On Race

July 11, 2008

There’s been a debate/ discussion raging this week around race online. It started with Loren Feldman’s 12 month old “Tech Nigga” video then went in various directions, including an appalling example of racism targeted at SheGeek’s Corvida during a YLive show.

I’ve not long finished this weeks things you can’t say on the Internet podcast, and the subject came up. I haven’t heard the recording yet, but before it comes out I’d like to clarify my stance on the subject, as bite size chunks in a podcast probably won’t do it justice.

Loren Feldman

The one thing that has me beat about the whole Tech Nigga story is that it’s an old one that has come up again. I understand and respect that Loren was trying to make a point about the lack of African American tech bloggers. It offended people, and I believe at the time he apologized for offending people. We all make mistakes, and I’m sure Loren will never make a similar video again.

As I noted in the podcast though, I don’t understand why this is different from say an Ali-G type send up. The lines are very much blurred. However I respect that people find the video offensive, and as such I believe they have the right to say so.

But lets be very clear on one thing: Loren Feldman is not a racist. I spent two days with him in New York with 2006, and this was the mix, myself (white, but Australian), Loren (New Yorker + Jewish) and Chatreuse (African-American). The only time I can even remotely recall anything regarding race coming from Loren’s mouth may have been a self-depreciating joke about his Jewishness. By all means, say he lacks taste at time (as do the best of us at times) and someone who makes mistakes, but don’t call him a racist, he’s not, and anyone who knows him knows that he’s not as well.

American race relations

I noted in the podcast, as I know I have elsewhere before, that America’s obsession with race has always struck me as being strange as an Australian. The concept of Asian-American, African-American, even Irish-American…I don’t get it, and I never will. In Australia people don’t generally call themselves Asian-Australians, Italian-Australians, English-Australians…I’m not saying that some people don’t, but it’s not a regular thing here. Ask most people of any ethnic background here who they are, and they’ll just tell you they are Australian. My grandparents on my fathers side migrated here from Scotland, I don’t regard myself Scottish-Australian, and I’ve never once referred to myself in that way.

I respect that people are, and can be proud of their cultural heritage, but I wonder whether this some-what obsession with what makes people different is in part contributing to the continuation of the racism that drives us apart. What’s wrong with American’s simply being American, irrespective of the color of their skin? A society that values its shared nationality today over its divided past will more quickly overcome the evils of racism. We are, after all, all people.

African-Americans and tech

One thing we discussed in the podcast was the lack of African-Americans in tech. This was one of the original points Loren was trying to make. It’s real, and that some would suggest that saying so is racist itself is beyond me. It’s true. The only African-American I’ve seen on most of my trips in the last 12 months to the US was MC Hammer. The mix is always white, Asian and Indian.

I can’t even pretend I have an answer here, or even whether this should be addressed. That debate is for others, but don’t let calls of racism cloud facts.

Colorblindness and the blogosphere

Getting back to matters race, I’ll repeat what I said in the podcast: I really don’t care what color, sexuality, gender or nationality you are. I remember someone on FriendFeed the other day asking people to forgive him because English wasn’t his first language. I didn’t even know until he said so. I didn’t know Corvida was an African-American Lesbian until she said so, and I really don’t care that she is. I’ve always judged people as I meet them, online and off, and I’ll judge the value of people through their writings or contribution to the conversation. Despite this current obsession with race, in my experience the majority, but not all people, think along the same lines.

Glass Ceilings

If you want to talk about disadvantage, I got to where I was today after spending 10 years in country Western Australia. I might as well have been in timbuktu or the North Pole. The blogosphere has always been in a strong part a meritocracy. Not perfectly, particularly these days at the top and with the power a few people hold, but it still in a large part is. Blogging rewards hard work and a well spoken word, irrespective of race or any other criteria.

That’s pretty much my two cents worth. It distresses me to see people like Wayne Sutton, Corvida and others upset in this current debate, and the YLive thing is appalling. However, lets take a deep breath and look for ways everyone can get a fair go in the blogosphere, irrespective of race, religion, sexuality or nationality. We have far more in common than we have which is different. Lets obsess about the positives and moving forward.

