Monday, April 7, 2008

ask minority individuals to speak for their group

Many white people now claim that in their interactions with other people, they don't see color at all--that they're "colorblind," and that to them, everyone is just another human being. However, whites do tend to see other whites, and themselves, more as individuals than they do individuals from discernible minority groups. This symptom of whiteness is usually brought about by daily interaction in mostly white settings. A further symptom is a different kind of blindness, one which doesn't see that non-white individuals do not think and act the same as everyone else in their group. A common white question that demonstrates this sort of thinking runs along the lines of this one: "So why were so many black people happy when OJ won his trial?" Or this one: "Why did the black vote shift at some point from Hillary to Obama?" Or this one: "Is it true that Japanese men feel superior to their wives?"

Lena Williams writes of this common white behavior in her book It's the Little Things:

Anytime we are asked to speak on behalf of the fifteen or twenty million blacks in America, it's off-putting. . . Brenda Canty, an outspoken black woman living in Brooklyn with her husband and two sons, says she has learned to respond to the question with a question. "I ask, 'So what do whites feel about so and so?'"

I have taken to using these little opportunities to speak on behalf of the fifteen million blacks in America.

"Well, speaking on behalf of the fifteen or so million of us black folks, we're thoroughly ticked off that whites just can't get over the O.J. thing and go on with their lives," I say with a sly smile. "And if you white folks fail to do so, us fifteen or so million blacks might just take to the streets and riot again!"

My tactic usually solicits a conciliatory grin from the questioner, who by now, I would hope, sees the absurdity of asking one person to speak for millions.

(PS--I borrowed Mwatabu Okantah's photo from his online interview--I hope he doesn't mind.)


  1. I'm more than willing to speak for the 200 or so million white people spread across this country. I do it all the time.
    I also prosecute, hold trial and act as judge upon that same population.
    At times, I defend them all too! WTF is the average black person's problem that they don't want to do likewise?!

  2. BTW, My black friends and especially my Indian . . . oh, excuse me, Native American friends are always asking me "what is it with you white people; you're always . . . blah, blah, blah."

    I go ahead and speak for all white people when they ask like that.

  3. Thank you for the comments, SH. You're reminding me of the indigenous writer Sherman Alexie, who dismisses the term "Native American" as a manifestation of "liberal guilt." It does seem to be a white term, at least originally, and not an Indian one. I do hear "indigenous" used a lot these days.

    I hope you realize that when you speak for all white people, you're probably not speaking accurately for me.

  4. Aw hell Macon, I usually don't even speak accurately for myself, so don't feel bad.

  5. I've never really enjoyed being asked to represent the black race, I guess they expect there to be uniform answers to their questions. In reality, I grew up in a white neighborhood, went to a white school, and had all white friends until high school. Even if there were a uniform answer, I sure wouldn't have known it. But those sorts of questions don't allow for individuality.

  6. Is there any irony in criticizing the absurdity of asking one person to speak for millions, in a blog written by one person that purports to characterize millions?

    Here's something white people do: blog at length about how they aren't like other white people.

  7. PP wrote, Is there any irony in criticizing the absurdity of asking one person to speak for millions, in a blog written by one person that purports to characterize millions?

    I see what you're saying PP, but the difference is that no one asked me to do so. I chose to do so myself, after a great deal of thought and research. There are common tendencies among black people, such as internalized racism, but individual black people shouldn't be asked to speak to them. If they offer to speak about it, I'd be all ears.

    There are also common tendencies among white people, such as doubting black achievement, and I'm willing to speak to them. I know, though, that not many white Americans will be all ears, and that any listening non-white ears will mostly be hearing things they already know.

  8. I love the contradictions in this article. It says "white people do this" and "white people do that," and yet the article says not all blacks think the same way. What makes them think that all whites think the same way? Just because some do it doesn't mean that all do. This article wants to accuse all whites of doing something then asks all whites to not ask a person from a minority to speak on behalf of everyone in that group. What position is this person taking? If we are to not look at color, shouldn't it be the same for white? It should be equality across the board. So don't say that groups don't represent individuals if you're going to turn around and contradict yourself.

  9. Hello film_lover. I can see how you might get that impression from this post, especially if you don't read it carefully. Note that it's not about something ALL white people do. It's about something "Many white people" do. Like almost all of the posts on this blog, it's about a common white "tendency." Blacks and other groups have common observable tendencies as well as a result of being in a racial group, but this blog is about whiteness.

    Thus, the article does not contradict itself.

    Blacks are often asked by whites what black people think about this or that, but whites never ask other whites what all white people think about this or that, and blacks almost never ask them either. As the post says, this is an example of how whites are individualized, and blacks are seen as members of a supposedly homogeneous group.

    I explained more fully the "all versus some" issue in this recent post.

  10. Obviously FilmLover's issue was a phony one. The very first line in the article, as noted, explicitly said MANY Whites... (Note: Had it only said "Whites" without saying "many", it's just as silly to assume ALL when it's not explicitly stated.)

