Friday, May 2, 2014

Talking about race in America…in Europe

If I hear one more European make a disparaging comment about ethnic communities in the United States, I am going to lose my s**t. Believe me, I never in a million years thought that I would ever be defensive about American race relations, or—gasp—proud of American society when it comes to issues of race and cultural politics. But after 10 months of living in Europe and looking back at U.S. racial politics through a European lens, I find myself protective of our fierce racial debate and more appreciative than ever of our messy diversity. Watching Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” video from a European vantage point actually brought tears to my eyes. Don’t get me wrong, I have not lost my critique of racial inequality or racial violence in America. In fact, just the opposite: it is the robust critique of inequality that people of color in my country have cultivated over the past two centuries, but especially since the 1960s, that I miss on this side of the Atlantic. It is that critique, so essential to the struggle for social change, that I find so misunderstood in Europe. In six months in Spain and the past four months in Denmark, I have come to realize a few things about how many Europeans view race in America (these views are not shared by all, obviously, but I have heard them expressed enough times by different people in enough different contexts to learn that they are commonly held views).
1)      They think that we have a race problem (we do, but at least we know it);
2)      that our “political correctness” prevents us from being honest and natural, and that their “political incorrectness” entitles them to say whatever comes to their minds about people of color in the United States or anywhere;
3)      that the American obsession with ethnic identity and identity politics is an unfortunate pathology that holds us back from real progress; and
4)      Related to the above, that ethnic neighborhoods (barrios, or “ghettos”), are the scourge of decent society, and any kind of ethnic association is unnecessary or suspect.

I seem to be a magnet for unsolicited opinions of American race relations, due to the subject of my research on immigrant communities and cultural diversity. Whenever people engage me about my research or ask me about what is different here (in Spain or Denmark) from the United States, I can’t escape issues of ethnic identity. And whether these conversations are informal chats or during Q&A after a formal presentation of my research, they always seem to provoke overt or insinuated expressions of disapproval of how we do race in America. Why should this bother me, when I have spent most of my career critiquing how we do race in America? I would not want to be in the position of defending racial segregation, for example, or the increasingly apartheid nature of American schooling. But it is not these things, nor racial disparities in health, housing, higher education, or any other indicator of institutionalized racism, that my conversational partners mention when they talk about race in America. No, the comments I hear bother me because they attack the very thing I miss about the American racial landscape: the continued salience of racial and ethnic identity for people of color as a basis for meaningful association and political mobilization. When my Spanish and Danish counterparts condemn ethnic communities or the behavior of minority groups in America, they are condemning the presence of active and empowered ethnic identity groups who keep a vigorous critique of racial inequality at the forefront of public debate;  a social movement that calls white supremacy on the carpet every single day.  It is this racial vigilance that keeps the pressure for change on in the U.S., that has been dismissed by many on both sides of the Atlantic as “political correctness.”

During a recent dinner conversation with a senior educational administrator here, for example, the conversation eventually got around to my research and the differences between the experience of ethnic diversity in Spain and the U.S.  He declared, “The worst case scenario is African-Americans in the U.S. Where you have a totally blaming culture, blaming the government and society for everything they don’t have.” He immediately added, “I know you Americans are politically correct and don’t say things like this, but we Danes are not very politically correct.” The assertion was wrong on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to begin. First, it was telling that he brought up African-Americans when I had been talking about immigrant groups in Spain and in the United States. Since African-Americans are not immigrants, to suggest they are presumptuous for making demands on the state is even more inappropriate than it would be if they were immigrants. However, as I proceeded to tell him, immigrants in the U.S. today owe a great debt to African-Americans, as well as to Chicanos, for the Civil Rights Movement, a debt which I felt most acutely while doing research in Spain, where there has not been a Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps this is what I miss the most in Europe: the legacy of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and the rights consciousness it won for minority groups. Some activists in the U.S. say they miss the Civil Rights Movement over there, too, since there doesn’t seem to be any sign of a comparable social movement on the scene now. But from where I sit in Denmark, I can see that the Civil Rights Movement is still alive in the U.S. today. Because once people are aware of this thing called rights, they don’t shut up until those rights are respected. What my Danish colleague called the “blaming culture” of African-Americans—while I can’t be entirely sure what he was referring to—I would re-label “critique.” African-Americans have a critique of the government and social institutions, for obvious historical reasons. And this active critique, while surely a nuisance for people who like American society as it is, is the most indispensable ingredient of a movement for social change. Have I said that enough times?

Then there’s the troubling question of why any European would think it is acceptable to criticize an entire American ethnic group to me, an American citizen. Do they think that I will agree with them because I am racially white? Do they presume to know more about my country than I do? Or are they intentionally trying to school me on political correctness? Well, at the end of the day I’m grateful, because it’s given me a chance to reflect on just how much we know about race in the United States. We have a long history of fighting about it. And here’s what I have to say to Mr. Politically Incorrect Dane: What you call “political correctness” I call “political consciousness,” which means an awareness of how power relations shape our relationships with others, and how the “others” we speak about might react to our speech. Not all Americans have this awareness, of course, but everyone who holds their tongue before making an ignorant generalization about another ethnic group has at least the seeds of this awareness, and that’s a good start. As for the troublesome people of color who can’t stop “blaming” U.S. society or institutions: call it blaming or call it holding them accountable. Whatever you call it, bring it on.

(You can see a previous post about my experience with these issues at my daughter's public school in Madrid here.)

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