Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Readings: Roediger and Ehrenreich

I started my summer readings with a rereading of Novick's That Noble Dream, and first readings of David Roediger's Working Toward Whiteness, with a brief detour into Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed (not on the list, but which my mom was perusing for readings for her social justice class in the fall). Technically, another similarly titled Roediger book was on the list, but this was the one available here. Novick is an outlier and deserving of a full post so I will skip him for now. However, I was intrigued by the single blurb on the cover of Roediger's book, supplied by the Washington Post, "provocative." Well, I didn't find it terribly provocative--how's that for a provocative statement?

This doesn't mean I didn't find it a competent and readable history. It was. However, the concept of "whiteness studies" as a way of breaking the prevailing understanding of whiteness as a "norm," and the journey of Southern and Eastern European immigrants from "dark white" to "white" is not new to me. As a Californian, maybe, and a product of a parent and an historical moment concerned with ethnic origins, the sheer diversity within the category "white" has long been quite evident to me, and the origins and arrival times of various ethnic groups, along with the difficulties they faced--these stories have been with me since childhood. On top of European ethnic groups, California is also home to many Asian and South Asian ethnicities, "Black," African and Carribean ethnicities, and several indigenous groups as well. In the 70s and 80s, there was a lot of "roots" searching, and this phenomenon trickled down to schooling.

Added to this, I'm also aware that we're not living in a post-ethnic society for those deemed "white." While, on a form, a Croatian-, an Italian-, and an Irish-American may all select "white," that doesn't mean that there aren't people out there calling them "guinea," "mick" and who knows what else. There are. I've met them. And there are plenty of folks who still equate "Jew" with race or ethnicity, even though I do my best to make it clear that Judaism is a religion, and I feel strongly that that there are no "ethnic" Jews. And these things equate to a mild (or not so mild) racism, even if your term of choice is "ethnic." Some evidence (in an amusing and palatable form) can be seen in Gilbert Hernandez's comic Love and Rockets: A Rock 'n' Roll Headache from '89.

So you see it's not that I disagree with the premise of the book--Roediger is on the mark when he's speaking historically about transformations in ethnic groups arriving and living in America, and the parallel path of African-Americans, who did not have the benefit of being able to change race. But I would argue that only in some settings have certain groups effectively changed race. Another point that Roediger discusses, though it's not his main point, is the arbitrariness of the term "race." As I understand it, it is an unscientific term at best, and at worst it is a manipulation of perception. Percival Everett puts this quite well in Erasure when the character Monk talks about why society has deemed him "Black." If I felt an historical evaluation of the term "race" was the primary point of the book, and if it were written in the style of Frantz Fanon, then perhaps I would have called it "provocative."

Ehrenreich's book I also had ambivalent feelings about. I realize I am a late reader, but I'm sure it remains on reading lists everywhere. On one hand, it is an important bit of investigation, showing not only the near impossibility of rising out of the mire of minimum wage employment, and revealing the poor quality of life so many people have who are effectively "passing" for middle class. However, I felt a bit wary of someone who dips into blue collar life for a month or two, being myself someone who has been living a real honest-to-goodness blue collar life. And as my mom and I were talking about the book, we were both taken aback by some of Ehrenreich's own prejudices--she comes across as ageist, insensitive about Alzheimers patients (oddly, I thought) and at times irritatingly judgmental of people around her (which I noted that she sometimes admits to, in the writing).

We agreed that she's firmly within her own head, which makes this different from an ethnographer, or an historian, a novelist, or Studs Terkel--all of whom either make an attempt to be in someone else's head, or take the materials back to the subjects and say, "these were my impressions--am I on the mark?" There was a queer absence of follow-up with her coworkers--and I say this with the conviction that my coworkers will be lifelong friends, if they want it. At any rate, I'm sure that this book has raised some consciousnesses. But I wonder how many, as we struggle onward in the rising waters of low wages, unemployment, high rents, and outsourcing of jobs and industry to countries where we can exploit labor legally for peanuts.

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