Monday, March 8, 2010

Inside-outside divide

The inside-outside split is haunting me again. It was a big deal in thinking about Gabra, for whom it was a major opposition, a primary distinction. Masculinity was outside, femininity was inside. Of course, it wasn’t so simple. But that is a more or less accurate gloss.
           A recent piece in the NYT rekindled my thinking about the inside-outside divide. It was an essay by Toure about light-complexioned African Americans passing as white. Toure wondered at the end why more whites weren't trying to pass as black. An appreciating letter the next week pointed out that whites are always trying to “pass” as black, with clothing, language, music, dance.
           I’ve often thought that racism’s engine was not simply exclusion but also desire: whites want something from African and African-American souls. Perhaps it’s too simple to say, but I don't think it's entirely inaccurate: something about white desire for blackness energizes the racist impulse to avoid, harm, exclude, deprive.
           Compose two columns, one headed by "outside," the other by "inside." Under inside are the categories white, male, straight, middle class, urban, and any other that signifies centrality and privilege. Under outside are black, female, gay, lower or working class, rural, and any other category that signifies marginality, exclusion, lack of privilege.
            Already complexity raises its head.
            In at least one dimension, female would be under the inside column and male under the outside column: women, white women in America anyway, have long been associated with inside, domestic spaces; men with outside public spaces. This is changing. But I believe it still holds as an archetypal distinction.
Inside is thus not always about privilege.
White is inside in terms of in the fold, at the center, on the board.
Female is inside in terms of in the house, confined in the harem.
This does not shatter the schema I’m wanting to reinvigorate, however, for I think the inside-outside divide remains useful.
In terms of race, blacks understandably want to get into white space, because white space signifies institutional power. It's not the whiteness so much as what comes with it that is desired. Whites want to get into black space, too, because black space signifies, what?: creative power, difference, transgression.
So right off, we have to stop thinking of inside and outside as particular places, and instead think of them as relations – relations expressed and therefore cognized in spatial terms.
Inside and outside are indexical, relative, and as such work along a scale or a continuum of relations: inside is always compared to an outside. This helps to account for how male and female can each be seen in one sense as inside and in another as outside.
Perhaps the same can be said of African American experience: in one sense - institutional - whites are in, but in terms of signifying difference, whites are out, blacks are in.
In sociological terms, human beings everywhere experience a perpetual tension between the social order, structure, control, routine, and stasis on the one hand and individual variation, freedom, disorder, chaos, and change on the other. The inside-outside divide, and what falls along it, becomes a useful way for people to think about these tensions.

Outside is the creative space.
Inside is the social order.
Outside is the dangerous distance.
Inside is the safe hearth.
Outside is the margin, the outcast, the despised.
Inside is the center, the A-list, the privileged.
      What is analytically useful about this divide are the complex associations that go with either pole, and these obviously shift depending on time and circumstance.
      What remains intriguing to me is that, one way or another, all of us crave elements (albeit in different measures) of both sides: to be at the center, but also to be different, distinct; to be safe, yet to take risks; to follow the rules and obey, and also to innovate, break the mold.
      What is at issue is less which side of the divide one is on at any given moment, but one’s ability to decide for oneself about these matters.

1 comment:

n. marshall said...

I just finished a paper where I looked at "nature" or "wilderness" as a place of wonder and captivation in the American imagination. I looked at "hyperreal" images of nature on packaging and in advertising and did an interview where a friend told about her family's dream to procure a cabin in the mountains. I enjoyed reading this piece and thought about inside and outside in these terms (although I certainly see them in more abstract terms as well). In this sense, outside can represent "nature" which seems, in turn to represent romantic notions of peace, purity, wholesomeness and simplicity and inside can represent business, mechanization, contamination, bureaucracy and urbanity. On the other hand, I discovered latent ideas of dirt, danger and amiguity associated with "real" nature. It was interesting to see how people seek to sanitize or control the very wilderness they admire untouched by human hands.
I'm also very interested in the inside/outside dichotomy as it relates to racial interaction. I was once recommended Mary Douglass' "Purity and Danger" after indicating an interest in the eternal white interest in black entertainment and popular culture. Your article reminds me of this, if only the title. I think I will check the book out, when I get some time.