Conversations On Race…

As I’ve said before we don’t broadcast regularly on Friday & Saturdays but I wanted to take this time to introduce you folks to a project that I’ve been working on that’s pretty close to my heart. I recently launched a series entitled “On Blackness.” The idea was simply to have the conversation about race that everyone says we should have but then once it starts people stick their fingers in their ears and start screaming “I’M NOT RACST, YOU’RE RACIST, I’M NOT RACIST!”

So in this series I seek out an black academic (or Blackademic as some of us lovingly call them) and we have a one on one conversation. I ask them to define blackness and then the conversation goes from there. I ask them to define it because I realize that understanding what that means is something that some black folks and a lot of non-black folks simply…well…don’t. And then there are those who think they do and it’s completely off.

The project is called On Blackness but it’s a show that can be listened to and enjoyed by everyone. The themes that we talk about actually permeates through out various other cultures and races. And I think hearing a no holds conversation with folks who study and teach this stuff opens eyes on how it’s looked at.

So here are the first 3 eps we’ve done so far.  The first one is with MSNBC’s Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry of Tulane. Her commentary was magic.

Subscribe to On Blackness on iTunes | Subscribe to On Blackness  On StitcherDirect Download | RSS

Next was with Dr. Yaba Blay who started the 1ne Drop project which really challenges what the very definition of black even means.

Direct Download

And our last interview was with Dr. Jelani Cobb, a frequent guest on MHP’s show and he makes a few arguments that surprised some of  our audience.

Direct Download

Let us know what you think? Do you have any questions that you’d love to hear answered? We’ll be doing follow ups with our guests and new episodes are being put together already. Weigh in and we’ll bring it to the experts. See ya in the comments.






77 replies
  1. 1
    Corner Stone says:

    Do you have any questions that you’d love to hear answered?

    Only one, really. But it has to do with MHP’s marital status and nothing to do with blackness.

  2. 2
    Yutsano says:

    Saving these for after work, but I do loves me some Dr Harris-Perry!

  3. 3
    Just Some Fuckhead says:

    How does one become more authentically black, Elon? Music? Food? Speech?

  4. 4
    General Stuck says:

    @Corner Stone:

    And it is fitting that this thread traveling the flame war trail is kicked off with a comment from our corner stone, race relations warrior of some stripe.

  5. 5
    Violet says:

    Elon, is there a transcript of some or all of the programs? Not everyone can listen to the programs when you post, but they might be able to read a transcript and participate in the discussion. A transcript might help hearing-impaired people as well.

  6. 6
    Corner Stone says:

    It’s probably just my bias but I’m inherently sceptical of people who use three names.
    Elon James White, Just Some Fuckhead, Lee Harvey Oswald…

  7. 7
    Just Some Fuckhead says:

    @Corner Stone: Please, call me Just.

  8. 8
    Alison says:

    @Corner Stone: Nice. Because the only thing you have to say about a brilliant, accomplished, witty woman is that you want to fuck her. Come on, dude. Take three seconds to think before hitting submit, once in a while.

  9. 9
    Corner Stone says:

    @General Stuck: Race relations, and their attendant discord, has been integral to my entire life to this point. In fact, some of my best friends are black.

  10. 10
    Corner Stone says:

    @Alison: {blushing}
    Well, I’d certainly appreciate an opportunity to know MHP better but I honestly have no idea why your gutter mind went immediately to sexual congress. Disgustingly venal, IMO.
    Have some fucking respect for FSM’s sake, you pig.

  11. 11
    Baud says:

    So define blackness, Elon. The tables have turned.

  12. 12
    General Stuck says:

    OT

    This ought to keep the wingnuts busy for the weekend. Kerning Go Teams have already gone.

  13. 13
    noabsolutes says:

    One-stop-shopping for high-minded conversation about race? This is why we used to be prohibited from gathering in groups… love the Balloon Juice/TWiB coalition, my favorite blog and favorite podcast empire, together at last.
    Seriously, though, it’s going to be very hard to maintain this conversation because white people don’t like to listen to black people talk about what their blackness means, preferring instead to focus on what it means for white people. Flame on.

  14. 14
    ruemara says:

    And the bulk of the comments are why discussions about blackness with some white people are near worthless.

