See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

You Cannot But Choose a Side

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.

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2 responses to “You Cannot But Choose a Side

  1. King Weakfish 06/22/2018 at 18:11

    “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. ”

    I dislike the view that minorities within the west (or by extension non-whites outside the west under a world that was mostly colonized or culturally dominated by the west), too weak on their own, can only “win” political, cultural, or social gains by appealing to the benevolence of whites (or former colonizers), seeming to put most, if not all of, the agency in the hands of the latter. It’s still too uncomfortably close to a colonial mentality or savior mentality that still denies the minorities any kind of control over their fates unless they appeal to some “masters”.

    There’s long been a tradition (eg. the ideas of Marcus Garvey) of believing that minorities, colonized or oppressed groups should be self-reliant and not seek help from the colonial masters, even if means losing out on the help/advantages those masters could provide.

    Now, not all of the ideas associated with this are necessarily popular (for example, Garvey’s pan-African inspired ideas that African-descended people in the west should reject help from white society altogether, since this help could have motives not in their best interests. And that they should build up their own separate society from scratch if whites refused to integrate with them or see them as equals, or even repatriate to Africa, had understandably mixed reception among African Americans), but there have been attempts by minorities to stand up and have self-confidence in ways that do not appeal to validation from the white majority.

    “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.”

    Who is the culturally powerful outsider? “Whites” (not a unified group either), who collectively act as gatekeepers who decide to bestow upon the various groups of non-whites some status or lack thereof? Again, I think more credit and agency should be given to the non-whites to decide their own fates.

    Also, note that if non-whites have to enlist the help of whites in their factional struggles, the reverse is (and has been true) historically. Whites also used non-whites in their own factional struggles.

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  2. Pingback: Kids, Kimonos and Cultural Appropriation | See Infra

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