Sunday, June 19, 2011

Is Race Like a Cookie?

I admit it, I like food. Holidays, to me, are excuses to cook and eat. Some of my closest and most wonderful friendships revolve around food, and I can't help feeling (unfair though it may be) that people who don't relish food the way we do are suspect. As that great philosopher, Jack Black, said in School of Rock (years before eating was "discovered" in Eat, Pray, Love) "I like to eat.  Is that such a crime?"  

Along with appreciating actual food, I also enjoy the use of food as a metaphor for all kinds of stuff.  Life is like a box of chocolates, for instance.  In The R Word (my young adult novel, and yes, I am going to find a way to mention it in all of my posts from now on) I use food as a metaphor all over the place, and for decades people have been using food as a metaphor for race relations in the U.S.  It used to be said, for example, that American society was a melting pot, where all races would eventually melt together.  After a while that idea went out of fashion because it implied total assimilation.  Race is more like a salad, it was then decided, where all the vegetables lay around next to each other, the lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and radishes coexisting in a kind of raw food bliss.  That didn't exactly work either, though, because it implied a "separate but equal" mentality.  Oh, thought someone else (I don't know who), race is like a stew, where the ingredients blend together and give each other flavor,  but still remain true to their essence.  I've always liked that one.

Yesterday I had occasion to watch a friend eat one of those delicious black and white cookies pictured above.  I used to love those cookies back in New York -- I have a memory of buying them in the subway, but I'm not sure now if that really happened or if I'm making it up.  Anyway, wouldn't you know that this morning I came across an article about the problem with the "black/white binary" in critical race theory.  The author argues that seeing race as a black/white thing leaves out all the other people that have experienced racism, such as Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans.  I have to admit that I'm guilty of thinking about race as a binary; you might even notice this in The R Word (you know, my young adult novel).  I'm not sure why, but I do tend to think about racism mostly in terms of black and white, even though I understand that people from many groups have and still do experience racism, and even though I've read some great books that explore racism from different perspectives (among them Kira Kira, The Absolute Diary of a Part Time Indian, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, and, most recently, The Woman Warrior).  I'm not sure why I give in to black/white binary ideas about race so readily, but I think it might have to do with where and when I'm from. My very unscholarly observation is that when I was growing up in Queens there was sort of an assumed, mostly unspoken racial hierarchy.  Whites were on top, of course, and African Americans were on the bottom.  Hispanics and Asians flittered around somewhere in between, and I never thought about Native Americans at all. Like I said, this is not a scholarly assertion with supporting evidence, except for the fact that over the years my old neighborhood and the surrounding area have allowed access to Asians and Hispanics, but not to African Americans.  Not that there isn't racism against these groups (whites from that area talk about the "Asian Invasion," for example), but the fact remains that Asians and Latinos were allowed to buy property in the area, while African Americans were not.  Also, lots of whites still live there, which tells me that white flight has not been as big an issue there as it has been in other parts of New York (areas that were once white but are now almost completely African American).  So while I'm not denying that many groups have and still do experience discrimination, I do believe that black/white binary thinking about race exists for a reason. There's something to it, or at least there was when I was growing up in the northeast. I need to think more about this.

In the meantime, anybody want a cookie?

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