Kali's Questions - Draft

last update August 16, 1998

Return-Path: <kali@kalital.com> X-Sender: kalital@shell6.ba.best.com Date: Sat, 10 Jan 1998 23:32:11 -0700 To: "M.D.C.Bowen" <mdcbowen@mindspring.com> From: Kali Tal <kali@kalital.com> Subject: Re: boohabian texts

when i read your stuff, i find my head bobbing up and down, and i just keep murmuring uh huh. yup. yeah. okay. right. so we may as well start off w/the fact that--despite our diff gender/race locations--our analyses and a lot of our assumptions are similar, which, of course, is the reason that you were the first person i thought to contact when david and i discussed putting together the (e)race anthology. the problem w/my sympathetic response is that i have to work a whole lot harder to find weak spots in yr arguments, since they also fall in my blind spots. but i'll do my best...

so, my first response to the text you sent is to say it's a good start. what i'm reading seems to be a self-interrogation that is setting the boundaries of your inquiry. structurally, it's loose and it wanders and--more importantly--there's a lot of slippage in style and tone as you move from subject to subject. eventually you'll need to settle on a format and a style (or deliberate juxtaposition of styles) that works for you; at this point it still reads like you're sorting that through.

first question you'll need to answer in terms of style is whether you want to write as boohab, or as michael talking about boohab, or in some sort of dialogue between the two "voices" in your text. (the latter seems most interesting to me, and *almost* seems what you're doing in the q&a, though, as i mentioned above, there's a lot of slippage.) keeping the two voices separate would allow you to signify on the notions of multiplicity, of personae, etc., that seem to inform the work of cyberculture critics since the construction of your own particular two-ness (black maleness in its complexity) is specifically and perhaps deliberately excluded from the discussions of those critics (turkle, stone, rheingold, etc.). boohab (as trickster character) is perfectly positioned to provide that sort of critique (as i'm sure you intended), and michael (as the "mortal" voice in the pair) adds depth. so i'd enthusiastically applaud your efforts to go with both personae.

the writings you sent me are very densely packed. an incomplete listing of the themes you touched on includes:

1. the complication of class as a mediating factor in discussions about race, as illustrated by your claim to be a member of the talented tenth (and i'm not clear whether you accept or resist the du boisian formulation; i've got the sense you're using it ironically but i've learned not to jump to conclusions on these matters), and the way that class plays particularly into race matters on the internet, given patterns of education, of access, etc.

Class complicates racial issues in cyberspace because of the relative opacity of African American culture and poltical history in the mainstream. Folks come to cyberspace to discuss racial issues from a variety of perspectives. Most black folks get together to network and they wish to do so in a space where they feel comfortable. For example, students in a far off corner of the United States, where they may not feel especially comfortable in a predominately white environment, go to 'come home'. There is a latent social nationalism aspect to why black folks get together in cyberspace - they use it to cross the boundaries of distance. They want to find out what is going on in other black communities, and they come to seek common ground with other black folks in the spirit of unity which originated in black consciousness and civil rights movements.

Within the African America, there is some difference of opinion on matters of unity. The strong legacy of the civil rights movement as well as the successes of the black nationalist movement both concentrate on the idea of unity in struggle as a pre-requisite to overcoming racial barriers. Only recently in the past 10 years has there been a general acceptance of the diversity of African America which has been facilitated by the creation of the term 'African American'. We no longer talk about the black community, rather black communities. We are aware of a varying set of successes in different , in some ways class exists absolutely in African America where it did not before. Blacks who have the experience of relative comfort in a community of middle-class and upscale whites are more and more physically removed from the ghettoes and traditional black residential areas in work and play.

However the presence of racism forces most black folks in the middle-class to evaluate thier relative proximity to other classes of African Americans from a different perspective than that of other Americans. Thus far, black cultural nationalist strategies have not significantly diverged across socio-economic class within African America. The black church, while not central, is still significant across class lines. Afrocentrism as practiced and understood by most black folks unites, rather than divides blacks across class lines. The perennial stress on education and 'working twice as hard' to get ahead in America holds in both affluent and poorer black families. So while there are real class issues in African America, blacks are mostly united on issues related to fighting racism and 'race raising'. And it is from this perspective of responsibility that many African Americans find themselves discussing race in cyberspace.

