On the Matter of Black Representation in Popular Culture

by Diogo Henrique Bispo Dias

I am a man. I am a black man. I am a black man from Brazil. I am a black man from Brazil living in the United States. And it is from that perspective that I want to talk. Because while black social and political movements have had and continue to have a strong effect on American society and politics, things are a little different where I come from.

Of course we have black movements, and black Brazilian people fight against oppression every day, in every way that they are able. But while it’s possible for a movement like Black Lives Matter to flourish in the US and have a profound effect on American policing, such a movement could never even get off the ground in Brazil, for a simple reason: Everyone involved would be silenced in one way or another. The groundless arresting, brutalizing, and killing of black people by police in the US, which finally, after far too long, have become a serious concern in American politics, remain ordinary, accepted parts of Brazilian daily life. (The respective stories of Amarildo and Rafael Braga provide a glimpse of this ongoing, tragic reality.)

Segregation in the US was horrible and impossible to justify, and it’s amazing to realize how the American black community was able to turn such a nightmare into a source of power. Black neighborhoods became a focus of unity and resistance and birthed a rich amalgam of social and cultural movements.  In Brazil, the story developed somewhat differently. Ours was more an economic segregation than a racial one. Poor people, regardless of their color, were pushed into the outskirts of the city — creating what are called favelas — where black people were and still are marginalized. We are constantly surveilled, arrested without warrant, and killed. When the police decide to invade these areas, usually claiming to be looking for drug dealers, more often than not black people are the ones caught in the crossfire.  And as if things couldn’t get any worse, today, the security of Rio de Janeiro is literally being put into the hands of the military, with top-ranking General, Eduardo Villas Bôas, demanding that military personnel be given blanket immunity for their actions. In other words, they want a license to kill, and it isn’t hard to guess who their victims will be.

Last year, a law was proposed – and fortunately rejected – to ban and criminalize funk. A distinctive musical style born in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian funk is different from its American counterpart. The songs are frequently about intense violence and sex, and they are inflected with misogynistic undertones, although recently, more female singers have taken up the genre, as an opportunity to talk about women’s empowerment. The relevant point here, however, is that Brazilian funk is made by black people. The significance of this cannot be understated, because beyond this controversial musical genre, any form of culture created by black people was and/or is, persecuted: samba, rap, graffiti, and candomblé — a religion with African elements — just to name a few.

I’m stressing these differences, because it sometimes seems that Americans have a rather US-centric view of black people, their struggles, and their goals. To see what I’m talking about, consider Marvel’s most recent cinematic offering, Black Panther, which endeavors to depict a “successful black country,” named Wakanda. In doing so, we are told that Wakanda has infinite resources, vastly superior technology, and possibly the most powerful weapons in the world.

But that’s pretty much it. They spend more time showing the effective and visually stunning transportation system than the living conditions of the people. We have no idea what anyone’s life is like in Wakanda. Does the population have access to the remarkable medical advances we are shown? Are they free? How is wealth distributed? How do the Wakandans deal with conflict? What is the role of the common people in public affairs? Are men and women equal? (We know that both can be warriors and spies, but that’s it.) What are the values that this community embraces? The movie almost completely ignores such questions. Success is defined in largely American terms: power, resources, technology, and wealth. Do we black people want to be defined by that standard?

Progressively minded Americans today are all about promoting inclusiveness. We want more women in positions of authority, more overweight people in fashion marketing, and more black people pretty much anywhere we can get them. What worries me is that there is a common theme underlying all of these cases, one that is reflected in Black Panther’s Wakanda, namely that capitalism defines what it means to be included (and successful) in a society.

In a capitalist society, inclusiveness is defined in terms of being seen either as a product and/or a consumer. Black people have been seen as a product for centuries. We’ve been bought, sold, and exploited in every conceivable way. But now we are being seen as consumers too: there are movies made for black people, toys based on black characters, cosmetic products specifically designed for black hair and skin, etc.

