Symbolic ethnicity or cultural appropriation?

The Ganley Sisters doing a brush dance

Last night I attended a Karneval Fest (German version of Mardi Gras celebration, also called Fasching), sponsored by one of the local German social clubs, the Deutscher Sport Club Richmond. It was an interesting experience, with good German food and drink, music, and dancing. As is the case in Germany, there were also quite a few humorous talks, all given in German, in fact, often at least in part, in Rheinland dialect, as the most famous celebrations happen in cities along the Rhine, especially in Cologne and Mainz. These talks are called Büttenreden, meaning talks delivered on a vat or barrel (in dialect a Bütt). Judging from the paucity of laughs at punch lines, I am pretty sure the majority of attendees did not understand the jokes. That didn’t seem to bother anyone – the use of German contributed to the atmosphere, in the same way that the costumes, decorations, and the music did. Most of the folks there were enjoying playing at being German for the evening, just as most of them probably had done at the Richmond Oktoberfest.

I had another experience of what is sometimes called symbolic ethnicity today at a concert given by the Irish-American group, Cherish the Ladies. As this was held at noon, an Irish breakfast was served, with bangers and soda bread (however, no black or white pudding). The group consists of women from the US, Ireland and Scotland, but the featured ethnicity was definitely Irish, the source of almost all the songs (often written by members of the group inspired by visits to Ireland) and the jokes (many at the expense of the Scots). Just as we will next month on St. Patrick’s Day, we were all honorary Irish for the occasion.

In the US, assuming for fun and celebration a different ethnicity can be a tricky proposition. No one is likely to complain if a non-German wears Lederhose and a Bavarian hat to an Oktoberfest celebration. But donning a Native American costume for Halloween is considered inappropriate, an example of “cultural appropriation”. This month Is Black History month in the US, but it’s not likely any White Americans will honor African-Americans by wearing blackface. It may come down to the context in which the ethnic borrowing takes place, and the kind of portrayal used. Representing German ethnicity by wearing an SS uniform would be problematic, as would enacting an Irish identity by dressing as a starving potato farmer. It’s also the case that historically disadvantaged and mistreated groups, like American Indians and African-Americans deserve to by treated with dignity and respect by the mainstream culture, which oppressed them. There have been too many distorted and negative portrayals of those groups in the US media and culture for it too be ok to perpetuate the stereotypes.

One of the interesting aspects of both the German and the Irish events this week-end was the incorporation of women’s domestic work in a humorous or musical way. One of the talks at the Karneval Fest was given by a self-professed “Putzfrau” (cleaning lady), who brought along her mop and bucket. Two Irish sisters, preceding Cherish the Ladies (the Ganleys), did a “brush dance”, using ordinary brooms as props around which and with which they danced. Perhaps such evocations of an underprivileged class (women in domestic roles) is permissible in this instance because of the fact that both Irish-Americans and German-Americans have become part of the cultural mainstream. We White Americans can laugh at our own, confident, at least for now, in the maintenance of the power structure that provides white privilege, even for the least prestigious among us.

Ugly Americans?

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Ryan Lochte and fellow US swimmers in Rio

Today Olympic gold medal winner Ryan Lochte lost the major endorsement deals he had with a variety of companies. This comes in the wake of his behavior in Rio after a night of celebratory drinking. He claimed that he and other US swimmers out with him had been robbed at gunpoint at a gas station by what seemed to be Brazilian police officers. It turns out the reality was quite different, namely that the group had trashed a restroom at the station and had been confronted to pay for the damages. Lochte apparently thought his story would be believed, given perceptions of rampant crime and corruption in Rio, and the fact that the claim was coming from a celebrated athlete from the US. Brazilians were understandably upset by the incident, viewing it as playing on negative stereotypes of Brazilians versus the assumed honesty of white Americans. In the US, too, Lochte has been seen as a classic example of “ugly American” behavior, US citizens acting in dramatically insensitive ways when abroad. On the other hand, Breitbart has defended Lochte against this view.

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 10.30.57 PMThe Lochte story struck me in particular tonight, as, on the evening news, it was followed by a story on the “White Helmets”, volunteers in Syria who risk their lives to go out in Syrian cities after bombing strikes to dig through the rubble to rescue survivors. They do this dangerous work with no expectations of reward or recognition. Heroic Syrians versus ugly Americans? This is the group that rescued 5-year old Omran Daqneesh, the boy who was pulled bloodied and stunned from the ruins of Aleppo and has become a symbol of the violence in Syria. It makes you not feel too bad for Lochte losing all his sponsorship money.

A Mom’s White Privilege

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Potential shooters?

