Appropriative Racial Politics VS Pseudo-Liberalism in Glee

So I am addicted to the new tv series Glee. I talk about it with friends and never miss an episode. Last night’s episode was…interesting in terms of racial identity.

Warning Spoilers Ahead

What you need to know -

Will Schuster is the Glee teacher and his arch-nemisis overly competitive Sue Sylvester the head of the nationally renowned cheerleading team The Cheerios has just been assigned as his co-chair. Sue attempting to bring it down from the inside finds out that many of the minority students feel they aren’t being heard in terms of what music is selected, who sings lead and their personal skills. She splits the Glee Club in two taking all the People of Color, Queer and Differently-Abled folks as her team.

Now she makes several racially insensitive comments while doing so referring to Mercedes as Aretha, Mike and Tina as Asian and other Asian, Kurt as Gay Kid, etc.  She also claims Comanche heritage pulling on the pretendian stereotype and drawing it out for criticism. And in the midst of this she picks a song they all like, allows them to show off their talents and inspires them to have confidence. Sue’s goal is to win, this trumps everything else in her life. When it comes down to it that’s all she cares about and no matter the student’s identity if they show her they are a winner she’ll support them.

None of Sue’s actions bothered me because it was quite obviously more a critique of aversive racism and the lack of self-knowledge that many people in the world just like Sue exhibit using stereotypes and offensive language to expose them.

What did offend me in this episode was Will’s Rainbow Coalition speech at the end of the episode. What a way to ruin a great racial critique!  Sue steps down of her own volition and Will says that she was right to address the needs of the minority students BUT he then goes on to say that they are all minority students because they are in Glee Club so their individual identities don’t matter. EXCUSE ME?!? Will has just effectively attempted to erase their identities. By ignoring the confluence of factors that makes these children what they are he attempts to assuage his own guilt in ignoring them. Marginalized people do not have the luxury of forgetting our position in society as illustrated earlier in the episode by Sue’s calling them.  To ignore our identifications is to erase a vital part of someone’s identity.

I am of mixed African and African-American ancestry and that is what people see when I walk down the street. It effects how I am treated in the world, what I write, how I interact with society as a whole telling me that I don’t have a race is more of insult than you think – I may have other identities but I am also a Person of Color and that will never change.

Will falls into the trap of pseudo-liberalism or the “Kumbaya” version of identity politics whereby we pretend that racism/sexism/queerism/ableism is over and that if we just act like everyone’s the same everything will be okay. It’s a very colonized viewpoint and one that serves those in power more that marginalized people because the effect of saying that is silencing if a person needs to discuss identity politics, that conversation has effectively been shutdown and so the privileged person has now positioned themselves as above the discussion and they never have to deal with the uncomfortable conversation again while the marginalized now has no outlet within the relationship for discussing things that effect who they are.

For me I’ll take someone like Sue who may call me an inappropriate names but will never forget the confluence of identities that make me who I am and who I could at least attempt to have a conversation with over someone like Will who will try to erase who I am and preemptively shut down even the possibility of such a talk.

10 responses to “Appropriative Racial Politics VS Pseudo-Liberalism in Glee

  1. lol Kumbaya version of identity politics. I don’t watch glee, but your take makes this sound like almost everything else on tv: completely absurd.

    • It’s totally absurd but sometimes it’s absurd in an amazing way. Like when Kurt joins the football team and the the whole team ends up performing the Single Ladies dance in the middle of a football game!

  2. I do not watch Glee, so I cannot comment on the actual speeches from the show, but I will comment on your commentary.
    1. I will use the military as an example. When a team is in the middle of battle, there are only a few things that matter and guess what – race, color, and gender are not on that list. If you have me covered, if I have you covered, if we can still hit the guy shooting at us, and how many bullets we have are important, as the entire purpose of our existence has changed for that moment and what led us to this point is irrelevant if don’t survive. I don’t give the smallest, teeniest, tiniest thought to what color you are, not because I’m dumb or trying to erase your history… it’s because it really has no bearing on our survivability and thus, it doesn’t matter. That’s not to say that I subscribe to pseudo-liberalism. I don’t. But, playing Devil’s Advocate, (and know again that I didn’t hear this guy’s speech), is it possible that he was using Glee Club in an oversimplified version of my military scenario and trying to say that Glee Club is one entity and one team and that we need to act like a team instead of a bunch of individuals? Is it possible that he might be saying that we are all part of the same group for a reason and it’s not to fight about the reasons we are different and that we should be celebrating the things we have in common?
    2. You used two terms that I find very interesting. You said you are a Person of Color and you are of African and African-American descent. Let’s talk about color. What is a color? Black, brown, yellow, white. So why is it that on forms for demographics, the “colored” people get to be hyphenated Americans, such as African-American, yet the Anglo-Saxon American gets to be White. Who’s the person of color now? You get to keep your heritage, but I get to be nothing more than a color? And while we’re on this topic, let’s talk about ancestry… A study was recently conducted to trace the genealogy of the Earth’s population and guess what? We all trace back to one African couple. All of us. The whole planet. So now what? You and I both have African ancestry.
    3. You said that you are treated differently because people see you as black. Have you considered how others are treated? Oh… I’m a cute, little white girl so life must be handed to me on a silver platter with roses and chocolates? People do see more than race, which is not to say that they don’t see race or that race isn’t important, but it’s not the end all of what makes our identity. I got fired from a job because I wasn’t Catholic. I got sexually assaulted in the military to try and put me in my place, and when I pulled a gun out of the armory to try and kill the bastard, they kicked me out. I am seen as a target BECAUSE I am a cute, little, white girl. I have to work twice as hard for half as much pay. So you get treated like crap by the world because you look black and I get treated like crap by the world because I’m an inferior female. Instead of automatically switching to race, maybe we can take a step back and look at the things that make us equal instead of jamming down our throats the obvious differences that we have.
    You and I spent junior high in the same spot… We were both the outcasts. You were weird. I was weird. We’re both still weird. You have complicated relationships… I have complicated relationships. When we were in our little outcast group, I didn’t break it down further and say that you were an outcast of the outcast group because you were a person of color. No. We were our own little team back then. Why can’t Glee Club come together to be their own little team and celebrate the things that brought them together as a group? Does it always have to be fighting about why we are different?