But what if we want to question the consumerist identity that has been imposed on us? What if we want to reject being defined by capitalism? I mean, do I really want my kids to watch Denzel Washington movies and think that the American way of life is made for them too? Do I want them to believe in the myth of the self-made man? Do I want them to believe that if they work hard and remain true to their consciences, they’ll get what they deserve? Do I need another toy that I can’t afford? Is this the best way to tell my kids that society sees them as equals? Black people have been using oils and homemade creams to treat their hairs and skins for ages. Why, today, do we have to buy specific and very expensive products to do exactly the same thing?

Having black people promote products does give us a certain “equality,” but one defined in capitalist terms.  Black consumers are the same as white consumers precisely because, at the end of the day, we are all consumers. We were forced into the capitalist system, we didn’t choose it. Indeed, being seen as products was the very premise upon which we entered this country. This is a framework that was neither designed by us nor for us.

Now that we finally have a voice, I think we should take a step back and ask ourselves if we really want more representation in all the entertainment and fashion industries. Do we want to be a part of a game that we have never been offered the opportunity to opt out of? I’m not suggesting an answer, but it seems clear to me, if nothing else, that the whole push for inclusiveness, which means being represented in all sorts of profit-driven celebrity institutions, already starts from the assumption that we want to be part of this system, and this is something we should question, in the toughest of terms.

And one thing I know for sure is this: No black kid will be any less likely to get shot by the police, because there’s a black guy in Star Wars.

35 Comments »

  1. “And one thing I know for sure is this: No black kid will be any less likely to get shot by the police, because there’s a black guy in Star Wars”:

    Is that really so? If one is a gradualist cum ameliorationalist, isn’t this actually one way that real change slowly occurs? And the way artists (of whatever type) can make a contribution? In Australia,

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleverman

    was the recent series featuring detention and genocide as backdrops for an Aboriginal superhero story. It tried pretty hard not to do “worthy outreach work” for an oppressed people.

    More generally, yes, let’s get back to political change. Is that likely in Brazil?

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  2. “… Success is defined in largely American terms: power, resources, technology, and wealth. Do we black people want to be defined by that standard? […] Now that we finally have a voice, I think we should take a step back and ask ourselves if we really want more representation in all the entertainment and fashion industries. Do we want to be a part of a game that we have never been offered the opportunity to opt out of?”

    I can happily accept the “we” as a set of individuals who might share certain common experiences but who will inevitably have a variety of personal views, predilections and responses, but (correct me if I am wrong) you seem to want to take the solidarity thing a little bit further than this.

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  3. Diogo Henrique,

    Welcome to the blog. It’s great to have a new non-Anglo-Saxon centric voice here. I come from Chile myself.
    A very interesting essay.

    And thank you, Daniel Kaufman, for opening this space up to new and different voices.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. A very provocative essay that, admittedly, raises more questions than offer answers.

    The problem is very well described, but there are no existing viable options from which to choose for anyone. Whether one is white or brown, or of whatever ethnic or cultural origin, the choices in front of us are very limited or none. ‘Neoliberalist globalism’ is the order of the day. There are a few rare Marxist hotspots in this world and they are imploding. Elsewhere, at the margins, there are a few kingdoms and territories controlled by warlords, but no one would seriously consider these as viable options either.

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  5. Thanks for this challenging piece.

    “In doing so, we are told that Wakanda has infinite resources, vastly superior technology, and possibly the most powerful weapons in the world.”

    This made me smile.
    I’m from Europe. I’m imagining a movie in which the Belgians or the Romanians or the Galicians or the Finns from the city of Mikkeli – never before honored with a superhero – suddenly have infinite resources, superior technology etc.
    Everybody in Europe would laugh their heads off, the Belgians, Romanians, Galicians and inhabitants of Mikkeli included.

    But in the US, a movie with blacks who have possibly the most powerful weapons etc. etc. are a breakthrough, somehow, culturally.