So when non-blacks, in discussing race, misunderstand these class distinctions or , it is never seen as a class issue. The idea of separating class from race doesn't happen by and large in black on black discussions - even when the class differences between blacks is clear. Solving racial issues, which generally falls under the category of defeating white supremacy, calls for unity. Chances are, it is class *and* race, but that's a 'dirty laundry' issue.

It is important for me as a black individual in cyberspace to state my class credentials straightforwardly, because of the phenomenon of black neo-conservatism. Black neocons represent a challenge to the long-standing political orthodoxy of African American leadership of the past 50 years. But the black neocons have failed to gain popular support mostly because of their lack of standing in more traditional centers of black social power. Ironic, isn't it? Thus the question of their conservatism becomes more of an ideological point which is complicated by the fact of their non-membership thus perceived lack of investment in real black communities. The instrumentality of their power often stands outside of black institutions. In view of the latent cultural nationalism within African America, it is important that I situate myself in the historical continuum of black leadership. So I will make reference to my church, my college fraternity, the city of my mother's birth. From a mainstream, or racial perspective, all blacks are equally black. But within African America, all blacks are not equally credible on racial issues.

So any value or set of values which are presumed to be acceptable to non-blacks may be interpreted to be the right program. 'If all blacks were like Colin Powell...' So black folks immediately point to the fact that Colin Powell speaks to black folks on racial issues. Powell is part of the solution to help all African Americans. He would be, like all other blacks in cyberspace vying for a position of leadership, presumably on racial and race raising issues. But never in the history of African America has a successful leader achieved through the admonishment 'be like me'.

This is the framework upon which to view the dynamic of class identity in cyberspace with regards to African Americans. If you begin from the perspective that all black folks are equally black, and the more valid

There are African Americans who tend to agree with

Class is also

2. the question of how one creates a character with an "identity" in a virtual space (i.e., a purposefully black character), and the complicated process of positioning such a character in an environment where the character will be "read" differently depending upon the positioning of the (often invisible/unknowable) audience.

From a black perspective, black identity is crucial. For those in my generation and those older, it is not an option. Understanding why eracing race from cyberspace is important lies primarily with understanding why whitefolks consider racial identity superfluous. I am willing to sacrifice the niceness of an 'objective'. After all, I don't think it's compelling to find out what people who have no stake in the changes in African American racial identity have to say. It's like asking people who don't watch movies to review the latest. The point is not to completely avoid all bias, it's to negotiate the results of the informed experience of people with various vested and adopted interests.

3. the heritage of racism in the US, and the manner in which racism is embedded in the constitution and in other foundation documents, so that overcoming racism seems to require a kind of new revolution; one which resists racism as the founders resisted monarchy.

4. the invisibility of racism to whitefolks in general, and the problems with any defense of "colorblindness" as a solution to racism.

This goes back to the problem of implementation of integration. You have to consider the fact that integration was, by and large, borne on the backs of post-civil rights children (my generation) and 'first blacks' in the preceding generation, and the ethics of interpersonal relationships was with few exceptions leveraged on the principle of silence being golden. The proximity premise was so deeply ingrained in the minds of liberal whites and the black orthodoxy that any question of the value of interracial relationships was anathema. In my experience, it was generally a one-way street. What certain whitefolks knew and . As well, racial essentialism was so close in the minds of all parties that every effort was made to avoid testing the boundaries. There are generally so very few social situations that arise which can fundamentally change the way people think about each other. It is the rare occasion that gives someone impetus to question all they've beleived about certain types of people. So if people have rationalized that blacks are morally inferior, then it might require one's own priest to cede to the moral authority to a black monseniur for the parishioner to change.

Only in marriage and war were social conditions such that this fiat of non-conflict become questionable. Outside of those situations, the default assumptions was that to raise the subject of race necessarily engendered conflict and that there was no way to constructively deal with that conflict.

My generation dealt with this dynamic on a constant basis. By and large it was weighted on our own personal ability to 'get along' with whitefolks. In that respect, the question of race relations was highly personalized and did not allow anyone to see the larger patterns. If we were convinced that we were not the kind of individual who could integrate, the presumption of colorblindness made us individually guilty. The moment the subject became racial, our experience gained or lost subjective weight, depending on whom was listening. We could assert that the black experience was different, but that was about the extent of it. The 'white experience' was considered neutral at best. But most of the time, it was what we were, as young 'integratees' were supposed to be learning in order to better our station in life. That put us always in the position of 'the rescued' as Toni Morrisson calls it.

