Sunday, October 10, 2010

34. Between Barack and a Hard Place: Racism and White Denial in the Age of Obama by Tim Wise

Tim Wise (a white American male) reframes the question heard often during the previous presidential elections, "Is America ready for a black president" as "Under what circumstances is America ready for a black president?" As the elections showed us, the black president needs to be someone who "transcends race" (read: does not behave black) and "moves beyond race" in his topics (read: does not bring up race because it would be unpatriotic, make people feel guilty or just annoyed). In other words, the black president should do his utmost to make people forget that he actually is black (and although he is biracial, he is still regarded as black and not white, nor biracial.)

This small and very to-the-point book is a perfect read for people who either think that we should stop discussing racism now that there is a black president, as if having one was evidence enough that minorities have an equal standing in America with the rest of the people, while also being the perfect read for people who might think that having a black president will somehow educate people more about tolerance and racial prejudice, and open the gates to a post-racial society--a word that was thrown around liberally during the presidential elections.

As Tim Wise describes it, Obama's presidency is problematic because he has had to be this "model black person." This might cause white people to hold all black people, regardless of their social status or background, to the same regard before they are given a time of day. It might make white people think that if Obama was able to become a president, then that black kid who can't even get a job interview because his name sounds black is just being lazy and should pull himself up by his boot straps. Obama did it--why don't these lazy bastards do it? 

After these initial questions, Tim Wise takes the reader on a short trip to the black American experience, including plenty of research and statistical evidence to back up his stories. Black high school graduates are less likely to be selected for a job than a white high school drop-out, even if they are exactly the same in manner, dress and qualifications. In fact, a black person needs to have 8 years more of work experience than a white person with same qualifications before he or she is treated equally; black people are more likely told to get a sub-prime mortgage than their white counterparts, even when they have the same income;  doctors are less likely to suggest heart surgery for black people than white people, although they complain of the same symptoms (one doctor said he didn't recommend the surgery because the "woman seemed lazy and would not have followed care instructions"--she was an actor who was instructed to act exactly the same way as the white patient).

It's like telling someone to pull themselves up by the bootstraps while handing the boots without any bootstraps on them.

Wise discusses two types of racism, which is the reason why we can easily say that we are now a post-racial society and still behave racist. There's Racism 1.0, which we all know: the Ku Klux Klan, school segregation, black people at the back of the bus, the openly-racist person who thinks minorities are worthless. That is a rarity, but that's what many think when they hear the word "racist." But then there is also Racism 2.0, which allows exceptional black people like Obama to succeed; it might even let people think they are not behaving in a racist manner. But whenever racism is brought up by minorities, white people are still eager to discredit another person's personal experience even when they do not have the experience themselves--"he probably didn't mean it… are you sure he's not just lazy… maybe he triggered that encounter somehow… aren't you being a bit racist yourself by suggesting that?" Racism 2.0 is thinking that now that cross-burning has ended and we all have the right to have schooling and jobs and a happy life, that the work of an anti-racist is done, and people really should just shut up about race already. Or even better, they think that black people have it too easy these days. They think it's hurtful for the national psyche to be reminded of the fact that the United States was built up by slave labor; an act that has left scars to all of its subsequent generations, either through using black people for medical experiments even until 1970s, to believing that a black person is not really as intelligent and hard-working as a white person with the same credentials. This triggers the bias effect, where if a person is told that they suck because they are X, they are not going to succeed in whatever they are doing as well as people who were told nothing like that (same experiments have been done with women, who performed better in math tests when they were not told "women are bad at math" before the test.)

I'd love to talk about this book more, but I'll let you read it yourselves. It's a quick read, and goes very quickly to the point. I have read Tim Wise's blog before, but none of his books. I should take a look at the other ones. 

 34. Club Dead by Charlaine Harris

Ya'll know already what I think of these book covers, so let's skip that rant. 

The third installment of the Sookie Stackhouse novels deals with the disappearance of Bill the Vampire, Sookie's boyfriend. In her search for Bill's captor, Sookie needs to cooperate with the slick vampire Eric Northman, and a werewolf whose ex-girlfriend--a human--has gotten engaged to a really bad-ass werewolf and is obviously taking vampire blood as a drug. Somehow the vampire king of Louisiana is also messed up with the werewolves, and he might just be the key to Bill's disappearance.

It's hard for me to keep these books straight, because I keep on getting the stories of the TV show and the books mixed up. The most recent season of True Blood dealt exactly with the storyline from the third book, but it ended up with events and a cliffhanger that are coming up later in the books. Which is why I just bought novels 4 and 5... 

