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08 August 2007 @ 07:56 pm
The Other America  
I tell this story a lot.

When I was in college, I took a class called Group Communications. It was nothing complex. The class involved sixty students sitting around discussing various culture-related topics as brought up and moderated by the professor. She had teaching assistants, juniors and seniors who had taken the class previously, to help her facilitate the discussions. The first two days of the class were spent doing the professor’s standard introductory activity. At random she chose four students to sit in the middle of the floor. Each student was to explain to the class the moment he/she first realized his/her culture, however that student defined the term. When each student had spoken, the professor would choose a new quartet until every student in the class had expressed him/herself.

One of the teaching assistants, a half-Jamaican friend who lived with her single White mother, told me to pay attention to the moments chosen by the American White people. She told me she’d been in the class three times and that every single American White person identified his/her moment of cultural recognition as a time he/she heard a friend or relative use a racial epithet or overtly discriminate against a person of color. I asked her why she thought that was the case. “Because this is America,” she said. “Everyone’s so commingled and assimilated that nothing really stands out except…” She held the back of her hand up to me. Obviously it’s not that cut and dry, but, as I’ve seen as I’ve grown older and gone out in the world, she’s really not that far off. Whether it’s been in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Indiana, or California, the mainstream culture isn’t really all that different. Sure, there are differences about this and about that, but there seems to be a pervasive American culture that all the American White people I know share.

In work environments, especially those of the white-collar variety, I’ve found there are three basic groups of employees.
  • Group I: Those who hang out with coworkers and attend work functions regularly.
  • Group II: Those who hang out with coworkers just enough to avoid being labeled unfriendly & antisocial and attend just enough work functions to avoid being branded a malcontent.
  • Group III: Those who nearly never go out with coworkers and rarely ever show up to a work function.
When I was a younger man new to the workforce, I was a member of Group II. As I’ve gone out with my coworkers exactly five times in three years, I’m on the verge of labeling myself with Group III. It was a conscious decision.

What I have observed over my years in college and at work is that Black people who fall into Group I in predominantly White work environments tend not to socialize as much with other Black people.

The mainstream American culture and the mainstream Black culture--henceforth called American and Black for ease, not necessarily accuracy--are so different that there's very little overlap. You will not find many people heavily immersed in both. Trust me, you won’t. That Black man or woman from your job who goes to happy hour every week and goes out with you all on Fridays after work probably isn’t spending a lot of time with Black friends. That other Black person, the one who rarely goes out and socializes with the rest of your coworkers, probably spends most of his/her downtime with other brown-skinned people. Obviously, none of this is 100%, but in my experience, it’s not that far from it.

Why are American culture and Black culture so different? It’s very simple, really. It goes back to the idea of the United States as the world’s melting pot. The theory behind the term is that people from different cultures would enter our borders and would all be accepted and blended into "America". The people would "melt" into one homogeneous culture. Personally, I do not like this concept, but let’s roll with it because it was that concept that brought a lot of people over here. And for a lot of those peoples, it became reality. It took some time and struggle, but there is a lot less racism and segregation among American Europeans (White people) than there was a century ago.

Even in those places, such as the Northeast, where segments of the European population remains largely segregated, people still "live America". People live Irish, Italian, Polish, etc. at home and in their neighborhoods, but they can tap into the American culture. The American culture still very much represents them. It welcomes them.

For other people, though, especially those whose ancestors did not come to America voluntarily, the melting pot was not real. Over time, the concept has even become largely undesired. After centuries of slavery, torture, and government-sanctioned terrorism--a harsh history of being taught that the melting pot was not for us--many Black people abandoned the idea of ever becoming a real part of America. Essentially, we, like other people of color, were forced to live on the fringe of America.

Prior to the 1950s, everyone would have agreed that American culture and Black culture were two separate and distinct entities. That separation still exists today; it's just that most Americans just seem to be unaware of the divide. Black people are, technically, American. We’ve been here for centuries. Even though others recognize that we have our own culture there is an expectation that American is our primary culture. BUT…the two cultures are extremely disparate. Living both is not easy. Nothing quite illustrates this as much as television ratings. Look at any of the studies breaking down what America watches versus what Black America watches. Here’s one such study (look at pages 32 and 33 of the pdf).

