About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Know Thy Place


A couple of months ago, I was reading a very interesting book called "Better Off Without 'Em," which is an exploration of Southern culture, and how, for all intents and purposes the South really is a distinct country from the rest of the United States.  The book is on the whole, very interesting, but it is pretty much a condemnation of the South.  A lot of it is on the money, but it is harsh.  And I should say here, any part of the country could be dissected like that and a negative book written on it.  As much as I love the West, we are also very different from the rest of the country and we have cultural normatives out here that can really frustrate and upset who did not grow up here.

However, in the book, he introduced a concept that I had never heard of before, but now that I know about it, it is a perfect explanation of many things going on in the country right now, especially things in the South, and things in the Presidential race.

The concept is called Placism.  Placism is similar to racism, and in fact, they often go hand in hand with each other, but it is possible to be a placist and not a racist, or visa versa.  In fact in the South, poor white people face many of the same Placism challenges that minorities do.  The basic idea of placism parallels classism; with placism, as long as you remain in your place, and don't try to challenge the social structure, you can get along just fine.  Step outside of that box, and all hell will descend on you.

After reading about it, I realized that I had actually known about it while I was living in the South but I just ascribed it to run of the mill racism.  The episode that sticks in my mind was a conversation I had with the woman who ran the diner that I frequently ate lunch at.  She told me about an incident with her daughter's new job in Birmingham.  Her daughter had gotten an MBA, and gotten a good, although entry level, job in an investment company.  On her first day on the job, her new boss told her, "There are many opportunities here for a person like you, as long as you know your place and don't try to rise above yourself."

And that is the core of the problem.  There are many opportunities for someone, as long as they don't try to rise above themselves.  In other words, they cannot show up decent upper class white folks.  They cannot be visibly smarter, more skilled, or more accomplished that their "betters."

Once I started looking at my experiences in the South through this filter, things began to make more sense to me.  For example, as I have pointed out before, on the evening news, no matter who won the game, they would almost always show a white guy scoring a point against a black guy.  For example, they never showed a black guy making a basket, unless both teams were entirely black.  I had thought of that as racist, which is probably a part of it, but now, through the new filter, I realize that it was a visual to show cultural dominance.  Black people cannot show up white people.

Another point that is explained by placism was the faculty and staff demographic where I taught.  There were very few African-American faculty members, but there were a number of foreign born black faculty.  The staff had many African-Americans, but typically, they were in subservient roles such as security guards and administrative assistants.  There were a few in middle management, but the upper echelon of the school, both in faculty and administrative roles was exclusively white.

While on the surface, that looks like racism, it goes deeper than that.  If it was racism, why could foreign blacks get slots on the faculty while African-Americans didn't?  Placism, and the fact that educated people from other countries exist outside of the normal class structure, is a better explanation. 

And I would like to note, skilled foreigners often exist outside of normal class structures, no matter what country you are dealing with.  I applied for, and was interviewed for, several jobs in the United Kingdom, which is a notoriously class-ridden society.  I talked to a few American ex-pats living there, and they told me that they had no problems moving between the classes, and everyone accepted them.  Class in this case was strictly for the natives.  Similarly, one only needs to look at the percentages of foreign born doctors and engineers to see that in action in our country.

However, this does not translate down to the unskilled or semi-skilled end of the spectrum.  The uneducated immigrant faces the worst sort of Placism imaginable.  Back to my personal work situation, African-Americans comprised almost all of the security force at the college.  Although it was a low paying, more or less dead end job, there was a certain dignity that came from the responsibility of keeping the college secure.  The janitorial staff, which is the lowest end of the scale, was entirely Hispanic immigrant. 

And this is the norm everywhere.  Anyplace you go in this country, the first generation low skill immigrants are shoved into menial, and often degrading, jobs.  The doors to education and social improvement are closed and barred to them.  It is only the second or third generation that is allowed to break out of the placist role that is assigned to them. 

And then, that often only happens if they do not look different from the rest of the people.  The Irish were, in their day, treated just like Mexican immigrants are today, however, once they lost the accent, they could easily blend in with the rest of society.  Still, you only need to look at the occasional and very subtle discrimination of "gingers" to know that one segment of the Irish, the one that looks different, is still not as fully assimilated as the rest of them.  Being a redhead won't block you from a job or an education, but, I can say from personal experience, it does limit your dating options.

Blacks and Hispanics, except for the very light skinned, tend to get locked into certain roles permanently.  And furthermore, the people who are very light skinned, almost indistinguishable from white people, have many more opportunities available.  You can see this in this Harvard Study.

So how does this concept of Placism translate to Presidential politics.

Barack Obama and Bill Clinton both rose above their station, and both have been more viciously attacked than any President since the Reconstruction.

Bill Clinton faced the same placism issues as President Obama.  He came from a poor background, and he rose to the pinnacle of American society.  And the Right never forgave him for it.  They tried to destroy him and stop him from having any legacy.  Specifically, they wanted to show that a person from his socio-economic background was not equipped to be President, because the inspiration of Bill Clinton was that anyone, from any background, CAN become president.  He was the first truly middle class president since Truman, and we all know how that ended.  (Truman ended up for years on the worst president list; he's better now.)

And Bill Clinton set the stage for President Obama, who also does not come from the background that we expect of our national leaders.  Racism does play a part in the hatred of Obama, and I will not deny that.  There are many people who cry, in coded words, I don't want a black man as my President.  But that isn't the full story, it is only half of it.

Similarly, not all possible aspects of Placism are in play with the President.  Remember my example of the foreign black faculty and remember, Barack Obama's father was not born in this country.  As my mentor Joe said, shortly after Obama's victory, "It is no accident that our first black President was not descended from slaves."  He explained that, at least for the first black President, he could not have won with the baggage of slavery in his past.  Again, Joe was talking about Placism, I just didn't catch on. 

However, that said, Placism is still strongly at work in most aspects of the hatred of Obama.  Obama was raised by a single mother, he came from a relatively poor background, certainly middle class at best.  Also since his father was foreign, he carries the Placist taint of "not one of us" that you see in the Birther attacks. 

Look at the other attacks on him and you can see Placism all through them.  He got where he is because of affirmative action, which means, he could never have gotten into Harvard on his own accord.  He was a community organizer, which means, he worked in poor communities filled with poor people.  He's lazy and incompetent, which means, no one from his background has the skills to run the country.

And the single worst thing that he did; he beat a rich old white man out to become President.  He showed him up in a landslide.  He made him look bad.  He rose above his station.  He didn't know his place.

And that is nothing compared to the Hell that will open up when he beats Mitt Romney, the ultimate scion of who the Placists think "should be President."  The poor black kid wiped the floor with the rich man who is entitled to be President because of "Who he is."

It will be an interesting four years.

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