Written by Love Isn’t Enough Contributor Rachel Broadwater
“Race according to W.E.B Dubois is the differences of hair, skin, and bone…It matters because they are visible..it matters because our culture tells us these differences matter, that the difference in hair, skin and bone really are revealing of a much deeper reality, that they tell us something about the imprint in the genes you can’t read but you can read the surface manifestations of them.”
-Sut Jhally MLK lecture “Why America Can’t Think Straight about Race (Even with a Black President)
Politics are a dirty business and election campaigns have a distinct stench to them. This upcoming election season is proving to be no exception. It has been nearly a year since various Republicans began offering themselves as alternatives to President Obama in the coming general election and I have been enraged, insulted, and wearied by the heightened sexist, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, and poor shaming rhetoric. I know this is just the beginning and it’s going to get worse but there was nothing that prepared me for this.
During the debate in South Carolina, Juan Williams, a conservative pundit, was challenging Newt Gingrich on his assertions that black people need to demand jobs instead of food stamps and that poor children (black children) lacked a work ethic due to their surroundings. To watch Newt at first shrug off the question and then proceed to lecture Mr. Williams and receive a standing ovation was surreal. It was however the praise given to Newt by this unknown woman that took my breath away and stopped me dead in my tracks. It was not just what she was saying but how it was said. The crisp enunciation of her words swathed in disdain for Mr. Williams gave a clear signal to everyone in that audience and indeed the world. With those words and tone swimming in my head I could only think of one thing: “How the hell did we go from Grant Park to this?”
We were so proud of ourselves as Americans. Despite our ugly and complicated history, we somehow had managed to do something amazing and unthinkable. The world looked at us with a new found respect especially in light of the controversial presidency of George W. Bush. It had not been an easy path to that moment. Securing the nomination and winning the general election had been a contentious battle with coded language, winks to the audience and glimpses of ugliness. Somehow through it all, Americans from all walks of a life pulled through and worked together. Young children in particular played an interesting role in this historic election as both witnesses and participants. They felt the excitement of their parents, teachers, and community and witnessed their participation in the process. In an interesting twist, they were also courted like anyone else despite not being able to vote. Both McCain and Obama went on Nickelodeon introducing themselves and their positions to the youth of America. In schools all across the nation, civics became something fun and exciting with activities such as mock elections being held. They knew this was history but of course due to their age could not fully comprehend how it was so. So when the day finally came for him to be sworn in, I really believe our children – not only the ones in our care – were just as proud. They saw us huddled together at that moment and knew something wonderful had been achieved. Those memories are dear to me (as it is to many) and at times the only lifeline that I have in the current political climate.
But if we were to examine that moment closely there was more to it than that. We did not just elect an African American man to the highest office in the land. We elected a very specific African American man to office. This was an intelligent, highly educated biracial man. For many black communities nationwide, particularly those who had grown up and/or had been involved in the Movement, he seemed to be a living testament to much of the hard work and sacrifice they and countless others had to endure. Candidate Barack Obama presented a different kind of test for white Americans. Could they deal with their own privilege and prejudice so they could look at him as a viable candidate? Certainly his elite education, amazing use of language, friendly smile and strong family counterbalanced the threat his hair, skin and bones brought to some. Certainly the fact he was raised by his white mother and grandparents didn’t hurt. It was however his resolution not to talk about race until he absolutely had to that alleviated those concerns. Barack Obama’s Philadelphia speech offered Americans a very honest, nuanced and measured outlook on our racial history. The fact he dealt with a potentially explosive and campaign ending topic with such grace and dignity allowed many white Americans to disregard any apprehensions about coming on board. That speech allowed Americans to come together to achieve something many – myself included – did not think possible in this lifetime.
If the buzzwords four years ago were hope, change, optimism, together, what are children hearing now? As the remaining candidates continue to narrow the definition of whom and what an American ought to be, how is this shaping our children’s identities as Americans? Just as adults experience race and gender – at the very least- in wildly disparate ways so do our children. Our experiences in childhood without a doubt form many of our opinions that hardened into fact as we become adults. As our children grow and are faced with the choice of politically participating, how will this entire animus manifest itself not just at the voting booth but the platforms they will choose to stand on? More importantly how will our children define what and who is a citizen?
