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January 29, 2009

Can Anyone Win The Race (Conversation)?

What is the conversation about race that takes place when only Latinos, only Whites, only Blacks, only Asians, or only like ethnicities are alone in their conversations? Let’s not kid ourselves, when men are alone, or women are alone we know how the conversation differs without the other gender in the mix. So, why would it be any different in terms of race? As a matter of fact, it would be even more dysfunctional because across gender lines there is love for our sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers, girlfriends and boyfriends. Across racial lines we often don’t see a connection, which prevents us from loving one another, and instead exacerbates our hatred or inconsideration for one another.

People want to deny our preoccupation with race, though undeniably talking about race is more often than not, problematic. Just recently I received an email, along with many others, about an article in the Press Republican that reported on the conviction of the child rapist in Plattsburgh. The author stated he was “very offended to see that under the headline that said "Child rapist gets 10 years to life", it was also stated, "Puerto Rican man convicted of abuse and rape of young girls in the area." The author’s concern was that the ethnicity of the rapist wasn’t germane to the topic at hand. The author also pointed out that on the same day another writer wrote an article that stated that a “Peru man gets 12 years for abuse." In this article the writer did “mention the person's name but no where in the article does [the writer] mention his ethnic background and rightfully so.” Was this deliberate collusion on the part of one writer versus the other? Of course not, (and I can say that because I know many of the writers for the Press Republican, as well as the management and know that) the paper wouldn’t deliberately put out such a problematic message. However, did the writer perhaps misstep in engaging the details? Is there inconsistency in the way stories are reported from one writer to the next?

Perhaps we can evolve beyond these awkward situations with more dialogue on race. Perhaps we can transcend our uncomfortable feelings trying to articulate the chasm of differences by exposure to others that originate from these different communities. Perhaps a solution to this problem could be the Press Republican and other local companies joining the ranks of other businesses, organizations and companies and introducing its employees to diversity and social justice education as well. In this rapidly changing world of ours is anyone beyond the challenge of becoming more educated about the differences that exist between communities. As an educator in this field, I continually learn so much from one engagement to another.

Is all this commotion an overreaction? Not if you are a member of a community and feeling devalued or disrespected. Have you ever been grossly in the minority in terms of some aspect of your identity and felt that way? The saying “just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean you aren’t being chased” could be quite applicable in this situation. I remember years ago having to address the Press Republican’s printing of the N-word in a letter to the editor (October 2002) when I knew the B-word, or C-word would not have appeared in print. Would the N-word have been printed in a newspaper if that newspaper had a staff that was all Black? Frankly, it is hard to answer that question because of the wide array of ideologies that pervade our society. However, the more diversity (in this case racial) that exists within any conversation would enhance the possibility of differing sensibilities being considered.

Yesterday I had my first class meeting of the semester for my African American Culture course. I entered this class with a completely different sensibility than ever before, greatly influenced by the Obama presidency. The other seven previous times I have taught this course I have structured it around the fact that African American culture today is still responding to the aftermath of slavery. You can see the aftermath of slavery in Black paranoia, disdain for interracial dating, hesitance or disinterest in voting, use of the N-word, an overt preoccupation with physical prowess (sports and entertainment) as opposed to academic enterprises, etc. How my approach to engaging current day Black culture will be affected by the ascent of a bi-racial man to the presidency is uncertain to me at this time, since I really haven’t fully processed the various dimensions of this reality. And for those of you who don’t agree with my assertion that African American culture today is a response to slave culture, why does Obama embrace his blackness over his whiteness when he self-identifies (read Dreams From My Father” to really experience what I am talking about). Have race relations changed? Should our ability to elect a so-called Black president be seen as an indication that we really have advanced in our ability to look beyond race? Or is it like the old saying “even a broken clock provides accurate time twice a day.” Tell me what you think?

January 21, 2009

The Precedent of the United States

I would imagine that January 20th, 2009 was a very intriguing day for many Americans. I found myself in SUNY Plattsburgh’s Yokum 200 lecture hall with more than 300 people observing/participating in the inauguration as best we could. I found myself fascinated by the pomp and circumstance of the day. It was nice seeing whole families seated to witness the historic event of our nation’s first racially underrepresented leader sworn into office. It was moving watching so many people transcend stereotypical behavior and embrace President Barack Obama and his family, though sometimes at the unfortunate expense of ridiculing the outgoing administration.

