hegemony [n] – the ideological manipulation of a subordinated group by a dominant ruling class whose intent is to convince the subordinated to view their domination as justifiable; the process by which the subaltern accept, internalize and enforce their alterity.
Shit. This is a big topic, and I’m of course not going to touch on all of the possible manifestations of hegemony, like kyriarchy, patriarchy and antiblackness, but what I want to do here is clarify a term which entered my vocabulary my junior year. I had seen the word hegemony or heard it in conversation, (reading it as he-guh-moan-ee) but never really understood its significance until I read an essay (which at the time I barely understood) in which the term was for the first time brought into its Marxist context. The essay was written by Antonio Gramsci, commonly understood as one of the forefathers of Marxist cultural studies, and Gramsci discusses hegemony primarily from the cultural vantage, going so far as to call his conceptualization cultural hegemony. Hegemony is one of those words like neoliberalism, neocolonialism, and patriarchy which are thrown about a lot in academic discourse, be it in papers or in seminars, in ways which can detract us from its basest manifestations insofar that its application seems ubiquitous. The overarching theme in many of our lives, it’s easy to riff on hegemony without really basing it in our everyday experiences as scholars. I’ve found that the vantages in my discipline which are used to concretize hegemony (which is, talking about in books) nevertheless keep the concept removed and bound within the theoretical world of race, as opposed to its real-world analog. If I accomplish anything in this post, I hope to clarify and make the concept clearer for an audience who perhaps hasn’t read Gramsci or Althusser, primarily through a study of what one of my primary research questions; the importance of ideologies in our lives.
In part, this post is also a definition of ideology, for we can’t really understand cultural hegemony without first exploring the mechanism through which hegemony functions. Rather than give a definition, let’s start with a story.
When I was young, I had a bunch of white friends. It was part of the experience of being in higher level classes in a school district which enacted its apartheid regime based on “intellectual capacity” that I only had white friends until I began to realize, at some point in high school, that I was not in fact white and that I enjoyed my Black friends’ presence a bit more than my white friends, although they weren’t in any way bad or, worse, racist (!) people. It was also a hassle to get my mother to let me go anywhere in middle school. I would have to call and beg for her to let me stay out in town longer than usual, and going to my friends’ houses was essentially a teeth-pulling fit every single time. I didn’t understand why my mother was like this until recently, when I began to reflect on what it meant to be a Black kid in a rather White suburb, and the discourses which parents transmit to their children in ways which are not directly legible. My mother would tell me every time she’d reluctantly acquiesce to letting me go to this or that friend’s house that I should “be good” and respectful and “never bring shame to the family name.” I thought this was kind of a medieval thing to say, conjuring up images of honor and chivalry, and I’d shrug it off. I didn’t really know how I could bring shame to the Lee family name, because everyone’s parents naturally loved me. I was a friendly, bright, funny and respectful young chap, but I was black. This was a realization I never really internalized, for my mother never really said it, but she knew that white parents would interact with me differently because of my blackness. They switched on a certain lens when interacting with me, be it conscious or not, and as a 11-year-old, I wasn’t aware of the switch. I had to constantly negotiate the fact that I was being interacted with through the veil of my blackness, through the concepts and notions which constitute a cultural ideology about what it means to be a Black person. This is perhaps my first introduction to the Gaze that everyone riffs on in critical theory; the concept that my otherness is visible and mapped onto my body, and that anyone interacting with me will perceive and inevitably act on notions which constitute the image which my visibility invokes. As a ten-year-old bourgeois black boy, I had never experienced marginalization outside of being picked on for being fat, which I inevitably internalized. This is hegemony, in a way, but a subject for another time.
