Sunday, August 23, 2009

New York missive no 59 - Blackberries

A blackberry. What’s the first thing that comes into your mind? An electronic hand-held device for receiving, reading, sending emails? Or a succulent piece of fruit composed of juicy purple beads? A fruit that grows on brambles at the back of gardens and tangled in hedgerows.

I had just eaten blackberries – huge ones – in my Mojo cafĂ© yoghurt and fruit (a regular and now so familiar indulgence). I had a moment of blackberry appreciation, so I wrote the word down, “Blackberry”, ready to be turned into more words at a later date.

Then I looked back at the page, saw "blackberry" written there, and the first thing that came into my head was the electronic variety.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

New York missive no 58

Woman walking in a very short skirt through West Village with your dog, do you know that your legs don’t look that good from behind? I wonder...maybe so, and you don’t care. That’s cool.


The yellow dress that Michelle Obama wore to her husband’s inauguration in January is on display at Fashion Institute of Technology, just over the road from my work. So I went to check it out one lunchtime. It’s there along with lots of other outfits by its Cuban designer Isabel Toledo, who, I felt (being as far from a fashion expert as possible hence not really in a position to comment), designs fabulous shapes but often misfires on the material. Michelle’s inauguration suit, for example, is an elegantly dramatic shape and a striking colour but up close the fabric looks a bit like a sofa cover, heavy and floral.

The exhibition is called "Fashion from the Inside Out," because, Toledo says, that’s the way that she sees her work. "I never thought of myself as a designer. I’m a seamstress. I really love the technique of sewing more than anything else. The seamstress is the one who views fashion from the inside! That’s the art form, really – the technique of how it’s done." The dresses on display were technical masterpieces (again - says I, the absolute novice). Ah, and of naming, which appealed to me of course. There were Origami dresses, folded to create sail-like collars and backs, the Double Tier Pagoda dress, Blossom Sleeve Bolero and Balloon dress, a Butterfly Wingspan jacket, a jersey dress called Tequila Sunrise, and the Cage dress, made of little black bars hung over the shoulders. Lots of descriptions and pictures here.

The week after seeing that exhibition, dramatic dresses caught my eye. There was the woman on the corner of Greenwich Ave and West 13th wearing a fluorescent green one, and the woman with pink hair and a whispy orange floaty dress at a Lincoln Centre Out of Doors concert (where I had a brightish blue sundress on). The concert involved 200 electric guitars. It would have been more dramatic had we got there in time to be in the centre of things rather than tucked away under the trees, but was relaxing in a zenny-summer evening way.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

New York missive no 57 - A strange view of reverse racism

“Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation for ever.” That was Alabama senator George Wallace at his inauguration speech in 1963. How ridiculous history can make people seem (aside from the terrifying ridiculousness of that statement in the first place). Parts of that speech were used in the film “Soundtrack for a revolution” that I saw on Sunday. Supposedly about the role of music in the civil rights movement, it provided a good chronology of the movement and powerful footage – including of the songs. But it forgot, it seemed, to reveal anything new about the music, which was a shame.

Race has been in the news at the moment. On Saturday, there was the sense of another racial barrier broken down as Sonia Sotomayor was sworn in as the first Latino Supreme Court Judge. There was the centenary of the Natl. Association for the Advancement of Colored People, at which many questioned its continued relevance (even though, for example, just a few weeks previously, a private swimming club in Philadephia canceled its contract with a group of mostly black and Latino children to swim there once a week, after objections from white parents). There was the arrest of the Harvard Professor Henry Louis Junior on his doorstep by the white police officer James Crowley, leading to Obama’s statement that the police “acted stupidly”, followed shortly after by his concession that his words may have been ill chosen, and the “beer summit” between Obama, Biden, Gates and Crowley on the White House lawn.

In her Talk of the Town last week Kelefa Sanneh used the beer summit as a springboard for a commentary on reverse racism. She traces emerging perceptions of anti-white discrimination (including critical responses to affirmative action policies, and people claiming Obama’s “acted stupidly” was an example of reverse racism). Then she says, “In the past few decades…reverse racism has undergone a similar re-definition [as discrimination against blacks], from symptom to system…In fact, the ‘reverse’ has largely been dropped from ‘reverse racism’; in today’s mainstream political discourse, ‘racism’ regularly refers to anti-white racism”. She concludes that by the end of the beer summit, “Obama, for his part, seemed ready, maybe even eager, to change the subject. He had discovered, surely, that a black President can pay a price for talking about racism. And he was no doubt reminded that to some Americans 'racism' doesn’t mean what it used to.” Ok, with the insertion of “some Americans” Sanneh distances herself subtly from this argument. But whoah, hold on a minute…

“Systemic” reverse racism – “systemic” racism against whites? I don’t think so. The systemic nature of racism is tied, in part, to its collective experience. (It's we - not "I" - shall overcome). Of course, one person can be racist towards another by judging or discriminating against them on the basis of their race, whatever that race may be. But there is a vast distance between the disgruntlement of whites in the face of affirmative action or instances of misplaced presumptions of racism on their part, and the collective discrimination that was and to an extent still is experienced by blacks in the US. An entrenched process that has ripple effects through time, across generations, so that, as Gary Younge points out in the same article I linked to above, “One in three black boys born in 2001 is destined to go to jail, according to the Sentencing Project", and "thanks to civil rights victories, African Americans now have the right to go into any restaurant they wish. But thanks to the legacy of segregation and continuing discrimination many cannot afford what is on the menu."

Whites have never and never will experience the collective humiliation that gave rise to the civil rights movement. I can't see whites needing to sing "We shall overcome" anytime soon.