It was ironic that Obama has put forth quite a bit of effort in attempting to not disparage the previous administration and yet many Obama supporters have not followed his lead. Yes, thoughts of the previous administration's decisions are painful for many to reconsider and the consequences dire as well. But it is hard to believe that the Bush administration deliberately tried to implement unjust policies upon any segment of the American populace. Is there someone out there who disagrees with this assertion? I can't help but think that many of Bush's decisions/choices were an extension of his experiences or lack thereof, including his cabinet choices. Even though #43 was the son of a president (#41) it doesn't mean that his world view was as sophisticated as varying constituents might have hoped it would be. I guess it might be necessary to define exactly what sophisticated might mean relative to various groups.

For the first time in a long time, too long to remember, I actually sang along in the national anthem, with my hand over my heart, with pride. I didn’t really sing because I couldn’t get the words out since my voice was trembling from my being overwrought with emotion. I could only look forward or run the risk of people seeing my eyes flooded with tears. Yes, while I have lived in this country knowing it is one of the best places to live in the world, what I call American hypocrisy has always affected any notion of American democracy for me. Yesterday that all changed and I found myself wanting to become a better citizen, a valued resource in the changing society in which Obama is challenging all Americans to participate.

I am curious as to what you may have also noticed, thought, or did that may have been somewhat out of the ordinary as a result of this day in American history. What is your story, observation, or commitment to change as we enter the Obama era? What are/were some of the various historical markers that were altered or established as a result of yesterday’s inauguration? While some continue to want to frame this election as not necessarily racially significant, was it for you and if so, how? If not, why not? What are some of the things that you believe may occur as a result of this election that may not have occurred if Obama had not won? Is there a precedent to this president?

January 7, 2009

While It Is Evident That People Are Talking, Where Is The Evidence That People Are Really Listening?

Just the other day I had the pleasure of having lunch with a member of the 2006-07 & 2007-08 SUNY Plattsburgh NAACP Championship Women’s Hockey Team. In chit chatting about their two championship runs I asked her if she had ever been in a "shootout." She told me she had. When I asked her what was the score she said 1-0. My rendition of a “shootout” had a score that sounded like “10-9” which is quite a score for a hockey game. If we hadn’t taken the conversation a bit further, our thoughts and definitions of “shootout” would have been worlds apart. She informed me it is an actual hockey term. I was engaging it along the lines of the way it is used in football or basketball as an extension of the western term “shoot out” where in the midst of a fracas gunslingers were busting caps on anyone that moved. In these two sports it is where the offenses basically overwhelm the defenses and the score is ultimately extremely high.

As a philosophy and cultural studies graduate student working on an inter-field doctorate in southern California I once wrote a paper on the incommensurability of language. The essence of the paper was how easy it is for any of us to have a conversation with someone and believe that we actually understood one another, only to discover at a later date that we were really not communicating at the level we thought. Has that ever happened to you? If so, and you vividly remember that feeling, then consider this point: what about all the times that you have not communicated adequately with someone and you didn’t discover it. It is conceivable that many of us are walking around thinking we have some type of agreement with others and they really didn’t understand the true essence of what we were trying to convey.

Just this morning I witnessed Matt Laurer and Anne Coulter in a verbal dance around the cancellation of her guest spot on the Today Show the previous day. It was quite intriguing witnessing Matt attempting to inform her how it happened that she was preempted for Tony Blair and more so witnessing her making her points about the other people that were on the Today Show who were not preempted. They both had an agenda that they wanted to cover and therefore couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Then again, over dinner one night recently I was with a close confidant who knows the terrain of the North Country more than adequately. In a conversation about conversations relative to an upcoming event I was reminded that people see and here what they are predisposed to want to see and hear. For example, I was informed that people who don’t know me may see me as a one dimensional person who immediately admonishes people for their insensitivity or lack of consideration of others. If I am not doing that, then I am probably prejudging people. It appears that people may think I don’t have the ability to escape my profession as educator and consultant and that my analytical fire is always burning. So, in my case, I'm not necessarily heard because people already know what I will say. I'm curious, did you already know I was going to say what I have written above?

This disconnect in dialoguing also occurred in the recently released film “Doubt” starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. A fascinating film in so many ways (especially if you were educated in a Catholic school environment) the film actually presents another dimension/study of competing agendas. If the two characters portrayed by Streep and Hoffman had really conversed early on in the film it is conceivable they may not have ended up on such polar opposite sides of the issue at hand.

Have we become a society so fixated, so self-centered on our own reality that we can’t process others' realities in an open-minded way? What are some other examples of this phenomenon (in film, or real life)? What are your suggestions to solve this or should we just resign ourselves to the fact that this is how it is, and will continue to be?