Are you saying black’s not a color?!

When the M.A.S. was working in South Los Angeles, hosting a community meeting about some renovation projects underway in the area (clearly, I’m hazy on the details), he was reviewing with residents their options for communications outreach about whatever was going on.  As a white man who’s worked in low-income and minority communities for 15 years at this point, he’s well accustomed to the immediate distrust his presence can evoke in neighborhoods long used to institutional and individual racism and injustice handed down at the hands of (predominately) white people/power structures.  Anyway, he’s gentle, kind and smart, and worked with mostly women and children for a good portion of that time, and has learned how to invest the time and patience to build the trust needed in these relationships (from what I can tell, as I fumble my way through similar landmines in these last two years). 

So here he was, demonstrating the different colors folks could use in their presentation materials, and described using black ink as an inexpensive printing option, compared to other color choices.  However, it came out, an African-American woman stood up and exclaimed, “Are you saying black is not a color?!” – leaving the M.A.S. to explain that it was indeed a color, though I guess not technically according to the printer.  Or something.  Eeee.

I love this story, because a seemingly silly incident reveals how sharp racial, class and gendered cleavages can be when working in diverse political, cultural or social settings.  If you’re a white minority in your work, as he and I often are, you learn intimately what it feels like to represent an entire class of people (in my case: white people, academic elites, non-Jews at Brandeis, Northeastern liberals) based on a superficial image that you represent, whether it’s based on the color of your skin, your ethnicity, your gender, or your position in the system.  Yes, I am an academic from an elite university, but strangers don’t know that I feel like I snuck in the backdoor of MIT, admitted without funding or role models to guide what was effectively a blind endeavor, and carrying around an enormous class chip on my shoulder (not to mention a hefty dose of insecurity) most of the time I’m on that side of the river.  Personal histories come later, hopefully, in getting-to-know-you conversations.

So imagine my amusement over my dear colleague Weboy’s resistance to the use of hyperbole and propaganda in response to Bush’s veto of S-CHIP yesterday.  Apparently he doesn’t believe, like I do, that the “Bush hates poor kids” rhetoric opens up a larger public space to come at our opponents with facts, reason and a readiness to negotiate, now that people are paying attention to the fact that Bush is pushing kids down on the playground and stealing their lunch $$, leaving them with scrapes and dislocated shoulders their poor families can’t pay to have fixed since they lack insurance.  While he sees empty rhetoric replacing serious debate, I see multiple political strategies going hand in hand. Weboy writes,

“I think the work you’re doing on Gulf relief is admirable because you’re not running around with the “Bush hates black people on the Gulf Coast” line, you’re making the case for the support that’s desperately needed.”

To which I reply,

“…I’d never have the Senate audience for my facts without the race/class/injustice-inspired ire of my colleagues that got us up to DC in the first place.”

(Check out our whole discussion here.) 


1 Response to “Are you saying black’s not a color?!”

  1. October 4, 2007 at 6:46 pm

    Well, you just seem so angry… 😉

    After that string of replies, and this post, what’s to become of me and my “sunny world view”? Alas, I don’t think we can resolve this, and I will, with vigor, stand my ground.

    I disagree entirely with your notion that no one cares about facts; I am convinced people yearn for good, factual information, and are so desperate for it that they will rely on even the worst imitation of facts for want of the real thing. Drama, name calling, and all the rest, is entertaining, but not substantive.

    Look, we can debate endlessly what gets you in the door to discuss your issues – is it the solemn presentation or the fire breathing rhetoric? Who can know. But at the least I’d say it’s a combination of both, and I think the real test is when you get in the room, do you go into the facts, or the hyperbole.

    I have no doubt that there’s a lot of well meaning, serious people working on S-CHIP. I think those people have labored long and hard on getting a workable expansion of the program that has attracted a broad base of support. But I think there’s another group, a higher level group, in the political arena that sees this as a defining moment to take advantage of the news cycle – a surefire winner at a time when the Democrats are feeling especially demoralized about the war, on an issue that plays to our natural base and where Republicans look worst.

    I don’t doubt for a second that this is a winning tactic. What I question is the price attached to winning. I’m not arguing for “the high road” or “can’t we all just get along” or offering a “sunny world view” where the birds sing and we all hug while humming Kumbayah. I’m well past the point where I believe that stuff, as if I ever did. What I do believe though is the attractions of this stuff – of calling the other guy names, of impugning his reputation, of hitting, hard, at some basic values we all, essentially, share – is an unfair, low blow. I think it’s scandalously indecent and appalling that conservatives get away with calling me unpatriotic, America hating, or any one of a number of other things (and that’s before we get to the gay stuff). And I think, if only because I’ve put up with the name calling for so long, that I just won’t resort to it. I won’t call Bush a child-hater or opposed to poor people. I believe, sincerely, that he has a policy difference over an important issue. I also think he’s wrong. But I don’t think it means he hates kids, and I resent the notion that the only way to win over the public, to convince them of the essential rightness of an idea that hardly needs an argument, is to resort to name calling.

    Put another way, I think the MAS (and you) know something from those uncomfortable moments with minority folks when the tensions flare – and that is, that you can get down there and see who can say the worst thing, or you can focus on the matter at hand. If that’s a “high road” so be it. It’s hard, and sometimes painful, to hold one’s tongue. But I think it is what would be called keeping your eye on the ball. And the ball isn’t proving that Republicans hate kids (or, in the Moveon context, making General Petraeus look like a bad person). If we’ve got a goal, let’s focus on the goal. The rest is flashy and dazzling, but it’s well beside the point.

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