Thursday, April 1, 2010

think that in terms of race, things are getting gradually better

In response to the science girl's recent post here and its many testimonial comments -- about the all-too common white tendency to see a potential criminal in every black person -- a commenter name Mr. Byte provided an example of another common white tendency:

It ain't right. It will change, because it has changed. Slower than molasses pouring in winter, but not so many years ago, "Driving while Black" would likely be punished with a severe beating followed with a "Resisting Arrest" charge a lot more often than I believe it happens today.

Things will change, you see. So just have some patience -- such white-talk usually implies -- and while you're at it, how about you stop complaining too?

I talk to white people about racism frequently, especially when they say or do something racist, and also when race is related to what we're talking about, whether the other white person realizes that or not (and usually they don't, which is why I bring it up).

I think I'm a pain in the ass this way for many of the white people I know. But they rarely say so; most of them are too polite. Most bear with me, and some actually listen, and even help with my efforts to delineate this or that example of racism or de facto white supremacy.

However, one tendency that I've been getting more frustrated with, and a tendency that I know a lot of white people almost reflexively feel or think in response to examples of racism in our times, is to embrace the belief that "things are getting better."

I've come to think of this as "white racial gradualism." It's a belief, even a feeling, that racism was really awful back in the day, when whites treated Indians badly and enslaved black people, and then there was like, you know, Jim Crow segregation, which was also bad, but it wasn't as bad as the stuff before. As for today -- the white racial gradualist is thinking while hearing about racism -- white racists do still exist, but they're dying out. This person might even admit that most or all of today's white people still have some racist tendencies.

But, none of that is as bad as it used to be, right? As Mr. Byte wrote -- way down in a comment thread that's full of examples of blatant, stressful, hurtful, and life-threatening racism -- "It will change, because it has changed."

As I said, I find expressions of this belief, that racism is gradually, inevitably declining, more and more frustrating lately. My awareness of this white racial gradualism is also frustrating because I know that even more white people think it than say it.

It seems to me that a common consequence of this belief is that when most well-meaning white people witness or hear about a new act of racism, or encounter new evidence of institutional racism, it doesn't stick with them. It's not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, because things are getting better, so why remember it? And so, the example doesn't get added to the many earlier examples that they've witnessed or heard that also didn't stick with them. The evidence doesn't accumulate into an understanding that racism is nowhere near going away, because in response to the latest example, something inside of us often says, "Well, that's sad, but hey, things are getting better. Eventually, that kind of racism won't happen much at all anymore. Just like racism in general."

So when I try to talk about racism with white people, one thing that's blocking their reception is this sense that it's not as important as I'm trying to say it is. Because, you see, things are just not as bad as they used to be, and they're certainly going to be better in the future.

This kind of thinking sort of short-circuits serious consideration of today's racism; it also lets white individuals who are willing to at least acknowledge racism off the hook in terms of actually doing anything about it.

And, of course, in many ways, things are not getting better; they're actually as bad or worse than they used to be. Fifty or sixty years ago, for instance, the overwhelming majority of prisoners in the U.S. were white; now the percentages are reversed. In many American cities, neighborhoods are more racially segregated than ever before. Rates of unemployment, wealth disparities, health care disparities, educational funding and the lack thereof, a myriad of microaggressions . . . When I'm talking to a white racial gradualist, I could go on and on like that, and come up with a wealth of evidence that in many ways, things are the same or worse than at this or that before.

But then, something inside that person is saying, "Yeah, in some ways it may be worse. But, overall, things are getting better."

Why do white people so often feel this way?

I'm not a racial statistician, so I can't say for sure that in terms of racism, things in general are not getting gradually better. But even if they are, they're still bad, and again, in some ways they are worse than before. Racism still causes a hell of lot of pain; it also still endows white people with countless forms of unearned access and privilege. Why not acknowledge that more fully, deal with it, fight against it?

"Because that's not my job," many white people seem to think. "And one reason it's not my job is that things are already getting better without me. Things don't need my help. So have patience, you complainers -- things will get better because they have before, and so they will again."

This sunny disposition about the supposedly imminent demise of racism is the result of not having to suffer the debilitating trauma that it causes for people of color. It's also the result of a long history of white subjugation and dehumanization of other people, which continues to make it difficult, and perhaps impossible, for white people to empathize with people of color.

Do you encounter this white gradualist belief? (And by the way, by labeling it white, I don't mean that people of color never believe it as well; I'm writing about stuff white people do.)

Even if white people don't express this blithe racial gradualism, do you still sometimes sense that they're thinking or feeling it? And that those gradualist thoughts are preventing them from taking racism all that seriously? All that, personally?

