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'Acting white,' creating urban trails

Reader feedback - 3.29.06 

The mail

DEFINING 'ACTING WHITE'

After reading the letters in response to my essay ("Was Rosa Parks 'Acting White?'" February 8; The Mail, March 1), I wished more than ever that I were free to talk about my personal journey as distinct from what I documented empirically in my research. Like the letter writers, I would like to write about what I dream for America, how I imagine America to be, and what my experiences have been. However, my role as an anthropologist is severely proscribed; it compels me to write and talk about what actually exists in my country rather what I would like it to be.

As an American citizen, I share the first writer's dream of a world where the idea of race is not even an imagined social category. We all know that race is a social construction, not a biological reality or a useful genetic category. But, at the same time, we also know that race has a powerful impact in all our lives, regardless of whether we are privileged or stigmatized by it.

The first writer chose to share her racial pain of not belonging. Like many other Americans, she has been viciously hurt by the racialized categories that made it impossible for her to define her own life freely. She seems to think that those of us who do not share her "mixed" location (and I have no idea who those two people are) enjoy a better life. As a private citizen, I disagree with her because I think we are all simultaneously victimized and privileged by the system of social categorization known as race. As she noted, this identified isolation has been her reality, all of her life.

The second writer also shares the pain he experienced growing up. However, acting white and "acting smart" are not synonymous. His description of his early school experience will resonate with other high achievers, some of whom are socially identified as Black. Yet their positions are not the same. Although this letter‑writer was alienated from his white peers because he was identified as a very smart kid, his intelligence and academic achievement never involved a threat to his racial identity, which is a critical component of what is means to be accused of "acting white."

In order to be vulnerable to the charge of "acting white," a student has to claim, or be compelled to accept, a non‑white identity. "Acting white" involves a non‑white person passing for or pretending to be white. A socially identified white person is ineligible. The letter‑writer was ostracized because he was different, not because he had forsaken his racial group identity. In addition, devaluing academic excellence is only one form of "acting white"; claiming rights that a person is denied because of race, as Rosa Parks did, is another.

Finally, while the writers addressed a component of the problem my research addresses, neither appears to have grasped the full meaning of "acting white." The common theme in both letters is that they suffered --- one because of her uncertain identity, the other because of his academic distinction. Regrettably, neither writer addresses what is central to this problem: the distorted relationship between power and stigmatized racial identities.

Signithia Fordham, Rochester (Fordham is Susan B. Anthony Professor of Gender and Women's Studies and an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Rochester.)

SPELLCHECKED

BUSH'S OTHER WAR

Evidently President Bush thinks war is the way to solve things. He started the invasion of Iraq, which so far has killed more than 2283 American soldiers, 28,535 Iraqi civilians, and 2,901 Iraqi police and guardsmen, not to mention the thousands of maimed and crippled people.

Now he has extended his war to the earth's whales and dolphins. In 2003, courts severely restricted the Navy's submarine hunting exercises, which fill the ocean with deafening noise. The Bush administration fought back, and Congress exempted the military from the restrictions.

Hundreds of whales have died agonizing deaths from sonar exercises, according to the March-April issue of Mother Jones (www.motherjones.com). Some have had bleeding ears and brains, severe lesions in their organs. Deaths have occurred along the coasts of Greece, Spain, Alaska, the Bahamas, and the Canary Islands.

"Each time," says the Mother Jones article, "sonar exercises were being conducted by the US Navy or NATO forces nearby." The US Navy is planning more than 160 sonar exercises annually off of the Carolina coast, says Mother Jones.

There's no escape for the whales. These sonar exercises flood vast areas of marine habitat with intense, harmful noise. Welcome to Bush's latest war.

Nancy Watson Dean, Rochester

HELPING THE TRAIL

Your rail trail article is great! How can I help? In York County, Pennsylvania, we had a rail trail almost 40 miles long, from downtown York to the Maryland-Pennsylvania line, then on to the northern Baltimore suburbs.

It was patrolled by volunteer "ambassadors," who had maps, information, and some basic medical supplies for cuts and scrapes. And they could summon police if there was any suspicious activity. It was part of the county parks system. I see no reason why the same could not be done here, with some effort by the city and county to get this project moving.

John Hirschle, Rochester

Editor's note: Hirschle and others interested in helping with the urban trails project may contact at 256-2130.


WRITING TO CITY

We welcome and encourage readers' letters for publication. Send them to: themail@rochester-citynews.com or The Mail, City Newspaper, 250 North Goodman Street, Rochester14607.

Our guidelines: We don't publish anonymous letters --- and we ask that you include your street name and city/town/village. We don't publish letters that have been sent to other media --- and we don't publish form letters generated by activist groups. While we don't restrict length, letters of under 350 words have a greater chance of being published. We do edit letters for clarity and brevity. And in general we don't publish letters (or longer "op-ed" pieces) from the same writer more often than about once every two months.

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