Tuesday, February 24, 2009

white quotation of the week (Restructure!)

Stuff POC do: restrain ourselves
February 22, 2009 — Restructure!


When I checked Stuff White People Do and saw a post originally titled, “Stuff White People Do: Laugh at Asian English”, I felt racism fatigue, and responded with a half-hearted and uninspired, “I am offended at your post,” followed with a description. I fully expected to be accused of looking for racism again by some commenter in a comment that closely followed mine, which has become almost a tradition at Stuff White People Do. (Sometimes this commenter is Macon D himself.)

Unsurprisingly, I was accused of “looking for something to pounce on Macon for” by a commenter named “haley” half an hour later. Surprisingly, however, the normally-defensive Macon D took my complaint seriously and tried to think of alternative ways of phrasing the title. In the end, Macon D actually took my suggestion seriously and changed the post’s title to “Stuff White People Do: Laugh at “Engrish”.”

I’m not entirely sure what happened, but perhaps my uncharacteristic comment, which left me vulnerable to the accusation of oversensitivity, didn’t trigger a defensive reaction on the part of Macon D.

Normally, I almost never criticize racism with “I am offended” or “I take offense”, because when racism is framed as “something that offends people”, then accusations of racism are portrayed as “political correctness” catering to the hypersensitivities of minorities who supposedly always force the majority to accommodate them. Even when I almost never use the terms “offense”, “offended”, or “offensive”, people have told me that I was oversensitive about racism, that I need to grow up, that I cannot always break down and cry every time someone is not sensitive to my feelings.

The people who say these things appear to think that racism occurs rarely, and that when a non-white person complains about allegedly “trivial” instances of racism, it means that she is like a young child who hasn’t yet learned that not everyone in the world is obligated to be nice to her. In reality, however, I have experienced racial microaggressions since childhood, and I am well aware that the world is not a safe space for people of colour with respect to race. I point out racism not because I’m noticing it for the first time, but because I want to bring it to the attention of others who have grown up shielded from the daily realities that people of colour have to endure. I point out racism because I want to point out injustice, not because I am some selfish oversensitive child who wants the world to revolve around me and my feelings.

Instead of “I’m offended!”, I tend to say, “That’s racist!” However, this method has its own problems, because although you are not calling someone a racist, the accused perceives it that way, that you are personally attacking their character. Calling someone racist, they argue, is an ad hominem and therefore not a valid argument. They say that you are characterizing them as a bad person so that anything they say is characterized as illegitimate. They make it all about them instead of about the action being criticized. They claim that they are being silenced if I use the word “racist”, so that I even considered using the terms “racialist” or “racial discrimination” instead to make the criticism more acceptable. Sometimes I did this, until I realized that even if you use a less offensive word, they still became defensive because they could not accept the idea that racism isn’t over, or that they could be racist (adjective, which is a different concept than being a racist, noun). I also realized that I was bending over backwards as to not hurt their feelings, instead of the other way around, the latter being the illusion that they maintain through repetition.

The idea that finding racism requires searching is based on the idea that racism is rare, or that racism is rare in the United States (or rare in Canada), or that racism is rare among liberals, or that racism is rare among the left, or that racism is rare among anti-racists who happen to be white. These types of delusions are rooted in the need to elevate the group they identify with, and separate themselves from “those other white people” who are “the (real) racists” (noun phrase). Unfortunately, arguments like, “I’m not racist. I’m Canadian,” or “I’m not racist. I’ve read books by black authors,” or “I’m not racist. I’m an anti-racist activist,” are non sequiturs. Identifying with a specific group does not give anyone immunity from having racist thoughts, even if both white people and people of colour wishfully think that there are racism-free spaces. . . .

[The rest of this post is at Restructure!'s blog; see also a reaction at Abagond. Restructure! writes of herself, "I am a heterosexual, cisgender, and currently able-bodied Canadian woman of colour. I make use of the 'illusion of objectivity' when I write posts for this blog, Restructure! I avoid the words “I” and “we” as much as possible in my posts, in attempt to throw off the white gaze and the male gaze from myself, and to throw the gaze on to whites and males."]

16 comments:

  1. I agree with Restructure!'s quote. I tend to do the same when I am around my white class mates or co-workers. I don't like to bring up racism of any sort because it seems to them that I might be calling them racist. Though,I have had my share of hipster racism and other forms that are not close to Jim Crow law, by white people including my friends. I feel alot more comfortable with POCs than whites. That is why I will be moving to Japan in 2010.

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  2. this was an excellent post. i think a lot of people accuse others of oversensitivity or accuse them of looking for racism to cover up their own guilt, or to avoid admitting that they're racist. i've had a few people tell me i'm looking too far into race on my own blog (my interpretation of wybie's character and subsequent silencing in Coraline has "earned" some strange comments towards my perception: http://filthygrandeur.blogspot.com/2009/02/race-and-gender-in-coraline.html)
    at any rate, these accusations are just ways for them to allay their own denial or guilt, but if these racist attitudes are not confronted then nothing will be changed...

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  3. going off of what Chrissy said, i am white, and actually find i am more comfortable around POC. i guess that may have something to do with the high school i went to, being one of a handful of whites. actually when i went to college, i was very anxious and scared being around so many white people. i was scared since i had never really been around them before; i wasn't sure how to act, and even now i find myself anxious in a room full of whites...

    i have some friends who moved to japan. i hope you love it as much as they dow!

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  4. Thank you, Filthy Grandeur, I will probably love Japan alot. I'm still have to learn the language before attended Temple University Japan. I'm only a beginner in Japanese. I pretty sure the experience in college was pretty hard for you.

    I had the same problem in my classes because my classmates and teacher would get in to discussions that were abit uncomfortable for me and probably for this half Japanese and half black student in the room.

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  5. I echo the sentiments of the author in trying to find a term to explain "racism" without calling someone "racist" or reverting to that term to describe a complicated situation.

    The term causes knee-jerk reactions in people, which often obscures the message trying to be conveyed.

    Instead - I define people's actions as bigoted, discriminatory or prejudiced, and point out the racial oppression of institutions. Not because I'm trying to tip-toe around people's feelings, but I find that when folks get defensive, it's hard to have a decent dialogue.

    It's actually quite tough not to fall back on the old language, but I've found it to be utterly useless with other white people. They can't see past the possible insult or hurt to themselves. And really, the point isn't to call people names, it's to try and change their mind.

    Maybe this will help some folks in starting those discussions.

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  6. Really?
    I never find it hard to talk about race.
    My non-Black friends see me as their equal, so anything is on the table.

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  7. I find it weird that this is almost a cross-post, but you didn't ask me for permission. It's not a small excerpt relative to the size of the post, as it's most of the post.

    I'm not sure yet if this is a good thing or a bad thing. I appreciate the link and acknowledgment of criticism, but I was quite surprised when I saw this here.

    BTW, I updated my "About" page.

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  8. Restructure, my thinking was to use enough of the post to give the gist of it, then include the link to your blog at the end for readers who want to read the rest. I also set this post up like other "white quotation of the week" posts, and thus used about the same amount of text for it that I normally do for others. So, I didn't consider all that closely what portion of your post I was using, thinking that this amount was okay, since I still left off several paragraphs. I think you're right, though, now that I look at your original post--I should've asked. My apologies for not doing so.

    [btw, I like the cartoon that you added to your profile.]

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  9. i was kind of offended by the way you chose to spell "english" in the title of that post, re-enforcing the idea that... i dunno, Asians can't speak English without accents? why not just say "make fun of Asian accents?"

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  10. Ungrammatical written English is not an accent, though. The "tooth-hurty" joke isn't an "Asian" or Chinese accent, either.

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  11. Macon D,

    Why do you like the cartoon in my "About" page?

    It's representative of me. However, if you feel that it is representative of you, that would seem inconsistent with your insistence to "agree to disagree".

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  12. Exactly. I like it because it's so suited to "you," your online presence/persona, as I've come to know that presence/persona.

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  13. Thanks for relaying the further suggestion. Resistance suggests two different titles for my post currently entitled "laugh at 'engrish'": "Laugh at non-native speakers of English even though they themselves are monolingual," and “Laugh and feel superior towards people who are learning another language.”

    Although "Engrish" is a racist word, I'm not convinced those are better titles--I'll have to think about it. For one thing, while Americans in general are indeed notoriously monolingual, those Americans of non-Asian descent who laugh at what gets called "Engrish" sometimes do speak a second language. Those two suggested titles also lack the racial and racist specificity of "laugh at 'engrish'"--the post isn't about laughter at, say, Russian or German speakers of English. Also, "Engrish" is in quotation marks in the post--why isn't that enough distancing from the word itself? It's also a word that appears in the post--if it should be removed from the title, even when it's in quotation marks that immediately question its validity, should it also be removed from the post?

    So far, I prefer Restructure's suggestion, and the post's current title, "laugh at 'engrish,'" because it identifies at the outset the type of racist laughter that the post is about, and that the title it immediately challenges with that word in quotation marks.

    Anyone else have thoughts on this?

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  14. I agree that "Engrish" is a nasty word, but when I first saw it in the title, and saw that it was in quotation marks, I knew you were pointing out that it's not a good word. Why not highlight that it's not a good word that way right up front, since that's what you discuss in the post?

    Also, yeah, I have a white American friend who speaks three languages, but also laughs at "Engrish," sends me links to that stupid shyt. (I sent him to your post.)

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  15. I understand that making fun of the accents of Asians who are esl is bad. But don't really understand why its wrong to laugh at stuff that is mistranslated? Isn't the "engrish" website mostly full of food and candy packaging that has been translated inaccurately? I guess my confusion surrounds where the boundary is between "mispronunciation or mistranslation leads to lols" and "racist targeting of non-white groups". I know there is one, but have no idea where it is. Assuming that Asians don't speak english is racist, assuming that they will speak it poorly or with a specific accent is racist. But is laughing at the way a chewing gum ad was translated from language x, y or z into english racist? Is it racist that I used to spend a lot of time aping my abuela's colombian accent? Does the fact that I do it when telling stories about things she does that bother me make it more or less?

    Like previous commenters I too am uncomfortable calling people out directly about racism. Or calling it racism. I've gotten pretty good about talking around it though. Describing things as "retro", or asking people to step back and really look at what they're saying. Sometimes I initially frame it with gender or class if applicable. It works. Sometimes (esp. if approaching with the gender or class angle) the other person says "oh, that was racist!" or some less loaded euphemism.

    Because I look white enough that I haven't faced much discrimination for being hispanic, I feel weird talking about race in a majority POC context. When I'm with mostly white people I feel weird discussing it because if I bring up the fact that I'm hispanic I get accused of being like a trojan minority horse, or trying to one up them and make them look bad (for not having secret non-white heritage?). Its sort of a no-win for me. I get accused of overplaying or underplaying and either one leads to charges of internalized racism and/or tokenizing.

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