Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Getting Out of the Neighborhood

Mychal Denzel Smith has an interesting post up on Salon regarding Black folks who get rich chastising "bad" Blacks. Smith contends that this whole concept relies on a myth that the paradigmatic "hood" Black person doesn't want to see his friends succeed -- that Black people will do everything they can to hold other Blacks back. In reality, Smith says, these communities often rally around their rising stars and try to protect them.

I wasn't expecting to like this piece as much as I did. When I hear the Chris Rock line and others like it, I immediately think of the persistent trope from White people about how Black people don't care about themselves and the only time they rouse themselves up is when they can blame White folks for all their problems. And I've always thought that was ridiculous -- listen to the Black community and you'll find plenty of people who are quite invested in an intra-Black conversation regarding what they need to do, themselves, to better their lives and improve their standing. One need not agree with every element of this conversation to recognize that it's happening. It's amusing to me that the White folks most confident that this internal Black conversation isn't happening are usually those least plugged in to what African-Americans talk about amongst themselves. Maybe the reason you haven't heard these talks is because you're not the intended audience (that's the point, isn't it)?

Obviously, from this framework a key element is who one's audience is. There is a significant distinction between a Black speaker urging his compatriots that they need to change their behavior and a Black speaker telling eager White audiences about how shiftless, irressponsible, and diseased Black people are. It's possible that one point of difference between myself and Smith is that despite his cross-over appeal I never saw Rock's primary audience, in that bit, as White people -- I did not feel licensed to draw a distinction between Black people and [n-words].

This, in a sense, is the difference between "respectability politics" and "do for self." The former suggests that if only minorities play nice and behave themselves, prejudice will go away and they'll succeed. "Respectability politics" is oriented to the dominant group. "Do for self" might urge very similar behavioral changes, but it harbors no illusions that these practices will cure bigotry. The reason to do them is "for self" -- to simply be better. It's inward-oriented. Racism exists and will continue to exist, so what do you do in a world where racism is a constant? Perhaps how one views Chris Rock is a function of which conversation you think he's most contributing to. And given his popularity amongst White audiences, I can't deny Smith has a point.

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