making assumptions about the people around us

First of all, yay E's back (sort of)!

So am I, unfortunately--back in Washington DC, headed to TUWSNBN today to sort out my class (which supposedly starts next week), homeless and missing the weather (and the used bookstores...and the eating places) of Northern California.

But, enough of that. Today's post is one about identities...and assumptions...and the usage of words.

I went to see Allah Made Me Funny on Friday at the Riot Act Comedy Club on 14th St, NW. It was actually very funny--Allah'd done his job well.

A couple of rough bits though:

One of the comedians, when setting up a joke about Bollywood films, pointed to an audience member and commented along the lines of "Oh, look at the white guy laughing--he's probably never seen a Bollywood film!"

Another made frequent use of the "N-word" and seemed to wait for reaction. It all seemed a bit juvenile, especially as the show had started off excellently, tapered off a bit and then picked up but went slightly off the rails towards the end when the most famous comedian took over the stage (more "preaching" less comedy; plenty of talk about how Black/African-American people are oppressed but do not recognise their own oppression, etc).

So, what's my point here? Well, about assumptions. Who doesn't know of and hasn't watched Bollywood films these days? I'd have thought most people, especially those showing up at a local comedy place in Washington, would have definitely seen a B'wood film. Or at least been aware enough to realise its main points--boy meets girl, conflict, running around trees and/or chandeliers while singing (it is often raining too), conflict resolved, all ends well.

The other example was more interesting in describing how words and terms are used in daily life. Well, in this case, the N-word was used, by an African-American Muslim bloke to refer to African-Americans. But, from what I remember, in each use the chap was talking about White people using it to refer to African-Americans (not Black people in general but African-Americans). This performs an act of distancing--look, I'm not the one using this (bad) word, I'm talking about someone else using it. And this isn't quite fair because white people (or Asian people) aren't allowed to use that word in public. At the same time, it calls upon past usage to establish that oppression is still going on. Rather clever, that. But, not clever in the sense that it doesn't provide alternative scenarios for the "oppressed" to imagine life differently. It disrespects the majority of African-Americans as they are constituted as being unable to recognise their own oppression (until this chap points it out to them). It doesn't provide spaces for engagement* or "face-to-face interaction despite differences" as Tocqueville would say, but distances these two identities--African-American and Others (Whites, in this example)--from each other and posits an ongoing hierarchy, one that is difficult to change.

This brings me to an article I wanted to discuss some time back but never got around to. It was written by an African-American chap in one of the local San Francisco area newspapers and it was along the lines of "Am I Black Enough?". In the article, he wrote that because he lived in the suburbs, liked opera, belonged to a wine club, etc he got asked quite often if he was "Black". His response? How is it that when reports about the local young criminal, the teenager who's doped up and preggers, the unemployed show up, no one asks if these identities are "Black" enough?

The point this chap made and one that I wish the Comedian had talked more of is that the way we conceptualise identities is limiting. We are talking about fixed identities--one that is oppressed and another that is oppressing. The media, songs and so on and even the people themselves work towards perpetuating notions of a fixed, single identity rather than less stable, multiple identities.

Let me give some more examples from the past few days:

- Being told by some of the people I was working with over the summer that the reason they didn't like San Francisco and Berkeley was because the places were "too Asian". Especially Berkeley, I was told.*

- Going to a new place to watch football (Liverpool were playing Chelsea. We were robbed of victory. Robbed) and having random people ask "So, why are you here alone then?" in the midst of an extremely-exciting match**.

- Having a potential housemate tell me that she was "impressed by your command of English" (seriously).

- The (Portuguese) manager of Chelsea, Jose Mourinho, slagging off Liverpool because "some" Liverpool players were "from a different [Spanish] culture" (and hence diving to get penalties).

The last one was especially interesting--Mourinho was pissed off because two new Liverpool signings--both recently arrived in Britain from Spain--were not English enough!

Allah Made Me Funny could be an excellent forum to discuss these issues of multiple identity-formation. Not that they'd have to but instead of using the same old tropes of "oh oh we're being oppressed", maybe a step further--okay, we're being oppressed, so what are we doing about it/can we do about it? It's not like all of us aren't getting oppressed in one way or another. Pointing out the oppression (however defined) may be useful, using it as a crutch when talking about selves and others as single-identity groups, not so much.

* This was actually a bit of a shock because I was convinced everyone had liked the area as much as I had. Then, thinking about it later, I realised that the bits of both cities that made them worth liking to me (e.g. being able to buy packets of dried squid in Walgreens!) might not have been to everyone's tastes.

** Lesson here: Don't go watch footy at bigger pubs/restaurants. Stick to smallish ones, where people ignore you or give you sidelong glances but ignore you anyway.

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At 8/20/2007 1:13 PM, Blogger Serena said...

sounds like you had a great time in Calif. And I agree these questions of identity and stereotyping need to be addressed in a different way. But I have noticed now that more people hold onto "grudges" of the past for longer periods even though times have changed...etc.


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