Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Implications of "Note to White People"

In light of Reverend Wright's speech, which you can view in full via the post below, Washington Post guest columnist Jacques Berlinerblau, the program director and associate professor of Jewish Civilization at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., wrote an article entitled "Note to White People," in which he discusses the meaning, or lack thereof, behind Reverend Jeremiah Wright's recent comments. He notes the following in response to Barack Obama's mentioning that "Like other black churches, Trinity’s services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear":

I was critical of Obama’s speech but it strikes me that this point, in and of itself, is true. Things are often said in African-American oratorical contexts—sometimes the most lyrical, provocative and over-the-top things—which are rarely intended to be marching orders. Those who hear these things may indeed be dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting, but they are acutely aware that they are not hearing fighting words.

Berlinerblau goes on to discuss his initial shock and discomfort at a meeting of racial Afrocentrists during a research project on African-American oratory with relation to intense and incensing speech used by the group leaders, only to be comforted by a friend who explained that their oratorical styles greatly differed from those in conventional (read: white) environments. In addition Berlinerblau asserts that while he recognizes that many black leaders may say things that could be interpreted as dangerous by the outside public, in the end, they are "just talking."

While the columnist assures his readers at the end that he is not on a mission to dismiss the power of speech in the hands of black orators, nor is he implying that black leaders' suggestions and calls for unity fall on deaf ears (he cites the highly successful community outreach performed by the Trinity Church congregation as evidence to the contrary), it is difficult not to come away from this article feeling a little raw for several reasons:

1) It speaks in general terms with relation to public speaking and presentations administered by African-Americans.

2. Despite its best efforts to show otherwise, it trivializes black speech and, in turn, 3) insults the intelligence of the black audience (by, in some ways, implying that while we may hear commands or assertions we should put to use, we ignore them or simply dismiss them in our own way of acting out #2 in this list).

4. Berlinerblau provides a white colonial gaze on the public black spiritual experience and subsequent personal interpretation of the same, rendering African-Americans a foreign/alien entity of sorts.

5. In hopes of separating himself from conservative observers, including Fox News and GOP leaders, who were critical of Senator Obama as a result of his membership at Trinity Church under the leadership of a reverend whose speech they found objectionable, Berlinerblau resorts to a subtle hypocrisy then takes on the role of educator to a white readership, which is troubling, as if he holds the keys to some unknown secret about blacks to which other whites have limited access and for which they must first consult Berlinerblau.

6. The article could also be used as additional support for those who consider every complaint of racism or bigotry toward the black community as a mere case of "crying wolf." After all, our words are "just talk," right?

In short, while Berlinerblau attempted to soften the blow unintentionally dealt to Obama by one of his biggest supporters, his own pastor, by way of his explanation of black speech, he missed the mark. His discussion of race and faith found itself in the familiar territory (at least to marginalized people) in which a person of privilege seeks to educate others of a similar background on the exotic practices of the Other.

Better luck next time, I suppose.

Check out the article for yourself here.

- Wendi Muse

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