    • I’ll take each of your points one by one.

      1. I think if they are trying to make this allegory it really is a false comparison because Glee Club is not a life or death situation but going beyond that there are numerous studies of the Military Industrial Complex by people who both have and haven’t served where they talk about the way race, class, gender and especially sexuality play into it. The recruitment drives that have increased in poor often mostly People of Color neighborhoods. The discussion by women who have served of sexual abuse, as you discuss in your post. The firing of so many translators because of their sexuality. It’s disingenuous to say that these identities have no relevance in the armed forces. And that’s not to say “Ah, the armed forces are bad let us shun them!” that is to say that it is an institution like academia, like government, like justice and like all these institutions it is informed by the attitudes that are part of a white patriarchal heteronormative system. Perhaps in a combat situation this is lessened but even then your gender or racial representation could effect how an enemy reacts to you, what they do to you if you’re captured. Also saying that we should come together as a group does not have to erase all the identities in that group. You can come together as a group without ignoring the ways that race, gender, sexuality, class, ability, size, etc. It’s possible to be part of a group and say “Well yes I support you in this capacity but I also need you to see how what you did here is problematic.” For me being part of a group is not about ignoring differences or even tolerating them but accepting them and all the complexities that always accompanies identity politics.

      2. There are plenty of people I know who identify as Italian-American, French-American, German-American, Greek-American and so on. However I am talking about the prevalent white society in America which can exclude and include those identities by turn. You are allowed to identify however you want and form a community around it but that’s up to you to find. Part of the reason we have kept our identity is because we fought to keep it, we fought to have it – and by we I mean all marginalized groups that name themselves instead of being named by the dominant group. I have no issue with someone identifying however they wish but I think you also have to be able to articulate why you are identifying that way, is it a form of resistance? A form of community? A reactionary measure?

      If we’re gonna go back in history we can also say that your African ancestors enslaved my African ancestors. Which is not to say you are responsible for your ancestors actions but it is to say that that act and the repercussions have much more effect in the modern day than the fact that millions of years ago our ancestors came from the same place. This shared ancestry does not protect me from attacks about only being in school because of affirmative action (despite the fact that the largest group helped by affirmative action is white women which is deliberately left out of most conversations about it), it doesn’t mean that the KKK don’t still have a burned out crosses all over the midwest, doesn’t save the lives of Vincent Chin, Gwen Araujo, Amadou Diallo, Mia Zapata, and the many many more who were killed in reaction to their gender, race, sex and other marginalized positions. This argument would have weight if everyone was treated similarly but we are not and thus it’s just about ignoring that for the comfort of the status quo. It’s the same argument in terms of sex just because we all start of a female within the womb does not lessen the attacks on women and the sexism prevalent in our society.

      3. I don’t like to play oppression olympics, saying one oppression is worse or better than another. You being a woman has affected your life in a multitude of ways and it’s fine to talk about that and critique it. In fact it’s awesome to do so but that doesn’t do anything to devalue my life as a black man in America. It doesn’t change the fact that I have a lot to fear from police and courts, that though the majority of crimes are committed by white people the majority of people in jail are People of Color, that I can still get denied a job or paid less on the basis of my skin (just as you can because off your sex). It also ignores that some people are both black and women and that the way they experience the world is different from both of us despite some commonalities. Saying we’re all the same changes none of this and does nothing but ignore all of the problems. In what universe has ignoring a problem ever made it better? Talking about it is what I do, you can react to your marginalized position in whatever way you choose. I personally choose to speak out when I see it and that has nothing to do with your identity representation.

      Yes we were both outcast in Middle school but the reasons we were outcasts were very different and just because we share the same marginalized space aand came together for support does not mean our oppressions are the same. I wouldn’t try to tell you about the way you were treated in that situation but I doubt you got called the n-word like I did and called a woman as a way to attack my gender representation especially in reaction my being black which has different masculinity expectations than white masculinity. You were ostracized for different reasons (whatever you know/believe them to be) and we shared a group that doesn’t mean the attacks against us were the same. It also doesn’t mean one was worse than the other.

