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Zer Netmouse
June 7th, 2009
06:14 pm

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Skip trying to prove you're not racist

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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:cathshaffer
Date:June 8th, 2009 12:35 am (UTC)
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"That's odd. It really seems that your focus is on how being called racist is bad."

Yes, it really is odd how people don't like being called unpleasant names.
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From:troubleinchina
Date:June 8th, 2009 12:39 am (UTC)
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Is this a conversation we should bother continuing?

I don't feel that someone saying "That's racist" is a bad thing, and I get the very strong impression you do.

In which case, we're probably just going to irritate each other, rather than have a conversation. Or so is my thought - I may be entirely off base.
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From:cathshaffer
Date:June 8th, 2009 12:45 am (UTC)
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It depends on what your purpose is in saying "that's racist." If you would like to educate someone and help to give them some insight, then maybe you want to exercise some diplomacy. If you want to vent, if you are angry and you are looking for support from likeminded people, then you can't expect the person you're criticizing to take it gracefully, but you can expect a lot of sympathy and support from those who have been through something similar. Sometimes that's enough. You can't have it both ways.
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From:troubleinchina
Date:June 8th, 2009 01:01 am (UTC)
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But that puts the onus on the person who's been insulted to be nice about it.

It reads to me like "the problem isn't this racist thing I said, it's that you noticed it and pointed it out. If only you hadn't pointed it out in this tone of voice, I would listen to your complaints."

I've seen this play out with disability-related issues. If only I hadn't pointed out that the person giving the talk about disability issues kept dividing the world into "people with disabilities" and "people who vote", I wouldn't have offended him so. Except, you know, he was the one saying that PWD aren't people who vote, which was rather insulting at a forum for people with disabilities on issues in our upcoming election.

He insulted us first, but I'm the bad one for pointing it out.

I see this happen a lot in discussions about racism. Someone says something racist. Someone else points out this racist thing was said. And then the person who pointed it out is expected to be nice about it. Why? The racist thing was the initial insult.
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From:cathshaffer
Date:June 8th, 2009 01:14 am (UTC)
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Well, personally, I think it is always better to be the bigger person when you're insulted and not escalate things, whether the insult is a racial one or whatever. That said, being the bigger person does not always mean being nice. Sometimes the kindest thing you can do is to give someone a correction and get out of the way while they deal with it. Is it even more insulting when you share your feelings with someone and they make it all about them? Sure, it is. I get that.

Sometimes people do need to be told they have done something wrong, racist, whatever. In that case, you are 99% likely to get an ungracious response. Why ask why? Maybe they don't hear anything after you say "racist." Maybe that is all they *can* hear at that point. If that's the case, it's not wasted. That is what they are able to hear and what they need to hear at that time. Maybe the kneejerk response is "I'm not a racist," but perhaps it will sink in later. Or perhaps not. Maybe it will take a little more admonishment from others. People are very seldom converted to a new viewpoint instantly, but the angry denial and missing-the-point tirade doesn't mean that the message didn't hit home. It just may have been put in a pile on the coffee table with a lot of other unopened mail. What I hope, when talking to difficult people, is to make them curious to go through that pile thoughtfully at some time, and give them a face-saving way to apologize later, when they need to. In my personal opinion, using the culturally loaded word "racist" makes it all of that less accessible for the average white person.
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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.
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From:cathshaffer
Date:June 8th, 2009 02:35 am (UTC)
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I think the word is equally inflammatory whether it's used in its "ist" or "ism" form, with or without mitigating qualifiers. I think the problem specifically with the LWP, as opposed to the common white person (found in the wild throughout the central and southwestern US), is that the LWP has frequently used the term "racist" or "racism" in the past as one of the vilest insults imaginable targeted at someone who is pretty much diametrically opposed to everything the LWP believes in. In this context, it would be better to be a pedophile than a racist, so it's pretty difficult to wrap your mind around the whole "everybody's racist" viewpoint. I honestly think that the type of conflict you describe may contain some honest miscommunication. :-)
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From:dd_b
Date:June 9th, 2009 03:21 am (UTC)
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To a number of POC it is quite literally baffling that White people always seem to feel attacked when they are called racist.

In some sense, it's a sign of how thoroughly they've won that war. Yes, in many segments of society that's one of the worst accusations you can make against people, right up there with, oh, hard to be precise in this kind of thing, let's say spousal abuse.

Kinda inconvenient that this broad agreement on how bad racism is hasn't automatically also equipped people with a better understanding of the racial stereotypes they often work form, of course.

When an individual squirms and objects to people being "rude" to them, of course it's often a defensive reaction, and sometimes they'd react that way to ANY level of criticism in this area. It can serve to derail the conversation, or be defensively useful in other ways. It needs to be ignored / overridden sometimes.

Looking at larger groups and from a much higher height, when people want to get other people to change their thinking and/or behavior, the way they express that desire is key. People react at least as much to the style of a message as to the detailed content.
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From:netmouse
Date:June 9th, 2009 07:38 pm (UTC)
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I'm sorry, who has won what war?

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'm uncomfortable with this "one of the worst accusations you can make" comparison that's being made to things like spousal abuse and pedophilia (someone else mentioned pedophilia). Spousal abuse and pedophilia both involve activities that can get you thrown in Jail. Racism, not necessarily. So while it might be nearly as *upsetting* to be accused of racism, the potential affects of that accusation on your life are actually much less... bad.
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From:dd_b
Date:June 9th, 2009 08:01 pm (UTC)
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I'm sorry, who has won what war?

Was I actually unclear, or are you just disagreeing?

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From:matt_arnold
Date:June 9th, 2009 08:13 pm (UTC)
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You were unclear. Take out the pronouns.
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From:dd_b
Date:June 9th, 2009 09:33 pm (UTC)
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Still, socially, it seems to me that it is that level of thing. You're right that, legally, other things are more serious. This is frequently true -- socially serious accusations aren't always the most serious legally. There are still circles where accusing somebody of being homosexual is right up there at the top, too, even though it hasn't been severely illegal in most of the US at all recently. Social and legal don't track, and in the context of the give and take of discussion, it's the social severity that counts.
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From:netmouse
Date:June 10th, 2009 01:34 pm (UTC)
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Social and economic severity, yes. People can still lose their jobs for being homosexual, and still somewhat regularly get beaten to death for that in this country. For being racist? odds are, no. (you might lose your job or employability if you're, like, a radio commentator, maybe, or a big-name actor who lets slip). (more than a quarter of the US still has sodomy laws on the books, and some states still try to enforce them, but we are making progress).

Can you give me an example of someone's *existing* social circle turning away from them because of an accusation of racism? I mean, you don't have to tell me who, but can you think of one? I think people may be reacting more to a mythos of social implications than to a reality.
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