Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Pope, left and right… and that tropical island

By Isabel Manuela Estrada Portales, Ph.D., M.S.

There are several ways in which Pope Francis is upending the outward ways of the church without messing much with the doctrinal essence. Shouldn't his chosen name, after the poor loving, pacifist Saint Francis de Assisi have been a hint?
Damas de Blanco/Ladies in White, Havana, Cuba
He seems a real follower of Christ, at least of the Christ that warned in Mathews 10:34: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
While his approval ratings among American Catholics and the general public are at an enviable 85 and 70 percent, respectively, everyone has found something to dislike.
After my orthodox atheism, I myself found solace in the service oriented call of Jesus Christ. I thought there was something there, and, when I told my mother, she showed me something I had written as a child about a vocation of service. I was convinced that’s what socialism was.
The immense disappointment and betrayal I felt when the intricacies of the Cuban calamity became apparent to me – something inevitable if you study journalism there – sent me into the Catholic Church with the same passion and conviction. I switched masters. After leaving Cuba, however, I realized the church was only “liberating” in socialist or leftist regimes, everywhere else, it was a purveyor of the worst capitalism has to offer, particularly by reaffirming the silencing propaganda; and a force to keep the poor and disposed in their place. My brain, a bit recovered from the previous ulcer, began to see clearly and my orthodox atheism returned just in time.
Then comes Pope Francis and tries to upend things.
I praise him for following through with his own beliefs and opinions, conflicting as they may be at times. I applaud that, as certainties are no common in my own thinking.  
He goes to the root of the problem of poverty and denounces the ills of capitalism. His concern for the environment, as a man of science, are in the same vein, since he understands how worsening environmental conditions would further harm the poorest individuals and countries. These criticisms open him to severe attacks from the right and applause from the left.
He has also shown compassion for whom his religion considers sinners, with a non-condemnatory tone towards LGBT people and a year of forgiveness for women who have had abortion – I don’t find that particularly compassionate as it is premised on women feeling contrite and repentant for having taken care of their health in the way they needed. But these are, no doubt, considered very liberal positions in some quarters.
And, in the midst of all of these revolutionary stances, this Pope goes to Cuba and does the same thing the left does. All of the sudden, the fight for equality, justice, fairness, freedom is put on hold and we begin to worship a 56 year old dictatorship. I wonder if he is atoning for his silence before the right wing Argentinian dictatorship, by going way out on a limb to the other side.
Why meeting with Fidel Castro? I can concede to meeting with the current dictator, as he is the head of the government. But why go out of his way to meet with the other one? Why not meeting with the opposition? The justification that this was an “informal meeting” is not just ridiculous but utterly hypocritical.  
According to the Washington Post:
“Francis pleaded ignorance about the Cuban dissidents who say they were arrested by security agents when they tried to see him at Havana’s cathedral.
“The pope said he had no information about what came of the Vatican embassy’s invitation for some dissidents to come to the cathedral to be among those who could greet the pope on Sunday. He stressed that no private meeting was ever planned but that he would have been happy to greet them in the crowd.”
He is trying to subvert the status quo everywhere, but falls for it completely in Cuba.
It reminded me of Aguirre, The Wrath of God, “The church has always been on the side of power.”
For political expediency, there are a couple of harmful contradictions in the Pope’s actions. As he is criticizing the ills of capitalism, the focus on consumption and its detrimental effects on the environment and on the poorest among us, his visit to Cuba, his guarded message that leaves intact the tenants of the repressive regime – which echoes the apologist ways of many leaders of the church in Cuba, and brings to mind the role of the church in the previous dictatorships in the island – and, finally, his completely unnecessary visit to Fidel Castro make for a very dubious backdrop for his anti-capitalism message. Cuba is the symbol of the worst versions of socialism and communism, and the man taking a principled position against the worst of capitalism decides to shake a conciliatory hand not just with the Head of State, Raul Castro, which protocol demands, but goes out of his way to shake the bloody hand of Fidel Castro, the unrepentant despot who destroyed the island and oppressed its people.
In the U.S., Senator Bernie Sanders is going around explaining what socialism is and, most importantly, what those of us who want to make the United States a better, fairer place mean by social democracy – health care and education as rights not privilege; a real, dignifying safety net that would help those who lose a job or fall ill; a justice system that honors its name; racial justice; less war; more cooperation around the world.
The old right goes around trying to tie Sanders’s message to the Soviet Gulags and the like, but young people saddled with debt and with expectations of individualistic and cutthroat success have no memory of a Soviet era and no intention of ignoring a potentially good idea just because the name may be associated with past wrongs in some places.
Could you imagine what would happen if Sanders were to praise Cuba’s regime? That would be all the fodder Republicans would need. Sanders has said he was leery of running not because he was afraid of losing, but because he was fearful a rebuke of him would be damaging to the ideas and ideals he espouses, which he believes are really good and important for the betterment of our nation.
The Pope puts us just in that predicament: he was already being criticized for being a leftist, a progressive, and that worse of all things, a Democrat. Now, his position – or lack there of – regarding Cuba, as he supposedly advocates for reconciliation, as if the opposition and the regime were in anything like equal footing, gives credence to those who believe the left is willing to be silent in the face of oppression as long as a nice “equality and anti-imperialism” speech is given.
At the end, it was all public relations for Pope Francis. It’s a shame he found the way to the homeless in Washington, D.C., but couldn’t “informally” bump into the repressed and oppressed in Havana.