    I get so tired of these NON-POINTS. I don't think anyone has, much less could, say what ALL of any group does/think. But there are language cues and CONTEXT that usually tip you off if someone is attempting to make a ridiculous OVERgeneralization (which is to say there is nothing inherently wrong with generalizing; the basis of non-issue people try to make).

    On such language cue/clue:

    "A common white question that demonstrates this sort of thinking..."

    Show me somebody who has fielded questions from ALL white people or ALL black people and I'll show you one tired azz person. They'd really have to get around just to be in the places to hear the questions.

    And therein lies the key: when African-Americans have an experience where every time they turn around (rhetorically speaking) they get the same type of questions from different White people they know/come across AND so many/ALL of those White persons pose questions NOT about what they know about a position/view that particular Black person has but about some stereotyped or media hyped idea about "what Black people think" then that's a bona fide EXPERIENCE we're talking about that the Black person, in this case, has and not some assumption or generalization of theirs.

    Which brings me to another point. The flip side of this "ask X to speak for their group" that I hear a lot is "you don't speak for ALL Black" which is based on the false pretense (and, often times, false hope) that an individual, by virtue of their experience, can't speak to /for a larger or common idea "their" people share.

    Of course, the issue with both sides of the coin is how Whites (however many this applies to, since some people have unnecessary qualifiers in order to have an argument) hold others to both the presumed negative and presumed positive stereotypes.

    Seriously, I've been on a number of white oriented boards debating race and once the contingent on the board gets tired of getting called on their ignorant assumptions about some issue(s) pertaining to (my people) African-Americans someone will invariably quip "you don't speak for all Black people" as of anyone ever made the claim. The irony, of course, revolves around the idea that they, the White person(s), want to assert that they are better equipped to know what most Black people are/think or are really bothered by something the Black person said and uses the "you aren't representative" frame because they hope most Black people don't think that way.

    Another part of this same general phenomenon, which extends from the last part, is the other indecent proposal when "X is asked by White people to speak against another member 1, 2 or 3 of their group." The proposition then is that X must think like member 1, 2 or 3 does if X won't denounce and, in Sen. Obama's case, disown other members of his group just because White people aren't comfortable with them.

  11. One other thing I wanted to mention, in one of his speeches, Obama indicated African Americans were 90% of the way to equality. With all the post-racial stuff, both in the way he has run his campaign and the way people felt about it, especially in 2007 and early 2008, that kind of 90% rhetoric was tailor made for the suspicions in the Black community that not only would White America view electing Obama president as the end of racism (or at least claims that America is "racist") but that Obama holds views that there is little or no racism that still exist America that's worth talking about in terms of systematic disadvantages.

    All kinds of people pay lip service, so the fact that Obama acknowledges that there is racism won't put those suspicions to bed (and he aroused suspicions for coming out and saying the response to Katrina wasn't racism, not to mention some of his Bill Cosby-isms).

  12. that kind of 90% rhetoric was tailor made for the suspicions in the Black community that not only would White America view electing Obama president as the end of racism (or at least claims that America is "racist") but that Obama holds views that there is little or no racism that still exist America that's worth talking about in terms of systematic disadvantages.

    It's interesting that despite such suspicions, it appears that 90% or more of African American voters are voting for Obama. (Early on, the majority favored Hillary Clinton.)

    I have such suspicions too, and rising to the class level that Obama already has does of course tend to distance African Americans from the sytemic-induced plight of most other AAs. As I've said before, though, I do think Obama's "race speech," despite the inadequacies that you've pointed out so well, went further than any major politician has in acknowledging both race- and class-based (i.e., systemic) disparities and "resentments." I also think that his two books and his early community work in urban Chicago suggest that there's a good chance he will maintain a stronger awareness of, and thus enact correctives to, entrenched systemic disparities.

    I appreciate your addition to the points my post made about common white perceptions of black individuals' representativeness. The switch between the white call for representation and the claim that "well, you don't speak for all blacks" when they hear something they don't like must indeed be frustrating.

    Your comments also help to illustrate how very difficult it is to spell out in a clear, concise, easily grasped manner the many facets of this issue. Another facet is the fact that while no one should be asked to speak for their group, being a member of a racial group DOES affect one's perspective. Blacks and other non-whites tend to know that, while whites tend instead to see themselves and other whites as mere, free-floating individuals, who are entirely unaffected and uninformed by their racial status. Which of course, as I mostly argue on this blog, isn't true.

  13. I guess I will just have to accept what you're trying to say, but I still disagree with the way you are putting it. I would agree more with a statement like "some whites" or "I heard a white person say (fill in here) and it seems like some whites feel this way." I think saying the word "most" is doing the same thing as stereotyping. It's lumping people into a category. I personally don't lump any person of a minority into groups because I don't like it when it happens to me. For one, I am a Christian and a lot of people like to call Christians ignorant for believing in "fairy tales." Therefore, most Christians are naive. I hope you see the angle I am coming from. I can definitely see where you are coming from, but personally with myself I will have to respectfully disagree with some of the statements made here.


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