One of my mother’s admonishments was: “Don’t eat at other people’s houses. There’s food at home.” I didn’t know what this meant, but I assumed at the time, comically, that it was because, in my family’s imagination, white people didn’t know how to cook. At the same time, there are tropes about white cleanliness in the Black community, too, which put me off from eating at their houses. So for the most part, I hesitated, but indulged from time to time. Yet, in retrospect, she told me not to eat at white people’s houses because they would think I either don’t have manners because of the way I eat, or that I don’t eat at home, two concepts which are rooted not in my general comportment, but in the specificity of my being a Black person. She was afraid they would map these rather stupid ideas onto me and mistreat me, and actively taught me to avoid such pigeonholing by curbing what would otherwise be “authentic” behavior. If I was hungry, I should eat, but because I was in the company of white people who may think that Black people don’t get enough to eat, or don’t eat well, or don’t eat exotic foods like lasagna, I needed to bend my behavior in order to spare myself the scrutiny and marginalization which would disillusion me and make me cognizant of the ramifications of my birth condition as an Other. That’s heavy shit, but it’s also something that many Black kids experience, particularly those who must exist in white space and occupy the position of the Other.
This is hegemony; the education of self-minimization to Black children, the transmissions of lessons which dictate that one’s natural behaviors, which may or may not be the product of one’s race, nevertheless inflect on others a reason to actualize and accept a preconceived notion of an entire group of people; that one must curb one’s natural tendencies in the presence of White people lest they corroborate a negative image of the collective Other which one represents. It’s teaching young girls to cover their bodies to keep the nasty boys from getting distracted by their bare shoulders and erotic knees. It is a remedy to a symptom of a greater issue, for the issue is not the Black mother or the father of teenage young girls, but those marginalize their children. It is so much harder to say to White people “maybe a Black kid is just hungry, and not hungry because he’s Black,” for a Black parent can’t speak to every White person their child will interact with. The easiest thing to do is to teach that child to bend and conform; and thus a hegemonic discourse is produced, internalized; it becomes an heirloom, transmitted across generations.
Hegemony interacts with ideology by responding to dominant narratives of the Self and the Other. These words, and the English language, aren’t discursive or expressive enough to really express what I’m talking about, but the Self in this case, sometimes also referred to as the Nation, is the conceptualization of the default person whose qualities therefore determine the existence and categorization of all else; the Others. Ideologies are best described as the assemblage of values, images, discourses and ideas which constitute a/the collective perspective of a people. It’s hard to distinguish an ideology from another, and for the most part, I view ideologies as rhizomic systems (from Deleuze and Guattari; something which has no central point of departure or arrival, and builds around a central core for which there is no fixed locus) as opposed to arborescent ones (something that has a root from which all else branches). When we think of race, for example, as an ideological system, we have no point to dictate the origins of the concept, for concepts rarely work this way. Even ideas which are coined, like intersectionality, are not necessarily new concepts, insofar that Black women have been riffing on the idea of intersectional feminism since at the very latest the 19th century.
I could get really heady, bringing in Althusser and de Certeau and Lefebvre to talk about how ideologies are manifest in physical space and in society, but this is a brief sketch. I wanted to really just tell this story, because my mother read my fellowship bio and noted that she didn’t understand what hegemony meant, despite me knowing damn well that she has experienced and internalized hegemonic discourses throughout her life, particularly when it was time to raise 4 young black kids in a New Jersey suburb. While I think it’s good to have other ways of talking about things, and that words like hegemony and discourse can raise more questions than they answer, I nevertheless remain open to the ambiguity of these words, and find that in their flexibility they can better speak to a system of conditions and experiences, as opposed to particulars which remain abstract and difficult to define.
respectability [n] – the state or quality of being respectable; social standing, character and reputation deserving of respect and decent treatment.
So as I mentioned in Desire, I’ve been watching my sister’s panel show The Grapevine lately. Today they released the final part of their four-episode conversation on Bill Cosby, with this episode concerning the issue of Cosby’s infamous respectability politics. I have wanted to write a piece on this issue for a while now, but have been either too busy or too motivated by other projects to truly dedicate a couple of hours to put my thoughts down on the page. Now, after having my catalyst, I can lay my thoughts bare for the world to see.