46 comments:

  1. But then, something inside that person is saying, "Yeah, in some ways it may be worse. But, overall, things are getting better."
    I think people buy into the illusion that the racism today is not like the racism of their grand parents.I think the well intentioned media helps perpetuate this idea.We are after all in the "post racial era of Obama".People want to believe racial relations are improving as that lets them off the hook and then they feel better.
    In regards to "racial gradualism" I find myself thinking that racism will gradually diminish as the U.S. population shifts from an all white majority to a majority of POC over the next 30 years.That will effect the house,senate and supreme court and the social justice that's much needed in this country might actually come about.Yet that kind of thinking is the "white racial gradualism" that your talking about.Whats frustrating to me is that I don't see how systemic racism and privilege in our society can be over come through education and legislation as long as those who own our current economy control it.History shows that change usually comes slowly unless theirs a revolution.The goal is to eliminate white privilege in our country and we can work towards that on an individual level but how do you dismantle the systemic nature of privilege in our society on such a scale that it's going to make a difference?I understand the goal I just don't know how to break institutional racism that's been here since our country was founded when most white people think "It will change, because it has changed."

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  2. this is the number one "silencing" tactic that so many of my friends use ...

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  3. As I said before, we didn't get as far as we did by sitting around and waiting but by people taking a stand and fighting a very long and hard fight.

    It's an uncomfortable thought to realize that the battle still needs fighting.

    There may also be a subconscious urge to hang on to one's privilege just a little bit longer and reassuring oneself that future generations will lose that privilege, so there's no harm in enjoying it while it lasts.

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  4. It's not really an either/or situation. I look at it like It's getting better AND there is still a lot of racism and work to do. You don't look at a house that's half built and say " oh it's coming along so we don't have to do any more work it will finish itself "

    so I see what your saying about using progress as an excuse to not think about or do anything about racism. But I would attack that mentality Simply on the grounds that it's lazy and unrealistic to think a job will finish itself. denying that progress has been made is throwing the baby out with the bathwater I think.

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  5. To sum up, it's not that you shouldn't see that progress has been made, but it's how you interpret that progress that matters. As an excuse to do nothing? or an inspiration giving you the strength and resolve to get closer to the goal.

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  6. I find myself thinking that racism will gradually diminish as the U.S. population shifts from an all white majority to a majority of POC over the next 30 years.

    Most countries in Africa might disagree.

    It's a very privileged position to think that injustice goes away on its own. It points to a view of history where White people, being good and decent and noble, saw that slavery, Jim Crow, and discrimination were wrong then decided not to do it anymore.

    Suuuuuure.

    This same view of history is exactly why Prop 8 happened.

    Can you name one case in history where those in power gave it up simply because they decided that it was the right thing to do? Can you name one case in human history where justice happened on its own and not as a result of prolonged and active resistance?

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  7. That's a good point. I particularly noticed this tendency among 'liberal whites,' rather than 'conservative whites.' Of course, such a distinction is often based on self identification, so it might not tell anything about what people think or do. Still, white conservatives seem to think that the Civil Rights Movement (and subsequent CRA of 1964) as the end of racism. But liberal whites would entertain the idea that there are still racists out there, but they clearly stop from thinking that they might also be contributing to the problem. They're good people and our society is essentially good; therefore, you don't need to talk about racism. It's getting better, so don't be pessimistic. We're all good.

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  8. I have always perceived this as an excuse for not taking action. "Things are getting better," and the examples WP point to are inevitably 'we don't have slavery anymore' and Brown v. Board. Broad sweeping things done at the government level. Racism is systemic, but systemic racism is still perpetrated by individuals, and if we are actually going to improve things, individuals must actively do the improving. (My usual response is "Who is making things better?" or depending on the situation "What are you doing to make things better? Have you learned from POC what 'better' might entail, or are you assuming your own definition of better?")

    @ Leilani, it's interesting that this has been used on you as a silencing tactic whereas my experience with it is primarily as an excuse. I suspect that says further unflattering things about whiteness.

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  9. life's an illusion for many privileged white people who live in a safe, sheltered world. today, things "look" better because we have advanced technology, Internet, globalism, social networking websites, and not to mention, we have mainstream black celebrities along with famous Asians, Latinos, and women in film, TV, literature, sports, media, etc., which makes everything look like it's wonderful and dandy. The American Dream.

    "what are you bitching about? we have famous black movie stars like Will Smith or we have successful actresses like Sandra Bullock. shut the hell up," some people would shout when I would criticize Hollywood for not giving enough strong, interesting roles to Black actors and women (whether white or minority).

    that is just one example.

    just my opinion...

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  10. If it's getting better (questionable at best; I think it's getting worse in many ways, as WP forget what it was like before), it's because people spoke up and did things.

    It has stalled now, because WP don't want to talk about racism, hear about racism, or do anything about racism, because it's scary and makes them uncomfortable.

