Cross-Cultural Discourse on Black Culture and the Black Family

After the Michael Richards racist tirade many non-Blacks chastised Black folks for being angry and suspicious about white America’s hidden racist views. A number of non-Black commentators said that Black folks’ suspicions were just as bad as Richards’s use of the term nigger and references to lynching. I have been called the nigger with the same contempt and rage that Richards spewed on that stage. I am not alone, I know a number of Black people who have been insulted, intimidated, physically threatened, and even assaulted under the banner of white supremacy (all over the country). It isn’t rare to hear family histories where relatives or family friends were lynched, gang raped, or chased down by white mobs. Based upon this real, and not imagined history, a lot of us Black folks were enraged. And NO… apology is still not accepted. It is especially not going to be accepted when the American public belittles our rage by pointing out that rappers appropriated the term nigger. Same thing for Don Imus calling those young women at Rutgers nappy-headed hos.

The internet discourse on Richards, Imus, and Black rage is emblematic of many cross-cultural discourses on race and class in America. I have often been disappointed by some of my conversations with well meaning, open minded, and liberal white people. I have spent my life having cross-cultural discussions because I grew up in a multi-cultural environment. Coming from different backgrounds and expeirences of race, we approach the issue from very different subjective positions. Sometimes the conversations are difficult, they challenge underlying assumptions, they expose logical inaccuracies, and, above all, they push us to confront deep seated and complex issues.

Yet there is often a complete dismissal of my viewpoint. Sometimes, a reluctant acknowledgment. It is not unknown to experience a fiery backlash that seems to come out of nowhere. Despite the many opportunities for cross-cultural understanding, I find that many non-Black people do not seem to get it. There are people who do get it, but they seem to be few and far in between.

Two trends in my discourse on race and class really bother me: 1.) color-blind approach; 2.) Blackness-as-a-pathology approach. In the first approach, they assume that America is color-blind society. They tend to point to Irish American or Italian experiences in America to make their case. They tend to overlook the fact that the Irish, Southern Europeans, and Eastern Europeans were not considered white when they immigrated by the masses to America. The people who argue for a color-blind society rarely have a critical understanding of how whiteness is construted in this society. The color-blind view minimizes the traumatic experience for many of black folk under the barrage of a global system of White supremacy. The second group does see race, America is not color-blind. But this group insists that African Americans do not have a distinct culture. Basically, they believe that AA do not have any cultural contributions that are worthwhile. Black culture for them is poverty, crime, a key example of the dangers of matriarchy, social depravity, and social marginalization, etc. Blackness becomes a pathology, a sickness, a “Negro Problem.” Black cultural heritage is invisible to them and any positives produced by Blacks is often attributed to them letting go of their Blackness and “becoming” White in a cultural sense. The people who see Black people as pathological basically see people who celebrate Black culture or highlight connections in the African Diaspora as dreamers, Black nationalists, facsists, ethnocentric. They are not satisfied in the conversation until you say that we are all the same, except somehow Black cultures is manifestation of the worst in American culture. Basically, they are not happy until you are so full of self loathing and shame about the condition of Black people that you are apologetic for being of African descent.

If African Americans are pathological, so is everyone else. It just plays out in different ways in the AA community because of the break down in social structures and networks due to exploitation, various migrations, and ruptures in families. Despite these challenges African Americans have many beautiful things to share with the rest of the world. And it is not just about singing, dancing, or playing basketball. We have strong family ties based upon extended and fictive relations, strong loyalties, spiritual values, inclinations toward communalism, and cutting edge intellectual thought from the academy. But this gets lost in a lot of discussions.

Without the writings of amazing Black intellectuals, and white anti-racist scholars and intellectuals such as Tim Wise, Allen Johnson , Dalton Conley, I think I might have checked my self into some psych ward. Many of white folk have told me that my perceptions were off, observations skewed, and experiences imagined, especially when things did not line up with how they perceived race and class in American society. But over the years, I have become increasingly sensitive to the asymmetries of power that allowed them to be so dismissive of my views in those exchanges. I am beginning to see how white privilege or male privilege plays such a prominent role in many of my cross-cultural conversations on race.