DISCLAIMER: These are my personal views and do not represent the opinions of my employer, or any other organization.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Passing as white privilege; blackness as pathology

By Isabel Manuela Estrada Portales, Ph.D., M.S.

It has taken me a long time to write about Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who passed as black and rose through the ranks of her local chapter of the NAACP. That incident represented such an entanglement of factors, conditionings and narratives that story and structure the black experience in America that I was puzzled and mesmerized. I was also conspicuously silent to my own surprise.
Whiteness ascribes racial identity to itself and others. I am suspicious of people claiming the right to name. To name others. To name me. Besides, I am not “just” black and I am Afro-Latina, black from Cuba, with an accent and a story that’s not the same as that of U.S. blacks. I can see how I could be considered an outsider, like Dolezal. But I live here and fight here and pay taxes that help war and incarcerate here.
On the other hand, so many smarter people spoke at length that I was unsure I had anything to add. I still am. However, current discussions about criminality and the black body have taken me back to this issue because it clearly portrays privilege and pathology.
Dolezal’s entitlement speaks to the essence of white privilege. Passing is also a privilege of whiteness and, at least, or particularly, in this case, in its manifestation it provides confirmation or reassurance of blackness as pathology.
Beyond the performative nature of her actions, there is much of pathology involved in the situation of Dolezal which confirms the preexistent assumptions in the white imaginary: a white person enmeshed, immersed, in the “black world” has been rendered the poster child for pathology. The heuristics here are complex. A clear case can be made that Dolezal herself was betrothed these tropes and beholden to them. She used them in her performance of blackness, with all the assumed maladies, the broken family, the black costume.
One fact makes the strength and pervasiveness of those tropes particularly worrisome: being in the midst of, dwelling with black people did not change Dolezal’s outlook, mind frame, preconceptions. While one may be inclined to think it was a purposeful and opportunistic use of those tropes, I wonder if there was any awareness of the entitlement vehicle that allowed her to ride high and far. She was a very close witness to the reality of race as lived by those of us who are raced, those without a choice to opt for colorblindness and it did not call out her consciousness.
Color lines have been fiercely policed, and that policing began on the white side of the tracks. I have always rejected the extent to which blacks have assumed the “one drop rule” to the point of disparaging those who “pass” or “outing” someone as black – it does not matter if the person actively negates it or just does not actively proclaim it. Why act as if there was something wrong with being black? Why demand allegiances someone does not want to assume? Why live by the white supremacist rule that biracial people can only be black? Why couldn’t consider themselves white? Of course, the other side would never accept them, but that’s for them to deal with. I understand the essentialist need for a united front, but there has always been something oppressive – something learned from the oppressor – about our need to “force” the acknowledgement of their blackness on those who don’t want to. This is, though, a common feature of oppressed groups as they have adopted unwillingly and unconsciously the dominant frame and sickness.
While passing has a long and complicated history, it almost always leaves you with an after taste of masquerade. I do juxtapose passing as resistance and passing as taking advantage. Passing was – perhaps still is – a way of not accepting the rules created to subjugate you; a just and justified trickery on the trickster. It was an insufficient and unfair fighting strategy, as it left the structure in place – and I am not even mentioning the hurt it did to the passer. While it has been common all over, I have been inclined to think passing, in its keen individualism, is a very American tactic, a way to overcome my own problems at whatever cost to the whole.
What should we make of Dolezal’s masquerade? She did bring to mind for a while Norman Miller’s white Negroes, without a sliver of revolutionary nihilism or, truly, any trace of respect or kindness towards the black culture she was phagocytizing, rather than adopting. Whatever contempt white Negroes may arise, Dolezal’s actions are worst. She was not merely adopting the ways of blackness or trying to assimilate, she was trying to be one of us, minus the painful historical baggage that actually made us. Would she have passed if she would not have had any benefits? Would she have gone back to white?
No place has been more contested than the body of black women. Dolezal did the last bit of black expropriation and exploitation. She ate black womanhood and mocked it. She usurped it as if it was just performance, and in performing blackness, she gave back to white America what it expects and understands as Blackness: a garb that can be put on or stripped out, a costume of sorts, an attitude and an outward fashion that is little more than affectation and, hence, neither is wrought by the continuous denigrations of lived blackness in America, nor by the cloak of warmth and protective coverings the black community puts up as a shield, nor by the structural conditioning of an inescapable raced life.
How does she care about blacks? Her acts are a mockery of affirmative action. Then, she sustains she is “challenging the construct of race.” How? By avowing every stereotype and benefiting from the spoils?
She profited from the fact that blacks had to accept all comers because whiteness was policed to no end and had naming privileges. But also blacks would accept her for the same reason whites would believe her: What white person in her right mind would want to be black? She knew that!
Race is ascribed by lineage, appearance or cultural assimilation. In the US, race is ascribed by lineage and appearance because it is assumed. Dolezal knew people would assume the lineage and played to that. As a scholar of much of this, she knew of her own privilege. One cannot adopt victimhood, as real victims never actually have that choice.  


DISCLAIMER: These are my personal views and do not represent the opinions of my employer, or any other organization.