Melissa Harris Perry Gets it Wrong: On The Harlem Shake, The Harlem Shake, Homophones, Homonyms and Homographs

Last summer, Rush Limbaugh made the highly specious and idiotic claim that Bane the movie villain was strategically being used to slander Mitt Romney. At the heart of his “argument” was the homophonic relationship between Bain [Capital] and Bane. Using their phonetic similarity, Limbaugh was able to embark on one of his characteristically stupid and malicious tirades.

This year, though no malice is involved, we have something similar going on with the Harlem Shake meme and the Harlem Shake Dance. The former comes from a song by the musician Baauer called “Harlem Shake.” Though it was released in the summer of 2012, it sporadically became popular because of a random Youtube video posted in February. In the song, Baauer includes the non sequitur phrase “do the Harlem Shake.” If you have listened to any songs in that genre, you know that non sequitur phrases abound, so for anyone even marginally familiar with EDM, this phrase and the song title mean nothing.

As indicated by the controversy about the alleged “disrespectful” reappropriation of the Harlem Shake, for some people, the phrase and the song title mean everything.

The truth is that they don’t.

The novelty of this Harlem Shake controversy is that the Harlem Shake dance and Harlem Shake meme are both homophonic, homographic and homonymous: they sound the same, they have the same pronunciation and they are spelled the same all while having different meanings.

So in some sense, it makes sense that people see some overlap between the two. After all, the title of Baauer’s song and its non sequitur lyrics actually do come from the Harlem Shake dance!

But! There is no relationship between these phenomena beyond the superficial. Black culture is not being disrespected. The Harlem Shake is not being “stolen.” Neither is the real Harlem Shake being “done improperly” or “offbeat:” it isn’t being done at all. These videos are just another strange happening in the odd world of Youtube. To believe anything else is to circuitously  search for a red herring that you yourself invented!

 

If anything, the truly interesting part of the story is that there is a mass of people, including academics, who are unable to do even the smallest amount of internet research and not come up with uninformed, inane and slyly conservative opinions. Now that is malicious.

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On the Post-Racial

I recently read a piece by David Hollinger for a class. His basic argument is that people who dismiss “the post-racial” are eliding important questions that the concept of the post-racial can answer. As you will see, I disagree. This is a long post, so brace yourself.

From its title to its last word, David Hollinger’s article “The Concept of Post-Racial: How Its Easy Dismissal Obscures Important Questions” confronts the logic behind the growing abundance of articles saying, “Race still matters.” In his view, the proliferation of articles on whether race matters after the election of President Obama comes from the “misguided” question, “Does race still matter?” This question, Hollinger goes on to contend, is a response to a caricature of the concept of the post-racial. Rather than indicating a definite, concrete turning point regarding matters of race,in his view the post-racial as a concept is intended to “sharpen our vision of what a society long-accustomed to invidiously ascribing and enforcing ethnoracial distinctions might look like if those abhorrent protocols could be weakened.” He goes on to assert, “This decidedly historical undertaking is quite different from a debate about ‘color blindness’ in the abstract” (Hollinger 175).

For Hollinger, the accusations of color-blindness that are often associated with the post-racial are unprecedented. Hollinger goes on to say that post-racial is not even his preferred term; he would rather replace it with “post-ethnic,” a term he prefers because “it implies a strong holdover from the past, but a refinement of that legacy in relation to new opportunities and constraints” (177).
This justification and Hollinger’s larger point about the question “Does race still matter?” both baffle me because his understanding of the post-racial seems to be completely idiosyncratic. Even if the post-racial was originally conceived as some utopian term that could enact change in the present by reconceptualizing the future, in common usage it is almost always associated with politics and practices of color-blindness or worse, color denial (read:neglect of racism). Moreover, even if we avoid a blanket generalization and agree that yes, sometimes the post-racial is more conceptual than diagnostic, more visionary than affirmative, we immediately have to call the term itself into question, especially its temporal implications.

Seriously, why use a term that makes such a strong temporal statement if you are not making a strong temporal statement? Furthermore, if the post-racial is “actually” visionary, why is it being deployed so frequently after the election of the United States’ first Black president? There are certainly instances in which the-post racial is used to envision a different reality in America, but to pretend that those instances are common is a vast and dangerous oversight.

Furthermore, the notion that “post-” enables both preservation and progress is also questionable. Hollinger hints at it when he mentions a host of other “post-” words (176). This notion certainly applies to schools of thought such as poststructuralism and post-Marxism, which theoretically move beyond their former idols without toppling any statues, but the roots of poststructuralism and the post-racial – i.e. structuralism and race – are significantly different. Structure is not [necessarily] violently imposed onto texts in the same way that race is violently imposed onto bodies. These processes of imposition can be quite similar, especially when it comes to culture being viewed as a structured text, but at the end of the day, few people probably want to preserve race. In other words, declarations of the post-racial are clearly about eradicating the past, progressing and never looking back. This disavowal of the past is exactly what worries critics who accuse the post-racial of being a colorblind ideology.

Hollinger attempts to elide the temporal implications of the post-racial by swapping it with “post-ethnic,” which has a root word – ethnicity – that is ostensibly more desirable to preserve than race, but he still makes a fatal error. W.J.T. Mitchell offers insight: “Ethnicity is a colonial term deployed to make distinctions among various ‘subject races’ and might be seen as a symptom of racism rather than alternative of it” (Mitchell 70). In other words, ethnicity does not solve the problem of racism. In fact, it might actually enable racism.

At the end of the day, this is the issue I have with the post-racial, especially under Hollinger’s strange, idiosyncratic definition. In practice and intrinsically, the post-racial is all about moving or having moved beyond race.

What troubles me about the term is that race is the scapegoat of racism, the real culprit. For this reason, I think that post-racial and post-ethnic are terms that should be avoided at all costs. Even though Obama won, this past election made it clear that racism is still alive. As long as race is our red herring, we’re going to continue wasting resources while racism, the true perpetrator, eludes us.

Sources

Hollinger, David. “The Concept of  Post-Racial: How Its Easy Dismissal Obscures Important Questions. Daedalus 140.1 (2011): 174-182. Print. (link)

Mitchell, W.J.T. Seeing Through Race. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 2012. Print