A citizen is defined as a native or naturalized person who owes allegiance to government and is entitled to protection from it. Yet the unfortunate truth is that historically citizenship has been equivalent to whiteness. Our nation has recognized whiteness in the form of heteronormative, able bodied, Christian men possessing class privilege and money having access to citizenship. Later white women with the same qualifications would enjoy the same with a diffused lens. Those who did not fit this very precise definition were left to make do with what they had. For many this meant taking a critical look at themselves to figure out how they could position themselves to gain as close a proximity to citizenship as possible. For African Americans in particular, it was not enough to have “good hair”, keen features or fair skin. It was imperative to be educated, well spoken, and imbibe as much a Christian, middle class persona as possible i.e. black respectability.
Despite my family’s assertions that I was intelligent, capable, gifted in my own way and most important a citizen of this country and thus entitled to all of the benefits and responsibilities that are attached, I am aware that it is my hair, skin and bones that allows me to have access that some are denied. My skin, hair and bones acknowledge my mixed heritage, allowing me never to have my attractiveness and femininity questioned. I make white people comfortable and thus have certain opportunities available to me. Combine my skin privilege with my education, my hetero sexual marriage and legitimate child and I am a citizen within the confines of black respectability and broader white society. Citizenship is not something I worry about and my daughter and my niece who I also parent enjoy the same by proxy.
With the exception of children whose parents are in constant fear because of their immigrant status, most kids are not concerned either. They are concerned with what is happening to their families. Americans have watched their way of life completely turned upside down and their children have been witnesses to the fallout. They have watched as the adults in their lives have lost jobs, homes and —too often– hope. White middle class children may have heard their parents, admitting with shame and embarrassment that for” the first time” in their lives they’ve filed for welfare or applied for unemployment. After years being the ones who donated to food pantries, homeless shelters and the like, this no doubt difficult experience has brought up a disturbing thought “oh my god, I’m like them” – those black and brown people who in the public imagination are dysfunctional, violent, lazy, poor, uneducated and a drain on systems.
With not only Republican candidates but also lawmakers all over the country doing their best to criminalize poverty – i.e. mandating drug tests in order to receive food stamps and unemployment, – I am concerned how all of our nation’s children are internalizing these messages. What is going through their minds when they hear black people should demand jobs and not welfare, that President Obama is the “food stamp” president and to speak of class difference is really about envy? White children are clearly getting the message that food stamps = black people = something white people should not be on = President Obama’s fault for putting my family in this situation. Without the benefit of history and context, it would be hard to fault children for feeling this way.
Working class and poor whites have long wrestled with this “dilemma”. They have long been excluded from our country’s narrow definition of whiteness/citizenship and the benefits that come with it. Historically these communities too have dealt with disparities in education, job opportunities and health care however the inability to deal with white privilege has prevented many whites from forming long term and mutually reciprocal relations within communities of color. White privilege often comes in the form of acceptable whiteness/citizenship dangling class mobility and capitalism as the prize insisting to working class and poor whites they were not like those “others”. Their whiteness allowed those seeking mobility something that persons of color have long sought in this country and has proven to be elusive: legitimacy.
The new economic climate has upended those realities for adults and children alike. With divisive rhetoric becoming the soundtrack of white children’s lives, how will they react politically when they come of age? I wonder if, in an effort to distance themselves from having been black by proxy, they will vote against those social programs and services that have allowed countless families to survive? In an effort to regain “whiteness” and in many ways honor, what will the political landscape look like in the next 20 years? When their skin color (and gender) is the only currency poor and working class whites have, it becomes easy for movements such as the Tea Party to gain a foothold. By exploiting the real and legitimate frustrations of those families without providing any real concrete solutions to those problems it just continues our country’s painful trajectory of marginalization.
