By Regina N. Bradley
Wednesday, September 8, 2010.
Postracialism in the United States is an assumption of a multicultural, racially tolerant society that does not rely on race for construction and understanding of (ethnic) identity. A post-racial community looks to a utopic vision of racial harmony instead of attempting to correct or acknowledge the culturally traumatic experiences and multifaceted tropes of suffering that construct racial communities. President Obama’s election reinforced this dream state, supposedly inferring that “we” (meaning all of us, Americans) elected a president of color. What this does not take into consideration, as Mark Anthony Neal points out, is the painfully calculated and strategized showcasing and performance of Obama’s masculinity. If American society is unable and/or unwilling to acknowledge racial heritage in the construction of identity, how is racial tolerance and harmony possible?
Vijay Prashad’s astute observation of the fear of the colorblind in twentieth and twenty-first century academe and cultural discourse speaks to the idea that the United States wishes to view itself as a monolithic society, balanced in its understanding of race and its (un)necessary stronghold on social exchanges between Americans. The danger in this outlook, Prashad observes, is that the neglect of race leads to the disregard of different intersections of race and identity (gender, class, history). Gender expression and identity is especially privy to Prashad’s observations. For men and women of color, who each have unique and often peculiar experiences with race, colorblindness negates these occurrences as deflecting from the intent of a multicultural society, racial tolerance, and social equality.
These fleeting moments of American solidarity appear in spurts throughout the mid to late twentieth century, both calling attention to and defracting away from race as a barrier of lived experience. Minniejean Brown Trickey, one of the brave Little Rock Nine, recognizes the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Topeka (Kansas) Board of Education decision as the first attempt of discarding race as a construct of identity. Legal implications of this decision suggested that race simply be removed as an identity barrier while its social implications force the card of the deeply embedded racial divide America faced – the need for separate groups in unequal settings.
Whites relied upon segregation to maintain a sense of dominance in an inferior-superior social hierarchy while blacks, far removed from any notions or standards of respectability because of their skin color, hovered on the fringes of society. The push for integration initially appeared to be a good look, a move towards progression and racial tolerance in a (previously?) racially intolerant society.
With the addition of civil rights legislation to (legally) ban such prejudices, chunks of society pushed to move past race in its entirety. Unfortunately, legislation does not equal social action or regeneration – many cities and communities still favored a plantation hierarchy, forcing minorities to bend to a dying Jim Crow’s hand. The benign neglect theory applied by government officials like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and the Nixon Administration looked to Americanness as a monolithic Band-Aid where racial discrepancies would play themselves out.
Fastforward to 21st century America. Scholars and critics are still battling out what puts the “post” in “postracial” while the same questions of racial profiling, performance, and identity also play out and seep into everyday episodes. I’d like to present another postracial moment in 2004 with the airing of the pilot of Chappelle’s Show. Here you have comedian Dave Chappelle, an African American man, present a weekly showcase of skits that interrogates and pushes the envelope of racial identity and performance. Season one’s notorious skit about blind black klansmen leader Clayton Bigsby speaks to the issue of America’s desire to refrain from taboo discussions on white supremacy while showcasing its multicultural tolerance. In other words, a cloaked Chappelle infiltrating and helping to construct a white supremacist racial discourse (Bigsby wrote numerous manuals on white power) is humorous because a black guy did it.
Bigsby’s blindness demonstrates the internalization of a normative Eurocentric discourse that places whites at the top of America’s social hierarchy. One particular scene demonstrates this innate understanding with Bigsby yelling at a group of white teenagers for blasting “that nigger music” and the white teens’ ecstatic response to being extended an affiliation with niggadom. This scene may initially appear to be representative of a racially tolerant society. What is problematic about this exchange, however, is the young men’s visual affiliation with middle to upper class white America (their convertible with the top down) listening to music that spoke to the ills of being black and living in the ‘hood. The teens’ affiliations with blackness were lived vicariously through the rapper’s narratives.
The voyeurism and fetishizing of black culture still falls victim (or perhaps even willingly) to expectations of whiteness or white privilege. If race is no longer a pliable tool of social analysis, how strong is its substitute class if class is connected to lived experience that often reflects race? Much of rap music is embellished to portray the difficulties of African American life and to sell whites that fantastic voyage of street grittiness that cannot be consumed within suburban white America. In other words, for many whites, viewing blackness in the media is similar to vacationing to an exotic place. It is easy to associate and later withdraw one’s affections without suffering the stigma surrounding it.
This form of voyeurism often manifests itself through comedy, like Chappelle’s Show or The Boondocks where it is considered okay if African Americans are performing the routines. So was the case for Chappelle, who made a racially mixed audience laugh for different reasons – discomfort because of the content or at the fact that Chappelle must’ve been smoking something for his crazy black ass to want to do a black Ku Klux Klansmen skit. He shifted lenses from being an African American comedian to America’s comedian. Chappelle got a pass. When that lens began to shift back to him being a black comedian whose primary portal to American society was through minstrel-esque performance, Chappelle cut the 50 million dollar strings.
The dangers surrounding colorblindness in relation to racial discourse in the United States includes blanketing the fragmented experiences of minorities into one non-messy package. This is problematic because in similar fashion to the development of African American culture, black identity is not linear in its development. It often uses race to parlay and intersect with other occurrences that may shape and mold an understanding of experiences that are not part of one’s daily routine. While the push for multiculturalism should be applauded, it becomes problematic when racially charged moments that are often pillars of American identity are dismissed and invalidated from the very discourse which produced them.
Why is there a push to erase “otherness” but not normative standards of whiteness? Toni Morrison points out how blackness is viewed in terms of white stability. It is the fulcrum to Eurocentric existence. Whether advertently or inadvertently, the push for a monoracial American existence reinvests in other standards of division like gender which reaffirm spaces of visibility and invisibility. How do these varying degrees of perception reflect in our understanding of identity construction and, to an extent, racial privilege in a postracial society?
Regina N. Bradley is a doctoral student in African American Literature and Culture at Florida State University. She earned her MA in African American Studies from Indiana University Bloomington. Currently, her research interests include performance and gender identity, popular black culture, late 20th and 21st century black literature, and Hip Hop.
Ms Bradley blogs at Red Clay Scholar.