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Skip trying to prove you're not racist - Zer Netmouse
June 7th, 2009
06:14 pm

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Skip trying to prove you're not racist
- because it's not about you.




Since before I went to Wiscon, I've been meaning to respond to something tlatoani said in response to a post of mine about the fans of color speak out day May 18:

I'm listening, but that's all I'm doing. As a white guy, it isn't my place to get involved, and many of the participants in the discussion have made that quite clear. What seems to irritate them the most is well-meaning liberal white people who feel the need to prove how non-racist they are. I see their point, so I'm staying out of it.


This comment rather spectacularly misses the point of what I've seen a number of people post, so I wanted to address it. Slowly, and hopefully clearly.

There are a number of contexts in which "liberal white people who feel the need to prove how non-racist they are" are in fact very annoying to people of color who are trying to talk to them (or others in their vicinity). Here are a few:
  1. Someone has tried to point out that this LWP (liberal white person) said something that came across as racist, or otherwise echoed with white privilege, in a way that bothered them. LWP fails to examine what they said and instead derails into proving how non-racist they are.
  2. LWP's friends also speak past the statements of POC to try to prove how non-racist the LWP is.
  3. Some POC has started to speak up about an issue that is troubling to them. The issue in question touches on something (perhaps a book or an author) that is very important to a LWP, who proceeds to try to explain why a) the issue doesn't really exist in the book or b) the item in question doesn't bother them, so it shouldn't bother anyone else, and c) the LWP knows their perspective is informed and they are non-racist, so they feel they have a more important opinion than the POC. POC tries to reorient discussion to their own experience. LWP asserts how non-racist they are.


In all those cases, a LWP who feels motivated to prove how non-racist they are gets annoying, but not because the white person is trying to be non-racist; rather because the white person is avoiding facing forward into the real issue and listening to POC by derailing into a conversation about what a non-racist person they are. And this is not actually the conversation anyone wants to be having. Here, listen to Jay explain that.



I've seen some POC go so far as to say that it looks like what white people fear the most in any conversation is to be called racist. So that if someone says something you *said* was racist, you feel the need to respond to the implication that you are racist, and react to that, before you can possibly listen to point the other person was trying to make.

If you find yourself reacting this way, you should definitely stop. Try harder to listen, go off and have your tearful reaction to being called out on your racism elsewhere, whatever, but skip listing all the reasons you are not racist.

Partly because, well, we're just about all racist, really. Studies show that. Our perceptions, our behavior; all of these things are influenced by race and the color of someone's skin. At one point in race discussions I commented that I thought that without race, there is no racism, basically reflecting the concept that since I do not believe in a biological basis for definitions of race, it does not exist for me (so, the implication goes, how can I be racist?). But the truth is I am. For all that there is no biological definition for it, and the social constructions keep changing race is real as soon as people make decisions on the basis of race. Which we do all the time. It's real only because people believe in it, but you can say the same thing about the value of money. Both have a deep impact on how the world works despite the fact that their values are socially constructed.

I'm not making these posts about race in an attempt to prove how non-racist I am. I'm making them because I am trying to do something to change how the world is. I post about these things in part to let fans of color know that I see them, I hear them, and I think they matter. Do they care about my opinions? I don't know. But I'm hoping some of the people who read my journal might care enough to consider acknowledging these people too. Not to try to prove something about yourself, but to try to reach out to others.

(35 comments | Leave a comment)

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From:rose_lemberg
Date:June 7th, 2009 10:36 pm (UTC)
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Thank you.
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From:netmouse
Date:June 9th, 2009 07:31 pm (UTC)
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You're welcome. Thank you for posting something positive in response. Sometimes encouragement is something we are surprised to find we really need and I really needed some, this week. It meant a lot.
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From:rose_lemberg
Date:June 9th, 2009 08:54 pm (UTC)
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Netmouse, it is very hard for me to post something in threads about racism, because of the great emotional drain involved, which I really cannot afford at this point in my life. I also try not to read these threads but I read yours because they make sense to me and are intelligently argued and non-confrontational in the way I can relate to.

It is hard not to come into any conversation with some assumptions of otherness, be it gender, sexual orientation, race, disability, class, culture and language, etc. As a member of several minority groups (an in-closet and non-outspoken member of most, but still) I am obligated to pay close attention to these conversations. Yes, it is very possible for a non-racist person to blurt something racist, just as it is very possible for an able-bodied person from an able-bodied family to say something horribly hurtful about disability without constructing his/her identity around hatred of the disabled. Most people hurt most other people out of casual ignorance, but the hurt is much worse when one party belongs to an underprivileged group. "What you just said is racist" is a good way for this ignorance to be exposed. I am sure I said a fair amount of insensitive things in my time and would much rather be told about it so I can think about it and take care of my ignorance and apologize. We are all human and we cannot all be knowledgeable about all people all the time, but the "ok, thank you for saying this, let me correct my erroneous perception, let's move on" element should be present, I think. I hope I am making sense.
Thank you again for posting.
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From:skzbrust
Date:June 7th, 2009 10:37 pm (UTC)
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"Partly because, well, we're just about all racist, really"

It is possible to define racism in such a way that anyone and/or everyone is racist. I cannot see how such a definition is useful for anything.

