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Its a life style not an ethnicity or race
April 6, 2010 9:28 AM   Subscribe

Beyond the Pale: In a wide-reaching book review and with nods to James Baldwin's 1984 essay On Being White ... and Other Lies, Kelefa Sanneh makes a modern argument that white identity is founded on a series of negations: "to be white in America is to be not nonwhite, which is why it was possible, in 1961, for a white woman from Kansas living in Hawaii to give birth to a black baby."

Among other subjects, Sanneh examines Glenn Beck's comments about the President after the Henry Louis Gates incident, Stuff White People Like, the implicit racism of tea party protesters and the racial questions embedded in the Academy Award winning film The Blind Side and Jersey Shore.
posted by l33tpolicywonk (96 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
which is why it was possible, in 1961, for a white woman from Kansas living in Hawaii to give birth to a black baby.

What?

I guess she means "Why it's possible for a woman who fits the social construct of whiteness to have a child who does not"? But it sounds very weird.
posted by delmoi at 9:31 AM on April 6, 2010


The Tea Party movement is mostly Republican (with most of the rest of them being right-leaning "independents," not Democrats) and 88% white. (Source.) Why shouldn't I believe that the racial makeup is just a statistical byproduct of the Republican tilt? If the response is that this shows that Republicans themselves are racist, OK, but then the criticism would be more appropriately directed at Republicans, not the Tea Party movement.
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:40 AM on April 6, 2010


I guess she means "Why it's possible for a woman who fits the social construct of whiteness to have a child who does not"? But it sounds very weird

Kelefa Sanneh is a dude. Also I found that sentence pretty lucid. Oh well.
posted by grobstein at 9:46 AM on April 6, 2010 [4 favorites]


I think the sentence means a white woman should give birth to at least a half-white baby but the nomenclature describes her baby as black. The only way to be white is to not be nonwhite.
posted by edbles at 9:49 AM on April 6, 2010


Yeah, by merit of being half white and half black, Obama is black.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:50 AM on April 6, 2010


delmoi: "it sounds very weird."

Skin color is a simple optical fact, but it is fatuous to pretend that is what we are referring to in this context when we say black or white. In a social world things are what is said about them. There is no such thing as black or white as we Americans commonly mean those terms to describe humans, except for within the context of a social construction. By the common cultural understanding in the US of what "black" means, a white woman can have a black baby. I think this should sound weird. This common definition we have inherited portrays not being white as a case of the cooties - a little bit of black makes you black, and absence of other racial background makes you white.
posted by idiopath at 9:51 AM on April 6, 2010 [4 favorites]


I agree with grobstein and edbles... Delmoi, haven't you ever noticed that Barack Obama's mom is considered "white" while he's considered "black"? That seems like an undeniable fact (not a fact about their inherent traits but about others' perceptions), and one that's worth pointing out.
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:52 AM on April 6, 2010


What I wonder is if the (unverifiable) number of Tea Partiers, Republicans, etc. that blindly oppose Barack just because he's black is countered in any way by the (unverifiable) number of people who don't examine many of his policies --or notice that he has basically recemented in place many of Bush's objectionable governmental power-grabs in direct opposition to what he claimed he was going to do-- but blindly support anything he does because he's black. Hey, I canvassed for the man. But there's a lot of reneging going on that I think would draw more fire if Barack was safely white and could be taken to task without setting off the all-but-unavoidable any-criticism-is-racist alarm.
posted by umberto at 9:57 AM on April 6, 2010 [6 favorites]


The Tea Party movement is mostly Republican (with most of the rest of them being right-leaning "independents," not Democrats) and 88% white. (Source.) Why shouldn't I believe that the racial makeup is just a statistical byproduct of the Republican tilt? If the response is that this shows that Republicans themselves are racist, OK, but then the criticism would be more appropriately directed at Republicans, not the Tea Party movement.

Interestingly, I think the Tea Party movement is fairly black. See here; apparently 6% of Tea Partiers are black. This is less than proportional to population (blacks are 11% of population), but substantial. In fact, I think it is comparable to or greater than the number of blacks who vote Republican in Presidential elections, although right now I can't find those numbers.
posted by grobstein at 10:01 AM on April 6, 2010


Delmoi, haven't you ever noticed that Barack Obama's mom is considered "white" while he's considered "black"? That seems like an undeniable fact (not a fact about their inherent traits but about others' perceptions), and one that's worth pointing out.

Obama's census form choice: "Black"
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 10:03 AM on April 6, 2010


... Barack Obama's mom is considered "white" while he's considered "black".... That seems like an undeniable fact (not a fact about their inherent traits but about others' perceptions)...

What?
posted by gurple at 10:04 AM on April 6, 2010


It'd be interesting to see how often Obama has been described as "half-black" in the media vs. "half-white." I'm betting it's at least 100-1.
posted by desjardins at 10:04 AM on April 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yes, he inherited his skin tone from his father but his facial features are almost identical to his maternal (and white) grandfather.

Then again, Warren G. Harding was 1/16 black, which under the old 'one drop' rule, was totally Black.
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:07 AM on April 6, 2010 [5 favorites]


From what I know about white people in Hawaii, which is slightly less than a great deal (my wife is from there, tho not Hawaiian. I've spent maybe 6 mos there over the past 8 years), I can't imagine what Obama's mother must have gone through. As I was told by a big ole local boy a few years back - right after he called me haole for the 10th time: "when you're here, you're the nigger."

Race can really be an endless topic for fruitless discussion.
posted by nevercalm at 10:07 AM on April 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Interestingly, I think the Tea Party movement is fairly black. See here; apparently 6% of Tea Partiers are black. This is less than proportional to population (blacks are 11% of population), but substantial. In fact, I think it is comparable to or greater than the number of blacks who vote Republican in Presidential elections, although right now I can't find those numbers.

