Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The dance of the white man

In one chapter of his newest book The Artificial White Man, Stanley Crouch "discusses" David Shields' book titled Black Planet. In other words, Crouch makes Shields look like a philisophical twit. Shields, a white Jew, writes about how he identifies with and idolizes the maverick black basketball players in the NBA, especially the ones who are the most rude and boisterous. Evidently, Shields equates this type of player as freedom and moral courage (standing up to "the man"); such courage, in his mind, is lacking in his own life.

Crouch performs a literary bris on Shields. He deftly and, at times, forcefully circumcises Shields' ideas of what it is to be a black man--and what it means to be a white Jewish writer for that matter. Crouch gives the following passage from Shields' book (which he then comments upon):

Shields: "In and around Seattle, you see kids wearing not only Sonics jerseys . . . but also jerseys of players from other teams--almost always guys who not only are great players but have a fuck you attitude . . . Today, for instance, because for some reason there seems to be an amazing number of kids walking around wearing NBA jerseys, you can feel with a certain clarity what the whole thing is about: how much of these kids' swagger comes from the players, the sheer volume of hope/possibility/resistance these guys represent. Is it just my imagination, or does even Natalie [his daughter] raise more hell than usual when she's wearing her Sonics outfit?"

Here is a piece of Crouch's commentary:

"The immaturity expressed in this passage is heightened in the overall terrain of the book because it is the result of a willful adolescence . . . For Shields, 'fuck you attitudes' and 'cool' are the ultimate achievements and amount to qualities that black men such as Gary Patton have, of course, in spades . . . Shields does not perceive black Americans in the realm of humanity at large. He tries but finds it impossible. They exist primarily as blackboards on which the chalk of white fantasies are forever moving."

It's worth a read just to hear the verbal thuds of Crouch's intellectual fists. But I do think that Shields' sentiments are not those of some lone novelist. The glorification of these type of men, these type of black men, is wide-spread--and many of those doing the glorification are white men.

I find myself wondering why. I think it's true that many white men glorify black men in a way that both pigeon-holes black men and allows white men to side-step traversing the terrain of their own identities. We see the former in how we celebrate black men: they are basketball players and other types of athletes, rap-stars and, occasionally, movie stars. They are typically not intellectual or political leaders. They are not super-heroes. They are not the pardigm for the good father. The latter effect, the way white men ignore questions of their own racial identity, is more pervasive; we find it even in those white men who have a more human vision of black men.

The question of what it means to be a white man in the United States is a confusing one. It is confusing because white men do not have to grapple with this fundamental question on a regular basis--if ever. White men do not seek the roots of their whiteness; they do not share a deep common experience; most are not put in real, on-going circumstances in which they have to think about how their whiteness might inhibit their success. Men and women of other races (as do white women) have the experience of seeing their identities differing from those in power. Jewish men, like Shields, share this experience, yet, as Crouch points out, Shields misses his opportunity to explore how being a religious minority has impacted his formation as a man. Yet even if this exploration happened, the question of what it means to be a white man would still be unanswered.

Perhaps the question of what it is to be white is confusing because whiteness isn't a shared culture. We are Irish-American, English American, Canadian-American, French-American, German-American, Scottish-American, Australian-American, Russian-American, and so on. With so many--virtually uncountable--ingredients, can you really put your finger on the white man in America?

Well, maybe you can. It's true that the white man does not have a shared past--or the experiences of those pasts are so different that they might as well be of different colors. But there is a shared present for most, if not all, white men.

The one prevailing characteristic of the white man, as I see it, is this: a white man is human being. This may sound redundant or trite, but it is a significant part of his identity. His human-ness allows him to act and react in a world of white humans, where the shared experience is simply that human-ness. A white man knows intellectually that men of other races are "human". They have a head, arms, they move and can eat. But a white man does not see a non-white as a human being, not really. A white man certainly does not see a non-white as a white man--and that lack of whiteness equates to the lack of human-ness.

Because I am a white man, I cannot begin to know what how a black man sees the world. Nor do I even have to try. A black man living in a white world must try to see things from a white perspective if he is to succeed. The prisons are filled with young black men who either refused to conform to the vision of white men or conformed perfectly to that vision. I assume, then, that a black man must on some level perceive that he is not human to a white man. I wonder if living in such a world has created a black man who also views himself as something other than human. Does a black man accept that a white man is a human being?

There may be other cultural norms for the present white man. Religious beliefs are disparate but most seem to burgeon from a Judeo-Christian mythos. True, many white men practice Eastern religions and some are, of course, atheists, but the vast majority live in a world where there is one God, one father in the household, one leader. We see it this idea in our political system, our classrooms, and in our stories of heroes. The white man also prays at the common alter of capitalism which, naturally, forges our conception of who we are, what we eat and wear and think, who we drop bombs on, and what our future looks like--and what it should look like.

It seems that the only way to discuss what it is to be a white man is to discuss the white man's relationship with other races (especially the white man's relationship to the black man). This notion seems important, though I have not worked out just how important...and my inability to do so, I fear, is because as a white man I suffer from a lack of insight into how my self-identity hinges upon my conception of both myself and others who are unlike myself. Perhaps that, too, is what it means to be a white man: to dance without a partner.


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