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Sunday, November 20, 2005

Who you wit?

Despite what is publicized to be genuinely good intentions by Harvard, HFAI has not made Harvard a genuinely diverse place socioeconomically. The Facebook group "SEF works for me" currently has 23 members. This is by no means an accurate count of the less-financially elite here at Harvard, though the membership count shows that group paucity of membership brings up an important issue for students at Harvard: being socioeconomically "out". As one who makes few qualms about the fact that I was at once "lower-class" or "poor" and now I am lower-middle class domestically (though have just about always been a member of the financial elite on a global scale), it's interesting to me to see the lengths to which individuals will go to maintain a facade of either being more financially secure than they are or less financially secure than they are. This happens in diverse venues (from Final Clubs to social justice organizations), through diverse people (from numerous racial backgrounds), in diverse ways (from not acknowledging a particular part of their past to actively working to counter their past). I understand how people can de-identify with certain aspects of their life and upbringing that are indelible and they must live with, but actively trying to be something that one is not isn't cool. (more in expanded post)

I grew up poor in a poor neighborhood in a city where most people looked like me and went to the local, bad public school system. Most of these people were involved with drugs and crime in some form or another and did not see college or 9 to 5 jobs as being a part of their future. Their world was encompassed in their neighborhood and the periodic trip to the downtown area of our city was considered a treat. These individuals' group conscious is heightened at different times in different arenas but does not usually venture beyond race. Most people in Trenton, New Jersey (where I'm from) see themselves primarily as being from a particular geographic region of the city (North, South, East, or West) and then a particular subgroup of that region (i.e. the Wilbursection area of East Trenton or the Chambersburg area of South Trenton), possibly. Consciousness as a resident of Trenton and city-wide pride are rarely issues since real interaction with people who aren't from Trenton is rare. The personal identification of oneself as being a resident of Trenton is looked down upon by most people from other parts of New Jersey (esp. here at Harvard.). Everytime I introduce myself to someone here that's from Jersey and they ask me where I'm from I say Trenton. Obviously. Despite the negative or surprised and uncomfortable reactions that I get (not to mention stupid questions like "do people get shot a lot in your neighborhood?"), my identification as a Trentonian is unwavering. If only more people here were more comfortable with their personal identifications, whether positive or otherwise, what a Harvard that would be.

People who identify themselves as being of a particular racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic group should strive to understand the common experiences of their people. Identification as a Black person in the U.S., for example, requires an understanding of the common experience that Black people have in this country and, to a large extent, this is not the Harvard experience. Black people in the U.S. aren't able to swipe plastic cards and enter ornate dining halls with buffets of food three times a day. Black people in the U.S. aren't able to live in rooms where heat is very rarely a problem in the cold winter months and things such as light, gas, and water bills are not combined with other living expenses to constitute a monthly struggle to remain housed and alive. Black people in the U.S., generally, do not take time to meet with one another and discuss their problems as a COMmunity disunited and aim to address this DISunity in order to socially network. We are extremely fortunate Black people at Harvard. Despite wherever we came from we are now "the elite". This is something I continue to struggle with during my time here at Harvard since I really don't consider myself above my racial peers not at this institution. More fortunate, yes, but elite connotes something that I can't quite articulate though makes me feel detached from the overwhelming majority of those who I consider "my people".

I propose a new practice: either you identify with the ideology and aims of the people in the group you seem to be a part of (and actively work towards those aims) or you de-identify with the group and assimilate into another. Black people? I say we expel those "members" of our race who are actively working with those individuals, corporations, government bodies, etc. who build themselves on the exclusion of our people from the benefits of their little game of life. Poor people? I say we stop spending money on buying our babies Michael Jordan's sneakers and take our labor away from the McDonald's, Harvard's, and Bristol-Myers Squibb's of the world who are gettng filthy rich off of our arduous work. Radicals? I say we stop talking about making drastic social, political, and economic change and develop a cohesive plan to actually do so. For real. In the grand scheme of things, after my life goals are accomplished, none of these classifications would even matter. Black, poor, and radical would lose all meaning since race wouldn't be a means of classifying individuals (a highly subjective and varying one at that), financially poor people wouldn't exist since the concept of material wealth wouldn't exist, and radical would not be slander. It would be how everyone thought and acted as compared to the current violent, competitive, and biased system people now operate under.