The New Yorker article says blacks were only 1.1% of McCain's vote. While this was influenced by blacks' extraordinary support for Obama, the article says it's only slightly less than the usual figure for a Republican presidential candidate.
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:10 AM on April 6, 2010


I think that what delmoi was saying that the sentence construction, especially the word "possible", makes it seem like the author was possibly speaking of a biological or legal, but not cultural reason why Obama's mother was able to give birth to him.

which is why it was possible, in 1961, for a white woman from Kansas living in Hawaii to give birth to a black baby

Like, wait, maybe it was possible because a sperm fertilized an egg. Or that it was possible under the law to have a black baby. Or lots of reasons. I understand what the author is saying but I agree with delmoi that I think it'd be better said if the author had written put quotes around "white" and "black" or something to note that the impossibility he was speaking of was regarding the cultural language of identity and not the biological ability of a mother to give birth to a child that does not share that same cultural identity.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 10:11 AM on April 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


It is probable that it is the Jewish community - or more accurately, perhaps, its remnants - that in America has paid the highest and most extraordinary price for becoming white, and they came here, in part, because they were not white; and incontestably - in the eyes of the Black American (and not inly in those eyes) American Jews have opted to become white, and this is how they operate.

As an American descended from Jews, I have always resented this. By virtue of having a skin color almost as light as Americans descended from northern Europeans, I am somehow implicated in the crimes their ancestors committed long before my ancestors even got to America (and the racism that some of them still exhibit today). I'm sure this applies to many other "white" ethnic groups as well.

This is not even completely unfair, because even though neither I nor my ancestors were racist, I do get benefit from what remains of the privilege of being considered "white" in America. I didn't ask for it, and I'd rather not have it, but as a drop in the ocean of American culture, I guess it's just something to accept.
posted by k. at 10:12 AM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


wow onefellswoop, thanks for that link and photograph...
posted by infini at 10:13 AM on April 6, 2010


"Why it was possible" is a shorthand (actually an eloquent one, to my ears) for "Why the idea intuitively made sense to people within that culture."
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:13 AM on April 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


I agree with grobstein and edbles... Delmoi, haven't you ever noticed that Barack Obama's mom is considered "white" while he's considered "black"? That seems like an undeniable fact (not a fact about their inherent traits but about others' perceptions), and one that's worth pointing out.

It's an undeniable fact, but being so obvious, I guess I agree with delmoi that the question comes off as rather odd.

I think that one of the major under-appreciated social changes in the US in the 2000s is that younger white people are starting to have to come to terms with being white, largely because the black musicians and the comedians they love are so up front about their racial consciousness.
posted by afu at 10:18 AM on April 6, 2010


I imagine Huey is face palming himself in his grave about now.
posted by jchack at 10:19 AM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also, Baldwin believes that American Jews intentionally decided to become white so that "the state of Israel [could be] sustained by a blank check from Washington," which is absurd. Even if such a thing were possible (and Washington cared), American Jews started to become white before Israel existed, and U.S. favoritism of Israel didn't really start until 1967.
posted by k. at 10:22 AM on April 6, 2010


"Black man, black woman, black baby. White man, white woman, white baby. White man, black woman, black baby. Black man, white woman, black baby..."
posted by FatherDagon at 10:22 AM on April 6, 2010 [4 favorites]


"Why it was possible" is a shorthand (actually an eloquent one, to my ears) for "Why the idea intuitively made sense to people within that culture."

Oooooookay. I'm not really arguing with anyone about what the author meant to write, just noting the fact that the language he used is, or could be construed as, a bit ambiguous - whether that was intentional or not (I can actually see the author being excited that he "caught" the reader in a moment of confusion - why shouldn't it be not possible for a white woman to have a black baby - yet of course we don't blink when we hear that phrasing because it's a common cultural construct) can only be ascertained by the author. But delmoi does have a point and I don't think people should be jumping on him for reasons unrelated to the point he was making.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 10:27 AM on April 6, 2010


No, I still think the construction was awkward. I originally found the sentence confusing. Perhaps on purpose. But, it took me reading grobsteins comment to realize that there was a lucid interpretation and then my brain grokked the point. If the author had written something like what idiopath posted:

By the common cultural understanding in the US of what "black" means, a white woman can have a black baby...This common definition we have inherited portrays not being white as a case of the cooties - a little bit of black makes you black, and absence of other racial background makes you white.

We wouldn't be having this discussion.

Of course the cooties part would have been somewhat charged in terms of an article about race.
posted by edbles at 10:40 AM on April 6, 2010


I can't imagine what Obama's mother must have gone through. As I was told by a big ole local boy a few years back - right after he called me haole for the 10th time: "when you're here, you're the nigger."

Oh hey, I can address this! Although this is one anecdata point only, of course.

My mom (the Czech side of the family) moved from Illinois to Hawaii in 1958. She met my dad (Hawaiian/Chinese/English) in 1961. They took several years to decide whether or not to have a kid; although neither was directly involved in the Civil Rights movement, they were aware of it, and my dad's job took him into some parts of the country where people weren't always inclined to look kindly upon a brown-skinned man traveling with a white-skinned woman. What's interesting about this is that when he met people who weren't shy about displaying their racism, when they found out (or observed) that my dad wasn't black, but Hawaiian - well, that was okay!

Anyway. They had me. My mom was pretty fully integrated into my dad's family. She lived in Hawaii for 30some years and as far as I know, never encountered the attitude you speak of. She had lots of friends and colleagues who were both Native Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian-but-lived-in-the-islands-for-generations.

I was far from the only kid in school who was hapa (hapa-haole; half white).

Which is not to say that some white-appearing kids didn't get beat up sometimes; though I never witnessed it, I've heard the stories and believe them.

(I also found that sentence confusing, and read it and the surrounding sentences several times before I grokked it. I think.)
posted by rtha at 10:42 AM on April 6, 2010


edbles: "Of course the cooties part would have been somewhat charged in terms of an article about race."

And it was the crux of my statement. Our "common sense" perception of how race works in this country is dehumanizing and racist.
posted by idiopath at 10:48 AM on April 6, 2010


This common definition we have inherited portrays not being white as a case of the cooties - a little bit of black makes you black, and absence of other racial background makes you white.