    I used to be one of those WP who said "it's getting better slowly", but fuck that. It's not getting better, and even if it were, it can go faster. Lots faster. If only WP would shut up and pay attention.

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  11. @Sheila: There may also be a subconscious urge to hang on to one's privilege just a little bit longer and reassuring oneself that future generations will lose that privilege, so there's no harm in enjoying it while it lasts.

    So true. I don't think there's any "maybe" about it, either.

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  12. And while you're at it, how about you stop complaining too?

    Macon, I think you are strawmanning Mr. Byte a bit, here.

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  13. On that note:

    I'm biracial b/w, and it seems like the only people that toss out the "Well, once we're all mixed together (like you), racism won't exist anymore!" It took this post for me to realize I've never heard that comment from a black person.

    I find the above experience strange, since most white people assume I'm 100% black, while a lot of black people know I'm probably of direct mixed origin.

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  14. My usual response to this is along the lines of, "yeah, things are, very gradually, improving, but think about the long, concerted struggle that's been necessary to bring about these incremental improvements. That's why people can't throw up their hands now and assume progress will continue as a matter of momentum." Well, usually more jumbled and colloquial than that, but that's the basic idea. I adopt this response because I don't like to downplay the very significant strides that have been made -- I just want to emphasize that such progress to date doesn't absolve anyone of responsibility going forward.

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  15. I'll confess to thinking this way on occasion. And maybe it's my subconscious; Lord knows I'm downright racist at times.

    However I've been having this thought a lot recently. I work in a mall in a racially diverse neighborhood, and I see a lot of biracial families and biracial friendships. So maybe what I'm thinking is, "Things aren't getting better yet, but when this generation grows up, then things will start to improve."

    Or am I seeing a small bright patch in a darkening sky? I'm not sure.

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  16. I was just thinking about this this morning. When I read comments like this they seem to come across as a self-congratulatory white person sitting there with a tear in hir eye while saying about how there might still be racism but gosh darn it it's getting better. And it just makes me think, "there's still rape tourism (or any other injustice) being perpetrated right now, your happycrywanking is not helping racism victims one bit."

    But I think it's perhaps more than just derailing/excuse making, saying this actually makes white people feel good about themselves, somehow.

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  17. @cat

    Did you read all his posts? White boy was a walking troll. But let's forget about him.

    Anyway, White people hold tight to the belief that 'things are getting better' because: 1.It means they are so progressive and totes not racist and 2.They don't actually have to do anything about social injustice because-look at that!-it's going away all on its own.

    Yup, slavery, Jim Crow, apartheid, segregation, etc. all went away because it wasn't in vogue anymore, not because people risked their lives and fought against it.

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  18. When I got to that part of the comment -- essentially, "Be glad you didn't get beat," I rolled my eyes and moved on. I couldn't even muster the energy to respond, though I saw that others did.


    I find it really frustrating when white people focus on how much "better" things are because while that may be true, the implied result is "so stop complaining; you should be grateful." And while I may have some optimism (and certainly recognize positive changes over time), I think that white people say this to minimize how much oppression currently exists or even to sort of congratulate themselves.

    It goes hand-in-hand with people who say that POCs exaggerate the extent of racism (as someone told me yesterday), but couched in a sunny optimistic package. But I'm kind of like, yeah, it's easy for you to be optimistic. You don't live in my shoes.

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  19. I also want to give a concrete example to back up your assertion that in many ways, things are getting worse. I attended a lecture earlier this week about health disparities in my city (Chicago) and the US as a whole. With respect to many leading causes of death, health disparities between black and white patients are actually widening compared to 10 or 20 years ago. For instance, black women in Chicago are twice as likely to die from breast cancer than white women. This is due to a number of factors, including physicians bias and the fact that even BW who have access to care receive poorer care than their white counter parts. And I repeat -- this disparity is widening.

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  20. @ RVC Barb
    I wrote:
    "I find myself thinking that racism will gradually diminish as the U.S. population shifts from an all white majority to a majority of POC over the next 30 years."
    You wrote:
    "Most countries in Africa might disagree."
    Your right theirs no guarantee that things would change.My point as a White person is that it's easy for me to fall into the trap of "racial gradualism" in an attempt to figure it out and find a solution.
    I also pointed out that "those who own our current economy control it" and by that I mean Whites pretty much control the economic privilege in the West and until that changes I don't see how systemic racism and privilege can come to an end.Africa suffers because her resources are "owned' by White institutions.