36 responses to On Race

  1. I think that the difference between the U.S. and Australia is the HUGE immigrant influx we had here in the late 19th/early 20th century. We had nationalities pretty much plunked in little insulated areas, and yet when kids went to school and people went out, an accent defined you as someone to be discriminated against. As a result, the individual cultures learned to stick together, and bam. There you go. There's ALWAYS been someone to discriminated against. First the Irish, then the Italians/Poles/etc., then the Japanese, all the way up to now when the focus is “illegals” by which people really just mean Hispanics.

  2. Ali-G is an obvius character – the joke is skin deep and obviously funny. Technigga is much more complex. The first joke is offensive – racist even – and not very funny. It's not until you unpack the whole suite and put all the pieces together that you can appreciate what Loren is doing. Most folks don't want to work that hard. They can't get past the crude opening. And of the ones who do a large number don't want to deal with what they find at the bottom of the box.

  3. Duncan above all, you should know these simple facts:

    1) Ali g is a parody of a Wigga- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wigger
    2) Loren's video was a ferocious aggression toward an ethnic group that a lot of us are proud to be part of.
    3) The fact that you have a few black friends does not mean that you can 't hold racist views- what is your point duncan?

    All this commotion around loren feldman proves one thing IMO.
    Mr LF knew all too well that most of his peers in “aparte ” will not find his piece offensive.
    He also knew that a few will eventually come to his defense claiming : freedom of speech, or retro active witch hunt etc. ( i was not so sure of how many would actually come out of the woodworks until this verizon story came back to hunt him)
    Well minus a few glitches ,( verizon deal, cnet ) he was right!
    Best of luck with your new venture.

  4. I think the main challenge is to not get offended by racist statements. I'm white, my wife is black (and my kid caramel). I'll do jokes about black and about white people sometimes, and my wife does jokes about white and about black people. What the hell! I think it's funny because a lot of it is true.

    Another example: I'm French, and in the US, there's a lot of stereotypes going on about the French. It's not funny, it's hilarious! There are tons of things to make fun about Frenchies. I'm not going to cry because French people are portrayed as rude, lacking hygiene, arrogant and so on.

    There's a lot of literature on social psychology and racism. When you understand the cognitive mechanism behind racism, you understand that racism is not an offensive behavior, but a defensive one. Discriminating shapes and colors stands as part of our primary intellectual structure. Couple this with ingroup/outgroup social phenomenon, and you get racism, a natural way to categorize elements and make sense of your surrounding environment.

    It's true that in the US, there is a race problem. No offense, but I think that the black community is having a hard time letting go of the past. Seriously, are we still blaming the Germans for the holocaust. Not that I know of, even though that was pretty f***ed up (and we still see neo-nazi groups in Germany). Move on people! My +90 year-old grandma was a cranky black-racist Italian immigrant. Now black blood runs in the family, and she accepted it (and you know how Italians are with family values – there, another real and jokable stereotype very well conveyed by the movie GodFather).

  5. xavier –
    I am also French, and i must say. It is true what they say : FRENCH people love to intellectualize everything ahhahahahahahha-
    I would love to get in touch with you. i will pbly try you on your website –
    A bientot-

  6. Erick,
    my point is, as it always has, that I don't judge people based on race, sexuality, nationality, gender or any other criteria other than the value they provide to me, be it through writing or friendship. Blogging is also as close as you get to colorblindness. You can judge a person by their color when you don't know what it is.

    Secondly: on Loren, he made a mistake, he apologized for it 12 months ago. We all make mistakes, perhaps if some people were a little more forgiving we'd all get on better.

  7. mturro,
    I don't disagree that Loren overstepped the mark, but it is a fine line, and it's various shades of gray. I also respect that people find this offensive, as they have the right to do so. However I also have had the opportunity to spend time with Loren, and the guy ISN'T a racist…an Australian, a Jew and a black American walk into the Friars club could be the start of the racist joke, but that's the exact company I kept when I visit Loren. He made a mistake, a serious one, but he isn't a racist.