      I don’t believe that what I’ve put forward is a fight about differences. I am reacting to what I see as a problematic representation of racial harmony that harms us all and for me to just let that go would be so much more of an issue than talking about it. It is a critique of a show that I love. I always critique things I love and I’ve actually posted about things that I love and why they are problematic before. I do this because I want what I love to be better, I don’t want to have to see stereotypical images or my identity being erased.

      The problem with not talking about our differences is that it silences marginalized groups. Instead of the attack being part of a larger framework of institutionalized and often approved racism/sexism/heterosexism/classism it becomes an attack of one person on another and ignores the forces that shape why the attack happened and the way the media portrays the attack. Talking about our differences does not mean we don’t talk about the things we have in common but I’m not ready to stop taking about the things that happen to me specifically because of the confluences of my identity.

  3. Naamen, I love you for dismantling the power structures in Glee. I was also enraged and in fuzzy slippers. “it doesn’t matter that [diva girl] is Jewish, or that [stupid jock boy] can’t tell his rights from his lefts” as if those are somehow comparable. Hey! you experience systemic oppression based on your gender/sex/ethnicity/queerness/ability? wow, that really sucks! yeah I feel you, I mean I can do this taco-thing with my tongue, and man is it rough out there for me and my rolly- tongued brethren.

    • Lauren!

      Yeah, the jock thing in particular really annoyed me. What the hell was that all about? As if the failing of our education system doesn’t effect everyone and doesn’t play into the hierarchies we already have to deal with?

      And the Jewish thing was weird because Rachel is the one who’s caught anti-Semitic comments from folks in the show and it’s her specifically that Will says it about. I’m like what? It sure matters when kids say she should be sterilized and so on.

      I <3 the taco tongue comparison, it is so hard to have that ability. I just heard of a bar of tongue-rollers being raided by the police. It's JUST like queerness and stonewall!

  4. If your bike got stolen, and the thief gave it to someone else, and you find the new guy who has your bike, and you ask for it back (and you have proof that it’s yours, etc.) and the person withholds it from you, KNOWING that it’s stolen, are they in the right? Someone has your belongings, they know belong to you, and they’re holding onto it.

    And are they actually innocent if they get nervous and shifty about the topic of bikes in general and then try to change the topic whenever it comes up?

    That’s what I think of when I think of Kumbayah/ colorblindness/ postracial evasiveness.

    This whole “Let’s all get along” isn’t based in a real desire for peace – it’s about not having the stolen property returned… and looking at who the thieves are, and who are the people who get free stuff for looking the other way.

  5. I agree and thank you for your input.

    Of note, I did not say that -isms were not present in the military. I said that a military team, in the heat of combat, is concerned with other more pressing matters than sexism or racism.

    I will respond to one thing that I feel is vitally important to progression and something that I personally feel has gotten extremely out of hand. You said that if we are going to go back in history then we can say that my ancestors enslaved yours. You don’t know my lineage. You don’t know my ancestry. To make a blanket assumption that because I am white and you are black that my ancestors enslaved yours is unmerited. I know you had previously said that attacking intelligence is not advisable for a white person to do when discussing racism, so know that I understand that you are extremely intelligent. Your comment, however, shows a level of ignorance that I did not expect from you. My ancestors were a little busy being persecuted and enslaved by the British. And on the other side, they were a little busy being slaughtered by the Germans. I know my lineage back to 1088 and guess what… no black slaves. My white ancestors were slaves. Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans were not the only slave owners in history. Your ancestors may have come to America as a slave. Mine came to escape slavery.

    Now, yes… In America, slavery has left our nation still devastatingly unequal and the -isms are by no means gone or eradicated. If anything, they are getting worse by our pretense of equality. All I am saying is not to be so quick to judge another persons intentions just because we are not a person of color. Not every one of us is blind. I am not denying that inequality exists. I never have.

    • Mary,

      My point with the ancestry thing is it doesn’t matter. Although there was slavery of Africans throughout Europe for quite a while as well we simply tend to forget that because we live in America however I trust your own research on your family. My main point is that you as a white person profit off of racism in the same way that I as a man profit off of sexism. No matter what we say or how we act we benefit from the subjugation of others that are not us because of the way our society is set up. Unless we are aware of that privilege and continue to examine it throughout our life we are part of the problem not the solution.

      Of course there are white people who are not actively racist to argue otherwise would be ludicrous two of my best friends in the world are white BUT they still understand that the racist melange of America has a subconscious effect on their interactions that they have to actively confront everyday in the same way I have to actively confront the sexism that’s been ingrained in me through simply being raised in Western society and too pretend that that doesn’t crop up in our media especially over and over does no one any good. That was my point.

  6. Mary- while your ancestors may have experienced persecution, there was a shift in western culture that allowed people in your situation to become white. No, there is no monolithic “white culture” there is no real monolithic ANY culture, but because you and your ancestors could assimilate to the dominant culture, (and white skin helps that a lot) you now benefit from being read as a part of that.

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