    "Can you name one case in history where those in power gave it up simply because they decided that it was the right thing to do?".
    Nope.
    The problem with using history is that it deflects from doing something about the problem today.
    "Look at history.See things are getting better."
    I do think history is important in understanding where White privilege came from and it does give me a clue on how to dismantle it.
    This is my current thinking which is subject to modification.
    The Romans as an Ethnic group no longer exist as they became absorbed by the cultures they dominated.Roman privilege was adopted by the Church and then passed on when the Banks financed the exploration of the "New World".That I think would mark the beginning of White privilege.
    I don't see how we can dismantle institutional racism with out dismantling the economics that empower it.I could go on about how I see the Banks being the root of all evil but I don't want to derail this thread any more then I probably already have.

    "Can you name one case in human history where justice happened on its own and not as a result of prolonged and active resistance?"
    I wrote "History shows that change usually comes slowly unless theirs a revolution."

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  21. Thesciencegirl,

    Great point on health and mental health disparities. I'm taking a class on social factors and race/ethnicity health/mh disparities (currently working on a paper about Black women and HIV) and I think my prof has done a great job at putting people in check when they invoke the "people have bad health because their poor" argument. Um, no.

    As a former Mathlete, I can't buy the "White racial gradulism" argument because I view these "improvements" in terms of a number line. Social change (which was a struggle, not a natural occurence, as OP have mentioned) brought us up to 0, because all the stuff you shouldn't have been doing was in the negative. What good is there to say about 0? Should we applaud men who stop beating their wives too?

    When I hear people say this, I think I'm going to respond, "That's like being happy with your final grade being a 50 instead of a 0. Either way, it's still an F."

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  22. Whites tend to see things in a more positive or positively delusional way when it comes to race. They see examples like Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, and other famous, rich blacks as signs that racism is not as bad as blacks make it out to be. So, they will see people who point out racism as pessimistic about the world. They think they are always complaining and need to look at the "bright side" of things while ignoring harsh realities. Thus, they'll remain in a world of deception and self-gratification.

    Economically speaking, things may be better, but the wounds still remain regardless of what your socioeconomic status is. Just because we have upper and middle class blacks doesn't mean that they are "healed" of the severe wounds of racism. The fact is no matter how many blacks there are who "made it", society still holds prejudices towards blacks of ANY status because of what they think they are. The arrest of Henry Louis Gates is great example of that.

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  23. A lot of people do not realize that in the institutional system of racism, when one form of the racist structure is taken away, another fills it spot and become more covert. When slavery was taken away, Jim Crow and other segregation practices in other places besides the South (in the North it was based more on socioeconomic status), then when Jim Crow was taken away, others like Prison Industrial Complex, etc. So, no it is not gradually getting better, it just changes form and one prime example in the outrage amongst the Tea Partiers.

    I think it when people say it is getting better, it is another form a derailment to stop talking about race and not to come up with solutions to help stop racism. But they do not realize that in order for things to change, it take action, not passive waiting around for it. That is what happened with slavery (slave rebellions, Civil War), Jim Crow (Civil Rights Movement) and that is what is needed now. It take a conscious effort to fight what is invisible and unconscious.

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  24. Great post.

    The attempts to minimalize today's racism serve two purposes:

    1. It strokes the egos of white folks today because they can look at people in the past and say "I'm better than them." Humans love doing this, so it's not surprise white folks engage in this behavior. But, it's dangerous because being "better" does not mean being "good." John Wooden used to say "Never mistake effort for achievement."

    2. It stymies the conversation. If you agree that htings are better, than it undermines your reasons for complaining in white people's minds. They can subtly make you seem ungrateful or greedy.
    The same tactics are used in most relationships. In order to deflect criticism, folks want to focus on the positives. The problem is that people get too focused on the positives, and forget all the work that needs to be done.

    Besides as Chris Rock said, why do people expect praise for doing what they are SUPPOSED to do? Segregation was wrong. Discrimination was wrong.

    You don't get a medal for not doing those things, just like you don't get a medal for paying child support. That's the bare minimum of what you should be doing.

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  25. Do you encounter this white gradualist belief?....And that those gradualist thoughts are preventing them from taking racism all that seriously?

    A recent story. DH and I were having dinner with another couple, who are very close to us. We're both AM/WW couples with young bio kids. I wanted to ask them if they'd been thinking about their kid's racial identity because it's been on my mind lately. I said I worried about how my own perception of my kids' race might be dangerous. E.g., if I generally perceive them as white (DD is especially white "looking"), then I might not advocate enough on their behalf or try to prepare them for the challenges of being PoC.

    *crickets*

    I don't remember exactly what examples I gave of such challenges but I said something about them being judged based on their appearance/name/heritage.

    The other mom replied something like, "Maybe this is naive, but I don't think that people will judge her for her race, [!!!] especially once these guys are older, it's just not going to be a big deal for them [!!!]" So I said, "Yeah, I think that's pretty naive." I got a very dirty look, to which I replied, "It's not just naive, it's very privileged and irresponsible."

    *crickets*

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  26. Yes, if Strawmanning means "putting words into my mouth" then I'd have to agree that Macon is strawmanning me.