The Pound Cake speech is but one facet of Bill Cosby’s long-lasting legacy. Renowned for his comedic genius, his prolific image and his philanthropy, Bill Cosby is without a doubt an important figure in African-American culture, regardless of his political leanings or recent sexual assault allegations. After having taught an episode of the Cosby Show to a class of sixteen-year-old high school students last summer to demonstrate how African-Americans have attempted to use media to demonstrate counter-narratives of the ways which White Americans imagine our existence, I for one must acknowledge how important Bill Cosby has been towards introducing Black faces into the white spaces of American media.
That aside, I am not obligated at all, as a Black person, as a fledgling scholar of Black studies or as someone who avidly consumes and analyzes Black media, to like or even agree with Bill Cosby’s politics or messages, and the Pound Cake speech is the reason why.
normcore [n/adj] – a unisex clothing trend and cultural aesthetic which encourages plain, unremarkable dress and thoroughly rejects the commercial preoccupations of modern contemporary fashion.
I began the process of changing my aesthetic about two years ago, after I remarkably and rather frightening lost thirty-five pounds my first year in college. Prior to that seminal, life-changing moment, I had paid very little attention to what I wore, mostly because I saw clothes as a way of hiding my body instead of embracing it. I haunted my high school in baggy college sweatshirts or loose button-downs in order to keep eyes away from the folds which jiggled and shook as I walked. When I got to Swarthmore, my aesthetic mostly remained the same until it became necessary for me to buy new clothes, thanks to my shrinking waistline. Women began to remark that I actually looked good in jeans, which prompted me to buy several pairs immediately thereafter. I grew tired of the hoodies which I had worn in high school and began to wear sweaters which accentuated my newfound figure a bit more as I slowly got comfortable in this new skin of mine.
The summer after freshman year, I made the largest amount of money my young mind had ever experienced, and I of course went mad buying things that I did not need in the process of reinventing myself. Every few years or so I would have this urge to make myself anew, to completely reconstruct my identity, my aesthetic, to match my changing mind and mentalities. So I bought a shit ton of clothes which I do not wear now, all in the process of trying to make myself into someone whose reflection I could actually stand to see.
alterity [n.] the state of being “other” within a collective imagination.
I didn’t realize I was other until I got to high school, and even then, the otherness I experienced was somewhat unorthodox. Blackness, as it is often constructed within the homogenizing gaze of whiteness, is synonymous with poverty. The black experience, as we see it on television, is the experience of rags-to-riches drug dealers, elite athletes from Compton and exceptional intellectuals cradled by violence. These are not fallacies – these are archetypes which exist, which are real and hold legitimacy, but they are also the authentic images. These are the images which are believed to be the truth of Blackness – Blackness as poverty, Blackness as economic dilapidation. Authenticity is a strange phenomenon, for no one really gets to say what is and is not authentic. Yet still, there seems to be this notion that one image – that of the Wire, for example – is real, while other images – those of the Cosby Show or Blackish – are not. Within this framework, I became aware of the fact that I was not as I appeared. I was exceptional because I hailed from a two-parent household in a suburban upper-middle class neighborhood in New Jersey. I carried with me throughout high school a bitterness which I could not describe or understand, for in that bitterness was a constant sense of conflict whose roots lie in my own ambivalence, in my own irreconcilability.
It wasn’t until I got to college when I realized that the metrics used to determine what Blackness is and should be are entirely hegemonic, entirely constructed and entirely dangerous. It was also in college – perhaps the furthest away I was from everyday contact with working-class Blacks, to be quite honest – that I realized that the perception of the Black experience was not a racist presumption with stereotypes, although the American imagination is often riddled with false and base interpretations of the realities of the subaltern. Millions of Black people lived in poverty, a reality I did not experience until I got to college, a reality I did not have to experience because it was so removed. But I have talked about this already, and talking about it more is only stroking a patchy beard.