"It's real only because people believe in it, but you can say the same thing about the value of money. Both have a deep impact on how the world works despite the fact that their values are socially constructed."

Specious, Anne. The issue is not money, it is the effect of money (or, more precisely, class).

Here is a thought experiment: Suppose you could wave a magic wand and remove any and all prejudice based on race. At this point, how much of the misery caused by difference in race vanishes? Answer: All of it. Now, suppose you wave this same wand, and you remove any and all prejudice based on social class. How much of the misery caused by difference in social class vanishes? Answer: Very little.

Racial prejudice is based on ignorance; class consciousness is based on knowledge. Makes a difference.

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From:netmouse
Date:June 7th, 2009 11:03 pm (UTC)
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It is possible to define racism in such a way that anyone and/or everyone is racist. I cannot see how such a definition is useful for anything.

In some ways it is, and in some ways it isn't. *shrug* Which is largely why many people trying to make a difference on these issues in this community are often using other, not overloaded and triggery terms to move forward with. And part of why "Are you calling me racist?" is such a total derail. It's besides the point, and it's not useful. Is it more important to treasure that word as something that draws a line between you and the bad guys or to keep moving forward from where we are today?

"It's real only because people believe in it, but you can say the same thing about the value of money. Both have a deep impact on how the world works despite the fact that their values are socially constructed."

Specious, Anne. The issue is not money, it is the effect of money (or, more precisely, class).


The comparison is not one I made up. It is made repeatedly in the book Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind. It seems quite sound to me. Not a total parallel, just a useful illustrative example of something else with a similar sociological basis.

Your response about class is tangential to the point I was making, so I'm going to ignore it. The effects of class are not the same as the effects of giving money a value and then using it in exchange with one another in this thing we call trade. They interact with one another, of course, but your point doesn't disprove the analogy, it just takes it as an opportune moment to derail into another topic.

(your thought experiment also doesn't hold together for me - neither waving of the magic wand causes all that misery to vanish. Because removing prejudice does not remove entrenched social status, employment status, resource distribution and ownership, educational history, drug addictions and medical history, broken families, positions in and out of prison and jail, laws, etc.)
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From:cos
Date:June 8th, 2009 03:10 am (UTC)
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    It is possible to define racism in such a way that anyone and/or everyone is racist. I cannot see how such a definition is useful for anything.

I didn't see her point as being about the usefulness of this definition, but rather about the uselessness of focusing on it. So you may be agreeing. However, in a more general context, I can't think of a useful and true definition of racism that doesn't include most everyone at least a little bit.

    Specious, Anne. The issue is not money, it is the effect of money (or, more precisely, class).

Here I think you completely missed what she's saying, though in a somewhat understandable way: When the conversation is about racism, it's natural for class issues to come to mind. But that happens to be a coincidence. In this analogy, she's not talking about class, she really is talking about money. The value of money is socially constructed (and encoded into institutions and laws and whatnot), but that doesn't mean that the $10 bill in your pocket is worth no more than the paper it's printed on. Similarly, the existence of race is socially constructed rather than biologically real, but that doesn't mean race isn't real. It's as real as money.
From:sethb
Date:June 8th, 2009 09:53 pm (UTC)
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If you define racism in a way that makes only some people racist, it's your definition that has that cause; how useful is that? I prefer to define actions (and beliefs) as racist; it doesn't matter (to the definition) who performs them or holds them. And it's the specific actions (perhaps as the results of specific beliefs) that actually affect people.

Very little misery is caused by prejudice based on social class. Economic class (and not prejudice based on it) causes misery. I'm prejudiced against people who are unnecessarily and unintentionally rude and impolite (which is low/lack of class). How much misery does that sort of prejudice cause?

If you can't afford the stuff you want and need, you're miserable. It doesn't matter whether someone looks down on you because of that (that's the prejudice part), it's the fact that you don't get it because you can't afford it.

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From:cathshaffer
Date:June 8th, 2009 12:09 am (UTC)
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I don't accept the "everyone is racist" definition. In mainstream society, calling someone a racist is a challenge and an insult, and it is taken to mean a pretty specific and odious type of mindset and behavior. When Newt Gingrich called Sondra Sotomoyer a racist, I didn't hear anyone explaining that it was okay because we are all racist. It's still a pretty serious thing to say. If conversations get derailed when this word comes into play, maybe different words are needed.
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From:troubleinchina
Date:June 8th, 2009 12:23 am (UTC)
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That's odd. It really seems that your focus is on how being called racist is bad.