    I never said "stop complaining" and if you read it that way, then truly it IS your problem and not mine.

    I'm sure now I'll be blasted because my statement comes from "Privilege" or whatever. Read it as you wish, but make sure that you read only what I wrote, and not what your mind puts in there for you to see. If I was going to say "stop complaining" I would have done so.

    @DarkMoon: Dead on yesterday. Thank you, and my apologies if I hurt you personally with my statements.

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  27. I think it's almost meaningless to claim that things are better without carefully examining why they appear better. Of course, whites say things are better because they can. Things have always been better for them! Whites always claim to 'know' things objectively. We should be suspicious of such so-called white framing of history. When looking at from some alternative perspectives like the one suggested by D. Bell and alike (i.e., interest convergence), many historical events (e.g., Brown v. BoE) that supposedly signify the triumph of human effort and human intension to improve society are, as someone mentioned, white self- congratulatory and self serving gesture. In fact, the idea that the condition involving race is better because of some sort of fights and liberal social movements shows old white bias of liberalism and individualism. If it's about individual action, then how is it possible to talk about systemic racism? The power of intention and liberal social action is overrated here and curiously matched with bootstrapping ideology-- you can do it just as we did. 'We' changed it before, so we can do it again. We've been saying this for a long time, but things are, as many pointed out, getting worse. No one claim to be racist but we have racism. It'll be there as long as we worship this false individualism.

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  28. @Sciencegirl,
    Thanks for bringing up the point about health disparities. I've had this conversation awhile back about the rates of skin cancer amongst blacks being more fatal than whites because there's this myth that blacks and other darker-skinned people are "exempt" from skin cancer. I still use sunscreen and people look at me crazy when I slather it on. This came up because there is now talk about the salon tanning tax being racist.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/30/tanning-salon-tax-is-raci_n_518781.html

    Two years ago, I noticed a dark spot on the sole of my foot and went to the dermatologist to check it out. I felt that the doctor didn't seem as concerned as I was and I was told it's "rare". The tests confirmed that it was not melanoma but had the potential to turn into something down the line--so I got it removed to be on the safe side.

    I have a friend who is white and a moderate Republican and she said that the WP who pretend that it's getting better are delusional/living in a fantasy land and in fact, she thinks that since Obama has gotten into office, it's much worst. I have to agree with her because it's almost like many things that have been swept under the rug are coming out in full force.

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  29. Saying that some aspects of racism are diminishing does not exclude being able to see that some aspects are worse and that the improvements are nowhere near the ideal state. I do think that it will take several generations to completely eliminate racism as an ideology. The usual activist goal is to get a majority, not to pursue the last 10% of die-hard opponents. The real question is, when will the tipping point come when there is enough will to address the issues of poor POC? Will the USA ever see the necessity of providing a good education for all? I think that it is best to bring specific inequities into the discussion with whites, rather than allow generic talk of "racism", which for whites is a nebulous entity.

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  30. One of my favorite Tim Wise pieces is on this subject (sorry, I can't recall the title), where he points out that we white people have repeatedly been ignorant of the extent of racism and what people of color go through.

    Slave owners typically saw themselves as civilizing influences on their slaves, who they thought had it good in terms of the life they led compared to their former "savage" life in Africa. They had to believe this way in order to defend the institution of slavery--and sleep at night.

    In the civil rights era, white people generally didn't understand what was so bad that blacks would go out and demonstrate against it. Things were just fine as long as everyone knew their place in society. Martin Luther King, as shown in Tavis Smailey's recent retrospective, was seen by most white people not as a dynamic leader in a struggle for social justice but as a troublemaker.

    Even in the times that gradualists point to as clearly bad in comparison to today, white people didn't see the position of blacks or other PoC as all that bad. In this regard, we white people don't have a very good track record for being right.

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  31. cat and Mr. Byte, I edited the third paragraph of the post so that it no longer directly attributes the lines in question to Mr. Byte.

    FTR, here's what that paragraph used to say:

    Things will change, you see. So just have some patience. And while you're at it, how about you stop complaining too?

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  32. @Reese.Very.Frank said, lot of people do not realize that in the institutional system of racism, when one form of the racist structure is taken away, another fills it spot and become more covert. ... So, no it is not gradually getting better, it just changes form

    I can't help but be reminded of the law of conservation of energy, colloquially understood as "energy can neither be created nor destroyed; it can only be transformed from one state to another." The implications of that are ... depressing, frankly.