The source of otherness comes from an established understanding of normality in the public imagination. The phrase “imagination” is important here, for we are all part of a collective imagination through which ideas and images are constructed, encoded, decoded and deconstructed as a community effort. This effort transcends race, gender, ethnicity and religion. We all play our part in the collective imagination of the United States, whether we consider ourselves Americans or not.
token – [n] a person – typically belonging to a subaltern group — whose perfunctory inclusion into a social group or organization is meant to create the illusion of inclusivity and social progress.
I do not exist to reaffirm white comfort. My purpose in life is not to teach White Americans the ills of their barren culture, to present in a respectable, palpable way the values of my own. As easy as it is for me to draw a neat line between these two worlds, I do not walk the earth in order to dispel or embolden that line of color, to make my racial existence into a neat presentation for white ears and eyes. When you look at me, you see an amalgamation of what White America expects of Black America. You see education, you see sophistication, you see around me a shell of whiteness into which all of my kind can and should crawl, even if that shell has the potential and the desire to crush us all therein. I do not exist to tell you this, but I am doing it because I have given up on the idea of the residents of the Other side figuring it out for themselves.
A professor of history at Swarthmore once told me that it was not my duty as a Black person to explain my marginalization to White people. Of course I rejected the idea, because I understood, somehow, that white people did not know that they were guilty of marginalization. In my heart it was apparent that the average White person was morally good, yet was nonetheless taught, like me, both explicitly and implicitly, to equate everything about life in the Other’s skin with inferiority. As we progress through the 20th century, the dominant narrative which proclaims Black inferiority seems to transition from being about genetics to being about choice. Black people have chosen to hate themselves, have chosen violence instead of progress, drugs and criminality instead of peace and the American dream. The rhetoric of the choice of Black marginalization, and conversely of bootstrap resuscitation, became the dominant narrative in the mind of millions of Americans, post-Civil Rights Movement, and so began the process of alleviating the wounded white conscience, racked and bewildered by guilt, by shifting the blame of racism completely onto the Other.
“It is not your duty as a Black person to teach White people about their oppression of your people.”
down – (adj.) not identifying directly with a particular struggle because of a perceived difference in identity yet still possessing an interest in a community or in the issues which this community must address.
What does it mean to be down? Downness can be understood as a rendition on allyship, although I don’t really think allyship is a very helpful term, considering that everyone has an opinion of what an ally should and should not do. For one, there is a pervasive notion that allies should not speak unless spoken to, which is inherently false, for many of the people who have been the strongest advocates for the liberation of other peoples had to speak up, for the people who required emancipation either were too marginalized to do it themselves or too fooled by the hegemonic structures that be to care. Downness is a consciousness of one’s own space and the space which is afforded to and denied to others. Let’s use an example: a Korean-American teacher who chooses to instruct a unit on Black History in her predominately black, working-class ninth-grade American history class is potentially helping a group of students better understand their historical relationship to their community and to their country. Her allyship appears in the form of her willingness to educate her students on materials which are relevant to their own understanding of themselves.
This teacher is down in this example, for the teacher has not become lost to the effects of cultural blindness. She operates with the understanding that although her subject matter is at a distance from her – although that distance, ultimately, is up for further discussion – the material is still relevant to the way that a group of people of a different identity perceive their reality, and consequentially, how she perceives her own. She is in no way obligated to teach this information, but her choice to do so, understanding the importance and implications of her decisions, ultimately signals her devotion to the cause, existence and progress of her students.
It seems to be easier for persons of color to be down with other struggles. In the United States, the Black freedom struggle seems to be emblematic for the masses of colored people who similarly seek their liberation from the clutches of white racism. The integration of Black studies curricula into the academy at the end of the 1960s saw the birth of Latino/Chicano studies, Native American studies, Middle Eastern/Arab studies and Asian studies programs, and eventually, Queer/Sexuality studies programs. So often in the creation of POC coalitions, at least at Swarthmore, students of color turn to Black students, who supposedly have a history of organization, of community, of shared and open struggle.