5 Comments:

At 10:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Black, poor, and radical would lose all meaning since race wouldn't be a means of classifying individuals (a highly subjective and varying one at that),"

Want to know how to get there? Stop saying and believing in things like this: "Black people? I say we expel those "members" of our race who are actively working with those individuals, corporations, government bodies, etc. who build themselves on the exclusion of our people from the benefits of their little game of life."

While you're at it, you can withdraw from Harvard, since obviously you believe this: "Poor people? I say we stop spending money on buying our babies Michael Jordan's sneakers and take our labor away from the McDonald's, Harvard's, and Bristol-Myers Squibb's of the world who are gettng filthy rich off of our arduous work."

I admire your idealism, but I don't see how you reconcile "laboring" at Harvard, accruing the benefits thereof, and then condemning the same actions, when committed by others, in the same paragraph.

I do, however, sympathize with this: "Despite wherever we came from we are now "the elite". This is something I continue to struggle with during my time here at Harvard since I really don't consider myself above my racial peers not at this institution. More fortunate, yes, but elite connotes something that I can't quite articulate though makes me feel detached from the overwhelming majority of those who I consider "my people"."

Obviously, your true feelings are much more nuanced than the "solutions" that you propose. Grappling with the problems that you've discussed is much more complicated than simply expelling those that dilute the racial/ideological purity you desire to see in your "group." I'd like to see you expand more on this cognitive dissonance you've discussed above than trite (and ridiculous) racial/ideological purity - I refuse to believe that there is not room enough within cultural identity to accept different political or socioeconomic identities.

 
At 12:26 AM, Blogger Jersey Slugger said...

With "laboring" at Harvard I meant people actually employed for their labor--janitors, dining hall staff, security guuards, and the like. Not students.

Different political identities are not accepted if they're inline with the group that one identifies with and their aims. On the political front, this would mean not allying with groups that either stagnate or roll back civil rights and do not advocate for social equity and an end to racism. This would also mean not allying with political parties that are funded by corporations that act in opposition to the best interests of one's group (i.e. receiving funding from Big Tobacco when their products kills more people in the U.S. than AIDS, homicides, fires, and auto accidents combined). Every group in the U.S. is adversely affected by tobacco.

Socioeconomic identities are what they are. Rising this ladder is painstaking but falling down it can happen in a heartbeat. Blacks must simply understand that if they are solidly middle-class or higher on the socioeconomic ladder, then they are not average Black people and are most likely not living an average Black experience. This is especially true since money impacts one's residence and it can have residual affects on so many aspects of one's life from where they attend school to what careers they enter to who they marry. Although there are diverse socioeconomic identities for Blacks in the U.S. (say from homeless Black people in Harvard Square to Oprah Winfrey), the more common Black experience is far closer to the man or women without a stable residence.

 
At 1:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You seem to be mixing socioeconomic identities and racial identities. Does identifying with a group really mean trying to empathize with the "average member" of this group? The "average" white American is not particularly financially well off either. The average Harvard graduate is, black or white.

Further, you seem very ready to classify people AS part of a racial and socioeconomic group (or have people self-classify) in an absolute fashion, when no person exhibits all the characteristics or outlooks or aims of this "average" group member construct that you cite.

What is "the ideology and aims of the people in the group you seem to be a part of"? Is this a static thing? If you think so, I disagree with you entirely.

It is not the task of any person to conform to the "ideology and aims" of any group they happen to be a part of--be it race, political party, class, gender, etc. In fact, to make such a group monolithic is only baby steps away from promoting racism itself. To use this "with us or against us" logic is to create nothing but more internal strife. This does not unify; it polarizes.

 
At 1:23 PM, Anonymous Guess Who said...