  15. 15
    Baud says:

    @ruemara:

    Especially on a lazy Saturday afternoon when there is no one around.

  16. 16

    @Just Some Fuckhead:

    How does one become more authentically black, Elon? Music? Food? Speech?

    Well that’s the question. All of those things have been used to measure authenticity of blackness but when you start to drill down a little bit more it becomes way more complicated and steeped in politics and American history. Each guest has pointed to a different way of looking at it.

  17. 17

    @Violet:

    Elon, is there a transcript of some or all of the programs? Not everyone can listen to the programs when you post, but they might be able to read a transcript and participate in the discussion. A transcript might help hearing-impaired people as well.

    Currently there aren’t transcripts because we simply haven’t found a solid program to do that. But to participate in the conversation you dont need to listen that very second. You can listen later and weigh in then (ive been trying to go back to threads here on BJ) or you can throw a comment at us on TWIB or at our feedback email ShoutOutToTheChatroom@TWIB.ME. We read feedback live on the show and discuss. You can interact on your schedule!

  18. 18

    @Baud:

    So define blackness, Elon. The tables have turned.

    In this space I’m gathering the answers as opposed to putting my own ideas down. But as we build up our interviews we may use the conversations to create a bigger idea based on the voices of some our countries most brilliant thought leaders on the subject.

  19. 19
    Baud says:

    @Elon James White:

    based on the voices of some our countries most brilliant thought leaders on the subject.

    First, I’m flattered.

    Second, it seems to me the problem you’ll have in defining blackness is that – like any definition – you’re going to exclude people who feel like they are being unjustly excluded.

  20. 20
    Corner Stone says:

    @noabsolutes: The OP says it can be enjoyed by everyone. Shouldn’t that be the basis?

  21. 21

    @Baud:

    Second, it seems to me the problem you’ll have in defining blackness is that – like any definition – you’re going to exclude people who feel like they are being unjustly excluded.

    Well that’s why I’m not simply defining blackness on my on terms. This is why I’m reaching out to a wide array of academics to look at what it means to even invoke the concept of “blackness.” The project is above all else inclusive as opposed to exclusionary.

  22. 22
    cathyx says:

    Why do you need to define blackness?

  23. 23

    “Some of my best friends are black.”

    It’s hard to believe anybody still says this.

  24. 24
    FlipYrWhig says:

    @Zapruder F. Mashtots, D.D.S. (formerly Mumphrey, et al.): They say it when they’re joking.

  25. 25
    Garbo says:

    EJW: Please give us a heads up when the every-black-person-Electric-Slide-on-125th-Street-event is going down. Otherwise may be left with all white Boot Scoot Boogie in Branson which would be just sad.

  26. 26

    @cathyx:

    Why do you need to define blackness?

    Well from a personal standpoint I’ve noticed that some carry a definition of blackness and use it to either stereotype, vilify or ignore while others attempt to police the space based on a preconception of what it’s supposed to mean. As someone who has proudly claimed “Black” and has found others labeling of what it means problematic, I decided to simply open up the question and allow it to almost be debated. I don’t personally believe you can absolutely lock down a definition but you can start to hash out what people mean and what people expect and how that finds its place in history. American or otherwise.

  27. 27

    @Garbo:

    EJW: Please give us a heads up when the every-black-person-Electric-Slide-on-125th-Street-event is going down. Otherwise may be left with all white Boot Scoot Boogie in Branson which would be just sad.

    You’ll need to sign up for the super secret black people newsletter to get the deets…

  28. 28
    eric says:

    @Elon James White: the issue is also pertinent to understanding the different experiences of black women and and black men and the exclusion of black women from many discussions of gender and race. Not to mention understanding the role class plays in de-blacking people in the eyes of some whites and some blacks.

  29. 29
    Corner Stone says:

    @Garbo:

    Please give us a heads up when the every-black-person-Electric-Slide-on-125th-Street-event is going down.

    Is this in any way similar to Bring it On: The Final Bringing ?

  30. 30
    sylvan says:

    @Corner Stone:

    How are things in the south these days?

    I used to visit for business reasons, and always found it depressing.

