Jennifer de Guzman is a writer and comics publishing professional living in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes stories about sad girls, seawater, bottomless wells, airborne plagues, and horses. You can find links to some of them them in the Selected Works section or read them at her Scribd page.

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Chi Roca has a dead girl’s voice in her head. Nearly ten years ago, her older sister Aria drowned, leaving their family shattered — and Chi has been keeping the secret of Aria’s continued presence in her mind ever since.

But Aria had secrets of her own, and as Chi has gotten older she has begun to ask questions. When Aria’s presence disappears on Chi’s sixteenth birthday, Chi decides to try to find the answers, placing herself in the same danger that led to her sister’s death.

Half a Person is a story of grief and the connections it both breaks and forges.

What Are Possible Impossiblities?

“The Poet ought rather to chuse Impossibilities, provided they have Resemblance to the Truth, than the Possible, which are Incredible with all their Possibility.”
- Henry Fielding, quoting Aristotle in The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling

Toward a Working Definition of Racism, Part One

Recently, some members of the comic book community were called out by MSNBC commentator Lawrence O’Donnell for a comic strip depicting Michelle Obama scarfing down hamburgers and bullying her husband. The strip is part of a series called “Obama Nation” by James Hudnall and Batton Lash, published on Andrew Breitbart’s site Big Hollywood. O’Donnell’s outrage was forced and there is no doubt that his naming of Lash’s wife and basically calling on people to harass them was despicable. Lash and his wife, good people who are active in the comics community, do not deserve the hateful treatment they’re receiving.

My initial reaction to the commentary was that this particular strip was just dull, not racist. However, upon looking at other “Obama Nation” strips (such as this and this one), I find that its variety of political “commentary” feeds the worst proclivities of political disagreement in this country. They stoke racial, religious, and class anxiety — encouraging people to distrust the Other and believe that there is a Manichaean struggle in all aspects in life; those who disagree with you, they say, are out to destroy you — they are your enemies.

A French sign that says "Stop au racism anti-blanc!"

This French sign displays what many would characterize as a misconception of what constitutes racism. (© Fiona Williams, /www.flickr.com/photos/katchooo/, used under Creative Commons license.)

The writer and artist have responded to the criticism, but I am less interested in the particulars of the criticism and defense than in those anxieties themselves. I really want to have a conversation about the most fraught of these anxieties: racism. Can we try?

Specifically, I want to explore the differences between the liberal and conservative conceptions of what constitutes racism. In his response, Hudnall uses the “aren’t those who are calling me racist the real racists?” argument that never works but is so often used. It is a manifestation — but not a clarification — of the very difference I hope to discuss.

I think it’s only fair that I try to explain my own definition of racism, which is, like most things about me, a work in progress. I think, however, that it closely aligns with “typical” liberal thinking. Here are the concepts that underly my definition of racism:

Racism is privileged. When you hear people say something like, “black people can’t be racist,” this is the underlying assumption — which if you do not share, makes such a statement seem outright ludicrous. What it means is that racism is perpetuated by people in a group that historically has been in a position of power against people who are in a group that has historically not been in such a position. This is not to say that minorities cannot be bigoted — they can be, and they can be hateful. But this concept holds that racism is something different from just bigotry or hate. In fact, outright enmity may be absent from expressions or manifestations of racism. That is because —

Racism is systemic. This is what people talk about when they refer to “institutional racism.” The history of racism in our country has lasting, residual effects. Minorities, kept out of positions of power due to overt racism, continue to be underrepresented in such positions. This creates the perception that they don’t belong in positions of power, and this perception may be conscious or unconscious. Either way, people may act in ways that maintain the power structure. Thus, minority points of view and minorities themselves are marginalized, seen as the “Other.” Everyone in a society where racism has existed institutionally is affected by it, and one of the key ways to end racism is to not deny this fact but to learn to be aware of it. Otherwise, we run into the problem that —

Racism is self-perpetuating. The function of racism — whether those perpetuating it are conscious of it or not — is to justify and perpetuate the existing societal power structure.

(Bonus: This framework also works with sexism!)

In my next post, I will use this framework to analyze why a particular “Obama Nation” comic (not the one O’Donnell commented on) can be interpreted as being racist and write about how I perceive conservative conceptions of racism.

