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Saturday, October 08, 2005

Power Equals Popularity?

What are my theories on why black men are so popular? I have a few theories. (On a side note: who am I to have such theories? Hard to say. But I'll do a better job of explaining who I am in my next post.)

The way I see it, black men are popular for three reasons. I think a lot does have to do with what Andrew alluded to, the fact that in popular culture, hip hop, r&b, breakdancing, rap, and the endless elements of what's seen as "black culture" are touted as the epiotme of cool. And to be honest, a lot of it really is just more fun and exciting than the other stuff that's going on. So being black is cool. On top of that, there's the historical weight of the black community having fought oppression and overcome it, or is at least rising out of it, making history as we speak. Black men at Harvard, above all, are seen as exactly that--people who have risen to the very top in spite of more difficult circumstances, historically, economically... They are seen to represent the success of the black community (whether or not they actually represent the general black community is another topic entirely). The success of the underdog is just that much more appealing and seems that much more meaningful. So not only are black people intrinsically cool, they are historically cooler too. All that, however, just says why why black people in general would be popular. If my underdog theory were universally true, this post would be about Black women and their social domination, since they would have had to fight not only racism but sexism too. But it's not. And that's because of the last reason why black men are so popular: at Harvard, if you're a man, power equals popularity; but for women, it's an entirely different story. (more in expanded post)

Anyone ever notice how almost every single prominent member of BMF is in either the Phoenix or the Spee? And how, as many ABHW members have said to me on separate occasions, ABHW comes up with a lot of amazing ideas that are perhaps acknowledged, but when BMF comes and puts a spin on a similar idea, the Crimson's all over it, and everyone's saluting them? Nicole Laws joked to me that someone said ABHW should stand for Angry Black Harvard Women, and while funny, it's sad that that's even a part of how they're seen. Why is this? I don't know. Maybe it has to do with the fact that women are not traditionally outspoken, or loud, or opinionated. I think it also has to do with the fact that power and outspokenness on the part of women has historically brought a lot of trouble to men, and has been threatening. This feeling of being threatened exists at Harvard more so, I believe, in regards to women than to minorities.

It's still in many ways the old boy's club here. I think that's hard to argue. But in many ways the fight for respect that the Black community had to struggle with has been fairly successful, here, at least socially (and there is an AfAm department). That's not true for women, (Women, Gender & Sexuality is still not a department, last I checked) whether it's because of the very nature of academia (and subsequently tenure) or if it's because the long history of final clubs has resulted in the fact that they now have very valuable space that simply isn't possible for similar women's organizations (for better or worse) could get. Vocal women making known their opinions means something in the Harvard status quo needs to change, and that's threatening. But for Black men who are kind of at the top already...well, they've succeeded in not only topping the academic charts by being here, but they've also managed to get here while still being less socially awkward (i.e. cooler) than the rest of us. Or so MTV says.


At 1:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

women's ethnic groups get SCREWED! You tell 'em Deb.

At 10:14 AM, Anonymous Guess Who said...

One of the reasons that most colleges conceded to the development of African American Studies Departments was because black people took over buildings. With guns. (See Cornell, UCLA, etc.) It wasn't just that the black faculty suddenly earned the respect of everyone, it was black students who took "extremist" actions. I think that if women were to take over the Barker Center with guns, it would bring quite a lot of press, and perhaps a change into a department. But we all know the likelihood of that happening...And as far as black men being cooler, a lot of it has to do with a worldwide youth culture's obsession with their own alienation and the idea of rebellious opposition. The nature of youth is to feel alienated in some respect-- to feel out of place, unsure, and alone at some time or another. (Whether you exaggerate this or not is another story). There is no group of people on the planet that has been more FAMOUSLY alienated than blacks, so there is a sense of imagined comradarie there. Then, as blacks have developed what is, in many ways, an oppositional culture or set of behavioral norms over time, these necessarily take on the air of opposition to the more prominent dominant or alienating forces in society (mostly older white people), and young people of all groups desperately desire to be as "brave" or forthright in their opposition as black Americans are, often not recognizing that it is a matter that the blacks most would consider "cool" don't consciously think about. Moreover, as a pariah group in the US, the pathologies and fears of society are usually associated in the public imagination with blacks (loose sexuality, excessive violence, drug abuse, ostentatious dress). Thus, tons of people want to do all of those things with impunity, but know that they can't. Due to the isolation of black people and the collective myth-making about black people (which we participate in also, real talk), people actually think that black people do actually behave this way with impunity and they live vicariously through that imagined fantasy. And an even more controversial assertion, but one that people might want to think about is this, if a black student like Ty or Caleb had to overcome a ton of obstacles to get into Harvard, it might follow that they might just be more talented than their likely white opposition for Class Marshall anyway...

At 10:51 PM, Blogger deborah ho said...

As an addendum, I should clarify that I meant to highlight how popularity and power are interchangeable for men at Harvard. Black men on campus, especially in light of the amount of support & coverage BMF has (of course, and how much they do), are a very powerful group.

That's a very interesting comment, "guess who"; take a look at Meghan Tieu's comment in the post above, which is tangentially related...

At 11:50 PM, Anonymous Paloma said...

Actually, Brandon Terry wrote a column last year that bears on the argument-- in one of my favorite turns of phrase, he described 50 cent as "bulletproof vested minstrelsy," and argued that it is fetishization and self-commodification working together that result in the overwhelming profitability of rap-pop music. I think that this kind of cultural fetish has a lot to do with it, as does a healthy dose of white guilt.

That part said, however, I think that Shaka, Caleb and Ty are all very social guys, which inevitably helps one get elected class marshal, more so if one is very social and one sticks out and is memorable by virtue of being black when most people at Harvard are not.


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