22 September 2009

the state of public discourse

As an educator, I am constantly overwhelmed by how little my students (in college courses) know about history and how much they want to believe we live in a colorblind world. These two are related - the lack of knowledge about history, or the watered-down version of history they learn in high school and college, feeds the belief in colorblindness and the idea that everyone is equal now. Many of them seem to believe there is no such thing as racism or sexism - and even when I provide examples and talk about these as systems of oppression, they are still unable to discuss these issues in any critical way. I am mystified at how much they don't know and how resistant they are to new or progressive ways of thinking. But then I read mainstream news headlines and reports, and I think about the state of public discourse. There is such a lack of critical engagement in most public discourse, especially mainstream news. Thankfully, there are alternatives, like Democracy Now, Left Turn Magazine, Inter Press Service, and others. But often we have to seek out alternative news media, whose perspectives are deemed by the mainstream as "too radical" which keeps certain voices on the margin. Mainstream has become really conservative, so much so it now the norm. 

Most mainstream news outlets, and by extension much of public discourse, lack the language and tools to discuss issues around race, gender, class, and sexuality. It is amazing the gap that exists between academic discourse and public discourse. The language/embrace of multiculturalism, diversity, and colorblindness seems to trump so much of the work done in the humanities, social sciences, and alternative news media that exposes various systems of oppression and reveals how they operate. The moment of political correctness and belief in post-race, post-feminism, just-work-hard-and-you-will-make-it, everyone is equal has completely disrupted our abilities to talk about identity politics and social justice. It is no wonder my students can't talk about race, much less gender, class, and sexuality, and forget global and sexual politics or feminism and feminisms.

If we do talk about race, especially if one is a person of color, we are "playing the race card"; if we talk about gender and sexism, its because women are being overly sensitive; and when white people are asked to think about white privilege, they look confused. This leads to the ridiculous notion of equal opportunity racism and how anyone/everyone can be "a racist" -- this undermines real discussions about racism as systematic and prevents conversations about class and gender dynamics that complicate race. There is no public language to discuss racism and sexism as systematic, but rather people obsess over individual prejudices; there is no public language to really dialogue about racial, class, and gender oppression or privilege; there is no public language to expose interlocking systems of oppression. This is why people of color have been assaulted lately, from attacks on Sonia Sotomayor and President Obama to outright smear campaigns on community organizations like ACORN. This is why we are fearful of the "R" word.

We live in a moment of intense belief in "my opinion"; a moment where dichotomous logic in terms of politics reigns supreme in most news media, in which debate means representing two opposing points with no clear analysis of either side; a moment where there are just two sides (yes/no, for/against) to any & every debate. How did we come to this? When did we loose a grasp of multiple sides, critical analysis, support for one's point of view, evidence to support one's argument that is biased? What happened to the U.S. news media and mainstream journalists who called upon/relied on scholars, researchers, and organizers to clarify and complicate issues of concern from multiple perspectives -- not just two very biased and polar opposite sides that seem to only incite further controversy as opposed to real integrity-driven debate?

The state of public discourse is scary, and speaks to how difficult it is to have real public dialogue and critical reflection. It doesn't help that the first African American President of the United States refuses to really talk about race or admit the extent to which his race affects how people in this country see him. In fact, it makes our jobs as educators, community and intellectual workers, writers, artists, activists, and so on even harder. His presidency is continuously held up as the sign of a "post-racial" america. Thankfully, there are still some journalists who are willing to take the risk and talk critically about race. Recently, Democracy Now covered the issue of President Obama and race when talking with journalist Naomi Klein. Amy Goodman and Naomi Klein discuss Klein's article in Harper's Magazine where she talks about the various ways in which President Obama has avoided dealing with race during his presidency. She connects the Obama Administration's decision to not attend the UN Durban Review Conference on Racism this past April with other big silences concerning race. A shorter version of Klein's article is available online through The Guardian.

The show and article reminded me of how many disappointments we've seen these past few months with President Obama: from not attending the UN Conference on racism to his troubling response to Former President Carter's assertion that racism remains an issue and concern in this country. Carter astutely and clearly stated the obvious -- that the health care "debates" and attacks on President Obama are rooted in racism. This could have been a perfect opportunity for Obama to engage in a conversation about race; it could have been a beautiful moment of critical reflection, and what better person to do it with than someone who is well-respected, a former U.S. President, and active in human rights issues! But alas, no... instead Obama "disagrees" with Carter - in what I see as a very dangerous move. He could have simply said that Carter was entitled to his opinion (which would have been fine, since we live in "opinion happy" moment). He could have said nothing. I suppose I would rather have silence than a response that simply panders to the right wing and the notion of colorblindbess.

I wrote here on conscious vibration back in November that I did have hope in President Obama; that I believed this could be a time of change. I wrote how in spite of my hope I still had fears and concerns. But now my hope is lost...  what belief I did have during the first days and months of his presidency have been dimmed through the continued wars, the bank bailouts, and the no-public-option health care plan. And even though on some level, I knew he wouldn't be able to rock the boat that much - after all he is part of the system, particularly one that perpetuates U.S. hegemony and imperialism - still I hoped he would do some of the things he promised.

I know change must begin on the ground, and that we must all take responsibility for creating and sustaining movements. But we also need to hold leaders and governments accountable. And we must also hold those who do work in the name of "public service" accountable. We need to expect something better from those who engage in public discourse, especially the mainstream news. We need to break down the divides among what is deemed "intellectual" and "academic" and what is deemed "public" and "community" -- these divisions only reinforce the hierarchies that already exist. We need public language and new voices to talk about issues of race, gender, class, and sexuality. We need honesty and real dirty talk. We need folks to be able to express their anger in useful ways and channel these energies into change.

Audre Lorde talks about the issue of anger and racism in her 1981 essay titled "The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism" - her keynote address to the National Women's Studies Association Conference. Her theories about the uses of anger in an early 1980s moment in which Black feminist scholars and organizers were calling out white women about their racism can be useful for us now - given the lack of public discourse on race, class, and gender. Lorde explains why her response to racism is anger, how it should make us all angry, and how we can use this anger:

My response to racism is anger. I have lived with that anger, ignoring it, feeding upon it, learning to use it before it laid my visions to waste, for most of my life. Once I did it in silence, afraid of the weight. My fear of anger taught me nothing. Your fear of that anger will teach you nothing, also. Women responding to racism means women responding to anger; the anger of exclusion, of unquestioned privilege, of racial distortions, of silence, ill-use, stereotyping, defensiveness, misnaming, betrayal, and co-optation. ... Anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification, for it is in the painful process of this translation that we identify who are our allies with whom we have grave differences, and who are our genuine enemies. Anger is loaded with information and energy.

So many of us are angry, and yes people of color are angry, women of color are especially angry, and as a Black queer migrant women, I'm hella angry... we have a right to be angry - there has been so much backlash and so much regression...  we are livin in scary times... so let's continue to fight and use our anger, express it, and transform it into action.

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