Respectfully, I think you have it backwards. At some point the script on "one-drop rule" got flipped and the definition that people have adopted is that being white is something to be ashamed of, so if you're half-white and half-somethingelse, and you can basically pass as somethingelse, tell people you're the somethingelse.
posted by 23skidoo at 10:49 AM on April 6, 2010


It is probable that it is the Jewish community - or more accurately, perhaps, its remnant

It's pretty insulting to call the worlds largest Jewish community "remnants".
posted by afu at 10:51 AM on April 6, 2010


From Hawaii. White. Never been beat up, never felt discriminated against, made to feel welcome pretty much everywhere.

I do know a few white people who complain about racism out here though. Usually pretty vague on the details.
posted by Joey Michaels at 10:51 AM on April 6, 2010


(I'm not saying it doesn't exist, just that its unusual)
posted by Joey Michaels at 10:52 AM on April 6, 2010


This whole conversation about Obama's race is silly anyway. The reason he is black is that he self identifies as black for legitimate reasons relating to his individual place in history. There is no reason for his blackness to be strange.
posted by afu at 10:56 AM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


23skidoo: Of course there are cultural contexts that favor non-whiteness as preferable to whiteness. Cultural attitudes are not a single consistent voice. But these commonly understood definitions of white and non-white were invented as a part of the invention of whiteness as we now know it, and I argue they are undesirable because they carry that meme of whiteness as purity (and by extension non-whiteness as contamination).
posted by idiopath at 10:58 AM on April 6, 2010


At my wedding reception in Hawaii, I was lectured for several hours about white people, while 10 or 15 other local people uncomfortably shifted in their seats, unable to shut up the couple who was responsible. This, while the whole time I was repeating, "look, I totally agree with you. You don't even have to make your case" and my father-in-law and a few of his close friends quietly plotted to never speak to them again. I've also been dismissively called haole so many times that I pretty much don't notice anymore. My wife, who spent her childhood hearing about it, and her brother who spent his youth getting slammed around by locals, always bristle.

I love the idea of "hapa." The issue of race in Hawaii is so funky that I most often just sit there and marvel at what's going on.
posted by nevercalm at 11:02 AM on April 6, 2010


Afu, I don't think that was meant to be insulting. He may have been referring to the loss of the culture of the Jewish communities that emigrated to the US when they became just another sub-category of "white people". They are not actually communities to the same extent that they were before.

About the Obama thing, the phrase or concept of "a white woman giving birth to a black baby" is something I've heard before in discussions of race; I don't think Sanneh made it up. Maybe he expects readers to be familiar with the idea already, or he's just so familiar with it himself that he doesn't realize how it might be confusing.
posted by k. at 11:03 AM on April 6, 2010


This whole conversation about Obama's race is silly anyway. The reason he is black is that he self identifies as black for legitimate reasons relating to his individual place in history.

Ah, no, it's not that simple. He stands to benefit politically from how he presents himself. He has benefited enormously from being perceived as "black" rather than "white" or "biracial." The fact that Obama says he considers himself just black and not white is not a sufficient reason to infer that this is what he actually believes. No matter how much you might favor Obama, he is still a politician.
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:03 AM on April 6, 2010


Here's my rule of dealing with the racial construct in society: If you went missing and the police were looking for you - what ethnic identifier would they use?

Racism works on what you appear to be to the general populace, even if that perception is completely incorrect (religious Sikh? Indian? = Arab! etc.), so what the police see you as is a pretty good indicator of what kind of privilege or problems you'll probably be facing.

Which is why being 1/64th Cherokee is a such a ridiculous dodge people bring up when they're accused of saying or doing something racist...
posted by yeloson at 11:04 AM on April 6, 2010 [10 favorites]


Ah, no, it's not that simple. He stands to benefit politically from how he presents himself. He has benefited enormously from being perceived as "black" rather than "white" or "biracial." The fact that Obama says he considers himself just black and not white is not a sufficient reason to infer that this is what he actually believes. No matter how much you might favor Obama, he is still a politician.

It's not that complicated. You are having a conversation with a random person who has the same skin color as Obama. For some reason race come up and he says he is black. You don't go looking into his family history or start questioning if he is claiming to be blank just for personal gain, you just accept what he says. Because to do anything else would be incredibly dickish.
posted by afu at 11:10 AM on April 6, 2010


He has benefited enormously from being perceived as "black" rather than "white" or "biracial."

Maybe. But he's benefited from the flipside of that coin, too. It's only anecdotal of course, but some openly racist members of my own immediate family were willing to support President Obama in the last election, in part because, by their own admission, they viewed him as being more white than black.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:14 AM on April 6, 2010


Respectfully, I think you have it backwards. At some point the script on "one-drop rule" got flipped and the definition that people have adopted is that being white is something to be ashamed of, so if you're half-white and half-somethingelse, and you can basically pass as somethingelse, tell people you're the somethingelse.

Uh, no. It's more that being white is taken for granted as the default, so any deviation from that is more notable than being white.
posted by dinty_moore at 11:16 AM on April 6, 2010 [4 favorites]


some openly racist members of my own immediate family were willing to support President Obama in the last election, in part because, by their own admission, they viewed him as being more white than black.

Interesting, especially given it seems that far more often, Obama suffers from the kind of traditional, out-and-out racism leveled against black people for quite some time: the insinuations about Michelle Obama's thesis and "anger", for example, were coded texts that she and/or her husband were Black Panthers; the "I've had enough of Hussein" lady, etc.

The benefits argument is kind of silly, in my opinion, because it's really impossible to untangle what leads to political success. Bill Clinton benefited from being southern: do we say that his southern heritage is perception? After all, he went to Ivy League schools, he married a lawyer from Chicago, he was governor of a state which, while southern, doesn't have as southern a connotation as Alabama or Mississippi. To say that Clinton 'benefited enormously' from being southern is to imply that he turned his southernness on to win votes - but how do you decide what part is artificial and what part comes from Clinton's being born and raised surrounded by southern traditions?

Yes, Obama is genetically bi-racial, and grew up around quite a bit of white culture. On the other hand. Yes, as the child of an African immigrant, he doesn't have a lineage which connects to America's racial history. However, Obama is married to a woman whose ancestry traces to the prebellum South, he's from a community with strong African-American roots, he was baptized and married in a black church, and in speech he clearly identifies with black oratory. Unless you're cynical enough to believe his career as a community organizer on was intended as a crass attempt at the presidency, there's no way to account for what parts of Obama's black identity are genuine and which parts may or may not be artificial.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 11:39 AM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ah, no, it's not that simple. He stands to benefit politically from how he presents himself.