    I've experienced this tendency most frequently when talking about popular culture, particularly films. The controversy surrounding the Avatar: The Last Airbender movie is a good example. Conversations with white friends about the racism implicit in deliberately selecting white actors for Asian roles devolve into Moff's Law arguments, or else become about the fact that a poc is directing it, and there are poc in it, what else do we want? As a friend of mine put it, "You're just never going to be satisfied, are you?" as though it's beyond contemplation to ask that Hollywood be fair and accurate in its representation. That mindset is exactly why things do not just change, why the people with power do not suddenly just realize that, er, it's a bit problematic to wield this power so oppressively against these groups of people. They do not change out of the goodness of their hearts. They change because they are being confronted with their own failings, because poc are standing up, being counted, and demanding our right to participation in a truly just society. If we left it up to white people, we'd have gotten nowhere - because as @bloglogger has pointed out, white people have a habit of believing that wherever we are is "good enough."

    And ... it's not.

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  33. bloglogger said...
    "Slave owners typically saw themselves as civilizing influences on their slaves, who they thought had it good in terms of the life they led compared to their former "savage" life in Africa. They had to believe this way in order to defend the institution of slavery--and sleep at night."

    Blind to the savagery of slavery, Whites thought blacks had it good. Concurrently- Blind to the detrimental effects of racism, whites believe blacks still have it good.

    "In addition to identifying drapetomania, Cartwright prescribed a remedy. His feeling was that with "proper medical advice, strictly followed, this troublesome practice that many Negroes have of running away can be almost entirely prevented." In the case of slaves "sulky and dissatisfied without cause" — a warning sign of imminent flight — Cartwright prescribed "whipping the devil out of them" as a "preventative measure."

    I am reminded of a quote in the documentary, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson. In it, Stanley Crouch’s responds to the broad assumptions of the time that black people were lazy. "Only in America where the black man as a slave worked everyday from sun up to sun down, while the whites sat on the porch drinking mint juleps" and we were supposed to be lazy???"

    Just pick yourselves up, go out there and succeed. Stop whining! Stop complaining all the time. Slavery is over. We see the same disconnect today. Some whites didn’t get it then...and sadly some whites don’t get it now. You could fill this blog with volumes of experiences and indignities suffered by blacks, and very few whites would see the racism for what it is. Sadly, this is just one blog in a sea of many. There is just not enough Tim Wise's and Macon Dee's to go around. Even a million wouldn’t be enough to fix America's shameful problem.

    "Things will change, you'll see. So just have some patience -- such white-talk usually implies -- and while you're at it, how about you stop complaining too?"

    This seems to be the sentiment of most whites. Change will come, just be patient. Things just don’t happen overnight- we have to get used to the idea of change and that takes time. These words have been echoed since the abolition of that peculiar institution. Even then, old black mothers cried out as their sons hung from trees, how long oh Lord before things get better. We were told to wait after the Second World War. Valiantly fought- sacrificed and died for racist whites who denied us every opportunity in this country; surely that time would have been perfect for change, but not so. In the movie, A Soldier's Story, Adolph Caesar's character (Master Sergeant Vernon Waters) was convinced the war would usher in a new era for the Negro. "You see...the First War didn't change nothing for the Negro. But this one's gonna change everything."

    Racism is a defect of the human heart- it can’t be legislated away- it can’t be cut out with a knife. No Blog is going to cure this country’s ills. It takes a power greater than the person to motivate true change. In short- White America needs an intervention.

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  34. I never thought I'd agree with jas0nburns, but I guess there's a first day for almost everything.

    I don't see it as mutually exclusive. I'm not disagreeing with the major contention of the post; in general, when white people engage in "it's getting better!" they are indeed doing so as a silencing tactic, and/or a way of ending the discussion, and/or preserving their privilege, and/or feeling all right about not working toward anti-racism themselves.

    But it's not always the case, and that should be recognized. I personally believe racism has gotten better in some areas in some ways, and I'm not ashamed to say that; it *has* gotten better in some ways, in some areas. A black president would have been unthinkable forty years ago. People aren't getting openly lynched and having their entire towns protect them. In some ways, things have improved.

    Saying that is *not* mutually exclusive with then saying, "Yes, progress has been made. But it's gotten worse in some ways; the disparity in health care is bigger than ever before, and an insane amount of PoC are dying due to lack of health care. PoC are still being denied jobs, and housing, and suffer higher rates of violence, and [insert other examples here]."

    Saying that progress has been made is *also* not mutually exclusive with saying, "And there's still a hell of a long way to go, and we need to keep working on it to ensure that what progress we've made isn't lost, and that new progress continues to be made. And by 'we' I mean me, and you, and everyone. Changing this takes a hell of a lot of us working together, and we need you."

    As jas0n analogized it, acknowledging that a house is half-built doesn't mean you can say, "All right, we're good here! This puppy'll build itself from here on out!" But looking at what's been accomplished, and acknowledging that some progress has been made, helps give you the incentive to continue working on it, because it helps you see that things *can* change.

