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Black Heritage 2015: The Identity Politic

Not a single kosher-cooking Japanese-Mexican-American has won yet

The season finale of Top Chef is this Wednesday, and I am an avid fan. However, as we near the end of every season of a reality show such as Top Chef, it is inevitable that one or two of the remaining contestants will proclaim that he or she has to win it in order to represent their particular race, class, gender, hometown, or sexuality. This time around, one of the two final contestants, Mei, is a woman, and it has been much discussed how important it is for a woman to win, as only two women have walked away with the title of Top Chef in the show's first eleven seasons. The other contestant is Gregory, a black homosexual man from Portland. The last contestant to lose, Doug, also resides in Portland, and as he departed, he gave Gregory a hug and urged him to win it for Portland.

A hundred years ago, tribalism was all the rage, and millions of white, heterosexual men were safe to pronounce their opinion that their tribe was the most superior. Academia was filled with intellectuals who freely discussed eugenics; Europe was openly anti-Semitic; in the U.S., women were not allowed to vote in most states, and blacks faced a multitude of discriminatory voting policies that wouldn't be fully overturned for another fifty years; Birth of a Nation premiered on February 8, 1915, and quickly became the highest-grossing film worldwide, a title it would hold for twenty-five years. It wasn't until after World War II--after the extent of the Holocaust became widely known--that people started truly rethinking the notion of racial supremacy and started sewing the seeds of equality on the basis of race, gender, and even, eventually, sexuality.

You'd think that, given the dramatic lessons of the Wannsee Conference and its aftermath, we would no longer live in a world where people treat their skin color and sex organs as sports jerseys. You'd think people would stop keeping score, stop trying to prove that one group is more or less deserving of accolades than another, and stop behaving as though a person's tribal affiliation is an important aspect of his or her identity.

Of course, the word "tribal" may itself be racist against douchebags

On one hand, tribalism--and the identity politic it inevitably breeds--is perfectly understandable as a byproduct of evolution. Most of us have an inherent need to belong, to find a group we can identify with, and to seek strength in numbers. Indeed, much of the Civil Rights movement that came after World War II wouldn't have happened had groups not formed to protest, inform, educate, and seek justice. Unfortunately, on the other hand, once we clump ourselves into these race/class/gender groups, we make true equality virtually impossible. The only way to effectively end racism, sexism, and discrimination on a grand scale is to create a culture where a person is judged by his or her individual merits, where nobody cares about what superficial group a person belongs to. I'm pretty sure that's the thesis of Martin Luther King's famous speech.

As evidenced by Top Chef and countless other bits of popular culture, we still have a long way to go to achieve any kind of cultural immunity to discrimination. While one can certainly make the case that people are only striving for equality, not supremacy--that people are only keeping score in order to prove that they are still not being treated fairly--it is still incredibly problematic. For example, in eleven seasons, only one black person has won the title of Top Chef, meaning that blacks win about 9% of the time. As blacks represent over 13% of the United States population, does that make the show racist? But let's say Gregory wins on Wednesday night, giving blacks a score of two out of twelve, nearly 17%. If that happens, can we then conclude that the show isn't racist, or are we going to have to listen to complaints that it discriminates the other way?

What's this picture doing here?

Trying to achieve statistical quotas is a deep, dark rabbit hole. If Gregory does win, does that mean nobody else from Portland can win until all other cities in the country have been represented according to their relative population sizes? And if Mei wins, does that mean we have to start keeping track of how many people of Asian descent are winning in relation to how many Anglo-Europeans, Latinos, Aussies, Middle-Easterners, and true Africans are winning? At what point do we stop keeping score? At what point is it safe to conclude that, while there is still a small minority of racists and sexists out there that will never be reformed, our culture is no longer defined by tribalism?

Of course, you can't talk about this without talking about governing politics. Those who seek redress usually take their grievances to the government, after all, and there is hardly a more tribalistic animal in modern society than a representative politician. Tribalism is, in effect, part of the job description. However, it is all too easy for a political leader to exploit tribalistic fears for personal or political gain.

Take the much-cited statistic that the average woman only makes seventy-seven cents for every dollar that the average man makes. Despite how misleading or downright untrue this statistic is, the Democratic Party has done well using it as a tool to paint their opposition as purveyors of patriarchy waging a war on women. If you can convincingly portray yourself as the defender of minority rights and your opponent as a usurper of those same rights, you will secure the majority of votes from that minority (and a good chunk of the shamed majority, all too willing to believe the portrayal). Therefore, politicians of all stripes have every incentive to stoke the fires of tribalism, as they tend to do on a daily basis. To be clear: politicians have become part the problem, not the solution.

Eric Holder
And you can't disagree with this guy without being part of "a nation of cowards"

I didn't want this blog to be about Ferguson, but it's a good example. Not only did the local investigations fail to find any reason to believe that the shooting of Michael Brown was racially motivated, but the Federal investigation--launched by Attorney General Eric Holder and encouraged publicly by the president under the pretense of an alleged civil rights violation--has also failed to find any evidence of wrongdoing or institutional racism. So why was there such a national, public outcry about the shooting? I think it's because, in this country, we are trained early on that racism is still endemic, and many politicians will do everything in their power to make you believe it. [NOTE: This was written several weeks before the release of the DOJ's Ferguson report, which changed much of my opinion surrounding Ferguson. For a more up-to-date discussion on this, click here.]

Do things like racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, anti-Semitism, etc., still exist? Absolutely, but they do not define our culture, despite what your local representative or your president might tell you. If you insist, in this day and age, at looking at everything through the lens of the indentity politic, even something as seemingly irrelevant as the winner of Top Chef, you are not helping. You are the one teaching our children to pay attention to superficial differences and to judge accordingly.

-e. magill 2/9/2015

  • Black Heritage 2016: Oscars So Political
  • Black Heritage 2014: The War on Language