Saturday, March 17, 2012

Pick a Side

In 2009, Margarita "Maggie" and John Anderson of Oak Park, Illinois decided that they were going to spend the year patronizing black-owned businesses, going out of their way to spend money with enterprises owned by fellow African-Americans. And sparked a current of outrage from aggrieved Whites who felt that the decisions of a family of four who lived just outside of Chicago victimized themselves and everyone like them.

Some of it is simple to understand (and perhaps simple-minded at the same time). "If we have to act as though the color of someone's skin doesn't matter," the logic goes, "why shouldn't everyone else?" Many Whites come across tired of being painted as racists due to the sins of their fathers, grandfathers and earlier generations, and this has, to a degree given them the largest investment in the idea of a post-racial society, as it is a society where punishing them (in their eyes) for the crimes of the past is no longer condoned. This partially manifests itself in the idea that if everyone simply pretended that race wasn't important and acted like that in their daily lives, that the status quo would wash way all of the lingering vestiges of the past, and create the meritocracy that the United States had falsely claimed itself to be in the past.

One of the things about modern America is that race has become less important. And a certain level of amorphous tribalism (which both includes and transcends race) has taken its place. It's amorphous in the fact that it's not carefully marked out or delineated; different observers often come to different conclusions as to where the boundaries are drawn. Be that as it may, people are often very sensitive to it, and therefore, activities that emphasize it often come in for added scrutiny. For instance, while the Anderson's experiment in buying Black for a year isn't substantially different than making the choice to buy "local" for the same amount of time, race triggers tribal awareness (and resentments) in a way that locale does not. So online posters who complained bitterly about the Andersons bypassing better (lower priced, better quality, et cetera) white businesses often claimed to see no problem with refusing to patronize a better business that just happened to be outside of an arbitrarily defined geographical area.

As time moves on, some tribal boundaries will continue to shift, while others will continue to ossify. Some will change seemingly overnight, while others will take decades to move even a small distance. But because the new tribalism is an internal construct, it will be an interesting mirror on ourselves and how we see our places in the world. Our prides, anxieties, aspirations and resentments will all be written into how we see the tribal divisions around us. Which will make them interesting ways to see how good a job we're doing at building the world we say we want. And of understanding if others see progress in the same way that we do.

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