor urban parents suck -- backed up by literally no evidence, no consideration of their situation, no proof that they neglect any of the things he says they neglect (even breakfast, his "slam-dunk"), nor that they are even capable of providing the things he wants them to provide (what if they are working at breakfast time?) is proof of this. Mark does not feel the need to engage with the Black or urban community at all along any of these fronts. Indeed, he's actively resistant to the prospect of this sort of integrated deliberation. He would rather assume than know, and in fact substitutes assumption for knowledge. In his worldview, the perspective of Black people on Black values is irrelevant information -- extraneous (after all -- we have perfectly credible White people talking. Who needs Blacks?). It's viciously dehumanizing.

In order to be a productive contributor to a topic, you have to know of what you speak. I know nothing of physics. I do not blog on it -- or if I do, I'm deferential to actual physicists. If White people want to talk about Blacks, they have to look at what Black themselves say. Read Black writers, study Black philosophers, and engage in the part of the Black community that is neither writer nor philosopher, but (like most Whites) just "works for a living."

If you're not willing to do that, you haven't earned your right to speak.


Mark said...

It's interesting how you start by talking about absentee Black fathers but then dismiss "for lack of evidence" lack of parental commitment to education.

Uhm, disconnect? or perhaps your propose somehow a (magically?) committed helpful yet absentee father?

When you (somewhat derogatorily) write:

Mark does not feel the need to engage with the Black or urban community at all along any of these fronts. Indeed, he's actively resistant to the prospect of this sort of integrated deliberation.

What are you talking about? In the first place, I don't think you know me well enough to make those claims.

David Schraub said...

Parents generally include mothers. Mark talks about absentee fathers, specifically, that they exist in the Black community (one wouldn't know it from the media coverage or anything Mark's ever written, but there are wonderful committed Black fathers as well). But sure, there are Black absentee fathers, as there are White ones. They are absent from the mother and the kids. The mother drops out of the conversation entirely, no matter how committed she is.

So it returns to Catherine MacKinnon's trechant questions: "Are women human?" As usual, the answer is no.