One must acknowledge that whiteness has the ability to shift and rename itself. The whiteness of citizenship narrative allows a person to become a self made man/woman. They can overcome their circumstances and pull up their bootstraps. White youth in particular have the propensity to become a tabula rasa. Their backgrounds no matter how abject or dysfunctional have the potential to become something that can be viewed as “authentic” rarely something that is considered “defective”, “unfit”, “maladjusted”, or “flawed”. They can through education and class mobility distance themselves from their upbringing as difficult as that may be. Once they attain those things, their legitimacy is rarely questioned. One only has to look at labor, civil rights, feminists, gay rights and environmental movements to name just a few to see this in action.
For children of color, the current political climate brings up disturbing and potentially alienating questions and possibilities concerning their own citizenship. The pride children of color have in their president meanwhile is no doubt blunted by the continued and unprecedented disrespect shown the President (and his position) and his family, especially his wife. From Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) yelling out “You Lie!” during a joint session of Congress, the endless “accidental” and “poorly thought out” emails, jokes and pictures depicting First Lady Michelle Obama in some of the most racist and sexist ways to the recent finger wagging by Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona it has been an excruciating time for people of color. Here is someone with impeccable credentials who followed the rules and managed to legally (looking at you Dubya) win an election, shattering every stereotype and still they have to prove they are in fact American. What difference does it make that our country can elect a black man – and reasonably any other minority – to the highest office in the land if we cannot respect – and respectfully disagree – with his decisions?
That is the crux of the matter. No matter how stringently a person of color presents themselves, the skin, hair and bones is the thing. Persons of color are inherently political beings, children being the nadir. Black boys are the savage and violent rapists/criminals that must be contained. Black girls are angry, hyper-sexualized, un-rapeable beings who bear illegitimate children and become “welfare queens”. Latino boys and girls the “anchors” that allow their “illegal” parents to take jobs from “real” Americans and drain systems. Children of First Nation tribes are stupid, lazy, drunk and prone to violence. Children of Asian descent are too smart and too successful, and therefore incapable of experiencing discrimination and oppression. There are countless programs, policies, methodologies and strategies for dealing with these “populations”. One has to only recall the three strikes drug laws, welfare reform, sterilizations within black and brown communities, the attacks on affirmative action, no child left behind and the prison pipeline system to see how detrimental they are to the communities they are supposed to help.
Our children are consistently looked at with a cold and critical eye even within communities of color that ought to know better. We present our children in a very precise way so that they can have some access to citizenship. I am no different. My girls’ well groomed appearance is not just for their own self esteem but a form of protection against those that may look at my amazing brown skin girls and think they are worthless. Their beautifully turned out hair, carefully cultivated manners, delightful and curious natures belie that someone – a community – cares about them. One of the nagging concerns I have as a mother is that my girls will somehow distance themselves from their brothers and sisters throughout black communities in order to participate within our society. Will they have to downplay or outright lie about the conditions on the ground so they can have scraps at the political table?
Even if our children embody none of the harmful and misconstrued stereotypes, it is rarely enough. No matter how stable their families, how crisply they enunciate or how high they might matriculate; they are still hair, skin and bones. Children questions things around them constantly and eventually the issue will be citizenship. And they will ask:
Can I be poor and be a citizen?
Can I be gay and be a citizen?
Can I be a lesbian and be a citizen?
Can I be black and be a citizen?
Can I be Latina/Latino and be a citizen?
Can I be disabled and be a citizen?
Can I be homeless and be a citizen?
Can I be transgendered and be a citizen?
Can I be on a reservation and be a citizen?
Can I be uneducated and be a citizen?
Can I be incarcerated and be a citizen?
Or any combination outlined here or otherwise, is it possible?
If it is our hope as a nation, as the incomparable Professor Melissa Harris Perry said “in a democracy we will be accurately seen as who we are in the public sphere” and reasonably have our needs taken care of, the answers to these questions are perilously close becoming to “No”.