  8. Cyndy, perhaps the difference is the Australian notion of “a fair go” (it's nearly a national ethos) in that we give everyone a fair go, irrespective of their nationality. In our isolation we've also developed a strong national identity that embraces different backgrounds as our own. If you ever visit, try visiting a “Australian” restuarnt (and no, the “outback steakhouse” isn't Australian, no matter what they tell you). Australian cooking is a fusion of Asian, European and English styles. We embrace our differences and we make ourselves better for them as part of being Australian, not some sub-set of being Australian.

    As I said in the post, as someone looking in I've always found it strange, but I also accept that this is within the subtext of me being australian.

  9. I totally agree with you – he's not racist – he's more brilliant that racist. Still, he did make a racist video – that was the point of the Technigga series no? He was deliberately being provocative – he wanted to create reaction. The art in this whole mess is not in the content it's in that reaction. That reaction is what makes him an artist, not the stupid, racist parody. That part is just the decoy. Really, the more I get to know his work the more I am truly impressed with him as an artist. He is unique.

  10. Duncan, I appreciate your viewpoint. In a perfect world, yes, we would and should all be colourblind. And believe me, I'm happy to hear folks say that they are.

    I agree that the distinction has to be made between the two occurrences: Feldman and the Sutton/Corvida interview. Feldman was acting a fool to get attention at the expense of race representation to gain publicity. Granted, that one incident alone does not make him a racist, just incredibly foolish. The Sutton/Corvida incident was outright racism – the hate speech uttered was unconscionable. But as much as they are separate incidents, the big FAIL that's been happening the community is treating them as isolated incidents instead of acknowledging that this is a common type of behaviour that is NOT acceptable towards ANY race. And that's very unfortunate. Don't get me wrong, free speech is free speech. But it should never be ok to back that kind of behaviour.

    If we fail to recognize the areas in which we fall short as a society and as a community, and we overlook them, how will the situation improve? For me as a Black person, that change is necessary; the status quo is not acceptable and I think many have expressed that recently. I think others have a hard time grasping that.

    We can't just wish it all away by saying “lets all be colourblind”. Forced ignorance is the worst possible solution. Those who are tired of the race talk, yeah it will make them happy. For for the minorities affected by this issue (and others that it will happen to in the future), this isn't like someone making fun of your nose or your hair or your stutter; it cuts deep — deeper than any majority member can understand.

  11. Yes, it does seem very strange. I've always been somewhat mystified over what percentage of a specific racial mix you have to be to be associated with that particular group. I note the variance in opinion over whether Obama is White, Black, neither or both.

    BTW Duncan, I haven't seen the videos, but what do you feel the reaction here would have been had someone done “Tech Abo”?

  12. Shey, I don't disagree with a thing you've said. We cant wish it away, nor should we, however the more people who accept people for just being people, the better off we'll all be. I can't pretend to imagine what deep seated racism feels like, and when I hear yourself, Corvida and others get upset it's an eye opener to myself and others in getting some way to fully understanding that. I've only copped a little bit in the past, in the United States, and being told to speak English for example (WTF is right), and I know how angry that made me feel. It's nothing compared to what you, Corvida and others face. I can't fix it, but I can give you my support where ever possible and in this case I felt the need to contribute. Not because you are African American mind you, but because I think you're a great guy, with a great blog who contributes positively to this space. Same for Corvida + Wayne.

  13. Thanks Duncan — we're definitely on the same page there.

  14. I think I understand basically what you're saying, but logically, if the “point” of the video was the “reaction,” then why isn't he happy about everything that's been going on over the past couple of days? Was this not the kind of reaction he was hoping for? He took a major risk, and he pissed people off, and now there's some blowback. Why does any of this anger come as a surprise?

  15. Were Australians giving aboriginal people “a fair go” during their “Keep Australia White” propaganda campaigns of the 20s (which lasted on the books until 1976)?

  16. That one incident, in my book, does make him a racist. A racist isn't as simple as calling people racial slurs, although that's easy enough to spot. Anyone who harbors any idea that someone who is of a different race is worthy of ridicule and/or scorn demonstrates that this person has a low view of said people. That's a racist. Not all racists wear sheets, and burn crosses. Some racists are the people who, when they find out that a white friend of theirs has moved into a majority minority neighborhood stick up their noses, curl their lips and say with their voices dripping with disdain “Why did you move into that neighborhood?” By virtue of his actions – actions which, thanks to these discussions, will be linked for ages and will follow him around like the bad smell he normally leaves in his wake – Loren Feldman will be forever linked to this incident, and will forever have people casting doubt on his integrity and character. Poor judgement? Of course. Racist? Absolutely.

