The Sellout and “Post-Racial” America

Having left America right before its plunge into race relation chaos, a confrontation with the sweeping consequences of social media in its construction of echo chambers, and the rise of the #metoo movement, I’ve found it at times overwhelming to coordinate the self-exploration that comes in living in a country where everyone looks like you in relation to an unsettling zeitgeist. In particular, while the implications and frictions of globalization are so blatantly manifest in America, in Korea I’ve often felt conflict over the fact that most other countries in the world will never quite get it. That is to say, while of course globalization touches the entire world, most of it remains relatively homogenous and I can’t help but doubt at times the purpose behind the agony we commit ourselves to over identity politics, treading a thin moral line. Of course I, like most of my generation, believe in the egalitarian ideals, but sometimes I can’t help but be discouraged by the sheer gap between such ideals and reality — as Beatty observes, we say we’re “post-racial” and no longer segregated, but of course there will always be segregation in some sense: the recent election speaks volumes to that. But of course, my optimism, like that of many others, is grounded in the immense wealth that living in America has brought to my life in the form of learning about different cultures through lasting friendships and reconfirming over and over the fact that, at heart, we are all one species with the same joys and flaws. It’s not so much my doubt over the fact that such a world can exist, where people of different races and beliefs can coexist peacefully (this world, despite what current news may scream, already exists in some places) but the fact that getting a glimpse of this world requires economic privilege.

As I struggle to articulate my thoughts in this reflection I realize that what has weighed on me recently is the complex matrices of segregation that divide culturally, within a culture, economically, and by any other metric we subconsciously measure one another by.  That is to say, it’s not that I don’t believe in the merit behind debates over intersectionality, feminism, Marxism, and all the other -isms, but that, at the the end of the day, so many people simply lack the means to leave their communities. When I said that at times I struggle with the knowledge that Koreans will never quite get it, I was thinking about how those who get to even attempt to look into recent works of American art that grapple with race-related intricacy already reside in some of the highest levels of society. The fact that in order to watch Moonlight, after it won the Academy Award last year, I had to take a bus to the largest theater nearby is one example (the experience of watching it in a theater full of Koreans was intriguing but not something to write about now). Another example is the means by which I obtained and read this book — it came to me through a friend, another English teacher, whose Korean co-teacher passed it onto him because he just couldn’t make sense of the introduction. All this is to say is that you need immense amounts of economic privilege to get a grasp at the world outside Korea, and even then, for all your ability and money, you still won’t be able to fully understand the nuance of wordplay and satire in something like The Sellout unless you directly experience the many ironies that underlie American life.

Perhaps one of the chiefest ironies is this: that while we lampoon one another over critical theory, none of us really want to move back to insulated communities filled with people who have never stepped on a plane. Reading this article in The Atlantic deeply unsettled me as it forced me to stare directly at my own immense privilege:

“But spend some time reading the biographies of your representatives in Congress, and you’ll notice, as I did, that by the time they reach office, many politicians have already been socialized into a cultural, educational, and financial elite that sets them apart from average Americans. While some representatives do have strong roots in their district, for many others the connection is tenuous at best. Even for those members who were born and raised in the part of the country they represent, that place is for many of them not their true home. Educated at expensive colleges, likely on the coasts, they spend their 20s and 30s in the nation’s great metropolitan centers. After stints in law, business, or finance, or on Capitol Hill, they move to the hinterlands out of political ambition. Once they retire from Congress, even if they retain some kind of home in their district, few make it the center of their lives: They seem much more likely than their predecessors to pursue lucrative opportunities in cities such as New York, San Francisco, and, of course, Washington. By just about every metric—from life experience to education to net worth—these politicians are thoroughly disconnected from the rest of the population.”

It’s deeply unsettling to me that on college campuses people will often skewer a conservative for being immoral because they lack the liberal ideologies that largely come from bastions of privilege — privilege not exclusively in the economic sense, as you can come from a lower-class immigrant family but the fact that they immigrated at all is usually a product of education or ambition (I realize this is a flimsy point, and one I’d like to think more about). Our self-justified selves inevitably arrive at this uncomfortable point of nature versus nurture, that of course people can be blamed for some aspect of character that lies beyond environmental influence. Usually at this point we just ignore this complexity and cave into the same tendency of communities to justify and support one another — after all, confirmation is the lifeblood of camaraderie.
This reflection has taken on a life of its own, but these thoughts only scratch the surface of all that I’ve been thinking about recently, before and even more intensely throughout reading The Sellout. And it’s these same complex thoughts, same feelings of helplessness in reaching a dead end, that triggers our survival mechanism to tell us to step back, laugh it off, and try not to take it too seriously — let’s just pretend we can hold hands and sing Kum Bah Ya. But the tenuousness of this humor, the way it’s a mere glaze over the dark depths of self-insecurity (read: “Who am I?”) and screams of frustration we all keep pent-up inside, is why The Sellout was such an uncomfortable read for me: it forced me to simultaneously laugh and question why I was laughing.
Some of the final lines are a testament to the fact that after the endless cycling between not taking it seriously and taking it too seriously, we end up just pushing on, numb as we are:
There should be a Stage IV of black identity—Unmitigated Blackness. I’m not sure what Unmitigated Blackness is, but whatever it is, it doesn’t sell. On the surface Unmitigated Blackness is a seeming unwillingness to succeed. It’s Donald Goines, Chester Himes, Abbey Lincoln, Marcus Garvey, Alfre Woodard, and the serious black actor. It’s Tiparillos, chitterlings, and a night in jail. It’s the crossover dribble and wearing house shoes outside. It’s “whereas” and “things of that nature.” It’s our beautiful hands and our fucked-up feet. Unmitigated Blackness is simply not giving a fuck. Clarence Cooper, Charlie Parker, Richard Pryor, Maya Deren, Sun Ra, Mizoguchi, Frida Kahlo, black-and-white Godard, Céline, Gong Li, David Hammons, Björk, and the Wu-Tang Clan in any of their hooded permutations. Unmitigated Blackness is essays passing for fiction. It’s the realization that there are no absolutes, except when there are. It’s the acceptance of contradiction not being a sin and a crime but a human frailty like split ends and libertarianism. Unmitigated Blackness is coming to the realization that as fucked up and meaningless as it all is, sometimes it’s the nihilism that makes life worth living.
These are all but cursory thoughts and I hope to explore them further in more polished writing, but for now, as always, I’m glad I was able to jot down and make sense of at least this much.

 

More reading to reflect on: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/no-compromises

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