  31. 31
    Just Some Fuckhead says:

    @Elon James White:

    In this space I’m gathering the answers as opposed to putting my own ideas down. But as we build up our interviews we may use the conversations to create a bigger idea based on the voices of some our countries most brilliant thought leaders on the subject.

    Reach out to me when you have enough data to make some decisions. Data analysis is my passion. I imagine we can develop a system that will assign a numerical “blackness” score based on a dozen or more criterion. I think to be valid, it would have to be a system that minimizes unfair class factors. If done properly, it could be a seminal work along the lines of Myers Briggs.

    And I can imagine real world applications. Such a system would illuminate the steps that one would take to become more black in an effort to, for instance, align oneself more closely with intermarried relatives of color or, perhaps become less black to more fully integrate into a multicultural society.

    And such a system could certainly provide for clearer battle lines in the political give and take. Well, of course you’d feel that way Senator, your B-score is only 47.

    At the very least, we could make an entertaining Facebook app.

  32. 32
    scav says:

    I wouldn’t think definitions have to necessesarily be about drawing bright lines between what is “X” and what isn’t. What is birdness? You’ve got penguins, you’ve got emus, some really cool squished dinos with proto feathers and there are wrens. Defining birdness is probably easier than defining blackness as it’s a little physically tidier and doesn’t have a cultural overlay (No, I’m not entirely convinced your puppah totally thinks he’s a parrot). Still a lot to be gained from exploring the landscape of fuzzy categories.

  33. 33
    Mino says:

    @Garbo: Stevie Ray Vaughan?

  34. 34
    NotMax says:

    I ask them to define it because I realize that understanding what that means is something that some black folks and a lot of non-black folks simply…well…don’t. And then there are those who think they do and it’s completely off.

    Ah, so there is but one true interpretation, and if any of those people should question that inerrant definition as “off,” than they reveal themselves as flawed.

    I see.

    That’s not being racist, my friend, that’s being dogmatic.

    The totality of life experience, relationships, knowledge and broadness of horizon of each of us necessarily colors how we secure, and how much import is assigned to, such free ranging and non-static sociological matters.

    The differences elicited can stretch from the subtle to the conventional to the harsh to the obscene (that last in the sense of being universally – though not necessarily unanimously – rejected as repugnant). Excluding assignment of a priori superiority is a vital step towards a dynamic consensus followed by application.

    /can of worms

  35. 35
    Corner Stone says:

    @sylvan:

    How are things in the south these days?

    About the same. Bout the same.

  36. 36
    currants says:

    @noabsolutes: Love MHP, have since I first saw her on Maddow in 2008. It’s awesome fab to listen to someone that smart and funny speak frankly about her experience, and honestly, I think she’s pretty accessible to the average person.
    Which is not to say your suggestion isn’t right,

    Seriously, though, it’s going to be very hard to maintain this conversation because white people don’t like to listen to black people talk about what their blackness means, preferring instead to focus on what it means for white people.

    because yeah, that’s often my experience of such conversations. Too bad.

    While I often can read blog posts (or at least skim them), I can’t do the same with podcasts (timing, location, etc). Because this is a hot (scaldingly so) topic where I am now, though, I made a point to listen (to part of one section).

    MHP’s point about internal and external identity rings completely true, and more to the point, is really helpful in understanding nuances of experience (but not just black).

  37. 37
    Corner Stone says:

    @NotMax: Holy shit. Did you just go all “One True Scotsman” up in this piece?

  38. 38
    Baud says:

    @scav:

    Still a lot to be gained from exploring the landscape of fuzzy categories.

    I agree. But the big difference between “What is birdness?” and “What is blackness?” is that birds don’t give a fuck how our society decides to define them.

  39. 39
    NotMax says:

    @Corner Stone

    Hope not. Not the intention to draw fallacious equivalence.

  40. 40
    scav says:

    @Baud: I did mention birdness was easier for exactly that reason. It was just that the birdness example was the one I remembered from my reading on fuzzy categories. Soon as we drag in the brain and culture, we’ll have to drag in context and when and under which circumstances the different definitions / prototypes of blackness are hauled out and for what purpose.