Once again, I understand the sentiment and emotion, but I have to disagree with the program that is put forth from it. As you should be well aware, as one that has "striven to understand the common experiences of his people," there is no one ideology-- ideology defines as a set of ideas about various political, social, and cultural concepts organized in such a way to create a coherent political/socio-cultural outlook (coherent used rather loosely)-- that unites the groups you are referring to. Black political thought in the US has always been defined by conflict between radical egalitarians, disillusioned liberals, conservatives, and nationalists...and more recently, Marxists, feminists, and the so-called cosmopolitans. Even within these broad ideological strains, there are significant differences on the role of the state, relationships to other social groups, the nature of the family, and so on that are legitimate and should not be glossed over by shallow exhortations toward unreflective solidarity. This is to say nothing of African, Caribbean, Black South American, or Black European thought-- which would all have to be dealt with in a Pan-Africanist outlook, which I would presume you subscribe to. Now, there is one constant across all of these varied experiences and ideologies, and that is the shared historical legacy of and current susceptibility to anti-black prejudice and racism (personal or institutional). To that end, I think you could defend some sort of black solidarity predicated on the elimination of prejudice and racism, whatever that might entail, but even then you would have to accept that people have various ideas on how to undertake such a program that are legitimate. Harvard's Tommie Shelby does a wonderful job of outlining such a pragmatic black solidarity in his new book We Who Are Dark. It is really the only solidarity program that could be advanced on a black or Pan-African level that is morally defensible or even possible. At the end of the day, "blackness" is an ascriptive identity-- one that is not chosen by its bearers. Many black people take pride in it, gain meaning from their lives in it, and so on...but it's not as if people voluntarily join the "black team" and thus have to get with some sort of ideological program. In fact, their moral obligation to eliminate racism is the same obligation that all people have, because all people have an obligation to prevent injustice. Their blackness simply makes black solidarity a possible strategy, and the overall goal more imperative.

I think the problem gets even more complicated when you start throwing around other nebulous groups like "radicals" and "the poor." The term radical cuts across such a broad spectrum of political ideologies and stances, that it is almost useless as a substantive term-- indicating nothing except a militant resistence to the status quo. Yet, there is a radical right (Neo-Nazis, KKK, etc.), a radical left (socialists, marxists), and then other folks-- cultural nationalists, militant feminists, environmental activists, etc.-- who are radical in that they are oppositional to the status quo on race, culture, gender, or animal rights, but then fall all over the political spectrum on other issues like foreign policy, taxes, distributive justice, and so on. Even worse is the poor, which is a social construction with a material basis, and which is a group that people do not identify with as strongly as some of these other identity groups. The idea of a potential "poor unity" gets even more complicated when you talk about a global context, where the conceptions of poverty are different and the complexities of the global economy are more complicated. I think there could be some cohesion on issues like curbing the lax taxation the US levies on corporations or the free reign these organizations have in the developing world, but that hardly counts as a political ideology in any meaningful sense of the term.

To illustrate the difficulty with your position, which I believe is untenable, let us take another political people-- white people. Should white people identify with the prevailing ideology and aims of the people within "their" group? I doubt you would want your radical friends from the Phillips Brooks House to give up their progressive mindsets and get with the white program (although many of them will do just this right after graduation...). More importantly, even if there were an ideology and aim of a people, who would determine it? Media savvy preachers? Bloggers on the internet? Harvard professors? Drug dealers on the corner? If more black people think we should support Clarence Thomas than Anita Hill, is that the right thing to do? Should you lose your black card for supporting Ms. Hill and thus rebuking the program? I think you can see how this sort of thing falls apart very quickly under other moral and practical considerations...

I would like to see some of your other Cambridgecommons cohorts' thoughts on this subject, as I am sure the feminist ones would certainly disagree with your argument, perhaps with even more force.

 
At 11:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a senior who has received SEF for four years now. I am not a member of that group, not because I want to seem "more financially secure", but because it just isn't relevant. Its not one of my interests or group affiliations, as my other facebook groups are. Its not my ethnic identity or my religion. I know alot of others who receive SEF who aren't in the group. Perhaps this is because we prefer to be identified by other things than socioeconomic status.

 

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