Get to Know Erin Kaplan

Welcome back to 'Better Know a SoCal Blogger' on KCET.org, where we feature our city's plethora of fascinating and first-rate blogs. This week we are speaking with our very own Erin Aubry Kaplan, who writes on what it takes to survive "crazy-making" Los Angeles as a person of color.

The Basics:


Blogger name: Erin Jane Aubry Kaplan
Official name of blog: Cakewalk
Do you have a day job? No, unless you consider freelance journalism a day job.

When did you start blogging? Before blogging at KCET, I was mainly writing for a site called Three Brothers and a Sister., and I still do. Though to be perfectly honest, I don't quite have the blogging rhythm down. Maybe my head's in another age.

How many hours do you spend online/on your computer? Probably more than I think. I'd say between four and five.

Where do you physically blog from? At home in Inglewood, mostly from my dining room table. I was trying to keep it from becoming an ad hoc office, but I've given up. Yes, I do have an office, but the dining room has better light

What are you currently reading? Slavery's Constitution by David Walstreicher. It's a dense but fascinating, blow-by-blow account of how the founders deliberately wrote the Constitution around the political and philosophical minefield of slavery. Even though slavery was omitted by name, its fingerprints were everywhere. That original strategy -- implicitly incorporating the racial status quo into a newly-founded country -- explains a lot about our schizophrenic racial attitudes today: we want to believe we're past race and, at the same time, we're obsessed with it. Also, I'm reading a Kim Barnes novel, entitled A Country Called Home, that has a wonderful opening.

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The Lowdown:

So what's Cakewalk about? It's about negotiating this state of mind called Los Angeles on a daily basis. It's tough for all of us, but for people of color it can be downright crazy-making. Los Angeles is one of the last big American cities in which it is believed that anything is possible for anybody. Although that's mostly theory at this point, it's a very powerful theory that brought a lot of us here and continues to drive us forward. Of course, it can also drive us over the edge, as we saw with the 1992 unrest.

Who's the ideal reader then? Somebody who never thought they'd read a black writer because of the presumption that being black is inherently limiting. My hope is that they'll read my writing and realize they've been looking at those limitations from the wrong end. I'm really looking to shift perspectives.

Can you explain the motivation to move from away from print and into the digital realm? Everybody told me that as a writer in the digital age, I had to get on the blogging bandwagon or risk settling into irrelevancy. I'm not quite sure that's true, but I have to say I like blogging, even though I still don't have the hang of it. I like writing, period, so I don't really care how it gets out there.

Neither do a lot of people, according to the current state of journalism. Are all these free blogs killing journalism? Well, journalism isn't dying, only the revenue model. It's getting harder and harder to get paid for doing it, and almost no one gets paid for blogging; if they don't get paid for journalism, does that make journalism and blogging the same thing? Not exactly, but there is some overlap. The main difference is that journalism follows a set of professional rules--of reporting, etc.--overseen by editors. Blogging is, much more often, an inconsistent one-person show. It can be inspired and informative. Or it can be boorish and self-centered.

Do you have any favorite Los Angeles blogs? D.J. Waldie's. I read him on a regular basis. Juan Devis is good, too. And Kevin Ross at Three Brothers and a Sister always surprises me. He's a black Republican with a brain and a big independent streak.

What's your favorite thing to do in L.A.? My favorite things to do are actually very pedestrian--having lunch, walking the dogs, going to movies, browsing in new shops (I'm a mall crawler from way back), and sitting on the beach. Partaking in the life of the city in a million little ways, that's real gold. That's when I feel about L.A. the way I imagine most New Yorkers feel about their town.

Can you explain the decision to make Inglewood your beat? You write about the context in which you live, and Inglewood happens to be mine. Besides that, Inglewood is a rich microcosm for so many issues critical to black and brown communities in Southern California--police abuse, economic development, immigration, black & brown relations, middle class versus poor, black leadership. These topics all play out in Inglewood in a very distinct, small-town way. It's really a window into the struggle of black people to figure out their place in what's been called the "new" L.A. for the last ten years.

What do you foresee for Inglewood in the next ten years? It's very hard to tell in the midst of this recession. Small cities like Inglewood are just trying to pay their bills; the future feels like a luxury at this time. But even in good times, Inglewood has always suffered from a lack of vision, which stems from an inferiority complex about being a town of color. We have a great old downtown, but city hall prefers to focus on big-box retailers like Target and Marshall's. Not that there's anything wrong with those places--I shop there--but they're modular, they exist everywhere. Instead, Inglewood should focus on what makes it unique. But that's a more complicated venture than you would think.

Los Angeles has been increasingly associated with its large Hispanic community. Has this shift had an impact on how the city-at-large views its Black population? Yes, I think blacks are actually viewed less favorably now. People look at us and say, 'Why can't they stop complaining and make common cause with Latinos? Don't they all live together?' But nobody bothers to unpack the history of racial inequality in America, and hence can't see how that blacks and browns are two very distinct demographics. It's this lack of attention to detail that I see as a modern form of racism. A very modern one.

There is little doubt that racism still manifests itself in "modern" ways. But have race relations actually progressed since the early 1990s? Firstly, I don't particularly like the term "race relations" because it implies that we'll be fine if we just socialize a bit more. Eat each other's food and all that. And, to answer your question, I think we've become more racially superficial since the 90s. Back then, at least the civic leaders were thinking about the systemic causes of violence and unrest. Today, nobody would even uses the word "systemic" to describe racial issues in Los Angeles. In the aftermath of the 1992 riots, we convened a panel to tell us what went wrong, and then proceeded to put the recommendations in a drawer and went on about our business.

That seems to be the general trend. Are race relations different in other areas of the country? Ironically, they're probably better here, in many ways, because of people's ability to geographically isolate. There's seemingly no tension between black and white because the two rarely intersect.

Yet, the nation did elect a black president a year ago. Was the initial 'symbolism' of putting Obama in office overblown? In a word, yes. Originally, I had hoped it would be much more than symbolism, but so far I think I hoped for too much. As a black woman, it's a very strange and unsettling feeling to watch a black president be resisted against and insulted in the same way many black people are in real life. That's not to say that Obama is doing everything right--that's hardly the case. But that subtle element of fundamental disrespect isn't only disheartening, it's downright hard to watch.

Thanks so much to Erin Aubry Kaplan for her insightful comments in this installment of Better Know a Blogger. For even more insights into the city of Los Angeles, check out Cakewalk right here at KCET.org.

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