  17. Agreed — but personally, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt. However, repeat offenses will void his “apology”. You're right — he'll always be linked to the incident, but sometime along the way he might actually learn something from this, or maybe he won't, but that's up to him.

  18. Cecily, are you perfect, have you ever made a mistake? God, I know I have have…far to often actually 😉 If he repeats it, I'll be the first to concede that you are right, he f*cked up, but that doesn't make him a serial offender either.

  19. The White Australia policy dates to 1901, and was abolished well and truly before 1976 (indeed we've not long celebrated the 40th anniversary of Aboriginal people getting the vote). No country has a perfect history, but I can tell you one thing today (and this is in MY time, not the past) that most Australians do give people a fair go irrespective of their cultural background. We're a melting pot of different cultures, but we celebrate what we have in common, without obsessing over our differences.

  20. I'd find it offensive, but I wouldn't virtually lynch the person either based on one mistake that has been long apologized for I'd note as well. We all make mistakes, and I don't believe Loren is racist, and I've seen it with my own eyes.

  21. because the blowback happened 12 months ago when the video was released.

  22. True, but some people are just seeing it now, right? That's the flip-side of the real-time nature of web communications — total asynchronicity (if that's a word). For the Verizon folks and the protesters, it might as well have been posted last week. And who's to say that the “reaction” that was the “point” of the “art” can't go on for an extended period of time? After all, we still respond viscerally to lots of great work that's more than a year old.

  23. moving this to the proper reply spot

  24. I think the anger comes after the reaction sticks an nobody bothers to dig deeper into the matter. Nobody is bothering to investigate past the decoy. The anger is over the laziness of mind. The anger is over those who cry racism without bothering to see context. The anger is over having to defend and explain that folks are picking out one act of a play and treating it as if it is a singular work. The anger – which I share – is that we live in an intellectually lazy culture that always seems to shoot first and ask questions never.

  25. Hm, again, I get your point, I think, but i don't buy it. If I call you a name in public, and it pisses you off, why is the onus then on you to “dig deeper” and “see the context”? Aren't you within your rights to simply get mad and express your anger? And again, isn't that a predictable aspect of your “reaction”?

  26. Cecily Walker July 12, 2008 at 9:29 am

    Duncan, were you at South by Southwest where Feldman showed up at a panel for the express purpose of disrupting it and making it all about him (instead of the subject at hand – bringing more Black tech bloggers into the spotlight)? Were you there when he verbally assaulted people? Were you there when he threatened a dear friend of mine in a comment thread on FriendFeed? If you can't say yes to any of those questions, then I'll thank you for your sarcasm.

    Feldman's a jackass, and he deserves neither my benefit of the doubt, nor my respect.

  27. Cecily Walker July 12, 2008 at 9:32 am

    Or rather, “I'll thank you to leave your sarcasm at the door.” See? Clearly I'm not perfect (nor have I portrayed myself as such).

  28. Can't argue this one either!

  29. Of course. But you would be within your rights to be angry as well if you had taken the time to place your remark in a proper context and I, either through ignorance or refusal simply don't take the time to “get” what you were really trying to say. As far as I am concerned the onus is always on me to make sense, to make meaning of the all the information that surrounds me – especially that information which is directed at me. I'm not doing my job as a thinking member of society if i simply “react” to the immediate without stopping to dig deeper. Simple, in the moment, blink style reaction is a huge problem with how we debate. We get so wrapped up in our own perspectives we can't or we won't see the other side.

  30. That maybe the case in some areas of the capitals, but let me tell you it is most certainly not the case in the North-West or the Northern Territory. Just read the Little Children Are Sacred report to see how much of a fair-go we give our indigenous peoples.

  31. Dunc,

    Agree with your post.

    See the post I wrote about this on my website.

  32. Oh your just a wannabe … lets face it .. you run your mouth and hide

  33. Oh your just a wannabe … lets face it .. you run your mouth and hide

  34. Oh your just a wannabe … lets face it .. you run your mouth and hide

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

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