He had no choice. Someone of his skin tone and hair texture, in this country, is going to be perceived and described as "black." This country has a historically politically and culturally and economically dominant white majority. So the "white as not nonwhite" thing makes sense. Plus what l33tpolicywonk said about his life choices.

There's a discussion on perceptions of blackness going on over at Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog right now.

As to the Tea Partiers' racism, we were talking about that yesterday here.
posted by ibmcginty at 11:46 AM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


"to be white in America is to be not nonwhite, which is why it was possible, in 1961, for a white woman from Kansas living in Hawaii to give birth to a black baby."

Even in the context of the article, this still doesn't make sense to me. I can't follow the logic of hte sentence, and I know it's talking specifically about Obama, but white women still give birth to black babies--I have a friend who's done it three times. I'm confused by this and it's distracting me.
posted by not that girl at 12:00 PM on April 6, 2010


Interesting, especially given it seems that far more often, Obama suffers from the kind of traditional, out-and-out racism leveled against black people

I agree. But the relatives in question--though racist enough to still use the term "niggar" as a pejorative in casual conversation--are strong union supporters from the south and were active in the labor movement in the 60s. President Obama was their only pro-labor option, so they sucked it up and supported him, despite their discomfort over his race. And it definitely seemed to help them get over their instinctive discomfort to reflect on the fact that Obama has a mixed racial heritage.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:10 PM on April 6, 2010


but white women still give birth to black babies--I have a friend who's done it three times.

The point is that black and white are social constructions. You have a friend who has given birth to biracial children -- they have equal claims to the genetic stock of both parents, and so, if race were purely genetic, they would be half-white, half-black. But they are identified as being black -- in other words, they are identified exclusively with one of their parents races. And this has everything to do with the way the social construction of race operates in America, and very little to do with genetics.

In other words, your friend gave birth to a baby. Probably with somewhat darker skin than she has, but otherwise with quite a lot in common with her genetically. It's society that decided that child is black.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:23 PM on April 6, 2010 [6 favorites]


"Black man, black woman, black baby. White man, white woman, white baby. White man, black woman, black baby. Black man, white woman, black baby..."

That's the Eddie Murphy sample from FOABP - but what Eddie Murphy standup is that from? Does anybody know? I've always wondered.
posted by cashman at 12:27 PM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, by merit of being half white and half black, Obama is black.

I have an acquaintance who has four children. I haven't met #4, but her oldest two are clearly mixed-race, with curly black hair and cafe au lait skin and all that. #3 is, like his mother, fair-skinned, blue-eyed, and red-haired. When she first started coming to a group I'm part of, I was not the only person who sort of vaguely assumed she'd switched partners between kid 2 and kid 3, but in fact they are all the biological children of her and her husband, who is black..

I used to work with a woman who was Black and Hispanic. She was from a family of five, some of whom looked Mexican-American, some of whom looked black, and one of whom was usually taken for white. Same parents. She said they used to talk about how they could be different races, or whether they were, when they had the same parents. Could her sister who looked white to most people claim to be black? Why not, if her siblings could? I find this stuff very interesting.
posted by not that girl at 12:27 PM on April 6, 2010


Perhaps I'm the one who's getting this wrong, but I think the confusion some people are expressing about that sentence exactly encapsulates the peculiar American conception of race that the author is trying to express.

In some communities in this world, the idea of a child being a different group to its mother is the incomprehensible idea.

delmoi notes that the sentence "sounds weird" and I think that is entirely deliberate and the reader is meant to be pulled up short by it. It is, after all, expressing a deeply strange phenomenon.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:43 PM on April 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


I find this stuff very interesting.

It really is interesting. Basically, our social construction of race in this country was created by racists for the sake of supporting a racist power structure -- this is back in the days of slavery, but, even then, there were all sorts of ethnic Europeans who didn't quite fit into the category of whiteness. The Irish were considered a different race, as an example. As were Jews, as Baldwin points out. Getting identified as white meant getting access to privilege, and that jostling still goes on nowadays, to a certain extend -- for instance, there's still a lot of cultural uncertainty about whether Arabs should be considered white.

Because racial identity was constructed to support a system of racism, it was sort of badly constructed. It doesn't male a lot of sense biologically speaking, or even historically speaking -- when whites came over from Europe, they hadn't seen themselves as white, but rather as members of specific cultural or ethnic or language groups, and, later, of nationalities. The same was true of blacks when they were brought to this country. They had been members of specific tribes, or specific regions, or specific linguistic groups, etc. Suddenly the Europeans were just white, and suddenly the Africans were just black, and suddenly there were a whole lot of people who didn't fit either category. And the way it is structured only makes sense from a racist perspective -- it's internally logical if you're trying to maintain a power structure that privileges whites and disempowers non-whites, but if that's not what you're trying to do, suddenly it gets terribly confusing. And always has.

As an example, back in 1856 a fellow named Thomas Mayne Reid wrote a novel called The Quadroon about a female character who was three-quarters white, one-quarter black -- which still made that character black, in the conventions of the day. The book, which was later adapted into a play by Irish playwright Dion Boucicault, in which the character was changed to an Octaroon (one-eighth black), was about the difficulties of romance for that character, because she is forbidden by law to marry anybody white, even though she could do what they used to call "passing" for white. Why somebody who is seven-eighth white would be seen as "passing" themselves off as something they're not only makes sense from a racist perspective, but there you have it. It's the reason mixing races was illegal for so many years. The essentially racist construction of race in America breaks down the moment somebody comes along who doesn't fit into a clear "white/not-white" binary, and people who are mixed race present -- merely by existing -- a challenge to the still-mostly unchallenged collective understanding of race in this country.
posted by Astro Zombie at 12:44 PM on April 6, 2010 [7 favorites]


yeloson: If you went missing and the police were looking for you - what ethnic identifier would they use?

