Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Myopia of Privilege

[Note: This post is part of a roundtable at Anti-Racist Parent on an Atlanta Journal-Constitution piece by Michelle Hiskey titled “Perfect braids show depth of dad's devotion." The piece describes a white father, Clifton Green, and his care for his black daughter, Miriam's, hair.]

In a bizarrely topsy-turvy take on post-racial America, Michelle Hiskey appears oblivious to the possibility that her audience for her piece "Perfect braids show depth of dad's devotion," may include people of color. (And this is the Atlanta Journal Constitution we're talking about here.) She further assumes--which is ironic, given the article's focus on transracial parenting--that her white audience knows nothing about black hair care. In fact, I suspect that Hinskey is guilty of a common, though problematic tendency in conversations about race: conceiving of white and black as polarized monoliths, and assuming that her experience is representative of all white experience. Thus projecting her own ignorance onto her audience, she leads us through a rather laborious guided tour of one family's version of black hair care. And so we are treated to facts that are supposed to be news to us (presented in problematic language, as Tami has already pointed out so clearly): that black hair will become dry if shampooed as frequently as white hair, that black hair is fragile and breaks easily, that black hair may take longer to rinse than white hair, and that particular products exist (also oddly described and exoticised) for styling black hair. None 0f this--I'd be willing to bet--is news to any of the Atlanta Constitution's black readers. Nor is this news to most white parents of brown children. And for those white readers for whom these facts are news, what, exactly, do they contribute to the story except for a sense that black hair is an exotic animal that requires involved and mysterious care and feeding? But more than that, what are we to think of an article that so blatantly fails to consider a significant portion of its audience? What should we think of an article that neglects to include even a single phrase, like "as mothers of black children know. . . ," for example, that would at least attempt to include the Constitution's readership of color? What should we think of an article that is incredibly myopic in a way only those who hold white privilege can be?

I'm not going to answer these questions--at least, not right now--because I have more to say about myopia and privilege. Another thing that I find extraordinary about this piece is the way it elevates a mundane act of caregiving to the remarkable. A parent doing his child's hair becomes newsworthy because the parent is white and the child is black. (Patriarchy, of course, plays a role here, too, with the hair care becoming doubly newsworthy because the parent is a white male, but my focus here is race.) One imagines that, as Hiskey observed Green braiding his daughter's hair, black adults all over Atlanta were combing, parting, braiding, and twisting the hair of black little girls, producing styles as "perfect" as Green's. These mothers, grandmothers, aunts, fathers, and cousins, however, are conspicuously absent from this story because Hiskey--in her white priveleged myopia--does not see them. Or, perhaps, she believes (as, apparently, her editor did) that a black adult doing a black child's hair is not newsworthy. She may be right. And this should make us very sad, because it so clearly delineates the ways in which whiteness privileges and blackness devalues. For, why wouldn't a black mother doing a black child's hair be newsworthy when a white father doing a black child's hair is? One answer, I fear, is that black children are valued in this country only when they have white parents. Another is that a white parent, in caring for a black child, is understood to be doing a charitable act by offering the same care he would to a biological (white) child to a child that is understood as lesser, either because of the child's race or her "orphan status" that preceded her adoption. (Note: I don't see any evidence that Green holds these views.)

I have leveled my criticism so far at Hiskey and the ugly, nearsighted, and--let's be honest here--all too common perspective that she represents. I reserve, though, a question for Green: What responsibility does Green hold in the production of this article and its perpetuation of racist and white privileged notions? The easy answer is that Green could not have forseen how Hiskey would represent his care for his daughter. In fact, it's probably fair to say that Green believed he was telling a love story; he wants his children to feel as his father made him feel--"as if he had hung the moon." Fair enough; I do not fault Green's intentions. I can't dismiss, though, the gnawing sense that he should have been more wary of the reporter's advances, alive to the possibility that his privilege was the principle attraction, that he would be cast as hero while hundreds of black adults combed and braided away with as much devotion but without similar recognition. And that raises questions for all white parents of brown children, especially those of us who strive to be anti-racist: How do we become unwittingly involved in perpetuating privilege and racism? How can we do better?

1 comment:

  1. Oh Julia, I've been waiting to read your analysis of the AJC article about Green and his daughter - Tami mentioned you'd be commenting. Wow - you are a lightening rod on this one! I, too, as a white mom of a brown boy, am startled by the valuing and exoticizing of black hair while in homes surrounding us moms, dads, aunts, sisters, grandmas tend to hair daily but find their loving work problematized and more importantly, invisible.
    Your question, "how do we (white parents) become inwittingly involved in perpetuating privlige and racism?" is so compelling. I don't have an answer - I know I'm guilty in spite of my efforts to be an ally. I'm so interested to hear how others see themselves - and I'm going to think on this one!
    Thanks for the thoughtful and critical analysis.

    -MM (under-the-acacia-tree)