As more Black people have become more accepted in the white-collar work force, there has grown an expectation that we will assimilate into the culture and be like our American (White) colleagues. As the 1980s became the 1990s and beyond, however, many of us realized that we like it on the fringes. Because when you look at American culture for what it is, you realize that it is largely White culture. The reality of the melting pot is that as other (White) groups entered the United States, they were assimilated into the mainstream. Not so much for the Black, Latino and even Asian cultures. Sure, the culture is always adapting and picking up things here and there, but American culture is defined by what White people do. And, rightly or wrongly, a great many Black people have lost the desire to do what White people do. One line from Boogie Down Production’s Homeless sums the sentiment perfectly. “To be fully American, you know, you gotta take out the word Afro. Now they’ve relaxed our heads; they might as well call us Toby.”

A Black person who identifies with Black culture is very often an outsider to American culture and, thusly, seems odd and strange to his/her White colleagues. Foreign. Here’s one example. But this is our America. It’s just not the same as theirs.
Dichroicdichroic on August 9th, 2007 07:17 am (UTC)
Over here because I was interested by your comments to willshetterly and by your user name (I'm from Philadelphia). I'd make two tangential points, though I have no quarrel with your main conclusion. First, your division of people into groups I, II, and III: in my experience this is *at least* as much a function of work environment as of personality. At different times in different places I've fallen into all three of those groups. It had a lot to do with how much I liked my specific coworkers at the time as well as whether the local culture supported a lot of work socialization. I think your main point's still valid if you're just talking about black individuals socializing within Black- or American-culture groups (to use your terms, though I'm not entirely comfortable with them). Second, I do think there's been massive change since the 1950s - just the fact that you as an individual do get to choose which group to socialize with is a huge change, even though the disparate groups still exist. I can name a lot of black historic figures who interacted with whites extensively in the course of their work - but who didn't socialize with whites and couldn't if they'd chosen to.

A while ago, I caught a bit of a very interesting documentary series on American English on PBS. Different episodes looked at different regions' or groups' language. One of the points they made (that I found a little upsetting, because it does point to increasing estragement) is that deacdes ago, if there was a distinctive black accent, it was because rural Southern blacks had moved into the Northern cities and brought their speech patterns with them; speech among rural Southern blacks and whites was mostly indistinguishable. Now, though, there is a distinct difference in the English used by blacks and whites in/from the same region - and that difference is growing.
sixersfan on August 9th, 2007 01:33 pm (UTC)
I'm from Philadelphia as well.

Yes, there has been a drastic change since the '50s. As I've said in previous posts, I work almost exclusively with White people. In my 14 years in the workforce, (shoot, I don't feel like counting right now) I don't think I've reached a total of 10 Black coworkers. Actually, I'm not even sure I've had 6. But your point is valid; Black people now have more of an opportunity to interact and socialize with White people and people of every other social, racial, and religious distinction. All people have better opportunities for that now. I, myself, have friends of many races. In fact, I haven't made a new Black friend since going to Indiana three years ago. Most of these friendships, while I value them like any other and wouldn't trade them for anything, are emotional. We talk to each other and share thoughts and feelings. We don't go out much, and even when we do, it's usually just the two of us and maybe just one more person. We don't go out in groups often because I have no interest in what their other friends want to do and he/she has none in what my other friends want to do. Perhaps I should have been more specific and clear at what I was trying to say. It's not a complete segregation or anything like that, but there's not much group socializing.

Now, though, there is a distinct difference in the English used by blacks and whites in/from the same region - and that difference is growing.
I think this difference is growing because southern Black people are still moving north, but now, many northern Black people are moving back down south. Our regional differences aren't as different as they used to be. It's still very different, don't get me wrong, but not as much as, say, 20 years ago.

Also, the rise of southern hip-hop has helped to integrate the South into the rest of Black culture when it used to be a culture unto itself.
Dichroicdichroic on August 9th, 2007 01:50 pm (UTC)
I'm afraid the difference might be more like what they call (I think) "Canadian raising" - that round of some vowel sounds that has Canadians saying aboot for about. It was originally a regional thing, and was thought to be dying out. Instead it's been growing in recent years and infiltrating into other parts of Canadian, largely because (from what I've read) it's a way to identify as distinctly Canadian. If black English is getting further from general American English then I suspect it's a way to not-quite-deliberately identify as different. Especially given the number of people who speak both and code-switch depending who they're spekaing to. I could be wrong; this is all my guess.

