PC Police, Part II
A conversation with a colleague whom I respect deeply reminded me, yet again, how profoundly gnarly racial conflicts can be.
Not just complex and layered and confusing and charged. But sometimes situations that are, quite simply, impossible.
A short article in the Huffington Post that this colleague shared, included a list of ten things white folks should stop saying.
Full text of this article from the Huffington Post.
- Do not use the word “exotic” to refer to humans who do not look like you. We are not fruit, and it is not a compliment. The longer you insist on assuring us that it is a compliment, the stupider you look. Just give it up.
- Do not use the word “ethnic” as though it were a distinct race or nationality.
- Do not ask people where they are from more than once. Trust them the first time. No need for “Where are you really from?” or “Where are your parents from?”
- Avoid statements like, “Wouldn’t it be great to live during [insert any era during which the person you’re talking to couldn’t vote or own property]?”
- Resist the urge to ever say, “I have a lot of [fill in the blank with the racial, religious or ethnic group with which you are least familiar] friends.”
- Remember that reverse racism isn’t a thing. Racism is about the abuse of power and privilege. If your race denies you power and privilege, then you can’t be racist. Certainly, you can still be an asshole. Just not a racist.
- Unless you are one of “those people” making fun of other people calling you “those people,” then never say “those people.”
- Think before asking people to explain an entire race, religion, civilization or geographic region to you simply because they happen to identify with that background. Don’t expect a 14-year-old girl who covers her hair to explain all of Islam to you in ten minutes or less simply because you’re too lazy to read a book. Get a library card and let her eat her lunch in peace.
- Remember, we are not all from any one place. Pretending we are just makes you look delusional. So avoid the “We’re all from Africa anyway” statements.
- Unless you have achromatopsia, never say “I don’t see color.”
I respect the ideas here and I want to speak with great care because my own experience is rooted in being a white male. At the same time, I want to explore one of these ideas more closely.
“Racism is about the abuse of power and privilege. If your race denies you power and privilege, then you can’t be racist.”
This is persuasive to me. And important. Power matters.
At the same time, one of the many reasons these conflicts become gnarly is that I do not get to decide what is important. One side does not get to decide the definition of the phenomena in question—this is always part of the conflict itself, usually the most important part.
To work toward resolution, or a better understanding (if that is all we do with gnarly conflicts at this point) requires us to try to achieve agreements (including on the definition of key terms). These cannot be imposed to stack the deck to favor our own side, but instead are creative & collaborative efforts to speak in inclusive ways that account for the concerns and experiences of as many parties as possible.
What if we accept one of these two dictionary definitions as an approximate statement of what someone mobilizing a non-academic understanding of racism might be thinking?
“Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior.”
“The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.”
Both of these define a term that could be used to describe antagonism directed from a less powerful racial group toward a more powerful group, if that antagonism was ‘based on the belief that one’s own race is superior’ or on the ‘belief’ that racial groups share distinguishing characteristics.
I am not simply asserting that we should accept the definition: antagonisms based on race.
I am not arguing that scholarly concepts are best defined in an ordinary language dictionary.
I am suggesting that to dismiss out of hand, and by fiat, anyone who might see racism operating in reverse is to fail to do our job. It is more like an effort to silence opposing voices, rather than to demonstrate where those holding these views are misguided.
For me, this changes our question and reframes our challenge.
When someone brings a lens that mobilizes these more ordinary language understandings of racism we need to recognize that this has its own internal logic. It makes sense to them and simply asserting that it is incorrect is unlikely to persuade or improve the situation (by the way, no one I know is doing this, but I am imagining how these conversations might play out in a local pub or parish picnic).
This is where we need to be able to translate on the fly.
We have internalized a powerful argument that has resulted in us concluding that racism, dictionary notwithstanding, is about power imbalances and privileges allocated on the basis of race.
From this perspective, the ordinary language understanding of antagonism based on race is a rudimentary starting point, and one that likely misleads us, upon closer examination, about how racism actually operates as both an interpersonal and structural force.
Perhaps [and there are certainly very smart folks doing better work on this] we then need to distinguish between two types or levels of racism.
Everyday interpersonal racist comments or actions that, arguably, are antagonisms directed at others on the basis of race. And racist comments or actions that reinforce or deepen the privilege of the speaker’s more powerful racial group by subordinating or silencing or hurting the target and her less powerful racial group.
I could see a conversation with an ordinary white person (that is, a white person who is not a motivated racist, but just a run-of-the-mill white person who does not get race, does not see how he benefits from racism, and is generally oblivious—a key characteristic of white privilege) where this distinction might make sense to them. I could see conversations where it did not makes sense, but let’s go with the ‘does makes sense’ option here.
Then we might explore how these two are deeply and inescapably inter-connected.
I welcome disagreement, correction, or help sorting this out and fully recognize that my own experience prevents me from fully understanding this, though I would really like to understand it.
Once we are debating the inter-connectedness, we might also shift to a flank attack where we get our average white guy counterpart to reflect on his own experience and then redirect that.
See structural forces, boxes beyond your control that subordinate, that result in you Mr. White Guy being ‘totally screwed by the system.’ Use this to recognize it takes a village and what we earn is not based only on how hard we work…recognize this on the basis of your own white working class experience.
Now see that there are other structural forces that work to your benefit. Yes, you are getting screwed, now imagine that on top of all that you are black.
Navigating back and forth between structure and agency, impersonal systems and interpersonal interactions is not easy for anyone. We need to help each other out with this if we want to move forward together.