Similarly, Don Cheadle has said, "You are what you have to defend."
posted by Lexica at 12:48 PM on April 6, 2010


23skidoo: Of course there are cultural contexts that favor non-whiteness as preferable to whiteness. Cultural attitudes are not a single consistent voice. But these commonly understood definitions of white and non-white were invented as a part of the invention of whiteness as we now know it, and I argue they are undesirable because they carry that meme of whiteness as purity (and by extension non-whiteness as contamination).

Yeah, I get all that, but my point was that things change, and while the meme of whiteness as a metaphor for purity (genetic and otherwise) was once an important one, I think now the meme of whiteness as a metaphor for blandness (genetic and otherwise) has surpassed it.
posted by 23skidoo at 12:58 PM on April 6, 2010


our social construction of race in this country was created by racists for the sake of supporting a racist power structure... Because racial identity was constructed to support a system of racism, it was sort of badly constructed... Why somebody who is seven-eighth white would be seen as "passing" themselves off as something they're not only makes sense from a racist perspective, but there you have it.

I have to disagree, AZ.

While I agree with the larger points that race is socially constructed, and that racism was a powerful and useful tool to maintain the social order, I don't think it's fair to say that racism was created as a tool for social control. I've read an Irish immigrant saying of a past co-worker, "he had to be white. Or Italian." I've seen resentment expressed of, and among, whites, blacks, Asians, and Arabs (off the top of my head), for reasons of identity, or wild generalizations.

Making generalizations about people who look different or come from different backgrounds is wired into our brains. People did it long before Europeans made it over to the New World. Racism is as natural as sexism. It's intuitive, context-based, and "commonsensical," and therefore incoherent.
posted by ibmcginty at 1:07 PM on April 6, 2010


Racism is as natural as sexism. It's intuitive, context-based, and "commonsensical," and therefore incoherent.

I find it decidedly unnatural, and don't think there is much evidence to support the idea that we naturally and necessarily pontaneously break into groups based on race and then determine who is superior and inferior. Despite our history of violence, which also tends to be rooted in supporting structures of power, humanity has survived not through generation upon generation of animosity but instead based on a demonstrable propensity for working in our collective best interests, recognizing our common experiences, and respecting each other. Without that, we would have self-destructed moments after we climbed down from the trees.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:10 PM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


its those elephants maw they always come and grab the leaves off my bed with their trunks
posted by infini at 1:25 PM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


I find it decidedly unnatural, and don't think there is much evidence to support the idea that we naturally and necessarily pontaneously break into groups based on race and then determine who is superior and inferior. Despite our history of violence, which also tends to be rooted in supporting structures of power, humanity has survived not through generation upon generation of animosity but instead based on a demonstrable propensity for working in our collective best interests, recognizing our common experiences, and respecting each other. Without that, we would have self-destructed moments after we climbed down from the trees.

Well obviously we cooperate. In fact, one of the ways we often cooperate is by framing outsiders as common enemies. This seems to increase in-group cohesion.

Racism is a massively cross-cultural phenomenon, which suggests that it is "natural" in some sense. The particular categories and rationales of racism may vary, but mistreatment based on "racial" characteristics is very widespread. This hasn't been bad enough to destroy human civilization yet, and it may never be, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.
posted by grobstein at 1:28 PM on April 6, 2010


Well, Astro Zombie, I think that all of human history is a pretty good case for the assertion that we stratify our societies and fight against outsiders. The concept of "human rights" in a form that we might recognize came into being, what, about a century ago? After a couple hundred thousand years of existence, and five thousand years of civilization?

Sure, we can work in our best interests within those who qualify as "us," but there's always those pesky "thems" out there.

Or as someone smarter put it, "It is no argument against man being a savage animal that the tribes inhabiting adjacent districts are almost always at war with each other, for the social instincts never extend to all the individuals of the same species." -Charles Darwin

I don't mean to be fatalistic-- we are a great deal less racist, in the US, than we were 40 or 100 years ago. It's nice that we now have human rights. Racism can and should be criticized at every step. But I don't think it's accurate to say that it was created for the purpose of social control. We're disagreeing about origins, and it's not clear to me that our disagreement carries any particular meaning for what we should do now.
posted by ibmcginty at 1:30 PM on April 6, 2010


Well, I guess it gets down to the question of the essential condition of humanity. Is something "natural" for people to do just because people have done it? Yes, racism is widespread. But you look at examples of racism, and you tend to see a pretty consistent and widespread pattern of miseducation, such as in Nazi Germany. Sure, the Nazis relied on an already ingrained Europeans antisemitism, but even that had been manufactured and supported by various power structures, particularly including the church, over a thousand years. And even with that sort of essential support, the Jews in Germany had become so mainstreamed in German society prior to the rise of the Nazi party as to have been considered pretty effectively integrated into mainstream society, and the Nazis had to try and counterbalance that with a remarkable program of propaganda against the Jews, and with laws that made it safer, if you were a gentile in Germany, to be functionally antisemitic than to be tolerant.

Yes, we people tend to notice differences. But there is a difference between our essentially tribal experience and the sort of internecine violence and contempt that is associated with racism. Consistently, you look at that, you see an army and navy of the powerful actively and aggressively supporting it, over long periods of time, because it's terrifically useful for them.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:37 PM on April 6, 2010


The Racial Contract (Charles Mills).
posted by cashman at 1:38 PM on April 6, 2010


In simpler words, I tend to agree with Bishop Desmond Tutu, that evil is an aberration, and not the norm for humanity. And I think our continued existence in the face of all the forces that would benefit from endless war is ample demonstration of that.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:39 PM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


The article, and Astro Zombie's comments in particular, have convinced me from this point on to identify myself as "European" (I'm of indistinct European heritage) rather than as "White" or "Caucasian." In my mind, it would be far more sensical for the Census to identify the chieft ethnic racial groups of the United States as "European-American", "African-American", "Asian-American" and "Mestizo-American."
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 1:48 PM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Just to support Astro Zombie's contention, where I live some people still adhere to a tribe or clan-type view of the world, and before colonisation, everyone lived in a kind of clan structure of a pretty classic Polynesian kind.

Now, clearly some tribes ("iwi" or "hapu") had great enmity for one another. But equally, people made firm and friendly alliances and intermarried and exchanged children. It's important to note too that while we now see those people as belonging to one race ("Maori") before colonisation they did not regard themselves as being one kind of people -- of course, they were the only people they knew of! But anyway, people don't just fight with outsiders, they also co-operate with and help outsiders and build networks of mutual obligation, and that's just as natural a behaviour.