    So yes, I agree that saying things are getting better is generally a bullshit technique used by people who are naive or lazy or want to avoid taking responsibility to help end racism. But that doesn't mean that it can *never* be used as an appropriate comment, in context.

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  35. haha. yay a cookie! nom nom nom

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  36. I encounter this "Things are getting better" response in two forms.

    Most often, it's the silencing/diverting-of-guilt/magical thinking version. White people feel like people of color have "enough," should stop complaining; want to feel good about themselves in comparison to dead white people; want to believe that privilege goes away all by its little self if you just live long enough; blah blah all those things that the rest of this thread has spelled out so well.

    Occasionally, it's said in a kind of trying-to-cheer-ourselves-up way. This mostly happens among activists, when someone has recited an appalling present-day problem and everyone is feeling exhausted and discouraged. I experience that as a kind of emotional touchstone and recommitment: Things CAN get better. Remember, they used to be worse.

    However, this thread is making me wonder if category #2 really exists. To me, it feels like it does. When it happens, it's a reassuring affirmation of the value of the continuing struggle. But now I'm wondering if I've been overlooking how that kind of comment might feel to people of color.

    Have others experienced this distinction? Am I imagining things, and it's really always a category #1 situation?

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  37. racial gradualism is a way to absolve one of the responsibility of dealing with the racism of the present...White Supremacy is a LEGACY, it's consequences and repercussions are passed from generation to generation...not only as a mindset, but as an institutional force...White people are clearly threatened by the loss of the institutional structure of racism...because that means a tangible, real time loss...attitudes come and go like the wind, but the potential loss of concrete social/economic advantage really sets white folks teeth on edge...

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  38. When a white person tells me that “things are getting better” what they are really saying is that they are really satisfied with the status quo, and they are not willing or prepared to pursue racial justice or fairness on my behalf. It’s their way of suggesting to me that they have set a time table for racial parity, and now is not the time.

    The statement “Things are getting better” allow white people to do nothing about racial inequities. It does not force introspection about their personal racial attitudes. It does not force a change in one’s personal behavior, and it does not promote a greater awareness of racial disparities that continues to exist in our society. Things are getting better=we ain’t done treating you like crap yet.

    The next time a WP utter “Things are getting better” Ask them what have THEY done to make things better? You will have to break the silence, cause they will not have a damn thing to say. Personally, I don’t think that a WP should be allowed to say “Things are getting better” as it relates to Black people., WP have played little or no role in things getting better, at best they have been a grudging observer. There are a few whites (very few) who have been on the right side of justice, but for the most part WP could care less about social or economic justice for PoC and in this case Black people.


    Why should I have to wait for fairness and justice to be parceled out piece meal, while today you enjoy it fully?

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  39. "Most countries in Africa might disagree."

    @RVCBard:

    Most countries in Africa, the Middle East, Asia (model minority myth notwithstanding, child/sweatshop labor and sexual slavery aren't really things to sneeze at IMHO), Central and South America...

    Then there's always ye olde rape tourism still running rampant in North America. People consistently forget about indigenous peoples whilst identifying white hegemony.

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  40. The same could be said in the context of feminism. People have tried to placate me in the same way, by saying "Things aren't as bad as they used to be," as if I should STOP NOTICING all the shit that goes down every day. Things may have changed since yesteryear, but that doesn't make the world an equalist utopia by ANY stretch of the imagination, and I don't plan to shut my mouth or stop rabble rousing until it is. Nobody should!

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  41. this is oddly germane-and not-to a discussion i had with my goddaughter yesterday. she had to write an essay on aretha franklin and the civil rights movement. so we had a little chat about the civil rights movement, the CRA, and what it meant to people. she, and my friend, her mother, were COMPLETELY oblivious to reality. my friend's assertion was that after the CRA, black people had recourse when things were unfair. basically saying, "now they can stand up for themselves" i despair at her naivete. when i explained that MY white privilege meant that i could stand up for myself and not likely be murdered for it, she completely denied that. said people aren't being killed for asserting their rights-then said that in any situation, people insisting on their rights will be killed on occasion. i guess this sounds a little disorganised (or a lot) but i was appalled, if not surprised that she was unaware of the current and ongoing state of racism. and violence against PoC. it is true that as a woman, i do not have the privilege of a white man, but i am still unlikely to be murdered if i defy the police, for example. it's happened, but nowhere near as often as PoC. of course, this friend is the same one who, when searching for a house to buy told me about one they looked at where she saw "two little colored girls" on the sidewalk and decided that my goddaughter had enough trouble without other issues. (i'm still unsure of what she meant by that, but i'm going to go with some sort of racist subtext) i love my goddaughter, and it pains me to see her absorbing this i've already said racism, maybe prejudice will work here. there are things better in race relations, but there are things worse, too. i think in many ways the "hidden" or "covert" racism is worse than the open variety. to be truthful, i don't know what to do to change it-it can't be legislated, and obviously education doesn't change it either. i point out racism when i see it and am roundly condemned. (not trying to say i'm special, mind you-just pointing out that the few things i CAN do are met with derision and ridicule)if people won't listen and see, there isn't much we can do, i suppose. but that's no reason not to do what we can. i find all this so strange, we're all the same-we all come from africa originally, and we all have the same mother. but so many of us hate and fear each other. but i don't have the answer-i will just continue to point out what i see.

    sorry, i guess this rambles-i hope it comes across as what i mean.

