Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Red, White and Blue

By Christy Rogers, Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

Early in my academic career, I was greatly interested in how race was defined and demarcated among whites, blacks, and Native Americans in the 19th Century. I was giving a paper on this topic at Harvard and staying with my cousin’s family in Boston. My uncle asked me how I became so interested in Native American history. He asked, “Is it because your maternal great-grandmother was Native American?” I almost slipped from my chair. No one had mentioned this to me before, ever. He said this was something my grandmother had confided to him in her ailing years. I didn’t know what to do. I got really excited. I ran up the stairs. I ran down the stairs. I ran up the stairs again. This—blood—made ME Native American. Suddenly, so many things about myself made sense. My attachment to the land. My acuity about people that some friends nervously characterized as clairvoyance. I couldn’t wait to talk to my mom.

“Utter nonsense,” my mother retorted, firmly. Now I wasn’t Native American. My enlarged sense of identity collapsed. Then I realized that I had, running excitedly up and down the stairs, briefly considered that race, identity, and cultural belonging could be transferred by blood alone, despite the fact that I had not been raised with one tiny jot of Native American culture or conscience. I considered doing genealogical research; I knew about DNA testing, but I finally thought: no. I’m white. I was raised white, I have benefited from white privilege for so long that I can’t retroactively “un-do” my whiteness and claim membership with a people violently oppressed for centuries.

One of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten was from an African-American roommate, about 15 years ago. Walking down the street with me, she suddenly said, “you know, you’re not really white, you know. I mean, you’re white, obviously, but you’re not really white. Do you know what I mean?” And I’m sticking with that as the best I can do: white, of course—but not really. But the “not really” has to be earned by my work and by my commitments—not given by blood.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Toward a Transformative Agenda Around Race, November 30 - December 2, 2007

The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University is proud to announce our upcoming national conference and Film Festival.

WHAT: "Toward a Transformative Agenda Around Race"
WHEN: November 30 - December 2, 2007
WHERE: Hyatt Regency in downtown Columbus, Ohio
REGISTER NOW: http://www.KirwanTransformativeRaceConf.org

PLEASE NOTE: 30% discount on the regular $50 fee for student groups of 10 or more (i.e., $35 each) and 30% off the regular $250 fee for non-student groups of 5 or more (i.e., $175 each).

Plenary sessions:
"A Conversation on the Arts, Activism & Culture" with Danny Glover and Felix Justice
"The New American Story" with Senator Bill Bradley
"Toward a Transformative Agenda around Race" with john powell, Saskia Sassen, and Susan Sturm
"Talking about Race" with Stephanie Fryberg and Drew Westen

The 45 other sessions will include:
Mass Incarceration in the United States: The New 'Jim Crow'?
More Than a Messenger: The Media's Role in Shaping Today's Racial Landscape
"What Makes Me White?" A Film Screening/Discussion with Aimée Sands
African Americans and Immigrants: Breaking Down Barriers, Building Bridges
How Do We Create A Cohesive Campus Community?

FULL SESSION DESCRIPTIONS are now available: http://kirwaninstitute.turnstilesystems.com/PanelsWorkshops.aspx

"Our conference will provide racial justice advocates, activists and researchers with much of the specialized information, tools and expert networks we need to transform the landscape of racial discourse and practice in this country." -john powell, Executive Director of the Kirwan Institute.

November 30: Join Danny Glover as he presents his film Manderlay (2005).

Kirwan Institute film festival November 27-December 1 at the Wexner Center for the Arts, Arena Grand, and Drexel Gateway Theatres. Visit http://KirwanFilmFestival.com for more information.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Learning from South Africa?

By Lidija Knuth, Research fellow at the Kirwan Institute

In South Africa after the collapse of Apartheid in 1994, race and class still coincide in very complex ways—reproducing, sustaining, and feeding off of each other because of the structural and systematic barriers and constraints placed in the way of genuine redistribution of resources.(footnote 1) South Africa is strongly influenced by the legacies of colonialism, slavery, and apartheid. The social, economic, and cultural life of current South Africa is marked by this legacy. Racial inequality is reflected in a wide range of areas depicting a growing contrast between fulfilment and deprivation. Many whites acquired positions of power and wealth during apartheid and very few of them are poor. Whites dominate virtually all aspects of higher education, and specifically the area of knowledge production. The structure of separate education systems for different apartheid-defined race groups has resulted in manifest inequalities.

South Africa is an example of a society where structural racism is firmly embedded in an all-encompassing, state-directed approach.(footnote #2) One paper argues that racism lives on even though the society is no longer formally organized on racist principles. This reality is recognized by the government, legislation, and the judiciary. The need for the protection, promotion, and monitoring of the right to equality is outlined in various pieces of legislation, inter alia the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act (footnote#3) and the Employment Equity Act (footnote #4). However, the Equality Act is by far the most comprehensive and the most important piece of legislation prohibiting unfair discrimination after the Constitution. The preamble to the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act of 2000 states, “Although significant progress has been made in restructuring and transforming our society and institutions, systemic inequalities and unfair discrimination remain embedded in our social structures, practices and attitudes.”
The uniqueness of the Equality Act is that it moves beyond the duty to refrain from discriminating to imposing positive duties on government, public and private bodies, the entities, and the South African populace to promote equality. This constitutes an important recognition of the shift from formal to substantive equality. An equally important aim of the equality clause is to redress disadvantage. This means that in addition to merely compensating identified victims, there is a proactive duty to restructure institutions.
In South Africa, much remains to be done to redress the legacy of immense inequalities based on race, but the country is a pioneer regarding the open discussion and attempts to deal with its history.

