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January 14, 2008

The "Missing Black Woman Formation"

Not to be down on Scott Westerfeld, whom I consider a friend on the skiffy side of the blanket, but his recent blog post about the "Missing Black Woman Formation" (hereafter referred to as MBWF) needs some complications added to it.

The MBWF concept is explained by one of the characters of Scott's YA novel So Yesterday thus:

“You know, the guy on the motorcycle was black. The guy on the bike was white. The woman was white. That’s the usual bunch, you know? Like everybody’s accounted for? Except not really. I call that the missing-black-woman formation. It kind of happens a lot.”

Scott then goes on to point out that we're living through a MBWF right now, posting a picture of our current Democratic presidential front runners (Edwards, Clinton, and Obama, natch). He underlines this by posting a photo of Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus from The Matrix.

Okay, but not really.

There are a number of problems with this, starting with how complaining about a missing black woman only works for commercials (which is mostly what the So Yesterday characters were talking about.) Commercials are 30-120-second gestures in the direction of a brand. You have time to say one simple thing, so that's what you say.

The black man inserted into a white couple says, "Our brand is diverse!" whatever that means. The missing black woman, if she were to appear, would say, "We're selling to blacks and whites equally!" which is not what most commercials want to say. Most want to say, "Hey, liberal white guilt dollars! Flow this way!"

When you get into broader pop culture, and especially when you get into the bizarre mix of current mainstream reality, branding, idealism, fearmongering, and passion play that is the contemporary presidential race, the MBWF has nothing interesting or true to say to the matter anymore.

Gloria Steinem proved this in the NYT op-ed that Scott (and everybody else) linked to. By Shakespeare's sistering Obama (dang, can't we get some new feminist tricks?) Steinem sought to prove that women have it worse than blacks, but only managed to give every reader a case of  SIWWTABIDKW (something is wrong with that argument but I don't know what), which is usually accompanied by a terminal case of the squirmies.

What was wrong with that argument, by the way, is that you can't compare apples and oranges (or sexism and racism), and you can't predict society's behavior towards the intersection of the two except by, as Steinem did, assuming that each must be overcome separately before the intersection will become penetrable (Frex: we needed an Albright, and a Powell, before we could have a Rice.)

So, a listing of problems with MBWF as applied by Scott:

Flip through a magazine and check out the ads. In any group of three or more models, one invariably will be black. (If there are six or more models, one will be Asian and one Hispanic.) Same on TV. In any commercial for beer or snack food, one of the guys on the sofa is always black. This probably misrepresents the incidence of interracial hanging out, but it isn't just tokenism. It's a harmony fantasy, buried deep in the collective conscience.

I.e. the MBWF, a white fantasy scenario, is leaving out a much more complicated, and truly diverse, group of people because that would complicate and diversify the white audience's social scene, rather than placating them for having a mostly white peer group. So it's a bit more complicated than just a missing black woman. If we're going to look at negative space, let's really look at it.

  • I'll take the last one second: Keanu Reeves isn't white. He specifically was chosen to play Neo in The  Matrix because he is obviously multiracial. Many people don't know that Keanu is multiracial--not because he doesn't look multiracial, but because he's been offered to us as white since the mid-eighties and most people have never thought to question that. In the mid-eighties, it was because the mainstream consciousness had no concept of multiraciality, especially not Asian multiraciality. But those same people who were incapable of noticing Keanu's halfiness in the mid-eighties have become, in the interim, so sensitized to it that they would notice it in an instant now if they were to encounter a second Keanu. But Keanu himself, name and all, is grandfathered in as a white dude.

It is for both these reasons--the obvious multiraciality and his acceptance by mainstream audiences--that Keanu was cast in the racially radical Matrix. Suitably millenial, the first Matrix suggested that a lot of race mixing had gone on among surviving humans after the apocalypse with its casting of actors of a variety of races and mixtures (including Marcus Chong, Tommy Chong's adopted son, whose ancestry isn't public, but is almost certainly multiracial.) This was deliberate.

Morpheus as the odd black man out in a MBWF is questionable, but his status as a magical negro? not so much. I said the first Matrix was radical, not perfect. (By the way, I distinguish between the first Matrix and subsequent Matrices because the Wachowskis got lazy in the race element, as well as everything else, and let a bunch of black actors stand in for diversity thereafter, i.e. losing grip on the multiracial aspect of the whole thing.)

  • Finally, with regard to our beloved Donkeys, can I just remind everyone that Obama is a biracial child of an immigrant. Far from being a quibble, this is absolutely essential to understanding how Obama has gotten as far as he has, and how he might even have a real chance at the presidency.

As I said, in our new millenium, our mainstream culture has become sensitized to multiraciality, so that we begin to recognize it when it appears in the public forum. But we're not so sophisticated as all that. We recognize it, but we still gawk at it. It's still unusual, exotic ... and not yet re-problematized, as all new, exotic things are.

Obama's clear and apparent multiraciality (one that left him with darkish skin and European features, which earn him the adjective "handsome" even though he's nothing of the sort) put him beyond our immediate racial hierarchy into a biracial status that is still fluid in the public consciousness. If he were just black, he wouldn't be here, but because we don't exactly know what he is, he might still be electable. So there, Gloria Steinem, my lass.

Furthermore, Obama is not the child of an African American descendant of slaves and a white American; i.e. he's not that difficult and problematic product of centuries of slavery and sexual stereotyping. Rather, he's the child of a white American and a black immigrant. A what? Exactly. We don't know what to do about it, because it's an exotic and new story: the black immigrant. But, dudes, immigrant. Undocumented labor issues aside, the American identity is an immigrant identity, and the American story is the triumphal story of immigration and assimilation.

In this context it's much easier to see why Obama, the child of a black man and a white woman, doesn't trip more people's black man/white woman wires. The white woman in this case is the agent of assimilation to an honorable immigrant. As copious recent immigration from the Caribbean and East Africa shows, it's a toss up whether such an immigrant will come down as black or as immigrant in their interlocutor's estimation, when the shit really hits. Clearly this question is decided by what is most beneficial to the interlocutor. If the black immigrant in question is threatening them, then they're black. If, however the interlocutor needs an ally and the black immigrant shows willing, then they're an immigrant.

White America needs an inspiring leader--an ally--to take us away from all this horrible Bush stuff, so Obama falls off on the immigrant side in our popular subconscious, even if the public debate has been hijacked by the word "black." I'll bet a lot of people have already forgotten the recent debate over whether or not Obama is really black or black enough. That fight had to be fought out to get detractors out of the way so that we could talk about Obama as a black candidate without digressions. What no one has noticed is that we're processing him simultaneously at both levels: as a surface black, and a crypto-immigrant.

By accepting Obama as our symbolic representative, even if only for a few months, we are essentially underlining and celebrating our existing core American values: immigration, assimilation, triumph, and pot-won't-melt-in-my-mouth virtue.

And via Racialicious, here's a little sumpin' sumpin' to make you think hard about the intersection between race and gender: a nice, long, fascinating article about transgender people of color.

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Comments

When you get a hold of a thing you're so spelendidly relentless in your analysis... I am often catapulted to superhappiness when I read your posts. GO CLAIRE!!!


thanks, badge!

as regards Keanu Reeves, perhaps he mistakenly played on the 100% 'white dude' image too much and it trapped him as a man and in the eyes of critics regarding his work.

oh and I look forward to reading more of your work, Claire. You are insightful, exuberant and intelligent.

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