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6 comments to Toward a Working Definition of Racism, Part One

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jennifer de Guzman, wintersweet and Mariah Huehner, Mariah Huehner. Mariah Huehner said: Via@asmadasbirds http://bit.ly/eyTyyM Per usual, Jennifer is brilliant. […]

  • What distresses me most about Hudnall’s defense of the strip is, if it’s too be believed, how ill-considered his chosen imagery is. For as precise and sharply rendered as satire should be, he seems to give it little thought, and that lack of precision is then carried into the art. By his statement, the depiction of Michelle Obama has nothing to do with her weight. He just thought it would be funny to have her eating a pile of hamburgers a la Wimpy (though there is no dialogue to underline that reference) and have her arms be thicker than her husband’s legs. Okay. I guess it gives proof to the old cliche that the joke’s not funny if you have to explain it.

    But to then be surprised that people interpreted it as being a joke about her weight is either disingenuous or utterly stupid. While I agree that there is nothing inherently racist in the strip pundits are so upset about, if this willful blindness to visual meaning is true, then I have no trouble believing that the creators haven’t taken much time to consider how the rest of their cartoons could be perceived or why detractors may have come to the conclusion that there are more nefarious motivations than political idealogy. Which would be dangerously clumsy at best.

    I’m more cynical than that, though, and I would guess they are regularly and intentionally baiting people in order to create a firestorm. If that is the case, then it only makes the ideas and arguments in their cartoons even less compelling, because I would take that as outright admission that there is nothing substantial informing their rhetoric or their gags; instead, they obfuscate with scandal and noise.

    The only things that Hudnall and I are likely to agree on here is that it was rather dumb and irresponsible of O’Donnell and the others to come at him and Batton in this way, and besides being shamefully hypocritical, all this gum-flapping only serves to bring more attention to work that isn’t very interesting without the added controversy.

  • I thought the visual gag was supposed to be a “Jack Sprat Could Eat No Fat, His Wife Could Eat No Lean” reference when I saw it, but I guess the inspiration was less obvious. If they wanted to make that joke, they could have made it about taxes or something and then “and so betwixt the two of them, they licked the table clean” would have been about how those damn liberals are going to take away all your money, and also that Michelle Obama likes to eat cheeseburgers and the president is skinny. No, I guess, that’s still not funny.

    DId you see the discussion Hudnall had with Gail Simone on Facebook? She wanted to talk on a craft level — specifically about why these cartoons are not funny, purely on a joke level. But he’s so stuck on his position that he can’t discuss anything outside of his talking points. It was incredibly frustrating to read.

    I don’t mind bringing more attention to the work, not to shame him and Batton but to use it as a way to start a reasonable dialogue about racism — even if its just with myself –and to keep my critical thinking skills intact.

  • I think your very reasonable analyzing of their work is spot-on, actually. What I am referring to is the polarizing rhetoric of the news spots that got this ball rolling last week, which just drove the like-minded and the fanatical to rally behind these guys in ways that expands their reach while cutting off the dialogue. Which judging by what you are saying, is pretty much how Hudnall must like it.

  • J. Julien

    I actually just read this one. It seems our views/comments on the topic are aligned. The challenge becomes, how can one, such as myself, pass along this view to the masses in ways that stick! Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm?!?!!!

  • I was going to direct you to this post, Joel, to show that I’m totally with you! But getting people to understand this — it’s hard! It requires a depth of knowledge — about history, about psychology — that’s more difficult than the simple ideas about racism that are used in most conversations about it. I got an email from someone asking me to define racism without using so many “big words”! First of all, I don’t think I use very many big words; and secondly, racism is a complex subject — it’s a system that’s been perpetuated for centuries in this country! If you’re going to honestly investigate it and think about it and talk about it, you’re going to have to get used to using your brain for real! It’s the same with sexism.

    People are so unwilling to sit down and THINK about these subjects. It requires a lot of self-examination, too! I have to look at my own attitudes and behavior; I have to acknowledge that because I live in a racist society, I have internalized racist attitudes that I have to confront and fight against! People don’t want to look at that part of themselves. They want to pretend like they never had a thought that was influenced by racism in their lives.

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