  41. 41

    @NotMax:

    Ah, so there is but one true interpretation, and if any of those people should question that inerrant definition as “off,” than they reveal themselves as flawed.
    I see.
    That’s not being racist, my friend, that’s being dogmatic.

    That’s actually the exact opposite of my point. And it’s the exact opposite of the point of the series. It’s about showing the various ways to interpret blackness and what that means overall. When i say folks get it wrong I’m speaking of when the identity of blackness is based on things like how you dress, can you dance, how you sound when you’re angry. There tons of folks who define blackness based on these attributes and I’d argue that’s a flawed method of defining it.

  42. 42
    sylvan says:

    @Just Some Fuckhead:

    Data analysis is my passion

    Let me guess: You’re a big fan of IQ studies from the ’70s.

  43. 43

    @Baud:

    I agree. But the big difference between “What is birdness?” and “What is blackness?” is that birds don’t give a fuck how our society decides to define them.

    Well many black people don’t give a fuck about how society decides to define them…then they get stopped by the police and questioned for an additional 20 minutes…or they get followed in a store by the staff to make sure they aren’t stealing…or they attend an event and music is cut on and their co-workers stare at them as if they obviously should be able to cut a rug due to the extra melanin in their skin…

  44. 44
    Corner Stone says:

    @NotMax:

    Not the intention to draw fallacious equivalence.

    Or false equivalence even. Here’s your nickel back.

  45. 45
    Baud says:

    @scav:

    I did mention birdness was easier for exactly that reason.

    Ah, I misread your comment.

    I think the word “define” just doesn’t work that well when discussing the idea of blackness, any more that it would work to identify concepts such as art or beauty. The word isn’t wrongly used, but it doesn’t take account of the human emotions that are attached to identity, and therefore makes conversations even more difficult. IMHO.

  46. 46
    sylvan says:

    @Baud:

    What is birdness?

    We still don’t know.

  47. 47
    scav says:

    @Baud:ahh, I suppose it has to do with the exact tones one attaches to the word ‘define’. Mine is colored with focus, bringing into definition a la bringing into focus.

  48. 48
    Baud says:

    @sylvan:

    That’s awesome.

    @Elon James White:

    Well many black people don’t give a fuck about how society decides to define them

    I think that’s a bit of an overstatement. Just about all of us care about how society looks at us, at least in the formative stages of our youth. We’re social animals; it’s part of the human condition.

  49. 49

    @Baud:

    I think that’s a bit of an overstatement. Just about all of us care about how society looks at us, at least in the formative stages of our youth. We’re social animals; it’s part of the human condition.

    If black folks constantly freaked out about how society defines us we’d all be in the loony bin. The amount of bullshit and institutionalized problematic labeling is unreal.

  50. 50

    Just got yourself a new subscriber to the podcast. Fascinating and informative are the first words that come to mind.

  51. 51
    eric says:

    @Baud: there are (at least) two definitions others have of us: the first is operational, it is the way they actually treat us and the second is how they attribute characteristics to us because of what they think we are. Most of us truly care about the former because it affects how we interact and we can legislate this (no racial profiling) but it is the deeper form of what they really think about us that is hardest to change. I dont really care what you think, just so long as you dont act on it is generally true.

  52. 52
    Baud says:

    @Elon James White:

    My initial point was that birds don’t care about our societal categories, whereas black people (being people) do. I don’t know why you interpreted “care” to necessarily mean “freaking out.” I simply meant “care” to mean “To be concerned or interested“.

  53. 53
    BethanyAnne says:

    Haven’t read the thread yet, but I’m a bit into the first podcast. One of the parallel conversations I’ve heard is in trans communities. Who is what gender and who is what flavor of trans and what is a woman or a man. It’s amazing the effort that we spend maintaining these walls, and punishing folk for escaping their boxes.

  54. 54
    NotMax says:

    @Elon James White

    When i say folks get it wrong I’m speaking of when the identity of blackness is based on things like how you dress, can you dance, how you sound when you’re angry.

    No examples were stated, only a generalization; can only try to cogently respond to what was in the post.

    Sounds, then, as if that’s focusing on intolerance.

    There tons of folks who define blackness based on these attributes and I’d argue that’s a flawed method of defining it.

    Might argue that those are superficial (perhaps shallow would be a better term) traits/markers which are used to define the identity of intolerance rather than uniquely “blackness.”