    It *is* odd, seen from the outside. Even if you’re not black. Is this inclusiveness?

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  6. Hi davidlduffy. Thank’s for the reply and for the suggestion about the Australian series. I’ll look into that.

    You’ve said that ” If one is a gradualist cum ameliorationalist, isn’t this actually one way that real change slowly occurs?”
    Well, maybe, but I just think that this is a big “if”. I really don’t believe that we have progress when it comes to human affairs such as politics, social behavior and morality. That fact that we have Donald Trump after Obama is kind of an indicator of that.

    Of course, on a personal level, having a back celebrity can be inspiring for black people.I can see a black kid looking at Neil deGrasse Tyson and wanting to become a scientist. But unless we have a structural change that gives this kid access to proper education, living conditions and so on, the odds are still against her. The king of pop was black. Did that change the way police look at us?

    So yes, I do think that no black kid will be any less likely to get shot by the police because there’s a black guy in Star Wars.

    With respect to Brazil, I don’t see any political change for the better in the near future. We had a president (from a left-wing party) impeached last year for shady reasons. And the new president is trying to sell several state companies to the (international) private sector. He’s revoking worker’s rights. The budged for education was cut almost 50%.

    We have presidential elections this year. The first one on the polls is being prosecuted in a very strange trial, so we are not sure if he’ll be able to run. The second one is a conservative and religious fundamentalist, former military who believes that the dictatorship was actually good and wouldn’t mind having it coming back. He’s against any kind of affirmative action, and don’t think that racism and homophobia are real. Things are not looking good right now

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  7. Hey, Mark English.

    I agree with you that the notion of a collective is problematic. But I’m not arguing for a heavily substantive or metaphysical notion of a black community. Any group of individuals will surely have a variety of personal views. And black communities around the world also have theirs specificity. But at least, we can recognize that the way we’ve been treated by white people is pretty much the same: oppression, slavery, exploitation, prejudice etc. And that constitute a common background from which the questions I raised can emerge.

    I’m curious to know what you think about that.

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  8. Thanks, s.wallerstein!

    I’ve been to Chile a few times. The history of the country is fascinating! It’s curious (and sad) how Brazil can sometimes be isolated from our neighbors!

    Let me know if you’re planning on going to Brazil.

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  9. Hi Liam.

    I agree with you that the options are scarce and almost non-existent. But that doesn’t mean we need to stop discussing it. That’s why I feel it’s important to at least acknowledge how inclusiveness is being defined, so we know exactly what are we getting into!

    What do you mean by “Marxists hotspots”?

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  10. Hey, couvent2104.

    I agreed that it is odd seen from the outside. I mean, Brazil is heavily influenced by American culture, but there’s a lot of things that seems so strange: their fixation with guns; explosions and stuff like that. So when I saw Black Panther giving so much focus on this it made me feel a little disappointed. I mean, it’s great that we have a movie with black people that’s not about slavery, drugs or robbery, but the movie had much more potential!

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  11. Diogo Diaz,
    An interesting and lucid accounting of a couple of important issues. One of these has to do with seeing ethnic tensions from the perspective of a different culture suffering from similar tensions.

    The other has to do with the difficult – perhaps intractable – relationship between the popular arts and the politics of ethnicity. It is usually discussed in general terms of ‘positive role models’ and ‘representation,’ and your article suggests that such discussions will not do, at least not in addressing the real sources of ethnic tension, and I believe this is true. Two apposite examples:

    I recently discovered the music of Jimmie Rodgers, credited as the “father” of American country-western music. I was surprised to discover that many of his greatest successes were in fact straight 12-to-the bar blues songs; and, indeed, Rodgers appears to have learned music from African American workers at the railroad where his father was employed. I could cite so many examples of American popular music forms either originating from African Americans or blending with the music of African Americans, to the point that it is fair to say that American popular music just is the music of African Americans; and remains so to this day. And yet of course, that has changed matters politically only for those who have taken an interest in its history.

