Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Monday, November 24, 2008

The New Visible America

How the new racial landscape of America meets the Green movement, increasing the visibility of both.

The Great Not-White Hope

The morning of the election I was filled with happiness just to have had the opportunity to vote for a black man with a white mamma. Happy that he was also a man of eloquent speech, intelligence and awareness of others. It was an unexpected elated feeling of joy at having a black candidate make it this far in a presidential election. A candidate who put a face on my own mixed race heritage. The one that exposes a love that was also once taboo—the sexual union of white and brown. These unions had been my touchstone, my proof that love between all people was possible. A sort of United Nations manifested in the bedroom.

To be the child of that kind of boundary-busting paradigm is to live with a world that always seems to want you pulled apart, when you know that working together to be whole is, not only possible, but necessary for survival. It is a path that not all who are born to it can handle well for to live it is to be constantly tested; the temptation to deny one side or the other is so strong that the grace of the middle road is forsaken.

I was going to vote for Hilary in the beginning because she had the experience and it would mean Bill would be back too, but then a kind of rigidity set in. It would be a relief to have the criminals gone from office, but having an administration that would merely govern was not enough. Experience can be sought from advisors. I wanted another layer of consciousness in the White House. Plus I had not forgiven Bill for giving away the store to transnational corporations while we had been asleep, comforted by the Democratic Party brand. Next time we would know better. Next time we would post a constant watch.

Obama connected with people in a way that inspired those who were ho-hum about politics before. This was heartening. That he became Mr. Fill-In-The-Blanks Hope was the stuff of fairy tales. I had no illusions about his message of change. He was a centrist said to be aligned with the principles of free market capitalism as offered by the Chicago School of Economics—The Shock Doctrine Mafia. This chilled me.

But nevertheless an American presidential campaign is a time of storytelling about what a great nation we are and how we will continue to be great—more mythical than reality based. My vote for Obama was a bid for how we would continue with the adventure of empire and world dominance. For continue we would, either very badly and quickly towards our demise or with a bit more grace and diplomacy. This grace offered by a man who had been a global child as I had been. One who had lived among others not in lock step with the insular American identity (and high octane lifestyle). One for whom the world had the faces of his playmates in Indonesia and Kenya. While here in his own country, he was a minority; a minority whose skin color would be overlooked if he lived up to the higher expectations demanded by his prep school education. So far so good.

Black Is The New White

What was unexpected, the night Obama won, was that it would matter so much that he was black. Witness the emotions that followed his quick decisive win. White liberals gushing with pride that racism had been overcome. Black men speechless, unbelieving. All of us, at my house, screaming at the TV then rushing outside to make a joyful noise. We hadn't dared hoped it was possible. Those in power had been expected to keep it all locked up with diabolical Diebold machines and legal loopholes, never letting any outsider in. (It also occurs to me that they needed an outsider to be left holding the bag as their failed regime stripped the assets on its way out.)

The way the liberal pundits gushed that night, I flashed on a headline for the papers the next day—"Today We Are All African Americans". That was the way to express solidarity (as in Today We Are All Americans from the European headlines following 9/11). But no that wasn't it at all. White America was too busy unpacking white guilt. The slapping on the back was out of righteousness at having done the right white thing. The day after the election Obama became white, allowed into the club. A song about him being Irish passed around on Youtube. White culture claimed him via the grandparents who raised him.

This is the white privilege part of being a mixed kid. You are already family with white people. There is no divide, no discomfort to overcome on your part. And you still have the caveat of being cool. America at large had just discovered racial coolness. My social equity went up. I was immediately more visible to strangers.

Being cool while being a person of color first made its appearance for me in the lesbian feminist community in the '80s. White feminists bent over backward to listen to women of color. And women of color mostly let them have it. This just made me feel uncomfortable. Mixed kids don't tend to use that kind of language. It is too painful. Try calling your white parent a racist. You point out white privilege somehow, but not by starting a sentence with "white people". Nuanced is a word often associated with Obama.

Meanwhile, white liberal journalists were eager to unload guilt on the black voter who had discriminated against gays—seven out of ten having voted Yes on 8, the ban on gay marriage. What to make of this?

I already knew that the black community was homophobic—part of a macho culture maybe, the church definitely and maybe a need to look down on someone who was even more of a social pariah. When I heard the news it did not make me angry in the personal sense that white homophobia makes me angry. It made me wonder if the white privilege of gay people had been properly examined. A black lesbian said as much in an editorial in the Chronicle. And that was another thing to celebrate.

For the first time in newspaper history, not one, but two black lesbians were visible, presenting two sides of the black/gay divide. My how the conversation was broadening. The social frame of mainstream media shifting wildly, sweeping the horizon for representatives of the "new" faces of America. The danger was in allowing this "black/gay divide" to divide us. Dividing us—minority against minority—has long been a tactic of the dominant (white) power.

A Movement of Inclusion

Minority leaders who cross over to a largely white community such as the environmental movement, as Van Jones had done, with his Green Collar Economy concept, learn the language of inclusion. He used it at the Green Festival less than two weeks after the election.

"All those bigots and homophobes did was drive us to suicide and divide our community," he said. He didn't have to include the gay community at an eco function, but he did. The Green movement having learned to be inclusive back when clubbing seals was the cause celebre of Greenpeace; that Greenpeace campaign having hugely impacted indigenous people economically. Thus local economies and local people were folded into the equation. The Green Festival created as an economic response to the Battle of Seattle, the first North American protest against globalization at that famous meeting of the World Trade Organization.

We lefties in our no logo clothing and hemp socks munching on fair trade chocolate; we young white people with dreadlocks, handcrafted man purses and tattoos; we were readjusting to this new feeling—of oppression slowly evaporating. Everyone wanted to hear a black man speak in this new America of Barak Obama.

Van Jones began by commending us for having the courage, all these years, to stay with our ideals when no one was supporting us.

"You held the line for peace," he said, "you stayed and you fought, you didn't leave." I got all choked up over this acknowledgment. I hadn't allowed myself to feel how much of a struggle it had been to create a parallel universe of eco ideals in the face of such a stubborn, dumb and destructive administration.

"This movement, this sustainable, green movement created the opportunity for Barak Obama to be elected," he told us. "Because he came here, to all these pockets of sustainable thinking and he saw you. He saw your boldness, your clarity and audacity."

Then he teased us about how he knew what we were thinking.

"I know you," he said, "You, with your stack of books this high on your bedside table. I know that you want to hold Obama accountable." I was puzzled. Wasn't that our job?

"The problem with this phrase," said Van Jones, "is that there's not a lot of holding involved." He gestured holding as a loving embrace. "It's more like you want to kick Obama accountable." He mimed kicking.

"The Brother President Elect has done his job of taking back America. We came this close to losing our democracy. It is your turn now to do your job which is to take America forward."

So this was what it meant to be visible in Barak Obama's America. Van Jones was certainly visible now. His book was top 10 on the bestseller list, of the business books even. Obama very likely met him when he came to visit our pocket of sanity and audacity. Van Jones did, nevertheless, stomp on Obama's inclusion of clean coal (no such thing) and geosequestration (not enough places for holes in the ground). He outlined his own three-point plan. 1) Put a price on carbon. 2) Put people to work weatherizing the nations buildings and 3) R & D to decentralize and connect the grid.

"It's our turn now," said Van Jones. "They had their turn. The bomb and torture…the drill and burn...the borrow and spend, bubble and bail out. They had their turn. They totally discredited their model. All those bigots and homophobes did was drive us to suicide and divide our community. It's our turn now."

The packed hall gave him a standing ovation for this language of inclusiveness, this prodding to create a greater movement.

In contrast, Kevin Danaher, who spoke next and had many fine suggestions to make, tossed off this techno elitist comment.

"Because of the Internet, we can all connect with every human on the planet." He meant to be encouraging about our ability to create social change, but all he did was remind me of the AIDS orphans in Africa who can't go to school for want of a uniform and a pencil.

Winona La Duke, a Native American with a white Jewish mother, came to this language of inclusion naturally, mentioning not only the gay marriage debacle, but adding this sentiment."There is no monopoly on botching things up," she said, "that's what humans do." She was asking us to be "big" people now (not infantalized consumers). She spoke of deconstructing empire and considering how much we are willing to let go that is defended by the whole system. Peak oil was on her list, too. She said the words with disdain like 'hello when are we going to learn'. As a food activist, she commented on the folly of trying to squeeze the nation's corn crop into our gas tanks, just so we could continue to drive. This continuing bias of the industrial paradigm just didn't allow that any wisdom or truth could come from outside of European thinking, she said. She then proceeded to list off the guiding principles of the Anishinaabeg people thus:

We are all related.
We are cyclical.
We should treat all things as alive.
We take only what we need and leave the rest even if it grows wild.

She spoke for the efforts of the Anishinaabeg Indians, in Northern Minnesota where they have installed four wind turbines on their reservation. They decided not to lease the land for windmills that outsiders would build, but to keep control of the energy they generated. It was what the tribal leader called "a crazy horse moment". This population, which was the poorest of the poor, had done it, which was why she was telling us their story, because if they could do it we could do it. We could generate some part of that 185,000 megawatts of power needed to run this country on renewable energy.
The Green economy has justice in it, she said. You can't have peace without justice.

The audience gave her a standing ovation too. We had our marching orders. We were being urged to get on with it. Move with this opportunity that Obama has opened for a Green economy. We had voted him in. Were we going to quit now, lay back and hold him "accountable"? Were we going to wait for the industrial paradigm to take care of things?

This was our crazy horse moment. Our turn now.

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At 8:50 PM, Blogger Fonk said...

"...United Nations manifested in the bedroom." Great line. :)

So I'm curious, what's your take on how we move forward? How do we, as individuals, not simply hold the government accountable, but move things forward ourselves? Is it simply a matter of "greening up" our personal lives and habits, or something more? I think that's where a lot of people get stuck; feeling like they need to do something, but not knowing exactly what that something is.

At 10:16 PM, Blogger AK said...

I like the advice of the spiritual teacher, Pema Chodron, to start where you are. And yes greening up our personal lives has a lot of power both as a ripple effect when others see what you are doing and to propel oneself forward. Once one habit is accomplished it's easier to take on something else.

I've written a lot about my personal journey greening up my life as a sort of green hero's journey, making an adventure of small steps. I also want to understand and read as much as I can about the science behind environmental issues so that I can see the global picture and broaden the discussion when people talk about what we can do or why we should give up certain things like bottled water.

Walking the talk gives you credibility and then you can do more talking. There is not a lot of deep thinking going on, so I think there is value in bringing people up to speed as much as they can handle. Thanks for asking Fonk. You are clearly doing a lot of this work already.

At 6:08 PM, Blogger AK said...

And when people get up to speed they can help pass public policy that will put the big changes in place. The 5% that get to that point first can help push for that policy to be written as Bill McKibben explains so beautifully in this article in Orion

At 5:37 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I am not surprised with the sort of people that Obama has appointed to the financial and security positions. In the area of EPA, interior, and energy however, he needs to branch out from the establishment. He needs to appoint people like Van Jones or McKibben, people who are in the forefront of the grass roots movement.

I am still hoping he veers to the left once he gets in office. Thus far, it is just all about making sure the country grows economically and that we get the terrorists.

Don't get me wrong. Things will be 100% better, but then how could they not be, whether it be a Hillary or an Obama. Beyond that, I am pleasantly surprised that we were actually able to elect an African American. That gives me some hope and I think it will be helpful in international relations.

With Bush, we have just been trying to avoid the really, obviously horrible stuff that is ruining our environment. With Obama, however, many of us will retake our thinking to the next level. The next level as in, is the basic thrust of our economy compatible with a sustainable planet. On a fundamental level, it would appear that Obama is worshiping the growth as usual paradigm.

I would like to see serious discussion in this country as to whether or not it is even possible to have a reasonable standard of living while at the same time truly dealing with issues like global warming. If we continue business as usual, those two goals are clearly incompatible.

At 3:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Amanda,

I really enjoyed reading this post, and loved your mention of Van Jones at the green festival. I wanted to pass on a link that you can share with your visitors where they can go and read an excerpt from Van's book, 'The Green Collar Economy,' for free online. You can copy and past this URL into your browser:

or you can click on my name, which will take you to the same site. Thanks!

Laura Ortberg
Assistant Publicist, HarperOne

At 1:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, things will be hugely better (already are in an emotional sense), but "whether it be a Hillary or an Obama" as Tom Street suggests, obscures the difference between the two. Obama has integrity, intellect, and an understanding borne of not being 100% white. This is not to say that Hillary and Bill aren't full of concern, kindness, warmth, and smarts - but I think they have egos that support them in seeking the easy, comfortable way (eg. Hillary in the Balkans).

I hope, and expect, that Obama will appeal to us all, in all walks of life, to contribute to the change that has to happen. I think people are excited about the possibilities of the future, and hungry to do their part, to enjoy a "Blitz mentality" of cooperation, sacrifice, neighborliness. Both Barack Obama and inspirational thinker/doers like Van Jones can nurture and encourage this like no others could.


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