Another interesting thing is the freedom with which in the initial stages of contact with Europeans, intermarriages occurred, and Europeans "went native", and people to a large extent regarded each other as equals, albeit rivals for power and resources.

I firmly think that it is systems of hereditary slavery and indentured labour and caste and helotry that gives rise these notions of inferiority and inevitable struggle. Such systems are not universal, and neither is the racism the necessary accompaniment to ethnic difference. People who believe these things are inevitable seem to me mostly to be people who have been brought up in societies that have or used to have those systems and therefore see their consequences as a normal part of everyday life. But they're not. That's too local a view.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:55 PM on April 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


But I don't think it's accurate to say that it was created for the purpose of social control.

as AstroZombie has already said, but just adding that its also considered the roots of the caste system in India, and some have said that goes back to the light skinned Aryans sweeping down from the steppes and driving the darker skinned Dravidians further south. even today in South India, brahmins will be fair and even light eyed while everyone else tends to have a lot more melanin and differing features.
posted by infini at 1:57 PM on April 6, 2010


sorry i'm late...

i always thought part of the reason why the one-drop rule was enacted/created was that it made it easier to split up families.

"raped a slave girl again, jebediah? well, good thing that baby will be a naygra. we'll just sell it on down the road." hope that's not too cynical, but if i don't couch these things in (black) humor i start getting mordant.

on the jews-as-white-folks, my friend josh really made my head pop years ago. i'd always given jewish people the free pass in thinking on racism for reasons that seemed obvious to me. until my boy josh questioned that by saying, "well, i might be jewish, but i totally benefit from white privilege. nobody looks at me and says, 'there goes a jew.' people look at me and think, 'there goes the middle class white guy.'"

still not sure what to do with that equation. that old devil racism sure does it make it hard for a body to think...
posted by artof.mulata at 2:52 PM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


to be white in America is to be not nonwhite, which is why it was possible, in 1961, for a white woman from Kansas living in Hawaii to give birth to a black baby

If you really want to have your mind blown, take a moment to consider how it's possible, in 2010, for a Mexican man living in Los Angeles to be the cook in a Korean restaurant.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 2:55 PM on April 6, 2010


Parasite Unseen: "If you really want to have your mind blown, take a moment to consider how it's possible, in 2010, for a Mexican man living in Los Angeles to be the cook in a Korean restaurant."

That one is obvious - the food is known as Korean because it is a traditional food of that region and ethnicity, the man is called Mexican because he or his recent ancestors lived there. Nothing there has the oddness that is present in the child of a white woman being considered, by consensus, to be black.
posted by idiopath at 3:14 PM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


best pizza i ever had was in oaxaca, mexico. place was staffed by brown dudes (not euro-mexican) and the cooks were japanese. i assume they were descendants of that wave of japanese folks who fled the u.s. during some persecution or pogrom or something.

there's a korean walk-up i go to at our local farmer's market here in seattle and there's some mexican cats in the kitchen. they make a pretty nice bibimbap. and yeah it tickles me to see that kind of thing; it's almost like there's still the possibility of hope on this swiftly toppling globe.
posted by artof.mulata at 3:18 PM on April 6, 2010


If you really want to have your mind blown, take a moment to consider how it's possible, in 2010, for a Mexican man living in Los Angeles to be the cook in a Korean restaurant.
This is not strange at all and the fact that some people think this is something so very strange is symptomatic of the attitude that takes white people to be the default and people of all other ethnicities to be emblematic of that ethnicity. I doubt you would think it that strange for a white American chef to be cooking Spanish or Italian food, even if he had no Spanish or Italian ancestry. As an Indian who loves to cook I am often asked about cooking Indian food. Now as it happens while I think Indian food is great, I much prefer to cook Spanish or French inspired food. I don't think people have this automatic assumption that a person will cook the food their ancestors cooked when talking to a white person.
posted by peacheater at 3:54 PM on April 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


In the meanwhile, I am Irish American and am obsessed with curry, which I think is pretty common among my people.
posted by Astro Zombie at 4:07 PM on April 6, 2010


I should probably clarify: I don't think it's strange at all that food cooked in California by a man from Mexico is considered Korean. I also don't think that it's strange that a "white" woman can have a "black" baby. The point that I was trying to make (although it appears that I made it poorly), is that I'm just not sure why people can so easily wrap their minds around the former while having trouble wrapping their minds around the latter.

Just as food is regional entirely because it has the traits that people associate with that region, ethnicity is also arbitrarily assigned based on associated traits. A man from Mexico can create Korean food because he can combine certain ingredients in order to create something that we deem Korean. A white woman can have a black son because she's capable (with, uh, some assistance) of having offspring with skin of a certain pigment. It doesn't strike me as a particularly complex excercise.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 4:13 PM on April 6, 2010


i assume they were descendants of that wave of japanese folks who fled the u.s. during some persecution or pogrom or something.

There are a lot of Central/South Americans of Japanese descent. There seem to have been Japanese migrant colonies all over the Americas for a century at least.

(Which could explain the Japanese fondness for bossa nova.)
posted by acb at 4:36 PM on April 6, 2010


Shorter Sanneh: "Americans have really weird ideas about race."

(Reading as a non-American.)
posted by cstross at 6:37 PM on April 6, 2010


A white woman can have a black son because she's capable (with, uh, some assistance) of having offspring with skin of a certain pigment.

So what makes the baby "black" is skin tone? How dark makes you black? Is she black? Is she? He is light as they come, but he's black?
posted by Danila at 7:18 PM on April 6, 2010


You try living as a multiracial person and we'll see if you don't self-identify as whatever's most convenient. I'm Irish when I want to be seen as charming and fun, German when I want to seem efficient and blunt, Black when I don't want to be fucked with. I'm not really any of the above, per se, but I'm also all of the above. You see it as multi-class min/maxing, but to me it's equal parts survival and identity.