    On the other hand, we have the example of the Irish immigrants to New York City, who were treated for decades as the worst ‘white trash’ that Europe had produced, but who by 1900 had developed political power that reached to Albany and beyond. By the 1940s they were accepted as “Irish American” – part and parcel of the American character – while African Americans still were directed to “Black only” restrooms, and turned away from restaurants by “no colored allowed signs. The Irish did not achieve their political success because people were humming “The Name’s Harrigan.” They did it through any means the system allowed, some admittedly underhanded, some requiring identification with a common ethnic goal, some requiring assimilation. Yet it is not clear that African Americans can achieve similar success using such methods, simply due to the color of their skin. More seems to be necessary for this simple fact.

    BTW, people involved in the commercial popular arts are aware of all this – they know the history of American music, they know the history of ‘representation’ of African Americans in film, and the wax and wane of the popularity (commercial success) of such representation. And they use this knowledge – quite deftly it seems. So it’s unclear what the resolution of these issues might be in the future. Certainly it won’t be easy to discover, and not even easy to articulate.

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  12. Diogo Das,

    Chile, as you know, is also incredibly segregated, although in class terms, not strictly racial terms. Lower class people tend to have darker skin and are poor, but in Chile class is cultural as well. You can tell a person from the class elite by their accent and their body language: they live in the same neighborhoods, go to the same private schools, intermarry and have no contact with lower class people, except with their maids or employees.

    The class elite detests and fears the lower class (el pueblo) and the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990) was basically a class dictatorship, the reaction of the elite (with a little help from Nixon) against the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende. During the Pinochet dictatorship, the elite got rid of most social legislation, privatized almost everything (including the pension system), destroyed the labor unions and reaffirmed their control over society.

    However, there is little real class consciousness among the non-elite. Rightwing billionaire Sebastian Piñera (he’s on the Forbes list) was just elected president for the second time, with a scare campaign in social media claiming that his opponent in the run-off, Alejandro Guillier, planned to turn Chile into “Chilezuela”, that is, the Chilean version of Venezuela. That accusation was ridiculous since Gullier isn’t a Chavist or leftwing at all, but lots of poor or lower middle class people bought it and voted for Piñera, who will probably do away with the modest (but needed) social reforms of the Michelle Bachelet center-left government (she ends her term in office in about a week).

    There is a racial struggle in the south of Chile where Mapuche Native-American activists are trying to recuperate their lands and to win a certain political autonomy or even independence. Piñera could crack down further on them (recent scandals show that police fabricate evidence against Mapuche activists) and some of his supporters call upon on him to bring in the army (as in Brasil) to restore order in Mapuche territory. On the other hand, Piñera, being a pragmatist and smart, could take steps towards recognizing some moderate form of Mapuche autonomy, maybe negotiating with Mapuche activists, since sooner or late, someone is going to have to do it. If Piñera calls in the army or keeps repressing the Mapuche activism in general, the situation is going to get more and more violent.

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  13. Diogo Dias

    Let me say upfront that identity politics is alien to my way of thinking. It is clearly seen by many as a useful political strategy, but I believe that it is harmful insofar as it encourages people to find their identity in one (or two) particular (victimized) group(s) rather than to take a more balanced approach. We are all members of *many* groups and groupings. We are also individuals.

    “But at least, we can recognize that the way we’ve been treated by white people is pretty much the same: oppression, slavery, exploitation, prejudice etc. And that constitutes a common background from which the questions I raised can emerge.”

    I agree that having common experiences can lead people to form bonds of understanding etc.. But your way of talking about these matters just hits a wrong note for me. You seem to be talking on behalf of a group which you see as more homogeneous and unified than I do.

    And many of the questions you raise are just as relevant to other groups (political and economic questions, responses to our increasingly absurd consumer and celebrity culture, etc.).

