September 22, 2008

Race in space and elsewhere

Space Race MattersOne of the bitter ironies anti-racists face when working to end white-supremacist thinking and action is that the folks who most perpetuate it are the individuals who are usually the least willing to acknowledge that race matters. (bell hooks, Teaching Community, 2003, p. 28)
You may be wondering what 7 astronauts have to do with a quote about anti-racism work from bell hooks. I too would be curious. Well, let me attempt to fill in several bits of context and hopefully you’re wonder will be satiated.

Last week, while checking out a NASA-related post from one of my favorite blogs, the Boston Globe’s “Big Picture Blog,” I happened to observe that none of the 7 astronauts for NASA’s latest space shuttle mission were people of color.
The results:I had no idea that my comment would generate a shower of racist rhetoric and inflammatory comments.

Here are the comments (that specifically refer to my comment) that were posted after my first comment:

diversity and the best for the job don’t always go hand in hand. ~nasausa
Thus begins the trope that people of color are not present in the photo of the 7 astronauts because they are automatically assumed to not be qualified. It is apparently the only vinyl in the room because it is the broken record that is played over and over again.

@Eric: Diversity for the sake of diversity is just not diverse. That’s political correctness. Also, if you want to sound politically correct, you might not want to call them “astronauts of color”. ~Brendan
I never said anything about diversity for the sake of diversity...oh and look Brendan has pulled out trope #2: dismissing any conversation or observation of race as being “pc.”
Comment:  There are many more comments along these lines, and Stoller nicely notes their biased assumptions and beliefs. Visit Stoller's blog for the full analysis.

We know John Herrington (Chickasaw) was an astronaut, of course. But Stoller says he was commenting only on the one picture, not the entire history of the space program.

It's possible that this photo was a skewed sample of the current astronaut corps. That a bunch of minority and women astronauts were waiting off-camera for their turn to be photographed.

On the other hand, it's possible that systemic racism and white privilege is impeding minorities and women from getting the education and jobs needed to become astronauts. That these people are being encouraged to think of themselves as clerks and janitors, not engineers and pilots. Without addressing the issue, we can't be sure.

Denial ain't just a river

Even though it doesn't focus on Natives, Stoller's posting is relevant here. Why? Because the same results occur in the Native field. Or in any field where people dare to raise the issues of racism and stereotyping.

If we point out problems in anything--from obscure TV shows to sports mascots to Nobel Prize winners--we're likely to hear the same complaints. These complaints are so predictable that we can list them in advance. The sun rises in the east and whites deny the existence of racism.

For instance, why aren't there any Native widgets, thingamabobs, or whatchamacallits? Here are some of the responses you can expect:

  • "It's just a [fill in the blank]."

  • (Ignoring the existence of racism and stereotyping everywhere.)

  • "You're just being PC."

  • (Dismissing the issue because the person can't or won't address it.)

  • "Don't you have anything better to do?"

  • (Ignoring the documented effects of racism and stereotyping on their victims.)

    I've rebutted these claims so many times that I'm tired of them. I'm waiting for someone to write the perfect rebuttal so we never have to address these worthless claims again. Until then, postings such as Stoller's and mine will have to do.

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