A while back, I read Sunni sister’s blog about White privilege. She wrote:

White privilege tells a male who admits he has nothing to do with this belief that he knows more about radical Black Islamist and racial seperatist movements than Black Muslims who follow a mainstream path of belief, who may have even come out of those movements themselves. And White privilege means that White male can tell Black people this. And he can call those Black people names and get applauded for it. And White privilege, and male privilege, means that he can represent himself as a voice of Islam, and outsiders don’t question this, and others egg him on and encourage his “voice,” without giving a moment of thought to the racist implications of his actions and words. He too, extends his middle finger.

In some ways I found myself in this type of exchange as I chimed in on a Umar Lee blog entry My Thought, Culture Matters. There was a side argument that developed where I argued that Black families instilled strict discipline on children because of the legacy of slavery. A White Muslim man, who argued that he had daily contact with African Americans of various classes, contested my claim about cultural practices in rearing Black children. Who was right? The insider or outsider? What came to mind was the anthropological view of the outsider. There is this historical legacy of the impartial observer (a rational white male) who draws upon empirical observations. His point of view is priveleged in both academic and mainstream circles. Academia, like mainstream media, is often quick to dismiss the insider’s point of view. We cannot get beyond our bias. So, as an insider speaking about Black issues or Muslim issues, I better be on point. If I have anything to say that challenges the sensibilities of my white friends, I better have my facts 100% together. They cannot be based upon my personal observations, and I better have 10 widely accepted scholars and their books to prove it. Importantly, I need to conjure up a white person like Tim Wise to make sure my view point sticks. Otherwise, not much I say holds weight.

I will continue with the discussion that begin in Umar Lee’s Blog. The reason why I think it is important is because there is something at stake, for me. I value my culture and feel that some of the views expressed on Umar Lee’s blog about Black culture were demeaning and not problematized. I will only address one topic. The issue that drew the most ire from a well meaning commentor. I am arguing that there are some cultural specificities of African American culture by looking at child rearing and disciplining young children. So, in the spirit of my own scholarly endeavors, I will support my arguments with evidence. I’ll start with an article on discipline, then provide some empirical evidence with a study on spanking, then I will list books that deal specifically with sociology of the Black family to show that this issue is subject to several erudite studies. Finally, I will point to a brief sample of one of the academic programs that specialize in the sociology and culture of the Black family. (Mind you, I am not an Americanist so my knowledge of the material is limited). My primary argument is there is enough scholarly work and anecdotal evidence to support my insider view that Black cultural practices in child-rearing tend to emphasize discipline (and corporeal punishment) because of the historical legacies of slavery. Here goes:

In support of my comments on the blog, I found this article in Salon magazine that discussed corporeal punishment.
In the article,“Spanking: A Black Mother’s Point of View” the author points out Black cultural perspectives on discipline:

Spanking is part of a long, historic continuum in our community. During slavery, a black person’s pout or backtalk to the wrong person could not only get him whipped, it could get him sold — or, if the transgression was deemed bad enough, maimed or killed. So black mothers and, by extension, the entire local community, had a vested interest in keeping their children alive and safe. Swift physical retribution for even minute transgressions tended to reinforce the rules, and adhering to the rules meant you were able to live to raise another generation — who, in all probability, spanked, too, but not as hard as the previous one.

The annals of black comedy are rife with examples of strict parental discipline. Sinbad, Eddie Murphy, Bill Cosby, Chris Rock, Richard Pryor and the late Robin Harris have all riffed howlingly funny on the subject of gettin’ whupped. Cosby used to make audiences scream in delighted recognition when he went into his routine about The Belt that hung in his father’s closet: how long it was. How thick it was. How big the metal buckle was. What it sounded like as it whistled through the air, accurately aiming, like a smart bomb made from the cow’s outside, at his quivering buttocks. What it felt like when, on impact, his flesh was sucked through the holes.