    If you want to interpret the current situation in any given country in terms of historical or contemporary conflicts between black and white, okay, that is your prerogative. But you run the risk of oversimplifying, especially when you generalize across countries. People oppress and exploit other people, and in terms of European and colonial history, sure, the exploiters have overwhelmingly been of European extraction. The exploited and persecuted have been of various ethnicities, sometimes European, but, in terms of *colonial activities*, the victims were overwhelmingly non-Europeans. A number of very different non-European cultures were caught up in this, sometimes in very different ways.

    You acknowledge differences in the experiences of different black communities and also that individuals will have their own views. The question, I suppose, is to what extent we choose to emphasize these differences and to what extent such differences undermine your broad-brush narrative.

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  14. Mark: If anything, Diogo’s piece is in opposition to identity politics as commonly practiced. And one doesn’t have to embrace identity politics to recognize that black people worldwide, who were subjected to the international slave trade and colonialism, have a core of common experience that is important and provides an obvious and legitimate basis for some political organizing. Hungarian Jews are different in many ways from Russian or Polish ones, but all share a common experience rooted in European anti-Semitism, violence, and mass murder that connects us in important ways.

    It “hits a wrong note for you”? Who cares? It’s not about you or your experience. You’re not black or Brazilian and have not shared the common experience Diogo is talking about. And for you, sitting in Australia, to suggest that Diogo is “oversimplifying” with regard to the black Brazilian experience — about which he is clearly very knowledgeable — is just not credible, not to mention a bit obnoxious.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Thank you, Dan T.

    Yes, I now see the connection. I recall from Sophia that Dan T. studies at the University of Miami where Diogo Das is a visiting scholar.

    Maybe you could invite Diego Das to Sophia. That would be interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Maybe it’s just a matter of the pendulum swinging too far the other way.

    We had decades of white identity politics in movies starting with “Birth of a Nation”. It is better now than when movies tried to impose a negative identity on blacks and Asians.

    And perhaps Lt Uhuru contributed just a little to black kids getting better opportunities for work.

    On the whole, though, I found myself nodding in agreement with the article.

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  17. Dan Kaufman wrote: “It “hits a wrong note for you”? Who cares? It’s not about you or your experience. You’re not black or Brazilian and have not shared the common experience Diogo is talking about. And for you, sitting in Australia, to suggest that Diogo is “oversimplifying” with regard to the black Brazilian experience — about which he is clearly very knowledgeable — is just not credible, not to mention a bit obnoxious.”

    This is what I said about oversimplifying: “If you want to interpret the current situation in any given country in terms of historical or contemporary conflicts between black and white, okay, that is your prerogative. But you run the risk of oversimplifying, especially when you generalize across countries.”

    Diogo specifically asked me to respond to his response. So I take it that he wanted to know what I genuinely think and feel about the *general view* he expressed. (In the comment to which I was replying he was not talking specifically about Brazil but “black communities around the world”.)

    I take the point about common experience.

    In no way was I questioning his credentials or his knowledge. I was just giving an honest personal response.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Hi Diogo Dias

    Good to hear a Brazilian point of view. I very much like the diversity of views on this site.

    One thing puzzled me. Quoting you: “I mean, do I really want my kids to watch Denzel Washington movies and think that the American way of life is made for them too? Do I want them to believe in the myth of the self-made man? Do I want them to believe that if they work hard and remain true to their consciences, they’ll get what they deserve? Do I need another toy that I can’t afford?”

    What we want for our children is a good test of what we really value. It’s your third question that interests me. How important is hard work and following one’s conscience? Very, I would say. Will they always bring rewards? Not always. But what’s the alternative? How likely is any alternative to bring rewards? Not very, I would say.

    But I don’t know your context, so maybe it’s different for you? If security of property and the rule of law are weak, then maybe hard work is a mug’s game. Is that what you think? On the other hand, there is the excellent Chinese proverb (mentioned by Paul Theroux): “A peasant must stand on a hillside for a very long time before a roast duckling will fly into his mouth”. Is there an equivalent Brazilian saying?

