Saturday, April 21, 2012

Fun With Nativism

John McWhorter is an African-American author who has gotten himself into a heap of controversy by saying heretical things about race from time to time.

Much of the thesis of his book "Losing the Race" has been badly butchered, misinterpreted, and made into a straw man separate from his original point. His original point, mind you, is that: (1) Yes, racism does exist in America, and it's not hard to find, but (2) Racism in America today is not SO pervasive that it presents a complete barrier to pursuing your goals (as a person of color). In other words, whether you want to be a surgeon, an attorney, an engineer, or whatever else it is, there's no barrier that's shutting the door, forcing you to stay out.

You can imagine some of the things he gets called. 'Uncle Tom' is just the beginning. Either way, he challenges the 'professional victim' ideology, so those who feel threatened by it often rephrase his point as saying, "There isn't any racism," which was never his point to begin with.
I take a very McWhorter-esque view of nativism here in Lowell. To clarify my point: (1) Yes, it exists, and can be found either at or just beneath the surface in several realms but (2) Nativism is not SO pervasive as to prevent whoever lives here from doing whatever it is they want to do. If you like [insert name of activity] and you're passionate about it, in other words, you're going to do just fine. Because it's a small city with so many little niches, in fact, if you're both dedicated and competent, you're more than fine. Look around at people who lead the civic organizations and who organize a lot of the cultural events, and you'll see my point -- there isn't some invisible barrier, based on birthright, that stops them. People mights say politics is an exception, but if they looked at the vote totals of people like Eileen Donoghue, Franky Descoteaux, or Bud Caulfield, they'd have to backpedal a bit. Even a lot of the non-elected leadership in the prominent slots at City Hall is from all over -- our CFO, for instance, went to school in Philadelphia and even had the gall to once live in Silicon Valley!

However, when that nasty nativism does pop up from time to time, it sometimes manifests itself in funny ways:

(1) Today, I got Mimi P to crack up a bit when I mentioned something I've been saying since I moved here, and which has also been said by Kad Barma and others: Somehow, according to the nativist's hierarchical creed, if you arrived in Lowell from the shores of [insert name of country, preferably in Africa, Latin America, or Asia], you're *okay.* That's somehow laudable, it's awesome, and good for you. However, if you come from some other place in the U.S., you're an alien. You don't *count* in the same way as a Burmaloconganese Trans-Saharan refugee does.

(2) People assume you can't possibly know where things are in the city. I've encountered this a couple times already in my new position -- it's not said or done in a nasty way, but it's usually by someone who is a bit up there in years and can't imagine how said aliens might be able to navigate. Two weeks ago, it was a non-profit director on the phone, who was talking about the history of her organization. She mentioned that they once had an office in Cupples Square, audibly gasped, and then stopped to apologize that I must have "no idea" what she was talking about (again, she wasn't being intentionally rude or obnoxious, so I very gently offered some familiarity reference points in a half-asking-the-question-for-her-confirmation sort of way). Today, I met a guy at the Armenian Genocide Remembrance who started telling me about his business, and by extension, his life story. When he mentioned that he grew up on "D Street," he stopped to apologize as soon as he said it, much like the first lady on the phone. Again, nothing mean in his spirit or tone -- his apology, much like that from a ref who accidentally called for a "Jump Ball" at a wheelchair basketball game -- was that of someone who had committed an unintentional gaffe. I just sort of grinned and bore what wasn't worth correcting someone in his 70s or 80s over.

To give a counterpoint back to that one, yes, there are tons of landmarks, streets, and parks that I frankly don't have a clue about. And yes, it would be overly touchy of anyone to get offended by someone trying to genuinely help them understand something. But Cupples Square? D Street? It's like, would you be so patronizing as to start telling a new immigrant to the U.S. where a certain state or city was, and without them asking the question or giving a quizzical expression, start explaining it? [come to think of it, new immigrants and people who speak accented English probably have to put up with patronizing B.S. that's way worse, on a much more regular basis].

[Quick aside: I know that blog writing is basically "toneless," but if I were speaking this in a Podcast or a Vlog, I'd be saying in a comedy routine sort of way].