[…]

A new study by Marjorie Linder Gunnoe, a developmental psychologist at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., has revealed something different from previous studies, which found that race and class do not affect the decision whether or not to spank. According to Gunnoe’s study, which tracked 1,110 children from 4 to 11 years old over a five-year period, spanking may be divided along racial lines. Gunnoe found that spanking increased antisocial behavior (lying, cheating and bullying) among white boys, but was correlated with a decrease in aggression among black boys. Her explanation: Spanking is not only tolerated, but endorsed by the black community. The culture expects that adults will be seen, and treated as, authority figures.

Whether or not certain traditions are dying, Black families have traditionally used corporeal punishment, taught children to respect elders, taught children to not talk back to authority figures, to be seen not heard. I’m not saying that all of these practices were good. But my cultural sensibilities were rudely shaken when I went to nanny for a mixed-race couple.

I found a study that breaks down stats:

Non-Hispanic black women are more likely than Hispanic women to agree or strongly agree that spanking a child is sometimes necessary. In 2002, 80 percent of non-Hispanic black women, compared with 56 percent of Hispanic women, agreed that a child sometimes needs a “good hard spanking.” Seventy-four percent of non-Hispanic white women say that spanking a child is sometimes necessary. Differences for men were not statistically significant.

See the rest of the study here.

I have encountered two books that demonstrate the cultural and social practices in Black families. The first is Theodore R. Kennedy’s

    You Gotta Deal with It Black Family Relations in a Southern Community

and the second is Carol B. Stack’s

    All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community

. I am sure there is a wide range of scholarly literature on Black families. These books detail parent-child relationships and relationships between children and extended kin and fictive kin. I think they move beyond the clinical approach to the Black family, diagnosed as disfunctional because of matriarchy, to point out complex social relationships.

In addition to various books, there are legitimate degree programs and classes that explore issues specific to the Black family. I will not even mention the graduate programs that focus on similar issues.
San Francisco State’s Africana Department

The Black Studies Department at San Francisco State University was the first Black Studies Department established on a four-year college campus in the United States. The birth of Black Studies at SFSU in 1968 was, in fact, inspired by student-led opposition to the then Western intellectual hegemony and racist scholarship that characterized the limitations found in traditional approaches to college education. In 2005, the Black Studies Department at SFSU changed its name to the Africana Studies Department.

They offer courses on the Black family. Also, Virginia Common Wealth universities offers a sociology course on African American families:

206/AFAM 206/SOCY 206 African American Family Relationships
Semester course; 3 lecture hours. 3 credits. Focuses on the African American family from the 1940s to the present. Examines the values and the interpersonal/role relationships that are involved in forming and maintaining African American families in the contemporary United States. Topics include dating and sexual relationships, marital relationships, parent-child relationships and relationships with members of the extended family.

Finally, I found a curious final exam for class on the Black Family from the department of Pan African Studies at University of Louisville :

PASS 520.01: Black Family in America
Exam Questions: Summer 2002
Instructor: Professor Lateef P. Badru

1) What evidence would you cite to support or oppose the thesis that the black family in America today is disintegrating or dying? Discuss your answer.

2) Drawing on your personal experience and observation of the portrayal
of African Americans on popular TV, identify the basic stereotypes associated with Black family life in the United States. Discuss your points.

3) What aspects of African family pattern are still retained in the
African American Community? How do you think a comparative study of
family can be of value to you? Discuss your points.

4) What major functions does the Black Church, as an institution, perform today in the African American community? How are these functions different from the ones performed immediately after emancipation? Discuss your points.

5) What are the major obstacles to “plural marriage” in American
society? Can multiple cohabitation (men- sharing) solve the crisis of
shortage of mating partners for black women? Discuss.