    Granted that in a Venn diagram there presumably would be a significant sector of overlap with “blackness” and “American societal intolerance,” a smaller one (one hopes) with “ignorance’ and yet individual others with “unfamiliarity/isolation/gullibility/envy.” But intolerance does not encompass the whole of “the identity of blackness,” I hope you’d agree.

    Don’t have the time right now to listen in full, but will later on if failing memory, um, remembers.

  55. 55
    Dee Loralei says:

    Love MHP and oh my God, she has one of the best laughs ever.

    I went into this thinking that blackness is whatever the person who is being black says it is. Just as whatever I do or say or think as a woman falls well within the perameters of what it is to be a woman. Or what is gay is defined by the person being gay. And y’alls talk mostly reaffirmed that. I’ll have to think more about her bit about viewing yourself and how society views you to be black i.e., Justin Timberlake isn’t.

    Ive enjoyed the first hour and think its great that you are putting it here, and will try to listen to more later.

    And I totally get what you were saying about how some folks didn’t think you were black enough. I remember in 2007 when folks were wondering if Obama was black enough or had the right to be called African American because his ancestors didn’t come up from slavery.

    And LOL at you and MHP and your Black republican roundtable.

  56. 56
    JoyfulA says:

    My church had a 4-part discussion group on race that I wanted to attend. Unfortunately, I went the wrong night and found a meeting of the property committee discussing leaf raking, but I’m hoping it will be offered again. Our minister holds that Sunday is the most segregated day of the week and that is wrong.

  57. 57
    NotMax says:

    Interesting thread, but non-online life beckons insistently.

  58. 58
    FlipYrWhig says:

    @JoyfulA: oh, so now a black man can’t care about leaf-raking, by definition? Check your privilege. :P ;D

  59. 59
    Spaghetti Lee says:

    Well, I’ll start out by saying that I’m white and was mostly raised among white people and do not, in fact, have many black friends. I’m neither trying to brag nor apologize, but just letting everyone know where in life I’m coming from.

    My immediate instinct is that ‘blackness’ is an objective term: the quality of having sub-Saharan African descent. But I get the feeling you’re looking for something more abstract than that. I don’t feel qualified to start off with the big-picture questions, so I’ll start with a specific example: Rob Parker of ESPN criticized Washington QB Robert Griffin III as not being ‘authentically black’ and being a ‘cornball brother’ (his words, not mine). Chiefly among Griffin’s crimes were that he lives in a mostly white neighborhood, has a white fiancee, and (may or may not) vote Republican. Parker was roundly criticized, even by more left-wing sports sites like Deadspin. (ETA: and ESPN fired him. Forgot about that.)

    In your opinion, do any of these things or a combination thereof call his ‘blackness’ into question? Griffin’s parents are both black and he has relatively dark skin. Do you think if that was different more people would have agreed with Parker? (On that note, note how the discussion is not even being had about Russell Wilson or Colin Kaepernick, two bi-racial quarterbacks with much lighter skin-they’re not under any pressure to be ‘authentically’ black.)

  60. 60
    scav says:

    @FlipYrWhig: A four-part discussion of leaf-raking wouldn’t be long enough for certain denominations or cultures. Friend of mine moved into a neighborhood where his wife mowing the lawn generated curtain-twitchings and mutterings up and down the street. Never quite figured out if it was perceived as a lack of manliness on his part or an abusive expression of male privilege.

  61. 61
    BethanyAnne says:

    OMG the student loans, lol. Truly LOL

  62. 62
    sylvan says:

    This thread needs more Schoolly D.

  63. 63
    ruemara says:

    Its odd to read this thread while watching a documentary on the Klu Klux Klan. I’ve never been black enough for black or white people and never white enough for bigots, can’t define anything for anyone else so fuck everyone who tries to define it for me.

  64. 64
    Violet says:

    @Elon James White: Thanks for the reply. I appreciate your effort to return to the comments here. I usually give up on posts after several threads have been posted above them because the comments tend to die. I’ll keep your efforts in mind on your threads.