(3) To reiterate something I've bandied out a time or two here on the blog, but will throw out again while I'm on the overall subject, most hand-wringing on the subject comes from my fellow non-natives. What I mean is people who preface what they say at meetings with, "No one will listen to me anyway because I'm not a [insert pedigree reference here]," or people who feel excluded when someone is introduced as a "lifelong Lowellian" (that's just a valid reference point, and much like any other [i.e. published author, world traveler, Nobel Prize winner, etc.] isn't said to invalidate people who don't hold that card). Fellow non-natives are often some of the guiltiest when it comes my first point, about preference based on story of origin. To the white liberals who act like caricatures of, well, white liberals, I am the least cool option possible -- an American-born straight white male from outside the region who believes in God. Were I from Outer Zamunda and trying to balance my tribal beliefs and customs against the funny things that people do in this strange new land, those same people would find it so "intereeeeesting" and "faaaaascinating," in a drawn-out, new-syllables-added-in sort of way to use those words.

What makes me so sure of this? The people I've become close to since moving here range from those newer to the city than even me all the way to the uber-pedigreed. What they tend to have in common is that they're open-minded, interesting people who care about ideas and are fun to meet up and chat with. Those with the storied lineage put a lot less importance on that when assessing others as is sometimes the perception. As for me, I'm not *using* or *exploiting* their city any more than I would be wherever else I would've other words, if I had moved to, say, Providence or Manchester or Portsmouth, I think I'd generally be doing the same sorts of things, in the same sorts of ways, for the same sorts of reasons, which basically boil down to being part of *the equation.*

And that's enough of that for now -- I meant for this to be a humorous post, but it's morphed a bit, and if it got any longer, well, I might be hand-wringing!


kad barma said...

Had to laugh the other night, out with a "mixed" crowd including many younger life-long area natives. Someone was complimenting the food and beer selection at the new Ward 8 (soft opening this past Friday, and official opening to be announced any minute now) and someone asked where that might be. A bunch of people stepped up to helpfully flex their "been here awhile" muscles to translate it into cityspeak--"You know, the old Courtyard". The one guy in the group not even living within half an hour of Lowell (he's lived and raised his kids in West Groton, practically in East Townsend for longer than most of those city natives had been alive) made me and the rest of the group laugh by saying "you mean JJ's".

Turns out he'd been born and raised in Cupples Square decades before most of the lifers telling their stories had even been born.

Nativism is ALWAYS relative.

Murph said...

What's interesting here is the intersect of race and place, which, come to find out, scientists/geneticists attach "race" not to skin color or physical features, but to a geography, to particular regions of the world. Basically, the discussion of race is really about where your great-great-great ad infinitum ancestor came from. So, as Kad Barma points out with nativism, how far back do you want go? It's all arbitrary, which I think is the real pisser.

ratbas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ratbas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ratbas said...

Speaking as a native who generally refers to the bridges by what street they're on and doesn't know every generation's name for every neighborhood, I'd think it'd be fun to see if Dee Tension could throw in a local/geography segment to trivia night. I'm sure you'd do fine.

Progressive Veterans said...

Greg, you whiffed on a couple of finer points. In the ever tedious game of "moving the goal posts," it is important to note; are you a 'taxpayer?' This is code for 'do you own a home?'.

It is likley you can get away with owning rental properties in Lowell, but don't dare BE a renter.

And, condos don't count. Real Lowellians own homes. Anyone that tells you different is subsisting off the microeconomy centered around the martini slurping, spicey food eating, cobblestones crowd, who rather read that 'Howl' website than buy The Sun.

- Jack

The New Englander said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments...yes, it's a question of scale, and each person will use it differently - as Jack said, there's more than one hierarchy in place.

I will also score somewhat of an own goal here by saying nativism isn't always completely unjustified. Again, it all depends on what it is...if it means taking an extremely parochial, closed-mind worldview that rejects anything new or different, then yes, it's a failure. As I've said many times on this blog, I enjoy poking fun at the double-standard by which people who otherwise prescribe to all the politically-correct shibboleths can otherwise lay their true feelings bare against *certain* people.

But if nativism means having pride in place, and wanting to protect or defend whatever you think makes it great, then to some degree it's prove that point, just imagine an extreme hypothetical of a place no one cared about, and one took pride in. There might be no sense of nativism, but that doesn't sound like a place anyone would want to live in, either..