Also, I didn't know there *was* southern hip-hop, which proves how out of touch I am and makes the above logic even more shaky.

You didn't at all give the impression that you socialize only in segregated groups. But it does sound like some of what I've experienced. I'm a (secular) Jew who's lived in mostly non-Jewish areas since college - and now I'm an American living abroad. You (generic "you", by which I really mean "I") try to make friends wherever you go, and you cherish all of them, but when you go back to friends with a similar backgrounds it's such a relief for a while not to have to be explaining all the time. If I stay too long in those homogeneous groups I get antsy too, and start looking for more variety - but when I've been dealing only with variety for a long time, it sure is nice to be able to talk shorthand again, the sort you use among people who do understand what you're talking about.
sixersfan on August 9th, 2007 02:28 pm (UTC)
I really do think it's more of a case of the country getting smaller. Just like Californians and Easterners used to sound very different but now sound pretty much the same because of mass media and deregionalization of music, the same has happened for Black people. It's the same phenomenon, really, that's just occurring in two parallel worlds.

I know what you mean about your experience living abroad. The biggest difference is about what to do or where to go when spending time together. This club or that club. This CD or that CD. This show or that show. This restaurant or that restaurant.
Dichroicdichroic on August 9th, 2007 03:03 pm (UTC)
That accounts for Black people sounding more like each other. But how do you account for them sounding more different than people of other cultures in their area?

(When I'm talking about accent it seems more reasonable to talk about a cultural identity than a physiological one. I suspect it's not correct to talk about a single Black culture any more than I can say there is one American one overall, though there certainly is a mainstream one that members of other cultures inthe US are familiar with.)

And no, there are more basic things people don't understand. As an American among Europeans, one example is sense of time. Americans tend to hurry more. As a Jew among nonJews, there was a certain wariness based on growing up with a history of oppression even though I haven't encountered malicious discrimination personally. (Unwitting assumptions, yes, but that's much less hurtful.) But it's something I have to explain really carefully to someone who hasn't been through it because it just doesn't make sense to them, and it's nice sometimes not to have to.
sixersfan on August 9th, 2007 06:00 pm (UTC)
But how do you account for them sounding more different than people of other cultures in their area?
The people are gravitating toward different norms.
intaxicatedintaxicated on August 9th, 2007 03:09 pm (UTC)
I know I don't comment too often, but I just wanted to say I enjoy reading your posts. They make me think.
sixersfan on August 9th, 2007 06:02 pm (UTC)
Thank you. I appreciate your saying that. Often, I wonder if what I'm trying to say is actually the message that's getting across. So many times I take certain things for granted that others do not. I really owe poisontaster a lot of credit this week because she's proofread everything to make sure I explain what needs to be explained.
40 Acres & a Strip Club: zoe/washpoisontaster on August 9th, 2007 07:01 pm (UTC)
N'awww..... Wow. I need to save this thread!
sixersfan on August 9th, 2007 07:13 pm (UTC)
Humph: spiralsheep Raven Logospiralsheep on August 10th, 2007 12:12 am (UTC)
Here via IBARW
I'm finding your posts this week very interesting. Thank you for sharing your point of view.
sixersfan on August 10th, 2007 04:50 am (UTC)
Re: Here via IBARW
Thank you for reading. I'm trying to read as much of the other posts as I can, but it's difficult with life responsibilities. I'm hoping to do a lot of catching up over the weekend. There have been some really good posts.
Queen of the Monkey People: Is Thinking by whoaiconsadelheide on August 10th, 2007 08:04 pm (UTC)
We were kinda sharing a brain for a moment. As I read your post, I was thinking back to the whole 80's thing. I couldn't imagine not knowing who the Coreys were or what Flock of Seagulls was. In my experiences in the 80's, you couldn't get away from them. They were everywhere. On TV, on the radio, on magazines at the checkout, on billboards. But, I suspect, I was surrounded by White American media and whatnot.

And the whole post made some excellent points and really made me think.

I fall firmly in Group III. I am, grudingly, trying to force myself to be Group II.
sixersfan on August 11th, 2007 01:10 am (UTC)
I fall firmly in Group III. I am, grudingly, trying to force myself to be Group II.
I just can't do the group thing. Not with the work folks. I've tried. It usually takes an hour for me to regret it. But I've tried.