(For the record, I identify most heavily with the Irish-American part of my heritage, having grown up closest to that branch of my family. People don't see it til they a picture of me with my mother, and sometimes not even then.)
posted by Eideteker at 7:43 PM on April 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Eideteker: "You see it as multi-class min/maxing"

That is hilarious. I am now going to start calling multiracial people min/maxing munchkins.

only my friends, and only to their face
posted by idiopath at 7:49 PM on April 6, 2010


I find it decidedly unnatural, and don't think there is much evidence to support the idea that we naturally and necessarily pontaneously break into groups based on race and then determine who is superior and inferior.

I don't know if it is natural or not but ethnocentrism plays a very strong role in politics. Matthew Yglesias is always going on about this book, US Against Them: Ethnocentic Foundations of American Opinion, and it seems really interesting.

"Arguing that humans are broadly predisposed to ethnocentrism, Kinder and Kam explore its impact on our attitudes toward an array of issues, including the war on terror, humanitarian assistance, immigration, the sanctity of marriage, and the reform of social programs. The authors ground their study in previous theories from a wide range of disciplines, establishing a new framework for understanding what ethnocentrism is and how it becomes politically consequential. They also marshal a vast trove of survey evidence to identify the conditions under which ethnocentrism shapes public opinion. While ethnocentrism is widespread in the United States, the authors demonstrate that its political relevance depends on circumstance. Exploring the implications of these findings for political knowledge, cosmopolitanism, and societies outside the United States, Kinder and Kam add a new dimension to our understanding of how democracy functions."

I also think that we need to move beyond discussions about how race is only a "social construct". This was useful during the civil rights movements, but American attitudes about race have changed. The bigger problem with white racism at the moment is that many whites consider themselves color blind, denying that the concept of race has any importance to them, yet they still have underlying racist attitudes. They have accepted that race is just a social construct, but they haven't accepted that being white gives them undeserved privilege.

I think it is more useful for white people in america, to accept the reality of races, and accept that they are white, while at the same time being honest to themselves about any racist attitudes they have and attempting to change them.
posted by afu at 8:22 PM on April 6, 2010


What a thought provoking and well-written article. I love this: The history of human culture is the history of forgeries that become genuine, categories that people make and cannot simply unmake. So smart.

But I fucking hate the New Yorker's idiotic style guide: reëlected? Please.
posted by serazin at 10:05 PM on April 6, 2010


I also think that we need to move beyond discussions about how race is only a "social construct".--afu

Your use of the term 'white people' suggests to me that you don't want to move beyond, but to move backward, before race was ever considered a 'social construct'.
posted by eye of newt at 10:44 PM on April 6, 2010


I think you're misconstruing him - he didn't use the term. The problem I think afu is getting at is white people people who look white but don't see it as part of their identity often overlook the ways that they still receive white privilege and may even unconsciously exert it. I don't see the benefit of anyone identifying with whiteness as a chosen "lifestyle" or a positive cultural affiliation per the post title or Glenn Beck, but whites need to be honest about being part of a group: the group of people who benefit from white privilege. Whiteness still does have a bearing on how we move through society, whether we like it or not. For instance, I identify as a muslim, which isn't an accepted white lifestyle and which can lead some white folks to see me as out of the socially constructed group. Yet I still am white in America the vast majority of the time because of how I look and it still carries the usual benefits.
posted by BinGregory at 1:21 AM on April 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Racism bingo time!
posted by WalterMitty at 2:06 AM on April 7, 2010


Bingregory, exactly what I meant, just explained more elegently.
posted by afu at 4:40 AM on April 7, 2010


You try living as a multiracial person and we'll see if you don't self-identify as whatever's most convenient.

Well, I'm not criticizing Obama for identifying with what's convenient. I'm challenging the assumption that we even know what he does identify with. Anyone who thinks you can find out what a politician believes by looking at what he/she says is kidding themselves. I just don't believe his statement that he considers himself clearly "black" and not "white." That doesn't ring true to me based on everything we know about him.

(BTW, I don't need to "try living" as a multi-ethnic person -- I am multi-ethnic and identify more strongly with some of my ethnicities than others, but I would have no problem with someone pointing out that I actually have all the ethnicities that I have.)
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:25 AM on April 7, 2010


However it is explained, BinGregory, you and afu still talk about 'whites' as a group. afu says that 'white people' need to accept the concept of race and you both say that they need to accept 'their' white privilege.

The way to 'move beyond' the social construct of race is not to embrace the status quo of looking at everything though 'race' colored glasses and call people 'white' and 'not white', and say things like the 'white' group has to accept this and the 'not white' group has to accept that. The way to move beyond it is to stop playing the game and to refuse to even talk like this.

My kids go to a very mutlicultural public school, where probably the majority comes form India, and the light skin kids are divided into a couple from Russia, one from Ireland and the Hispanics. The concept of 'white people' and 'white privilege' is completely outdated and if I talked to my kids about it they wouldn't even know what I was talking about. (I can assure you I have no intention of bringing up these outdated concepts that derive from a very racist era).
posted by eye of newt at 7:42 AM on April 7, 2010


You're in a very good spot, eye of the newt, and I am glad for you, but I assure that for most of America, white privilege is not an outdated concept, but instead something they either unconsciously benefit from or obviously don't have access to.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:12 AM on April 7, 2010


The way to 'move beyond' the social construct of race is not to embrace the status quo of looking at everything though 'race' colored glasses and call people 'white' and 'not white', and say things like the 'white' group has to accept this and the 'not white' group has to accept that. The way to move beyond it is to stop playing the game and to refuse to even talk like this.

But how does a white person in America stop playing the game?

Basically, within reason, I think people should be able to choose their own identities. But if you are white, you should try to accept that you are helped by undeserved privilege because of your skin color. This is true for most of the world because of European imperialism that was based on a racist ideology.
posted by afu at 8:51 AM on April 7, 2010


The concept of 'white people' and 'white privilege' is completely outdated and if I talked to my kids about it they wouldn't even know what I was talking about. (I can assure you I have no intention of bringing up these outdated concepts that derive from a very racist era).

One of the most clear examples of white privilege I've directly experienced was a New York Times post on this site. It had drop downs for demographic info based on location, age, college education, and race. When I kept all my other variables the same and changed my race from white to African American there was at least a 5% increase in the chance that I would be unemployed. How is that not white privilege?

