Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else
You Cannot But Choose a Side
04/29/2015Posted by on
Steven Inskeep did a radical act of reporting for NPR’s Morning Edition – he talked to people on the ground. Inskeep went to Baltimore and instead of fitting the situation into the narrative about black victims of white police power he asked the locals what they thought. The locals (or at least these locals) are not impressed with the rioters-cum-protesters and similarly unconvinced it’s about race. With a police force that is about 50% black, they finger something else: class. But the disagreement isn’t just about a root cause analysis, but about struggle for ownership of black identity and “the community”.
When we use “culture” or worse “the community” to signify a coherent group, we’re doing an act of violence, a bit of construction, a smoothing over of disagreements. Anyone part of a church knows there are disagreements. Or an industry group. Or a neighborhood. Or a potlock group. These groupings can have real power when people signify them as , say, the Christians and “Christian beliefs”, the industry, and “industry standards”, or the neighborhood and the “character of the neighborhood”. That smoothing over, the act of category construction is inevitable, necessary, and dangerous.
Factions are inevitable and healthy and ignored by outsiders to their peril. On some level, this is understandable because it is complicated. On the other, it is infuriating, because it is complicated and important. Within the unrest following the death of Freddie Gray, you see that factional struggle in how black folks talk about it. Are they riots, or is it an uprising? Do they side with the mother berating her child for participating, or advocate for more violence in protection of the community? The struggle in and among and between blacks can be seen and felt in the newspaper columns and the Facebook timelines. And everyone else is going to end up picking the winner.
Something that every racial minority knows implicitly is that factional struggles within our race are won by convincing whites and our victories are enforced by co-opting whites. When whites talk about Asian values of hard work and discipline, they sided with my parents over the 5th generation Chinese in California. When whites wring their hands about cultural appropriation of minority cultures, they side with the isolationists within those minority cultures over the assimilationists and boundary pushers. When whites make yoga a fashion statement and daily exercise, they side with the physical focused Hindu traditions over the spiritually focused Hindu traditions. When whites complain about Christian bigotry, they empower traditionalists over liberal Christians. When whites call ISIS the Islamic State, they side with the violent extremists against the Muslims who curse and mock Daesh. These choices are almost never made to make one faction the victor. In fact, these choices are most often made ignorant of that dynamic. But you cannot help but choose. The moment you, as a culturally powerful outsider, essentialize another culture, you finger one faction as the true, authentic representative of that culture.
I am not black. I do not have a personal stake in the outcome of the factional struggles within black communities, social circles, and media outlets. But I am affected by the struggle, because the fight isn’t quarantined to black folk. We are all in this society together. However much we segregate ourselves and each other, whether maliciously or emergently, by class, or race, or any other marker, we cannot change the fact that our destinies are bound together.
For many things I (we) can and must remain neutral on. But often we have choice thrust upon us, factional allegiance hides itself inside image memes, complaints about media narratives and inspirational quotes. So when I must choose, I do not on harming my political rivals or supporting my ideology, or for or against the Powers. I choose instead based on who I want as part of my community, my neighborhood, and my potluck group at my dinner table. I choose the people I want in my schools, and the people who I want to have children so that my children can be friends with them. To choose another way would be to concede to the factions that favor undifferentiated rage and destruction. To condemn the city’s protesters as thugs is to empower those who would have black folk be nothing but a predatory animals. To excuse the violence as justified rage is to empower those who would have black folk be nothing but an abused animal.
You cannot but choose a side. Choose wisely.