    Alan

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  19. alantapper,

    It’s fairly clear that if you work hard, it’s not necessarily true that you’ll get what you deserve. Life is not fair.

    It’s also fairly clear that unless you work hard, you’ll not be able to achieve your goals, whatever your goals may be.

    What I took Diogo to be criticizing and what I also criticize is the idea that hard work is somehow “good” in itself, even if it’s hard work in a job which is alienating, where you are exploited, where you don’t believe in whatever the company you work for is peddling, say, goods which damage the environment or are harmful to people’s health or increase the amount of violence in the world.

    Once again, hard work is a virtue only when it is hard work to achieve something that you or/and people whom you
    respect and trust consider to be good.

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  20. It seems to me that the essence of Diogo’s theme is that the present global economic system, as exemplified in America, is unjust and that the black community should seize the opportunity now in order to fashion a future in its own likeness.

    As pointed out, there is essentially only one global economic system. It is color blind and it has, so far, proven immune to radical revolutionary assault. The Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela has succeeded in nothing but in the destruction of whatever wealth there had been in the country. It’s much vaunted petroleum riches are now inaccessible due to corruption. What is remarkable is that naive populations still fall for this pipe dream (of guaranteed equality and justice for all), after repeated examples of corruption and chaos, and worse, throughout the socialist/Marxist era.

    So why are there continuing and highly idealistic calls for the black community to maintain its identity, it’s independence, and for it to foster a new eudaimonic vision in which the ills of society will be cured? Given the virtual impossibility of attaining these goals, why would any community sacrifice its resources in the pursuit of such an utopia ?

    The answer, apparently, of why people do what they do lies with in our global culture. There are numerous local traditions and ethnic groupings, but we all participate, in essence, in the same cultural processes, even in those communities that have been extremely isolated. We talk about black culture, hispanic culture, Jewish culture, white culture, etc., etc., but this is all mostly delusional. We are one culture that is rife with inequities and discrimination and injustice, but it is just one culture. I realize that most people would disagree with me, even vehemently, but that is just my perspective of our culture as a whole. Biologically we are all almost exactly the same no matter where we come from: Cape Town, Cairo or Copenhagen

    So that may be humanity’s basic problem: we set ourselves up against each other in the passionate pursuit of vain goals.

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  21. Welcome Diogo Dias, and thank you for this essay.

    I have not seen the Black Panther yet, but I found your comments regarding the way it displays a conception of our cultural ideal based on wealth, power & technology to be thought-provoking. I have to think this value conception has a good deal of influence on (or overlap with) a recent video Dan K and Dan T did together on our cultural philistinism. It seems there is little regard for the importance aesthetics as a cultural priority, and this tends to produce people with shallow ideologies and identities (like your example of the consumerist identity).

    I am a white guy who grew up in a poor, mostly black, neighborhood during the crack cocaine epidemic. At one point we had a crack house next door. I am sure it was nothing like living in a favela, but it wasn’t white picket fences either. So I have seen some of the ravages of inequality and racism. As one of the very few white kids (and a small one) on basketball courts I had to repeatedly earn my acceptance. So, in a small way I have some perspective on being the minority. I bring my white skin into the larger society, and recognize there is nothing like equivalency between my perspective and yours, and your voice is a welcome addition here.
    . When you ask:
    ‘Do I want them to believe that if they work hard and remain true to their consciences, they’ll get what they deserve?’
    I think the answer is yes to ‘working hard’, and yes to ‘remaining true to their consciences’. With respect to getting what is ‘deserved’ , giving that the world is not just, I think we should frame what we get more in terms of the development of our own character and sensibilities and less in terms of how the larger society views our success. After all how happy is the person who gets the material success, but never develops their character (Trump might be a good example). I guess their is some stoicism in this take although I’m not a stoic.
    Anyway thanks for the essay.

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  22. Dogo Dias,

    But I must stress, that I do agree with you entirely: we need to actively examine the quality and performance of our one culture and strive to eliminate inequalities and in justice to the degree that we can. Ultimately our species depends on the power of our culture to unite us.