Also coming from a relatively diverse area growing up and having attended college in one less so, I can assure you eye of newt that your kids are in for a huge dose of culture shock when they leave home.
posted by edbles at 9:49 AM on April 7, 2010


The flipside is that people who may look black but don't self identify as such, often suffer many of the consequences of of being perceived as black by society. Also, unlike their counterparts who are perceived as white while benefiting from the associated privileges of that perception, those who are perceived as black are compelled by a large segment of society (both by self-identified whites as well as self identified blacks) to acknowledge the 'fact' that they are black; the pressure that a white-looking Arab, Persian, Jew( ...etc) to self identify as white is of a totally different nature altogether. The freedom (or should I say privilege) to self identify as black or white only lies with people who are perceived as white.
posted by Stu-Pendous at 11:00 AM on April 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


And if you truly want a current day peek into "white privilege" take a trip to south africa. you can spend a week there and never realize (or deal with) you're even on the continent of Africa, to a great degree.

ref multi ethnic - i'd also like to throw out the concept of mult cultural - take places like singapore for example where the national languages are english, mandarin, tamil and malay, national holidays include christmas, deepawali, hari raya and chinese new year while food is just this humongous delicious mix of everything under the sun that such a diverse place would bring. my passport may say I'm from one country but my spirit is still global due to each and everyone of these influences...
posted by infini at 1:50 PM on April 7, 2010


Eye of newt, the game you're talking about is a little bit like musical chairs. When the music stops, the game is no longer being played. Good, I didn't like that game either. But some people have lost and some have won. It's not enough to say we're not going to play anymore, that music no longer exists, and ignore the seat you're sitting on.
posted by BinGregory at 7:04 PM on April 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm not saying 'white privilege' does not exist--that others see things in black and white and that we live in a world where these people's perceptions affect our lives. But human beings are the among the most sophisticated, nuanced, complex beings on the planet. To self identify with some childish concept that comes to us from a highly racist society is very self-limiting.

Anyone wo advocate that you should self-identify as white or black is one of the bad guys in my opinion.

Certainly recognize that you live in a world where others play this nasty and simplifying game. But that is very different than saying that you really ought to play along too.
posted by eye of newt at 7:51 PM on April 7, 2010


wo/who would
posted by eye of newt at 7:52 PM on April 7, 2010


You're just playing games with vocabulary then. You recognize white privilege exists. You recognize some people have it. Those people are ___???____ . I'll use whatever term you want to fill in the blanks with, but I don't think you're taking the high road by refusing to call a thing by its name. The fragile innocence of your children and mine will not be shattered by the word "white".

Anyone wo advocate that you should self-identify as white or black is one of the bad guys in my opinion.

See now is this vocabulary again? Black people should call themselves something else, like African-American or Negro or something? Or are you saying it's bad to think of yourself as Black? Does that go for Indian, Hispanic or Russian too? Because yeah, that's where this colorblind attitude runs into trouble, when you try to judge a person for asserting their cultural or ethnic independence from mainstream America. This amounts to saying you can be of any skin tone as long as you think, act and speak just like us. Voluntarily divesting from self-identification with whiteness is arguably a step in the right direction (personally I'm a big fan of it) but advocating that minority groups stop identifying with their chosen communities is white supremacism in another guise. I don't want a melting pot, I want a nice chunky stew.
posted by BinGregory at 11:07 PM on April 7, 2010


It is really simple, don't classify people as 'white people' or 'black people'. Then you don't even need to ask the question 'what should black people call themselves?' The question is meaningless.

Look at it another way. What if the whole world, decided that a person's hight is the most important thing--that short and tall people should listen to different music, live in different neighborhoods. There would be a 'tall privilege' and 'short oppression' that could determine much of how you live your life.

Would you play along? Would you primarily classify people in 'tall people' or 'short people' groups? If someone didn't want to play along would you ask 'So what is the that short person going to call himself if he doesn't want to self-identify as one of the 'short people'?

You see, the question is meaningless just as the categories are meaningless. We have to think about it because society forces us to. But that doesn't mean we have to play along--that we have to consider ourselves 'white' or 'black'. We are much more complicated and interesting than that!

(As another example, Tiger Woods does not consider himself 'African American'. He refuses to play these 'binary category' games and shut out his Thai heritage. )
posted by eye of newt at 11:39 PM on April 7, 2010


It's interesting to me how differently I read "that sentence". To me, the question of possibility (especially given the year being mentioned) was as much about a white woman marrying a black man, as anything else. No one seems to hit the nail on the head, pointing out that what happened was of no surprise. To give the meme:

Haole couple has haole baby! News at 11.

Part of what was remarkable was her being from Kansas. It wasn't very typical for white women from Kansas to marry black men. (To give it the parlance of the times, "Nice white girls from Kansas don't marry colored guys"). But that wasn't what happened, in a Hawaiian context.

As for the notion that being "white" is about not being something else, I'd like to add my own personal take, from my childhood. In my own time and place, I'd have stated it thus: Being white meant not being black (where black = African-American). When I left my tiny pocket of whiteness in semi-rural Michigan, I was shocked to find out so many other people weren't considered "white".
posted by Goofyy at 11:55 PM on April 7, 2010


I'm all for anyone identifying themselves with whatever culture or sub-culture or combinations of cultures that they want. I have a problem when someone decides for me how I should identify myself. And I consider 'you people' one of the biggest insults you can give a person. These words are usually followed by words of stupidity and hatred.
posted by eye of newt at 11:57 PM on April 7, 2010


Yay, Common Ground!
posted by BinGregory at 12:23 AM on April 8, 2010


I'm all for anyone identifying themselves with whatever culture or sub-culture or combinations of cultures that they want. I have a problem when someone decides for me how I should identify myself. And I consider 'you people' one of the biggest insults you can give a person. These words are usually followed by words of stupidity and hatred.

hear hear eye of newt

i practice strategic ignorance of demonstrated stupidity in situations like this. I find it tends to come back and bite teh other person on the butt when they make assumptions or underestimate someone based on colour of skin
posted by infini at 12:49 AM on April 8, 2010


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