These books are so much fun, and always quick reads. I guess Charlaine Harris is my Danielle Steele. 

Books that I have worked on but never finished 

The Delighted States: A Book of Novels, Romances & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents & Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations & a Variety of Helpful Indexes by Adam Thirlwell

I barely managed to read the title before I had to get it back to the library! I got it because I thought it would be an interesting look at how people translate books, and... in a way, it is. But at the same time, the book meanders from one story to another, from one author to another, and it takes a while before the first translators and their work is produced. The writing style is oddly dry compared to the promisingly witty title, and it just did not work for the current state of my attention span. Maybe another time!

The Watercooler Effect: A Psychologist Explores the Extraordinary Power of Rumors by Nicholas DiFonzo, Ph.D.

Again, a promising premise. I've been interested in rumors since I took a class on pragmatic linguistics, where we spent some time on Deborah Tannen's wonderfully pop-sciency books on communication between men and women, and especially on the topic of rumors. I was interested in reading more from a psychologist's point of view on why people believe even the bizarrest, sure-to-be-untrue rumors, and what is the function of telling rumors (Tannen: building rapport between people, in general.)

I did not get very far in the book as I got fairly tired to its pattern, which was this:
1. Author introduces a question about rumors, such as "But why do people believe crazy rumors?"
2. He gives an example of a crazy rumor, such as the "Paul is dead" rumor about the Beatles in the 60s.
3. The author says something akin to, "Isn't it crazy that people believe this??"
4. Does not really dedicate any space for answering or analyzing the question he has posed. 
5. Asks another question, "But how do rumors begin?"
and the same cycle begins again. 

Within the 30 or so pages I did learn many a rumor that has made the rounds in our inboxes, but no analysis on them. Even Tim Wise's tiny book gave a more analytical look at the crazy rumor about black people murdering and raping each other in New Orleans after Katrina (which turned out to be completely untrue, yet many people happily believed it, including news reporters--Wise discusses what allowed this to happen, DiFonzo just goes, "Crazy, huh?" Not a direct quote, by the way.)

I guess I'll just need to re-read that Tannen book.

EDIT: Ugh. This is the last time I compose these entries in a Word processing tool that Blogger apparently can't handle. 


  1. ProfessionalReaderOctober 13, 2010 at 7:46 PM

    Dear Matilda,
    I'm afraid you waltzed the wrong way on this one. Nowhere in the entire text does is there anything remotely similar to "Crazy, huh?" In fact, there's not an ounce of flip sarcasm in this book. Perhaps you were looking for a deconstructionist type of analysis rather than a solid treatment of a tough topic. It's hard to tell what you would consider "analysis" -- Watercooler gives more careful analysis of the psychology of rumor than any book in the last 60 years. It is full of gems--how rumors become accurate or inaccurate, how people use them to make sense of things, the differences between rumor and gossip; I read it and thoroughly enjoyed it. Are you sure you skimmed even 30 pages of it? Of course, this book won't appeal to everyone; it is not "pop-sciency". Sorry Maltilda my dear, your review is grossly inaccurate and shallow.

  2. Thanks for dropping by, ProfessionalReader. I'm looking forward to future comments from you, sans the patronizing tone.

    Sorry Maltilda my dear, your review is grossly inaccurate and shallow.

    Did you miss the part where I said that I read only 30 pages? Of course the "review" was shallow! If I was going to actually review the book, I would have respected it enough to finish it before giving a final view on the entire book. I simply wrote down my opinion on why I could not finish the book: the first 30 pages seemed to me like the rest of the book would be a summary of, with the author just throwing rhetorical questions into the mix.

    Also, I don't think the problem was that this book was going to be not "pop-sciency" enough for me--quite the contrary: the introduction seemed like the psychologist was so afraid that the mere mortal reader would not understand psychological concepts that he went all out on the rumor examples, and chose the most outlandish ones to illustrate the concept of rumor (hence my comment, "Crazy, huh?" which was not a direct quote from the book, by the way). It was the author who was trying to be pop-sciency here, but ended up being non-scientific in his introduction as a result to it. That's how I read it, and maybe fans of this scientist will read it differently.

    But thanks for pointing out that the first 30 pages are not a good example of the rest of the book, which, as you say, is the best book on the psychology of rumor in the last 60 years. Maybe at some other point I'll take a look at the rest and just skip the intro.

    The introduction was meandering and too anecdotal (of the "so this one time, me and my wife were having dinner again, when..." How's that for a real scientific approach!), and I was not going to waste my time reading the rest of the book if the introduction was any sign of what the rest was going to be like.