Monday, March 31, 2008

Whose Black?

There's been a good deal of hoopla in some circles about Margaret Seltzer. Don't know her? Well, she wrote a book, "Love & Consequences." It was about her experiences as a half-White, half-Native American growing up in South Central LA raised by a Black family and how she got involved in gangs and drugs. She wrote it as her memoir under the name Margaret P. Jones. Now, while it's not unusual for people to write their memoirs, or other works, under a pseudonym it is unusual for the whole memoir to be a complete and utter FAKE. A complete piece of fiction passed off as the author's real life experiences.

Now, I can, personally, relate to the lure of passing off fiction as reality. My first year in college I signed up for what I thought was a theater class. It turned out to be an education class that focused on using theater techniques to teach children. One of the major requirements of the class was to find an elementary school class to work with, using these techniques and write a term paper about them. It was my first year in college, I was not an education major, I had no interest in spending half the semester working with school kids, and I was told I couldn't drop the class. So, I did, the wrong thing - but what I considered the most practical thing. I made up a class and wrote a paper about them. I made up students with various personalities, behaviors, problems, strengths and home lives. And I made up responses to the techniques I used with them. It was probably one of the most elaborate pieces of fiction I have ever written. I got an A on the paper.

So, sure, I understand how it's possible to get caught in a situation where you feel the desire to fabricate. And it's not so much the fabrication that bothers me as it is the fact that she appropriated another culture to do so. I mean, my first thought when I heard about her on NPR was - why didn't she just put it out there as a novel?

I think Farai Chidea on NPR's News and Notes answered that when presenting the situation on a recent Blogger's Rountable. She asked, "Do you think it's easier in a way for White Americans who, you know, take on Black themes,
for lack of a better phrase, to get their message out than actual Black people."

There's the concept, that White people want to know about Black people, but they prefer it couched in a perspective they can understand - their own. They don't want the Black perspective. They want the Black experience from a White perspective.

I think Margaret Seltzer knew that telling an "authentic" Black story from her own perspective would sell - but she had to create the appearance that it wasn't from her completely privileged White perspective - hence the half-White, half-NA persona.

Now, some people might think this is ridiculous. Why would white people want to hear about a Black experience (I almost wrote "the" but there are so many different ones - not just one as many people would have folks believe)from another White person? Doesn't it make more sense to hear it from Black people?

Well, as someone who has worked in Black advertising for almost 20 years I can tell you no - many White people like to have their perceptions of what it means to be Black mirrored back to them. They have no interest in any real understanding of what it means to be Black in America.

I have had numerous clients ask the all important, ever present question in Black advertising - "What makes it Black?" And then I've had clients suggest just what is needed to make it "Blacker."

"You know, it's a great spot, but those guys shouldn't be on a golf course. It would be Blacker to have them on a basketball court."

"Very nice. But wouldn't it be Blacker if instead of saying 'I don't like that,' she said, 'Oh no girlfriend! Not in my house!'"

"Why did you choose that background music? Hip Hop would be Blacker."

And those are some of the more palatable comments. I won't even go into the ones that come out of an expectation that in order for something to be Black it has to focus on lower economic levels. In Black advertising there is an assumption, on the client level, and sometimes on the agency level, that the target audience is predominantly poor, uneducated, and with a very low level of sophistication. I can't tell you how often I've cringed in meetings.

And I believe that it's this mentality that allowed Margaret Seltzer's book to get published and to garner so much acclaim before it was exposed as a fraud. She wrote about "THE Black Experience" that so many White people want to know about. A Black experience where the majority of people are poor, where the bad guys and the crimes they commit are proof that Black people bring themselves and each other down. That Black people are not the victims of racism and oppression, but fall prey to their own lack of motivation and morality.

It is said that when confronted about her false story, Seltzer said that she wrote "Love and Consequences" so people who had no voices could be heard. I can't help but wonder how many people who have real, authentic voices didn't get the opportunity to be heard because they were passed over in favor of Seltzer's fake voice.

And if we need further proof that there are people out there who love to confirm their own ideas about what it means to be Black and who reject any conversation in which Black people express their experiences truthfully, let me just share these two videos.

The first is Chris Matthews and company discussing Obama's (rather mediocre) bowling skills. Sadly they keep feeling this overwhelming need to point out how much more racially appropriate it is that Obama is a much better basketball player. Astounding.

This second clip is Lou Dobbs ranting on about how horrible it is for Condi Rice and other folks to actually speak their minds about what it's like to Black in America - basically saying that their interpretation of their own history and experiences is wrong. He gets so worked up, he barely manages to control himself from coming out with something that sounds very much like it might have been "Those cotton picking..."

I really want to have that honest open conversation about race. Really I do. And I'm trying to reign in some of my own prejudices and perceptions that have gotten warped over the years. I want that optimism I held as a child and a teenager and even a young adult (before my White boyfriend in college looked up at me and said, "I hate niggers too")to return. Really I do. But some of things I'm seeing out there these days are making it really hard. I need to go pull up an Obama speech on YouTube to help me grasp that optimism again.


Ros said...

It's too early in the morning for me to watch the video clips; I haven't eaten yet. But re ranting about Condi talking about her Black experience . . . .I can remember my brother & me watching The Cosby Show and my dad ranting that he wondered how poor Black people felt about how Bill was portraying Blacks. Um, Dad, don't you think there are rich Black people? Hello?
I had a group of teens in my office yesterday, and at least twice I heard, "White people -- no offense Ms. K. -- but white people . . ." Can it help your optimism if I tell you that some of us are out there battling prejudiced statements one at a time? But if it doesn't help, remember that Bear Maiden is right, people suck.

Ginger said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Bear Maiden said...

LOL Ros, they do suck. I told you! And it's too late at night for me to watch the clips. I'm going to bed. But I will in the morning.

I knew Obama bowling was a bad idea. I knew he would get flack. I admired that he could get up there and suck, and laugh at himself about it. But to even become aware that they had the audacity to bring up basketball...

well, my first reaction is just to laugh. Why?

Cuz laughter prevents murder.

Ginger said...

Leucantha` said...

Chis Matthew and Lou Dobbs are just asses all the way around. That is my opinion as a white person. I wonder how much more out of touch they can be.
The Seltzer story is interesting in the sense who let that by. Didn't she ever have to meet with anyone? As a white person do I want to hear a what I think is the black truth? I hope not, but this reminds me to analyze what I read or watch more carefully. You are right there is no single black experience, white, latino, asian or whatever experience. I do think a lot of people (of every race) get caught up in acting though what they think is right, hence some of your advertisers questions, instead of stretching themselves and actually getting to know someone that is different than them.