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  23. ejwinner:

    I really liked your comment. Your examples are a nice illustration of my point. As you said, Irish somehow manage to become accepted, while this may not be a possibility for African Americans. And one of the reasons for that is that, while Irish were considered the “worst white trash”, they were still considered human beings. This wasn’t always the case for black people. I didn’t even mention this in the essay, by I do think that religion played an essential part on the justification of the inferior status of black people.

    I also agree with you remark about American Music. Almost everything has an African origin, and very often they only become acceptable when done by a white man. The history of rock is a good example.

    You said that: “BTW, people involved in the commercial popular arts are aware of all this”. Yes, they are! And that is why we need to question what is the actual contribution of this notion of representation to the black community.

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  24. Hi, Mark.

    “Let me say upfront that identity politics is alien to my way of thinking.”

    As Kaufman rightly put it, there’s no need to accept identity politics to acknowledge a common experience between black people.

    You also said that: “And many of the questions you raise are just as relevant to other groups (political and economic questions, responses to our increasingly absurd consumer and celebrity culture, etc.).”

    That is true, and I acknowledged that on the essay. But I wanted to talk from the perspective of a black man living in a different country, so I could explain why, even with all the cultural differences, there’s still a common core between black people. And as I said this common core is not due to black people itself, are composed by completely different individuals, but to the homogeneous ways in which we were treated by white people.

    “You seem to be talking on behalf of a group which you see as more homogeneous and unified than I do.”

    I’m not trying to talk on behalf of all black people. I though the begging of the essay made that clear. But I’m not surprised that I see black people as a more homogeneous and unified group than you do, since you’re not black.

    Liked by 2 people

  25. Alan,

    Thanks for your questions. I do think my point on this specific topic could be clearer, since other comments also explore it.

    “What we want for our children is a good test of what we really value. It’s your third question that interests me. How important is hard work and following one’s conscience? Very, I would say. Will they always bring rewards? Not always. But what’s the alternative? How likely is any alternative to bring rewards? Not very, I would say.”

    I completely agree with you. When I raised those questions, I wasn’t trying to say that maybe we shouldn’t work hard and be just. What I was trying to say is that I think the ideia that success it’s only a matter of personal sacrifice and effort is dangerous. And this is particularly true for the black community. In Brazil, 64% of the unemployed are black. On average, a black man earns 40% less than a white man for the same job. For a black woman, it is even worse. She earns an average of 60% less than a white man.

    So when a movie ignores all these complexes relations, and made it seem like everything depends on the character’s effort, it can lead to people thinking that if you don’t succeed, it’s your fault. Hence, someone may look at those statistics above and think: maybe black people are just not trying hard enough. That’s why I think it’s important to address those questions I mentioned on the article.

    Was that helpful?

    I didn’t know this proverb. It is indeed excellent! I don’t recall an equivalent Brazilian saying. I have to ask my parents, they are great with sayings.

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  26. s.wallerstein

    You are right. I was also criticizing the idea that hard work is good in itself. This is a nice myth to convince people to put up with horrible jobs their whole lives. When I talk about this, I always remember the slogan on the entrance of some of the Nazi’s concentration camp: Arbeit macht frei (work sets you free)

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  27. Liam,

    what do you mean when you said that cultural differences are delusional?

    You said that “We are one culture that is rife with inequities and discrimination and injustice, but it is just one culture.”

    What is exactly the concept of culture that you are using?

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  28. Hi sethleon2015

    Thanks for you comment and for sharing your experience.

    I agree when you say that “I think the answer is yes to ‘working hard’, and yes to ‘remaining true to their consciences’. With respect to getting what is ‘deserved’ , giving that the world is not just, I think we should frame what we get more in terms of the development of our own character and sensibilities and less in terms of how the larger society views our success. After all how happy is the person who gets the material success, but never develops their character.”