6) Briefly define the following concepts:

i. Polyandry us Polygyny.
ii. Matrilocality vs. patrilocality
iii. Matrilineal vs. patrilineal descent
iv. Exogamous vs. Endogamous marriages

v. Nuclear vs. extended family

7). What role does religion play in black family life? Discuss your
answer with specific reference to the adoption of Christianity during
slavery and after emancipation

This is not to say that the students in this class come out blazing experts. But I am sure they have been given tools to think critically about issues involving cultural and social practices in the Black community. A number of the top scholars studying race in America are white. And they deal with the topic empathetically while focusing on understanding Black realities. An outsider’s gaze can be helpful in providing perspective on issues that face a given community. But when it comes to dealing with communities of color, the white point of view is often given more weight than a person of color. This is not to say that Africans or Black people have a monopoly on truth, but that insiders have an important perspective that is often overlooked but should be taken into account.

When it comes to engaging with these issues, whether over dinner, at a cocktail party, tea party, internet forum, or wherever, it is important to distinguish between informed opinions and unsubstantiated claims. In cross cultural discussion, neither party may fully understand the socio-economic and cultural structures that undergird our social worlds. But when it comes to weight of evidence and cultural translations, I would rather refer to the insider’s (especially those who have been rendered voiceless by the dominant group) viewpoint.

There are few mysteries in the Black community that others cannot participate in. It is really a matter of whether people want to join. The anthropologist’s gaze is on us on a daily level and he often tells us that he knows more about us than we do. That would be great his assessment was accurate. But sometimes those observations miss the complexities. Instead, they often provide an unnuanced understanding of Black culture and the challenges we face. I extend an olive branch in hopes of an honest and respectful cross-cultural discourse. But it is important that we all note our positions of power and privilege. I recognize that my status as an educated Black American Muslim Woman means that I have to fight tooth and nail for my voice to be heard by almost anyone. My perspective is so easily dismissed by so many. But it is still worth fighting to get it out there, don’t ya think?

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2 thoughts on “Cross-Cultural Discourse on Black Culture and the Black Family

  1. I applaud your essay, although lengthy (smile), it is very real . You have a great perspective. As a non-Muslim black I appreciate the honest and level view you’ve taken of our common situation.

    Like

  2. Greetings! I’m so excited to have found your blog because I’m currently learning more about feminist examinations of the intersection of race and Islam, and the way that Islam can beget feminist discourse.
    As a white female (and an atheist at that!) I rarely have opportunities to talk with black Muslim women in my community about issues of substance so it’s invigorating to read your thoughtful perspective.

    While I agree with much of this post, I think you are missing something important when you claim that “…when it comes to dealing with communities of color, the white point of view is often given more weight than a person of color.” This is not a complaint, but it’s been my personal (white) experience that issues of race and color are one of the few subjects on which blacks (or other people of color) are automatically given more license than whites. The trope that white people expect black people to educate them about the black experience is ubiquitous throughout the race blogosphere, black comedy and scholarship alike.

    To me, the bigger problem is that whites grant blacks epistemic authority ONLY in matters of race but not in any other discourses. The detriment of this is two fold: 1. White-dominant society subtley discourages black involvement in other discourses (science in particular) thereby limiting the opportunities afforded to blacks. 2. The important subject of race and color is dismissed by mainstream white society as something that should be tackled mostly by black people (and other ppl of color) despite the fact that white people are almost entirely to blame for the historical problem of race in America.

    I am not claiming that race is a subject that is best tackled by white people with an “outsider” view; I don’t believe there is such a position available. Similarly, I would love to see more attention paid to black scholarship on the issue. Furthermore, so many white-led examinations of race dwell heavily on white-privilege. Undeniably, a full recognition and understanding of white privilege is a pre-requisite for becoming a white anti-racist; however it is a poor use of energy for whites to dwell on whiteness studies. Whites cannot lessen the scourge of white privilege without actively ameliorating black oppression.

    The injustices of racism and privilege will not be addressed with seriousness until it is clear that they have bearing on all aspects of life and society. In order for this to happen (as it has started to) I believe whites need to acknowledge blacks as capable and deserving of authority in non-race related subjects. In other words, no one can escape the epistemic primacy still given to the idea of disinterested objectivity. I don’t at all disbelieve you when you write that “insiders have an important perspective that is often overlooked.” I would argue though that they way to increase the credibility assigned to such insider perspectives is to expand the list of discourses in which such ‘insiders’ are members.

    Cheers!

    Like

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