The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is participating in the ongoing campus initiative Global Urban Humanities: Engaging the Humanities and Environmental Design, which aims to bring the humanities into closer connection with disciplines that study the built environment to help address the complex problems facing today’s urban areas. To jump-start conversation for an upcoming working session, participants have been asked to “reflect upon a keyword that provokes, confuses, inspires, and/or annoys you in current thinking about urban and/or urban arts engagement.” This posting is by Irene Chien, PhD candidate in the Department of Film & Media and the Berkeley Center for New Media at UC Berkeley.
In mainstream US media, “urban” is a pervasive euphemism for black, a way to register but not directly point at African-American culture within the post-racial political paradigm of colorblindness. “Urban music,” “urban fiction,” “urban comedy,” and “urban entertainment” are all ways to identify media made by, featuring, and marketed primarily to African-Americans without directly naming them. “Urban” in this sense gives value to at the same time it disavows the authenticity of black bodies, voices, and “street” experiences that now circulate globally in the form of hip-hop identity and aesthetics. At the same time, in contemporary cultural discourse, “urban” continues to function as a code word for the crime and poverty associated with blackness that is less inflammatory than “inner-city,” “ghetto,” or “the ‘hood.” Is the conflation of “black” with “urban” a way to erase black people from the scene so as to better commodify their cultural expressions for a global market? Is it a way to be more inclusive of other races and ethnicities when considering life in the city and its cultural expressions? What are exactly are the effects of this semantic slippage from black to urban?
Urban became linked with blackness in the context of the 20th-century Great Migration in which 6 million African-Americans moved from the rural south into cities in the northern, midwestern, and western United States. The fact that this migration pattern is now being reversed as African-Americans move back to the south and (perhaps pushed by the gentrifying effects of the New Urbanism) out of cities into poor suburbs, puts even more pressure on the dodges and slippages between race and space manifested in substituting “black” with “urban.” These uses of the term urban points to a more general conflation of race with environment–black with urban, white with suburban, and Latino with rural. As we examine the urban in its many contexts and meanings, I hope to interrogate this racialization of space and spatialization of race.