But, why does that have to be the focus of the conversation whenever race or racist actions are brought up? Why is the focus so rarely on how these racist things/actions/words have caused harm to people?

I think that's what netmouse is talking about here.
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From:netmouse
Date:June 8th, 2009 02:24 am (UTC)
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In mainstream society, calling someone a racist is a challenge and an insult, and it is taken to mean a pretty specific and odious type of mindset and behavior.

I'm not sure from your post if you noticed this, but nowhere in my original post did I suggest a context where someone has actually called the LWP a racist. I say this not to assert that it hasn't happened at various points elsewhere when people have discussed issues of race, but to point out that you read what I posted and came out in defense of people who had actually been labeled as a racist. Which was not a situation I had described.

Having someone say that something you said reflects institutionalized racism or reminds you of racist patterns of thoughts or behavior is certainly challenging, yes. But challenging need not be the same as insulting. To people who are used to being right (and as deephad pointed out here, "When you are part of the dominant culture, you are in a system that rewards your default way of living as being termed 'right', and you grow up thinking that being 'wrong' is bad, and therefore a serious enough offence to either paralyse you, or invoke anger at the name-caller.
When you are a minority or a survivor of an oppressive system, you are used to your identity being termed 'wrong', and you work on the assumption that the systems are all broken."), being challenged is more likely to seem insulting, and to people who believe racism is bad, the easiest way to dispel the cognitive dissonance of hearing that something you said sounded racist is to reassure yourself that the perceptions of the listener are wrong. The more challenging way forward is to realize that you have unexamined patterns of thought and behavior that contradict your consciously held values.


When Newt Gingrich called Sondra Sotomoyer a racist, I didn't hear anyone explaining that it was okay because we are all racist.

Well, and of course different people use that word with different intentions. When Newt used it, he meant it as an attack, and as a warning to his fellow white people that the president is trying to put someone into a very influential position who might make decisions preferentially in favor of people who are not of the white persuasion. There were in fact quite a number of us going "So? People already on the bench are already doing the same thing, in the other direction." -in other words, there were some of us saying it's fine if she's somewhat racist, in a compensatory direction. But we don't happen to be media moguls, so you probably didn't see that.

But there are also people who might tell you you sound like a racist out of caring motives, who don't mean to attack you.

If conversations get derailed when this word comes into play, maybe different words are needed.
- which goes back to my earlier point about the contexts I mentioned, and about people coing from there to "but calling someone a racist is an attack". In quite a number of cases in recent discussions, POC have tried using diplomatic words, other words, like "problematic" or "bothers me" or "makes me uncomfortable, or "reminds me of the damage from this stereotype and a study that indicated the damage is systemic in such-and-such way" or *whatever*, and if the comment is clearly race-related some LWP will play the 'OMG I think you're calling me a racist I am not a racist have you no idea what horrible people racists are and were that is not me' card. So, yes, we need other words, but I think we also need to retrain ourselves and each other on our reaction to these terms and concepts.

To a number of POC it is quite literally baffling that White people always seem to feel attacked when they are called racist. It may be a mainstream cultural reaction, but it's not the only available cultural reaction.
From:tlatoani
Date:June 8th, 2009 01:50 am (UTC)
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Well, my post wasn't about you either: I don't think you're posting on this topic to prove how non-racist you are, so if it came off that way that was unintentional.

I do think that it would be kind of presumptuous for a white guy like myself to jump into the middle of a discussion of racism and think I've got anything to contribute. And I don't feel I need to make posts saying "fans of color, I see you" because in my view that's kind of presumptuous too. Why would I assume they care whether I see them? I'm not more important than they are; we're all fans.

Your situation is a bit different, because you're in the industry and you post about fandom all the time. I can see why you'd feel it's appropriate in your case.
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From:minkrose
Date:June 8th, 2009 03:42 pm (UTC)
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I would like to say that I'm terribly glad you've been posting these things. I grew up in an area without a huge amount of RACIAL diversity (though there was some - but the black kids didn't tend to talk to me, even if we had a mutual respect)... but there was a lot of CULTURAL diversity. Mostly Jewish, but I had friends who were Dutch or Argentinian or Croatian, etc.

It's been hard for me to learn about the difference. I am UU, I am fine with differences and acknowledging them but it is frustrating to feel like most of the people I trust and can talk to are out of words on the subject of race. You either get it (from your life experiences) or you don't, and it can be really hard to build up life experiences once you're an adult and you control your social groups without external factors.

