This week’s post from Pruchnic’s seminar, in response to Adam Banks, Race, Rhetoric, and Technology: Searching for Higher Ground.
I Am a Racist Technocrat
Will the Real Slim Shady Please Sit Down?
I am not the person to respond to this book because I have little investment in identity politics—and what investment I do have makes me seem like a reactionary, anti-diversity rube who thinks that certain folk are gettin’ uppity when they start talkin’ ‘bout how they ain’t got access. And really, that’s not me. My qualms about identity politics stem from the fact that I want to argue for the constructedness of whiteness as unmarked but the rules of the game are against me. Yes, I understand that categories like African American, woman, subaltern, homosexual are constructed as Other from the perspective of an assumed heteronormative, unmarked white rational masculine subject position. But my interest is not in defending the HUWRMSP as somehow “victimized” by the discourses of legitimation for other subject positions so much as is it rests in arguing that we should recognize the constructedness of all subject positions—but the last time I suggested such a thing in a seminar I was roundly derided.
I start with this preface only because I’m thinking through some issues in relation to Banks’s work that are inevitably shaded by my antipathy toward identity politics. I want to emphasize my interest in the constructedness of all subject positions because I am troubled by Banks’s use of what might be read as an essentialized Black subjectivity in his chapter on the website BlackPlanet and African American discourse tropes. Banks argues in favor of Smitherman’s earlier claim that Black English is intimately tied to a unique “Black” experience; Banks, via Smitherman, maintains that “Black English, as expressed through its oral traditions, represents distinctively African American worldviews” (70). As Banks would have it, the Black worldview, expressed in both oral and literate Black English, can be understood as a scene of resistance and political liberation struggle:
The continued focus of many on the oral in Black English, then, is not a resignation that written English is somehow the exclusive domain of Whites . . . but a matter of remaining true to the roots of the language, no matter what forms it might take now. Maintaining that focus is also an act of self-determination, of resistance, of keeping oppositional identities and worldviews alive, refusing to allow melting pot ideologies to continue to demand that Black people assimilate to the White notions of language and identity as the cost for access to economic goods or a public voice in American society. (70)
This passage is worth citing at length because we here see what I am suggesting is problematic. Yes, Banks does write of Black identities, but not in the sense of a variegated multiplicity of Black subjectivities; rather, the “Black Experience,” it would seem here, is yoked to “authentically” Black literate and oral practices as the site of resistance to (monolithic) White notions of discourse and the subject. Later in the chapter, Banks gives in a little bit, admitting that “the names [of BlackPlanet members] reveal complexity and diversity in notions of exactly what constitutes a Black idenity”; Banks, though, still insists that there is such a thing as a discretely identifiable Black subject, for “all of the users [of BlackPlanet] . . . participate in and claim a Black identity for themselves” (75). I’m left wondering which argument Banks wants us to believe: that the Black subject is a space of contested, negotiated meaning, or that there is something we can call “Black identity” in a non-problematic, non-essentialized way?
And now, a left turn. I know I’m kind off the technology trope here, but really the technological argument Banks is making seems fairly innocent. We need to redefine the Digital Divide; see “access” as a rhetorical problem that can be understood across multiple levels; and read the Civil Rights struggle as a technological, rather than a “merely” legal one? Okay. I’m on board. Back to my left turn.
What makes Banks’s claims about Black English and Black identity so challenging is that it seems to tie racial identity to discursive production, in either the oral or literate genres. It is not difficult to consider two test cases (incongruous though they may be) for the claims Banks is making here. The first is the 313’s own Marshall “Eminem/Slim Shady” Mathers. In his track “The Way I Am,” Em taunts his white critics who accuse him of appropriating a traditionally Black art form: “And I just do not got the patience / to deal with these cocky Caucasians who think / I’m some wigger who just tries to be black cause I talk with an accent . . . .”. Here, Em makes, in a roundabout way, an argument similar to the Banks/Smitherman postulate: what his critics deride is a (perceived) wish to be Black, to be other, but Em refutes that haterade because, he argues, he naturally talks with an “accent”—which here, we might conjecture, means that Em—child of South Warren, friend and student of the Black population across the 8 Mile border—is a native user of Black discursive traditions and therefore, is not a “white nigger” but has some claim to Black experience by virtue of his participation in Black discourse genres. And while I am not Black, I can imagine taking some umbrage at such an argument (even while being dazzled by Em’s flow and mastery of the rap genre); that is, does participation in, and mastery of, the discursive production equate to Black identity?
Alternatively, Barack Obama offers the other test case. While such questions have since grown silent (or at least much quieter), Obama’s candidacy was plagued in its early days by the question of whether he was “Black enough.” Take, for example, the opening to a story from Time magazine from 1 February 2007:
But this is a double-edged sword. As much as his biracial identity has helped Obama build a sizable following in middle America, it’s also opened a gap for others to question his authenticity as a black man. In calling Obama the “first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” the implication was that the black people who are regularly seen by whites — or at least those who aspire to the highest office in the land — are none of these things.
The “not Black enough” trope takes two forms: first, the argument that Obama isn’t “Black enough” is due to his immigrant heritage: not the child of slaves, but the child of an immigrant student and a white (native) mother. He is African comma American, but not African hyphen American. The other version of the trope, expressed here in its most odious form by conservative hack pundit Warner Todd Huston, is that what makes Obama insufficiently Black is his relationship to “the low trending culture developed by the native born:”
Obama isn’t “black enough” not because he might have an immigrant background but because he is educated, eloquent, smooth, and associates with whites. He eschews the thug, rapper lifestyle, the discounting of education and the general downgrading of achievement that is currently accepted by popular black culture in America today.
So, Blacks do not distrust Obama because he is an immigrant and therefore not “black enough”. They distrust him because he is able and successful, smart and educated so that is what makes him not “black enough”.
While I am not qualified to rule on Obama’s “Blackness quotient,” I can still say that I find both versions of the trope distressing from a critical point of view. Here, we have the corollary of the Banks argument; what makes Obama “not Black enough” is his background, and, in particular, his acceptance of “mainstream” or “standard” White discursive forms. While the Huston quote goes some distance to validate Banks’s argument that African Americans are often written off as being uneducable or irredeemably illiterate, Huston’s argument—distasteful as it may be—posits, like Banks, an essentialized Black identity.
The argument I am trying to make here—to the extent that I am making one and not just thinking through some issues—is that any essentialized Black identity becomes problematic. It is either a derogatory assessment of “us people,” or a blanket acceptance of “us folks.”