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WHO IS YOUR FAVOURITE SINGER?: Race and Celebrity 16 Years After "Do the Right Thing"

27 Jul 2005

M: Pino, who's your favourite basketball player?
P: Magic Johnson.
M: Who's your favourite movie star?
P: Eddie Murphy.
M: And who's your favourite rock star?
P: (hesitates)
M: Prince.
P: The Boss. Bruuuce.
M: Prince.
P: Bruuuce.
M: Pino, all you every say is "nigger this" and "nigger that," and all your favourite people are so
-called niggers.
P: Magic, Eddie, Prince, they're not niggers; I mean, they're not black; I mean... let me explain
myself: they're not really black. They're black, but not really black. They're more than black.
It's different.
M: Pino, deep down inside I think you wish you were black.

The above is without a doubt one of my favourite movie dialogues of all time. It's from Spike Lee's 1989 cinematographic masterpiece "Do the Right Thing". It features the infamous banter between Lee's character in the film, Mookie, and John Turturro, as Pino, the lazy pizza-delivery guy. The upcoming screening at Harbourfront Centre of Do the Right Thing causes me to ask myself how things may or may not have changed since the days when the film came out. Sitting in a Bay street terrace a few weeks ago, I recall having this conversation with a few black friends. We discussed the "particular" circumstance of being young black professionals in predominantly white office environments. We all seemed to have had similar experiences around being classified as "colourless" in the eyes of some of our colleagues. Somehow, the very fact that we had "beat" the odds, graduated from university, and achieved gainful employment, elevated us beyond the base circumstances of our racial group. Thus, to them, it was perfectly acceptable to talk about "those black people."

Why should we be offended? We're not niggers? Are we?

In a publication called Differentia's issue 6/7, from 1995 an article says: [ "Whiteness" is salvaged as the only safe category for all good citizens, no matter what their background. "White" is in fact a colour-blind category; one does not have to be white (as in caucasian) to be "white," for this is an aesthetics, an ideology of cultural absorption and erasure rather than an ethnic category]. As the somewhat controversial emerging field of "Whiteness studies" underlines, whiteness transcends race. Whiteness is really a power structure of acquired privilege. In our particular case, however, that privilege was not necessarily "acquired" but rather "attributed" to us based on certain societal and hierarchical structures.

Isn't that what our parents from the Caribbean and Africa have tried so hard to inculcate into us? You must work twice as hard Work, be twice as good as your white counterparts to "earn" the status of being "colourless." Welcome to paradise. But there are also dangers to feeling content and justified in our "colourlessness." Like Frantz Fanon warned us in his seminal book Black Skin, White Masks, whiteness and its ties to power structure and privilege was, and continues to be, a founding pillar and driving force behind colonialism and post-colonialism. The black elite has been guilty of many abuses and counter-productive behaviour in their effort to benefit from and maintain their "attributed" ties to power. In this post-modern world where formal colonialism is supposedly a thing of the past, the racialised structural echoes of the Western world's power structures still ring very loud.

Perhaps an easier way to deal with the "colonials" rising through the modern corporate ladder is to somehow divorce them from the native masses. But lest we forget, we're not always "in uniform". A black Harvard MBA chillin' in Timberlands and baggy jeans will still be followed by a high-end store clerk. So what is the solution? The well-known African-American academics Henry Louis Gates Jr and Cornell West co-authored a book entitled The Future of the Race. A well-know admirer of W.E.B. DuBois, Cornell west has argued for the return to DuBois' concept of the "Talented Tenth". DuBois'' argument was that the educated black elite (one tenth of the black mass) should remember their use their talent and position to fulfill their duty toward bringing forth the overall advancement of the black masses.

The Talented Tenth theory has come under attack by certain black commentators for being too elitist at its base. The notion that the race's salvation lies in the hands of a privileged few undermines the importance of grassroots movements and community contributions. The debate rages on. But after reading The Future of the Race, I find that Gates and West's appeal to the black elite not fall prey to the alluring pull of "colourlessness" quite appropriate.

We must not allow others to dictate to us where or when our struggle begins and end. Just ask Oprah.

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