Anyway, I've been reading a lot of your links and watching a lot of videos and it's taken some stepping back, but I feel like I can now approach these articles and read what PoC have to say and HOW I can try to understand it. I'm not saying I *do* get it or understand it but there has been a shift in my understanding of racial differences versus cultural differences. I grew up in a strongly Jewish community and I still have many Jewish peers, and while anti-semitism is related to racism (maybe even a form of racism), being Jewish is more of a cultural choice for many people than a racial choice. Some people are racially Jewish and some are culturally Jewish, and it's really not the same. Nevermind that understanding prejudice against Jews is nothing like understanding prejudice against PoC.

Anyway. I'm really glad you're making these posts. They have been super helpful to me. I've always respected people who spoke on these topics but I never felt like I could comment or that I should believe that I really understood what they were getting at - I was very clear that I had no idea where they were coming from and I hated that. I feel like I have a context to build on now and that I am definitely starting to learn how to learn about the issues for PoC.

In other words, Yay.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:June 10th, 2009 02:02 pm (UTC)

I've got issues...

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I'm sorry, but I have to take issue with the following statement you made:

[i]Well, and of course different people use that word with different intentions. When Newt used it, he meant it as an attack, and as a warning to [b]his fellow white people[/b] that the president is trying to put someone into a very influential position who might make decisions preferentially in favor of people who are not of the white persuasion.[/i]

Seriously? Fellow white people? Why don't you narrow that down a bit. Last time I checked I didn't like Newt and felt that almost every damn thing he's said is counter to what I believe in.

And this comment later on:

[i]As it was posed to me in an in-person discussion, it is confusing to black people how attacked white people feel by being called racist because (in the view of the person speaking to me) black people are more open and honest about their own racism. They have a different attitude toward it that makes it easier to own it.[/i]

Whenever anyone, and I do mean anyone, uses the phrase "black/white/pick you social/racial/specific category people" I feel they are spouting complete and utter BS. No one knows how the whole group feels or even a decent percentage of it. And the person you were speaking with might well indeed be open and honest about his/her own racist thoughts/actions. But to lump all black together as being more open and honest about racism is false.

I feel that I'm quite open about it. I have met a lot of people who are not. And race is not a defining aspect of whether someone is open/honest about it. It is an individual choice to recognize your prejudices and act to either counter them or let them influence you. Many people take the easy way out. And race has nothing to do with it.
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From:netmouse
Date:June 10th, 2009 02:31 pm (UTC)

Re: I've got issues...

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Perhaps I should have put the word "conservative" in the phrase "his fellow white people" but honestly I think Newt believes he's working for the protection of all white people, including you. Just because you don't agree with him doesn't mean his comments weren't aimed as a warning for your benefit.

So. You don't approve of identity politics and feel that anytime anyone makes any statement indicating a characteristic or reaction is related to an identity it is BS. Well, that's very high-handed of you. While to a certain extent I do agree that over-generalizing is bad and people should remember any group is made up of human individuals, I think your particular over-generalization mostly just gives you an excuse not to engage with the content of what people are saying based on what they really mean, which is generally something more like "most [white] people (in this country) seem ____ (whatever, e.g. less open about their own racism) than the [black] people _I've known_".

I disagree with you that their personal experience and insight should be disregarded because they cannot speak for all of their [category] people.


(technical note: lj uses html for markup - use angle brackets if you want to mark up your text in html. And please sign up and log in if you want to continue this discussion.)
From:(Anonymous)
Date:June 10th, 2009 02:57 pm (UTC)

Re: I've got issues...

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Sorry, I'm not going to sign up to LJ, I don't need one more username/password combination to remember. I did mean to leave my name, which is Seth, at the end.

Newt can believe whatever he wants. Heck I don't even think just using the word "conservative" is appropriate - there's plenty of fiscal conservatives who are not bigots and are not part of the Religious Right. And since you feel that we can generalize from our personal experiences to the broad category I can state the following: in my experience the majority of fiscal conservatives think that Newt is an idiot and a traitor to the true Republican party (of which I am not a member btw - registered Independent).

Obviously I did want to engage in the discussion because I posted about it. If someone were to say, "Based on the people I know, the black people are more open then the white people I know," I would have nothing against that. My personal experience has been the opposite. Who's viewpoint is more correct?

Neither of course. It's anecdotal evidence which doesn't mean squat.

In your example you once again engage in a fallacy: "(in this country)" which is then compared to "people_I've known_." This compares two different groups: one which is identified, and one which is pure speculation. This statement has no meaning.

I never said that personal experience should be disregarded. What I did say is that personal experience should never be taken to encompass an entire category of people - isn't that racism after all?

Seth
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