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  42. Merry (who is white)April 4, 2010 at 9:30 PM

    I've experienced denial even more serious than what people are describing here, namely that racism (as well as, sexism) doesn't exist at all anymore. AAMOF, so the theory goes, the only thing holding people of color and women back these days is that we don't work hard or take opportunities because we are so busy complaining about non-existent problems. It's all our fault. All we need to do is see what the white guy with his infinite objective knowledge of reality knows - that it's all in our heads. There's a level playing field and all we have to do is toughen up and be willing to work hard and compete just like him. And what about when you can't argue away racism that is just so blatant even the white guy can't deny it? Well first off, it's an aberration, not an indicator of anything prevalent or systematic. Secondly, we all have difficulties in life. If people of color and women just learned to suck it up and persevere like white men, we'd overcome these problems.

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  43. I think that the racism today is actually much more dangerous than in the past. In the past, it was perfectly acceptable across many areas of the US to be openly, blatantly racist. Now, although most people still have racist thoughts, and racism still effects POC in severe and life-threatening ways, we (white people) are suffering under the mass delusion that we live in a Post-Race society!

    The same WP who piles on an ancient politician for saying the n-word will then turn around and rail against the welfare queens or the illegal immigrants. He's not racist, because he's not in the KKK and he doesn't use the n-word - clearly. He just calls it as he sees it!

    Racism now is underground, and even more entrenched.

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  44. "Can you name one case in history where those in power gave it up simply because they decided that it was the right thing to do? Can you name one case in human history where justice happened on its own and not as a result of prolonged and active resistance?"

    This is so beautifully said. And hopefully, simple enough to truly heard and (gasp) accepted.

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  45. I agree with Jas0nburns. Seeing improvements over my (admittedly not terribly long - I'm 34) lifetime makes it that much easier to speak up when I encounter racism/sexism/prejudice. I believe things are better than they were, and that gives me faith that we, as a species, can continue to improve, even when it's discouraging to look at how far we still have to go.

    However, I live in Canada, and my experiences traveling in the US as well as parts of Europe, and East and Southern Africa, have led me to believe that racism is far less of a problem here than in many other countries.
    Is it a problem here? Absolutely, I won't deny that. But compared to my experiences in several American cities, both large and small, it's far less of a problem, and it feels like people here are more likely to speak up when they encounter someone behaving in an ignorant, cruel or otherwise inappropriate manner.

    And you know? I'd like to think that I would have the courage to stand up to jerks like that no matter what the circumstances, but sometimes those jerks scare me. I feel extremely lucky to live somewhere that I'm not too afraid to say "Hey! That's inappropriate". It makes me uncomfortable to stand up to people like that, sure, but it makes me far more uncomfortable not to, and if we don't all step outside our comfort zones, it really won't continue to get better, and will probably get worse.

    I'm sorry that you experience so many people who think "It's getting better" means "...so I don't have to do anything about it.". The way you express the problems with that reasoning are so clear and articulate, it seems insane that the people you take the time to explain it to can't or won't see it. (Well, I hope some of them do, at least!)

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    1. Hello
      I live in Canada and I don't believe that racism is not as much of a problem here. It's just different and the people who have the power are more sublimated about it. I also think that Canadians are very prejudice towards Americans in a way that I don't think is healthy. Not for me anyway, as a black American. There is an assumption that we are more stupid, less educated, more religiously zealous and more egocentric than Canadians. However, I've never encountered as much ego and less self deprecation as when I moved here. I have to deal with sublimated prejudices against me as a woman and more overt ones as an American. My American friends tend to be more educated, more well traveled, more liberal, more tolerant, more progressive than most Canadians. Full disclosure, I live in Alberta. However, my white in-laws assume that I am lazy when I have financially supported their son, successfully raised their grandchild and accomplished note and money in an extremely difficult career. As does some of his friends. White people in North America are part of a colonial system, instigated by Europeans who justified their rapacious ways with white supremacist notions. I find it hard to tolerate hearing "We're less racist than Americans."
      And I don't think it's in making racist jokes. My white associates deplore my faults more than they do others, and downplay my successes more. It's not a racial slur or anything as simplistic as that. Please, abandon the idea that Canadians are less racist. They are not.

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