Following the events in Ferguson, Missouri in which an unarmed black teenager was shot dead by a policeman, there have been many discussions on race relations in the US. One of the more interesting perspectives I’ve seen is the blog post a young white mother posted about her sons:

I have three sons, two years between each. They are various shades of blond, various shades of pinkish-white, and will probably end up dressing in polo shirts and button downs most of the time. Their eyes are blue and green. Basically, I’m raising the physical embodiment of The Man, times three. The White is strong in these ones.

She goes on to comment on the day-to-day experiences her sons are likely to have, living in the United States, starting with the following:

• Clerks do not follow my sons around the store, presuming they might steal something.
• Their normal kid stuff – tantrums, running, shouting – these are chalked up to being children, not to being non-white.
• People do not assume that, with three children, I am scheming to cheat the welfare system.
• When I wrap them on my back, no one thinks I’m going native, or that I must be from somewhere else.
• When my sons are teenagers, I will not worry about them leaving the house. I will worry – that they’ll crash the car, or impregnate a girl, or engage in the same stupidness endemic to teenagers everywhere.
• I will not worry that the police will shoot them.

She continues, giving examples from recent incidents in which an African-Americans woman was shot to death when she went to a house for help after a car mishap or when a young black man wielding a toy pistol was killed by police in a Walmart store – experiences her sons are unlikely to have.

She concludes:

My boys will carry a burden of privilege with them always. They will be golden boys, inoculated by a lack of melanin and all its social trapping against the problems faced by Black America. For a mother, white privilege means your heart doesn’t hit your throat when your kids walk out the door. It means you don’t worry that the cops will shoot your sons. It carries another burden instead. White privilege means that if you don’t school your sons about it, if you don’t insist on its reality and call out oppression, your sons may become something terrifying. Your sons may become the shooters.

Her comments echo those of Peggy McIntosh, a women’s-studies scholar at Wellesley College, in a widely read essay entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack” in which she provides an extensive list of examples. Her essay was in the news earlier this year in the context of Princeton University freshman Tal Fortgang’s rejection of the idea that as a white male attending an Ivy League university he should “check his privilege”. It seems likely that such divergent views will continue, given the diversity of experiences of white and black US citizens. Interestingly, a good number of the protesters against the killing in Ferguson were white.

Check your privilege

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Tal Fortgang on Fox News

There has been a lot in the news recently about white privilege, following the case of Princeton University freshman Tal Fortgang. He reacted to the comment by a classmate that he should “check his privilege” by writing a piece published in Time Magazine. He rejects the idea that there is any kind of white privilege in American society and that he is any way someone who has enjoyed advantages from growing up white and male in a well-to-do upper middle class family. He points to the difficulties in his family history, including his grandparents fleeing the Nazis and immigrating penniless to the U.S.:

Behind every success, large or small, there is a story, and it isn’t always told by sex or skin color. My appearance certainly doesn’t tell the whole story, and to assume that it does and that I should apologize for it is insulting. While I haven’t done everything for myself up to this point in my life, someone sacrificed themselves so that I can lead a better life. But that is a legacy I am proud of.

Fortgang certainly has a point, that who you are is not determined by your gender or your racial identity. We all create our persona from multiple sources and influences, including, as Fortgang emphasizes in the story of his hard-working father, through industry and personal fortitude. But he implies that we all have the same starting point for being successful in US society, which I and many others would argue is not the case. The case for that was made by Peggy McIntosh, a women’s-studies scholar at Wellesley College, in a widely read essay entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack” in which she provides an extensive list of examples, starting out with these:

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

Interestingly, McIntosh was interviewed a few days ago for a piece in the New Yorker on “The Origins of ‘Privilege’” and commented on the Fortgang controversy:

When Tal Fortgang was told, “Check your privilege”—which is a flip, get-with-it kind of statement—it infuriated him, because he didn’t want to see himself systematically. But what I believe is that everybody has a combination of unearned advantage and unearned disadvantage in life. Whiteness is just one of the many variables that one can look at, starting with, for example, one’s place in the birth order, or your body type, or your athletic abilities, or your relationship to written and spoken words, or your parents’ places of origin, or your parents’ relationship to education and to English, or what is projected onto your religious or ethnic background. We’re all put ahead and behind by the circumstances of our birth. We all have a combination of both. And it changes minute by minute, depending on where we are, who we’re seeing, or what we’re required to do.

McIntosh accepts Fortgang’s that the whole story “isn’t always told by sex or skin color”, but that there are many more factors at play. I was at a conference presentation recently in which the main topic was how to include diversity as a topic in online courses. The first question after the presentation was by the only African-American in the audience. I expected, as did probably the rest of the folks there, for her to comment on diversity from the perspective of growing up black in the US. Instead, she went on at considerable length about what it was like to grow up skinny and suggested that body size be included in discussing diversity and discrimination.

On the lighter side, Buzzfeed has an interactive checklist for seeing how privileged you are. For an alternative view on white privilege, here is Louis CK’s take on being white: