Defining ‘We.’ Thoughts on Capitalism: A Love Story and Related Rants.

By Black Scientist.

So it’s no secret that there is a default of whiteness in normative culture. That is: unless otherwise noted, people are white. I think this default can be challenged in communities that are predominantly of color on an everyday level (telling stories with an anonymous “she”), but when we engage with the popular sphere (movies, tv characters, in other words “visible people” in narratives created by others and passed down to the masses), people are – generally speaking – expected and assumed to be/imagined as white.

So, knowing this, why was I still disappointed in the white-middle-class-ness that tainted the narrative of Michael Moore’s capitalism: A Love Story? Is it because he’s touted as a progressive filmmaker, and to interrogate capitalism without also challenging the normativity of whiteness is to basically suck at understanding the intersections and complexity of oppressions? A shortcoming that results in merely symbolic and short-falling attempts at being subversive. because he knows about other stuff, is he supposed to also know how to make a film that doesn’t indulge in the usual habit of seeing things through a white historical lens?

The problem i had with Moore’s film was that the “we” he constructed often translated into white middle class people. and this wasn’t something I can pretend was glaringly obvious, because it was mostly subtle. noted in the use of “we” and the implication that follows of who “they” were.

For example, there’s a part where he’s talking about “the good old days.” He talks about how women didn’t have to work if they didn’t want to and we see a typical blonde 50s housewife walking around straightening things up (not to be mistook for actually cleaning). I thought to myself: really, Michael? Because last I checked this was only true for a bracket of white, suburban, middle-class, married women. Working class white women and black women were working outside of the home during these good old days and they had been for decades. Then he goes on to talk about how things were just better then (red flag), you know, when there were industrial jobs. We could deal with a little bit of this, he says, as we see a quick flash of black folks being hosed and/or attacked by police dogs (I can’t remember which), and a little bit of that. Again: really, though?

When I brought this part of the doc up to a friend, I was reminded that it was supposed to be “facetious.” and I mean, I’m sure Moore isn’t trying to say that the huge problems of racism, systematic violence, etc. are small worries. But even the fact that these issues, which were (and are) an inescapable everyday reality for a lot of people, could be compressed into a sarcastic flash on the screen, says something about who is telling the story, and for whom.

The fact is — all wasn’t peachy-keen for most of us. to create the impression that life was good when Dick worked while and Jane shopped for dresses is to basically reiterate a dominant, class-, race-, and location-based narrative that delusionally relegates a lot of people to the fringes. History didn’t look like that. Period.

I’ve noticed a similar issue in children’s books, especially with this whole organizing elementary school libraries thing I’ve been doing which I mentioned before. It’s easy to assume and even assign ignorant/privileged positionality within a paradigm that is obviously influenced by race (i.e. living in 19th century America). For example, author Ann McGovern has a whole series of books that depend on the default of whiteness in articulating a historical “we”. She has books like …If You Lived in Colonial Times, with questions on the back like “What kind of clothes would you wear?” “Would you go to school?” “What would you do on Sunday?” and “What would happen if you didn’t behave?”. A few of her other books are If You Grew Up With Abraham Lincoln, If You Lived 100 Years Ago, and If You Sailed on the Mayflower in 1620. The gist of all of them is like…you would’ve dressed funny and had to use your hands sometimes. By golly, the olden days.

I’m looking at these books like, actually, if I lived in colonial times, I wouldn’t be eating mutton and porridge at a table on a terrace with my white mother and father. More likely, I’d be the other person in this picture — that person of color whose narrative has no place in a book like this directed at the general public — placing the chicken on the table. Iffff i was even so lucky.

The default of whiteness is not only untrue to most people’s realities and obviously problematic on the basis that white (in)visibility necessitates erasing all other persons, but it’s also, frankly, not entertaining. if, as a creator of sorts, you claim to tell “our” history, then do us a favor and tell what really happened. or, make up something completely fantastical that doesn’t depend on an already played-out assumption about who the audience will automatically identify with, and ultimately, create a new narrative.


17 thoughts on “Defining ‘We.’ Thoughts on Capitalism: A Love Story and Related Rants.

  1. Will Shetterly October 27, 2009 at 2:45 pm Reply

    Regarding Moore and the ’50s, did middle-class black married women work outside the home more often than middle-class white women? Was there a major difference between the black middle class and the white middle class? I was going to suggest the black middle class was more likely to be Democratic, but I’m not sure that’s so, since the Democrats didn’t take the lead in civil rights until the ’60s–and even then, the Dixiecrat faction were no black person’s friend.

    • dilettante October 27, 2009 at 4:08 pm Reply

      Gee maybe that’s why Micheal Moore didn’t include more black people in his love story about the good old days ; in order to avoid mention of the dreaded Dixiecrats.

    • the black scientist October 27, 2009 at 11:30 pm Reply

      i’m not sure that black middle class women worked out of the home necessarily more often than white women of their same class, but historically black women have not filled the housewife role. a difference between the black and white middle classes would be that the black middle class was a heckuvalot smaller.. the major shift of blacks from the republican to the democratic party occurred at FDR’s second term, so the black middle class was more democratic i suppose. although i’m not sure how that’s related…?

  2. quadmoniker October 27, 2009 at 3:46 pm Reply

    I haven’t seen the movie, but it also sounds like it also relies on a male-dominance narrative. It’s not true that every woman was inside the home, but also I’m not sure it represents the good ole’ days to be relegated to domestic work in the first place. Women were, by and large, prohibited from the kind of freedom working provided. Also, you can’t separate domestic work from capitalism. Successful capitalism relies on having a labor force that doesn’t have to worry about what’s going on at home, and the only way to do that would be to have unpaid female labor in the domestic sphere.

    • the black scientist October 27, 2009 at 11:38 pm Reply

      for sure. i tried to cut moore some extra slack on the housewife part in general because i felt like maybe he was trying to be funny. but ultimately it’s like he sacrifices a more interesting and true story for the sake of getting his point across — which was that it’s hard to get and keep a job. he definitely talks about ‘work’ within a patriarchal framework though

  3. dilettante October 27, 2009 at 5:02 pm Reply

    Scientist; Have you read “The End of White America” , by Hua Hsu at The Atlantic? He projects, and I suspect,that as demographics continue to brown the narrative will have to be wider than “white”.

    The children’s books you mention are just sad. At times you wonder if people are really just this ignorant, nefarious or just lazy?

    For ‘black history month’ (horrible term I know) I picked up this book: Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution, by S.Schama. It’s just amazing to read about the 1st post enlightenment democracy to give the right to vote to women [Sierra Leone- settled by American slaves]. Which is something the American & French Revolution for all their,liberty ,fraternity & equality failed to do, amongst some other, more egregious oversights.

    • the black scientist October 27, 2009 at 11:48 pm Reply

      that books sounds interesting. it’s amazing how long some countries/societies/nations will wait before acknowledging certain rights or providing certain goods. it’s like it takes a level of embarrassment on a global scale or something.. i’ll have to check out ‘the end of white america’ too. i think truer better narratives will happen, given that power shifts as well because as we’ve seen with things like slavery and apartheid, power is in more than the numbers

    • ladyfresh October 28, 2009 at 10:18 am Reply

      So as i add this book “The End of White America” to my list. I’m scheming of a way to read it on the train(i’d probably get cheered in liberal NY actually) and have it at work(what i’m more concerned about) without the odd looks and questions i will no doubt get. i think maybe a book cover…

      Am I the only person of color that feels the need to do this?

      • first lady October 28, 2009 at 4:52 pm Reply

        I suppose it’s something to think about, especially at work. But if anyone asks, give them so wordy, academic sounding line about changing demographics and a look that dares them (of course, in a professional manner) to say something else. 🙂

        But I can tell you I read Dick Gregory’s “Nigger” while flying to and coming from Missouri. But maybe I just have something about me that tell people not to ask me questions.

      • dilettante October 29, 2009 at 7:36 am Reply

        I hope you do read “The end of white America”- but its *FREE* , my favorite price– on the Atlantic’s web site. Its a solid article. As you can see by the writers name- he’s Chinese (?) American, though the dominant theme is how Afro American sub-culture has untimately/ deeply influenced larger American culture of everyone. That deals with mainly pop culture. The S. Schema book /Rough Crossing is a GREAT READ becuase it ties our “African/American” contribution to the founding priciples in the whole democracy project in the European/N. American context, and illustartes once again how much agency African Americans did have and exercise at great peril to themselves. The author uses the term Anglo African and as far as cultural heritiage it “works”.

        (embedded rant: I put a hyper link to the Atlantic article that readers should be able to click thru to read that, + book review but the fonts/ color scheme on this site really don’t visually indicate whats linked or not. Unless someone is literally moving the mouse courser over the words the extra effort is wasted) 😦

        • ladyfresh October 29, 2009 at 8:24 am Reply

          silly me!
          i did click but did not look thinking it was a review and i’d get to it later

          (this weekend frankly i’ll be flying to vegas and thought i’d read the review at the airport and pick it up in the bookstore and read on the plane but this is better! thank you)

  4. Mimi October 28, 2009 at 9:16 pm Reply

    Not to take up for Michael Moore but my mother grew up with him in Flint Michigan. Even in the 50s most married black women stayed home with the kids regardless of race. My grandma and great-aunties all stayed home while the men worked in the “shop” (auto factories). This was the case for almost all the black families in her neighborhood when she was growing up. This is exactly why these families moved to Flint in the 50s. There were a ton of racial issues in Flint then, including at the shop but this might be where he is coming from.

    I always assume people are telling stories from their perspective which is why we need a diversity of voices which includes both ethnicity and class. I feel you on whiteness being the default is tiresome but we must remember that there are many varied perspectives in our community also.

    • G.D. October 28, 2009 at 9:19 pm Reply

      Even in the 50s most married black women stayed home with the kids regardless of race.

      This isn’t true. The single-breadwinner model that people associate with the 1950s was never representative of black households, in general. Black women were always working to supplement household income — as domestics, cooks, etc.

    • the black scientist October 29, 2009 at 12:34 am Reply

      i don’t know if this is really a matter of varied perspectives. it’s about what actually happened in the world and how skewing that to favor particular stories perpetuates the non-truths that flood dominant discourse.

      aaand .. yeah, what G.D. said.

  5. cjl October 29, 2009 at 10:26 pm Reply

    Regarding the issue of black women working in the 1950s: there’s a book, Black Working Wives (can’t remember the author), that talks about just this. The author’s main point is that married black women, out of economic necessity, worked outside of the home in much larger numbers than did married white women. But the author goes further to argue that what started out as economic necessity was eventually turned into a cultural norm wherein black families (including middle class families) understood that the wife’s employment and income was important to the family’s well-being and therefore encouraged and supported women in working, even after marriage and children (in direct opposition to the cult of domesticity that was the cultural norm for middle class white women).

    The author also argued that this acceptance of wives working allowed black families to make more money while ensuring that their children were able to stay in school. For working class white families (whose wives were still expected to be homemakers) the families would more often send the older children/teenagers out to work while keeping the wife at home (thereby curtailing the children’s education). To get a handle on just how enagaged black women were with work: in 1960 the bureau of labor statistics started tracking the labor force participation rate of black women. In 1960, the labor force participation rate of black women was as high as the rate for white women *would be* in 2000!

    • the black scientist November 1, 2009 at 8:53 pm Reply

      very interesting.. thanks for the info

  6. harlemjd November 1, 2009 at 9:48 pm Reply

    I think Mimi means that most black women in Flint, Michigan in the 50’s stayed out of the workforce after marriage (presumably based on what her older relatives who lived there have told her). I have no idea if that’s true or not, but it’s a very different claim than that most black women in the U.S. did so.

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