    But, to be honest, I fell like a very small portion of humanity can have the luxury of framing their goals in terms of character and sensibilities development. I think that’s a noble goal to try to aim.

    I was thinking in much more simpler terms: black people have less access to education, healthy systems, living conditions etc. So even if they work hard – in the sense of studying and trying to get a decent job – there are far less likely to achieve any form of economical stability than white people. And if we think that success (even in these minimal financial terms) solely depend on effort, we ignore this whole background.

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  29. Thanks Diogo Dias,

    After reading your responses I think I better understand where you going with the comment I addressed. I certainly agree with you that circumstances beyond our control can effect our well-being regardless of our efforts or mental framing attempts. I guess that is one reason I don’t fully buy into stoicism siding with Aristotle’s position (from what I know as a layman) on this point. It is even clearer that it is a mistake to attribute ‘success’ in normative societal standards solely as a function of effort, or even as a function of the mix of effort and talent. While recognizing an unlevel playing field; I also however wouldn’t want to devalue the usefulness of effort, attitude, and mental framing in many situations.

    I am a little curious your statement in what sense you don’t believe in progress:
    ‘I really don’t believe that we have progress when it comes to human affairs such as politics, social behavior and morality’

    I don’t take a teleological view that continual progress is inevitable as some do (as we see with our current political situation). But I do think there are better and worse political situations (perhaps the US racial situation with its flaws is better than in Brazil, and better than is the days of slavery ) which suggests that progress happens at least in certain times and domains. I might agree with you against Pinker if we are talking about human nature in general (although I would like to think we have the capacity here as well).

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  30. Diogo,

    The problem of what culture is and how it affects human thinking and behavior has been bugging me for a very long time. I now think that we need a much better understanding of culture and our place in it in order for to us solve our many intractable social problems.

    One of the most influential definitions of culture is that of EB Tylor, 1871: “Culture… is that complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, arts, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by [a human] as a member of society.” – Culture as it is observed and experienced by a member of a larger ‘culture’. Difficulties were immediately observed and consequently since then there have been almost 200 different definitions attempted in the academic literature.

    It has been pointed out to me that for practical purposes everybody understands what is meant by the term. This would correspond to a Theory of Culture Theory, similar to a Theory of Mind Theory. A folksy idea but not very scientifically rigorous.

    My life history has been different from that of anybody else. My lifeline courses through many different places where I was parented and taught by many different people, and at the end of the day I sort of discovered who I was as a person. Initially I also had my own personal Theory of Culture, but that has now changed. Perhaps my sensibilities have also improved over the years?

    A simple definition of culture therefore could be that it is the aggregate of all possible life histories of society. Says there are no distinct borders between any social group, society inevitably becomes the global population. Those who think that there are distinct borders and separate societies are therefore ‘delusional’.

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  31. Diogo Dias

    Thanks for the reply.

    “[Quoting me] “You seem to be talking on behalf of a group which you see as more homogeneous and unified than I do.” I’m not trying to talk on behalf of all black people… But I’m not surprised that I see black people as a more homogeneous and unified group than you do, since you’re not black.”

    Point taken. Similar experiences can create a sense of having shared perspectives which, if they are sufficiently significant and generalized, can lead to a sense of solidarity and common identity.

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  32. Hi Diogo, thanks for the insightful read. It’s definitely easy to get caught up in our own ethnocentric perspectives and forget to let others speak for themselves. I’m looking forward to reading more from you and your thoughts on equality and consumerism, too.
    I’m interested in your ideas on defining identity outside of “a framework that was neither designed by us nor for us.”
    This is a thought that, actually, I’ve also been considering recently and it seems to me that it’s more and more the case (for really any underrepresented group) that well-meaning people fighting for equality push rather for a sort of consolidation of culture, than a coinciding of it. I think this the/a problem you’re pointing to with the American definition of equality, which, is something I’d really like to read more about from your perspective.

    Anyway, welcome! Glad to be writing alongside each other.

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