#1. Fred Henricks, „Racism after Apartheid,“ 2001.
#2. Fred Henricks, „Racism after Apartheid,“ 2001.
#3. Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, 2000 (Act No. 4 of 2000).
#4. Employment Equity Act (No. 55 of 1998).

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Words that Wound

By Andrew Grant-Thomas, Deputy Director of the Kirwan Institute

I know a 15 year-old – let’s call her Karen -- who is the only black player on the field hockey team at her predominantly white public high school in an affluent Connecticut town. She’s the goalie and one of the best players on the team.

Her team just played another team that, as it happened, also included one black player. At some point during the game, an opposing player screamed at a teammate to “get it into the nigger.” Whether either coach or the referee heard the remark is unclear, though one of Karen’s teammates told their coach about it after the game. Two days later, Karen responded to her mother’s question about practice that day by declaring that she no longer wanted to play on the team. Only then did the story emerge, in a flood of tears.

Karen’s mother asked mine to accompany her to a meeting with her daughter’s coach and school principal. My mom agreed and then called me. What should they say at this meeting, she wondered. For many reasons, not least my status as the soon-to-be father of a “black” child, I found the question of more than academic interest.

I recommended, first, that Karen’s principal and coach notify the other team’s principal and coach about their student’s words. It seemed important to officially mark the atrocity -- and if you think that’s an excessive term, consider its impact. I’m reminded of DuBois’ story, at the beginning of The Souls of Black Folk, about the white girl in his class who rejected his “visiting card.” Like DuBois, Karen will likely remember that moment on the field for the rest of her life.

Second, preferably as part of a routine practice at the school, the principal should make it clear to all students, staff, and faculty that such behavior is wholly incompatible with their school’s culture and norms. And by “such behavior” I mean words and actions calculated to diminish and dehumanize on the basis of religion, class, gender, and sexual orientation, as well as race and ethnicity.

Third, the coach might assure Karen that her silence on the incident did not reflect her indifference either to the term or its effect. The “nigger” remark reflects on the speaker and on a long, rough history of race and ethnicity in the U.S., not on its target.

As Faulkner put it, the past is never dead. It’s not even past.

And then, preferably with Karen’s agreement and understanding, I’d ask the coach to address the whole team. Not speaking to such incidents simply grants a free pass to the harmful and corrosive meanings of race in our culture. While Karen’s teenage sensibilities deserve their due, care must be taken to define the offense as the ugliness it is, and to ensure that, in the end, this particular racial brushfire sheds more light than heat.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Decisions, Decisions: Elections and the American Voter

By Angela Stanley, Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

As this November brings another set of elections in the midst of a 2008 presidential race that jumped the gun many months too early, I find myself wondering how people are going to decide what candidates should get their votes. Perhaps it’s easier at the local level by voting for familiar names and faces or maybe by not even voting at all since midterm and non-presidential elections tend to see less of a turnout than presidential elections. Regarding the 2008 presidential election, however, there are so many issues and candidates that could excite or frustrate the average voter, depending on where one’s level of interest lies, that it will be fascinating to see what actually does happen next November 2008.

There is no shortage of candidates from either side of the aisle who are all jockeying for as much of our support, and the limelight, as they can get. Descriptively, there is a variety from which to choose and I’m sure many could make the case for there being substantive variation as well. For the first time ever there are viable female and minority candidates that have a real chance of successfully winning their campaigns. If the candidates alone don’t elicit warm, fuzzy feelings perhaps their take on the issues is what will be the deciding factor for individuals—and there is no shortage of those either. From Iraq, to health care, to the environment, to social justice, the political landscape is like our own personal Baskin-Robbins where the selections are bountiful and the samples are free.

Despite the novelty of this election, it’s hard not to worry that people won’t be burned out by this time next year. With candidates entering the race months before they ever had in previous years and states fighting for earlier caucus and primary dates, this is the longest presidential election season we’ve seen in a long time. If we factor in other things like incessant candidate bickering; frustration with the current Administration; Iraq; the economy; the ever changing sexist, racist, or homophobic misdeeds of the week; and anything else that may personally put a damper on one’s day it’s hard to tell whether election fatigue will settle in or if these will be motivating forces that will keep people engaged and ready to participate in the political process.

I know the studies say the average American voter doesn’t know a whole lot about politics and that if there is a turnout around 50% (or over 40% if we’re talking about midterm elections) then we’re doing pretty good, but I tend to be a little more optimistic about voters. I hope that people really aren’t apathetic, unconcerned, uncaring, or uninformed for no good reason. I tend to think people are smarter than what most scholars believe. I also think there are reasons behind the political behavior of most but academics, analysts, and strategists alike are so unconcerned with the individual that they often miss the most valuable pieces of information. My concern is that the superfluous process of political participation and politics in general will overshadow individual political will. If 2000 and 2004 are any indication, people want to be involved. We just have to hope that all of the distracting side games being played don’t divert our attention from what is really important.