So with this kind of wishy-washy 'standard', the question of actual fact of racial inequality is always subordinated to the matter of race relations. From a colorblind perspective, it doesn't matter if black people are poor and white people are rich, it matters whether

5. the failure of black intellectuals/academics to embrace the new media, as well as the failure of black organizations and institutions to develop the potential of CMC

I believe this is largely an issue of access complicated by media coverage of the uses of cyberspace in the general public, as well as what could be a very realistic bias on the parts of professional writers. In the first case, cyberspace is traditionally very much a geek's domain populated by the types of social misfits who would . The idea that cmc would be very literate at all is wild proposition in light of the content and direction of the bbs world which predates the world wide web.

When it became clear, around 1993, that the ISP business could be profitable, the case for the likelihood of public distribution via the Internet was made. Within the technical community, this became obvious. So there had always been a

6. the inherently democratizing effect of anti-racist activity, and your 2-level approach to changing people's minds.

I began with a lack of certain principles as my impetus to speak in the terms of citizenship. Rather than simply demonize the personages of the founders themselves, I analyzed what they actually said, and what they actually wrote beginning with the Declaration.. In modern parlance, the Declaration of Independence is 'whining'. But through revolution, the 'whiners' won. So the substance of their complaint became the principles upon which they defined freedom. It is clear to see that this concept of freedom did not include freedom from racism. So the path of 'original intent' is moot in my view. Therefore it is the expansion of freedom which has moral credibility, because essentially this country.

It doesn't upset me that the founders were severly compromised in the matter of property rights vs human rights. I am completely willing to say that they simply couldn't see well enough. However if an ex-colony of several millions is to become a democracy of 200 million, then certain improvements of vision are required. And it is within the tradition of reform that I am invested as a citizen. Cornel West speaks of this within the African American Liturgy as 'prophetic orality' which could also be called 'speaking truth to power'. At any rate it is America's reception of this rejuvenative struggle which proves it worthy.


7. the problem of maintaining high-quality discussion on unmoderated lists where, as you describe, the racism in cyberspace (which mirrors the racism in non-virtual spaces) creates a hostile environment for black folks. the weakness of the argument of the "free speech" advocates.

Attitudes about race in cyberspace mirrors those of American life with one critical exception. Nobody is punished. CMC provides a medium in which uncensored thoughts flow freely with very little resistance. Racial animus and retribution find form in words, and the boundary between words and conduct is a bit nebulous.

What I've discovered is that many of us are very patient to bring forward reasonable counters to racist content provided by people who swear up and down that they are not racist. The intransigent persistence of a lot of ignorance is what makes cyberspace particularly annoying. And since those of us committed to clarity are human beings, every once in a while we get pissed and fed up with nonsense, and we make that clear. In certain fora, we let it pass, in others it can become a dog eat dog situation.

8. the different natures of static web sites and realtime chat groups. the inherent logic of communication in computer mediated spaces, and the ways in which one can create environments which do provide a safe space within which one can challenge racist positions/beliefs.

If you take as an axiom of whiteness, a lack of self-interest in investigating racial subjects, then you make clear the case for interactive, provocative discussions.

9. the problem of "whiteness" as a concept and the need for whitefolks to stop trying to act white; the importance of blackfolks acting black.

10. the problem of general white ignorance of black culture, and thus of appropriate boundaries and limits, complicated by misinterpretation of black response to boundary transgression.

this is a whole lotta ground to try and cover, and my first suggestion is that you pick 3-4 of these themes (those nearest and dearest to your heart) and go with those, at least for now. some are obviously broader than others, so you might want to pick two narrower areas which can serve as examples to illustrate a broader point, and work from there. my recommendation at this stage is to stay more focused and, as your work builds on itself, the larger points will become easier to prove as you build a critical analysis that can stand under it's own weight.

you have to let me know if this is the kind of feedback that you need, and, if not, point me in the right direction. the more of your work that i read, the better idea i'll have of what you're after, but right now i'm stumbling around at the steep end of the learning curve.

btw, i had a nice conversation with eno jackson today. she asked me to please convey her greetings.

yrs, kali