Culture  Black and white, and political all over

Deconstructing the upper-middle-class myth of a post-racial society

Yoga, snowboarding, Apple products, the Sunday New York Times, Mos Def, sushi, vintage clothing, and coffee. All stuff that I, daughter of a white mother and a black Jamaican father, like. Incidentally, it’s all stuff that white people like, according to Christian Lander, McGill grad, in his flippant blog “Stuff White People Like.”

My first glance at the blog made me feel uneasy, as it does for many, because we tend to get huffy when stereotypes are kicked around, even in a comedic manner. Lander is addressing the meaning that society attaches to the things on the list – they are deemed white. My uneasiness quickly turned to queasiness; do my love for raw fish and my MacBook make me white? Or less black? The blog hit home because, being biracial, I have struggled with internal conflicts of race, culture, and self-identity since I was old enough to be aware. When I was 12, I started to snowboard and for a couple of years, I never mentioned to my black (and white) friends where I was each and every Saturday, thinking that they would disapprove, discredit me, and label me whitewashed.

After a few deep yoga breaths, I calmed down and realized that the list is not hateful and was meant to be, and is, humourous. The bright satirical critique includes “knowing what’s best for poor people,” “being the only white person around,” “having gay friends,” “unpaid internships,” and “Asian girls.” After hundreds of years of minorities being turned into a punchline, Lander is flipping the script and playing on stereotypes of the upper-middle class, white or not – with their consumerist narcissism coupled with a search for authenticity.

While some people, like Lander, are openly discussing issues concerning race and identity, others – particularly, upper-middle class liberals – have begun to sweep race issues under the rug. The term post-racial emerged in the mainstream media as a reaction to the enthusiasm surrounding Barack Obama’s campaign in the Democratic Party presidential primaries in 2008. The idea that we are living in a post-race society, where race has little or no significance, is a fallacy as many whites still claim to have moral, economic, political, and social ascendancy. The tragedy that was Hurricane Katrina proves that race and class seem to matter not only in terms of social race relations, but also in governmental reaction (or non-reaction). Other issues such as the Jena Six assault and the controversy surrounding affirmative action substantiate that our society is not beyond race.

As the United States inaugurated its 44th President on Tuesday, a mood of change continues to swoop over the entire world, somewhat owing to the colour of Obama’s skin and the barriers that have been crossed as a result. The Atlantic magazine’s cover story for its January/February 2009 issue was entitled: “The End of White America” featuring a heroic close-up of half of Obama’s face. The author, Hua Hsu, postulates the end of “white America” and a demographic shift that will bring those who are today racial minorities, to be a majority of the population by 2042. More interestingly, Hsu affirms that “whiteness is no longer a precondition for entry into the highest levels of public office.” This bold statement is misleading.

Case in point is Jesse Jackson, who was twice a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in the 1980s, and was deemed “too black” by American society and thus has had limited mainstream political success. With Obama as President, the public is looking beyond skin colour and toward personal character, which is a positive step. Yet it can be argued that Obama’s skin colour was easier to look past than Jackson’s in-your-face “black and proud” character.

Jackson himself once criticized Obama for “acting like he’s white” when referring to Obama’s lack of attention to the case of the Jena Six. In terms of Obama’s campaign, whether constructed deliberately or constructed by society and the media, race was used as an instrument rather than a liability in the political sphere, in which Obama transcended the negative stereotypes that blackness so often tends to encompass.

Western society may be taking race less seriously. Nevertheless, the New York Times article, “Poll Finds Obama Isn’t Closing Divide on Race” reveals that 60 per cent of blacks find race relations to be generally poor, compared to 34 per cent of whites. It seems clear that the notion of post-raciality is mostly a white concoction.

Race matters, even if it matters in different ways than it did decades ago. Social and political discussion, balanced dialogue, and most importantly racial awareness, not ignorance disguised as post-raciality, will give rise to racial progress. Colour-blindness should never be equated with racial equality nor racial harmony.