  65. 65
    Grumpy Code Monkey says:

    @Corner Stone:

    It’s probably just my bias but I’m inherently sceptical of people who use three names.
    Elon James White, Just Some Fuckhead, Lee Harvey Oswald…

    Jesus H. Christ.

  66. 66
    MeDrewNotYou says:

    @sylvan: I love Look Around You! The science news show season was great, but the educational shorts were the best. Too bad [adult swim] doesn’t seem to air the British shows anymore.

    EJW- We all know how anti-intellectual America can be, so I don’t want to attack the idea of asking academics to define blackness. But I think that leaving out the experiences of rich and poor, public and private sector folks, the ‘man in the street,’ etc. could lead to too narrow an idea. Although it isn’t strictly comparable, my dad, for example, has a much different idea of what it means to be white than someone with an education, much less an academic. I can’t imagine it would be much different for blacks. Everyone’s experience will obviously be different but the wider the range of people asked ought to lead to a better grasp on the essence of blackness.

    (I haven’t had a chance to listen to the podcasts yet, so apologies if you’ve addressed this already.)

  67. 67
    nellcote says:

    Do you have any questions that you’d love to hear answered?

    Have you ever shot skeets?

  68. 68
    JoyfulA says:

    My happiest time ever in race relations was when I was asked, as a supervisor, for the race of each of my supervisees. I was so proud of myself for having to visualize each face and decide what color it was. I didn’t happen to have that categorization immediately available to me; I didn’t think in terms of X is white and Y is black. I thought of myself as color-blind and was delighted with me.

    Then I got in an argument with my boss over whether one of my receptionists was white or black. She looked white to me; my boss said she must be black because she’s the sister-in-law of Z, another supervisor, who’s black. Well, Z isn’t “black,” but rather a golden color, I might have guessed Eurasian. And even if Z were black, how would that necessitate that a relative by marriage would be the same? Oh, the problems an innocent bystander could get into on matters of racial identity in those days!

    And then there was the concept of identifying Hispanics by Spanish surnames—-

  69. 69
    Corner Stone says:

    @Grumpy Code Monkey:

    Jesus H. Christ.

    Grumpy Code Monkey, Angry Black Lady.
    I mean, the evidence just keeps adding up.

  70. 70
    Sly says:

    @JoyfulA:

    And then there was the concept of identifying Hispanics by Spanish surnames—-

    My paternal grandfather was from Spain, which means that one of my big criterion for taking a job was whether or not I got that look from a white potential employer that betrayed the shock that the face in front of them, for some odd reason, didn’t quite match the name on the resume.

    It has happened more times than I’d care to remember. I don’t think it ever blocked me from going from application to interview, but I can understand why, fifty years ago, a young actor named Ramon Estevez thought it might be easier to get acting gigs if he went by Martin Sheen instead.

  71. 71
    danah gaz says:

    Is it just me, or is the modern incarnation of White Nationalism, as presented by Bob Whitaker, particularly annoying?

    White power has gone crybaby.

    A legion of Emo Nazis.. Is there anything more obnoxious?

    Waaaah! White genocide Waaah! We’re victims! Waaah! Anti-racist is code for anti-white *sob* /cuts self

  72. 72
    Anoniminous says:

    Very interesting.

    Thank you for putting these up.

  73. 73
    JoyfulA says:

    @Sly: My objection to “classifying” Hispanics by Spanish surnames was that anyone can go to Smith to Gomez or vice versa by filing a form and paying $25. (Probably $250 today.)

  74. 74
    danah gaz says:

    @JoyfulA: $160 where I’m from unless you do so as part of a marriage. =)

  75. 75
    Fellatio Alger says:

    @danah gaz: LOL. Emo Nazis. one for the ages.

  76. 76
  77. 77
    catperson says:

    Really enjoying these podcasts. Plenty of food for thought in them. The progression from MHP’s discussion of “blackness” as an ethnicity that is determined both externally (by the assumptions bring when they interact with you) and internally (how you self-identify)to Dr. Cobb’s discussion of identity as something that is completely externally determined (i.e. you’re a race traitor and thus no longer part of the in-group) is fascinating.

    What weight does someone saying, “you’re not really black,” carry? Presumably Clarence Thomas still identifies as black. So what’s the real impact of these external definitions? Do they really serve any purpose?

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