Friday, June 20, 2008

start conversations

Actually, both white and non-white people start conversations. As this blog's readership has grown, I've been happy to start quite a few of them here.

I spent several hours this morning on a post about the differences between "race" and "ethnicity," but I'm currently in the clutches of that nasty, drooling, snarling beast, Writer's Block. Grrrrrrrrr.

Maybe enough people now read "stuff white people do" that I can try that common blogging feature, the "open thread." So here we go--please share whatever whiteness, or race-related, or otherwise-relevant thoughts you have in the Comments section. Suggestions for future posts would be great too.

In the meantime, here's a possible springboard for you--is this brief animated film an accurate summary of the history of white Americans?


  1. One topic I'd love to see discussed is the vision of ending racism that goes, "in the future, due to inter-racial breeding, everyone will look the same and racism will disappear." The future is milk chocolate, etc. Does this seem like a common bullshit idea to anybody else? It's come up a few times in my life lately (a mixed-race stand up comic, my white mom...), and it seems really problematic to (white) me.

    If you've already posted about this somewhere, I'd love a link.

    I'm curious what is going to pop up in this open thread. Good idea, dude.

  2. Well Sarah...what are your thoughts..can you describe what YOUR fantasy, ideal, futuristic non-racist world would look like in say, about 50 to 100 years from now? Could you also include, if possible, how we might get there (ideally speaking) from where we are now?

    Finally, can you explain what you mean by "problematic" and "common bullshit?"

  3. Hi Sarah,

    I think this is a bullshit idea as well. These are the reasons why:

    1) With the end of cheap oil and energy, people will likely have to localize a lot more. Automobile and, especially, plane travel may, within the next century, become a luxury that only a few can afford. Such localized human communities will result in smaller breeding groups and less so-called inter-racial breeding.

    2) Even without energy constraints, unless we work very hard as a global community to address the topic, I believe racism as a natural, regretful human tendency will ensue. It may be that racism evolved as a mechanism our human ancestors resorted to in places and during times of resource scarcity. Under these circumstances, an us vs. them mentality may have enabled our species to survive by hording resources within small groups so that their members would have enough to survive and reproduce.

    The vestiges of that instinct to categorize "the other" quickly and superficially seem to linger even in relatively rich, resource abundant places like the U.S. Unfortunately, such an instinctive tendency is easily manipulated and has been used as a tool to oppress and manipulate people through-out the ages.

    Thus, I think it is very important on many different levels that people make a conscious effort to become aware of and keep in check this very human tendency. Kudos to everyone who reads this for making that effort.

  4. Thanks sarah, that certainly is a common white tendency, and one I hadn't considered for a post. Warren Beatty's character expressed it in another "problematic" instance, in Bulworth, where his crazy, rappin' politician says (according to, "All we need is a voluntary, free-spirited, open-ended program of procreative racial deconstruction. Everybody just gotta keep fuckin' everybody 'til they're all the same color!"

    I think it's a bullshit idea because it's a lazy, white liberal hope. It usually comes along with hand-wringing and other vague wishes that troubles between the races could just get better, somehow. It's also terribly unlikely, as mthgk goes a good way toward explaining.

    But yeah, there's more to be said about where this hope comes from, what motivates it, and so on, so thanks again.

    Keep 'em comin, folks. Oh, and if you know of links to other relevant sites or sources on anything that would interest the apparent community-of-sorts here, those would be good too.

  5. Macon, why not do a thread on the theories of what is the bottom line cause of whiteness, white supremacy, racism, white racism...

    You can't cure what you don't know the cause of.

    Is the cause simply conditioning? Or is it partly genetic? Inborn? Fear of genetic annihilation? Melanin envy?

    How do we know if everyone being the same color, race, etc., will be a cure for what we still haven't defined a cause for?

    Maybe people, as another poster said, are so prone to an 'us versus them' mentality that until that mentality is cured, there will always be categorizations of people into arbitrary races, based on other criteria --

    "You're X-race because you live in X part of the world."

    It's pretty arbitrary now, how we classify people into races, isn't it? Maybe you're covering this in the entry you're writing on race versus ethnicity.

    I don't know what most white people do re this question, but my guess is that most white people do not believe in theories such as fear of genetic annihilation or melanin envy. I have my questions about those theories, and what their implications are. Do more nonwhite people believe in such causes, than white people?

  6. Mthgk wrote:

    I believe racism as a natural, regretful human tendency will ensue.

    Racism is a natural human tendency?
    I certainly don't believe that.
    How can it be a natural human tendency if "racism" (as I understand it) has only been around for a relatively very short period of time in recorded human history? My idea of natural human tendencies are mundane things like sleeping, eating, procreation, eliminating waste, raising our young, burying our dead ...

    But perhaps your definition of "natural" differs from my understanding of that word.

    It may be that racism evolved as a mechanism our human ancestors resorted to in places and during times of resource scarcity. Under these circumstances, an us vs. them mentality may have enabled our species to survive by hording resources within small groups so that their members would have enough to survive and reproduce.

    This survival/hording view strikes me as a major component of "white racial framing" ...or justification for insatiable greed and the violent oppression of native populations.

  7. Hi just me,

    Well, I think racism is a natural human "tenancy" mostly b/c examples of it pop-up through-out space and time in many different contexts. (cf. all of the recorded cases of genocide:
    A tendency, in my view, is not the same as a biological necessity, such as sleeping, eating, etc.

    In fact, I think there are many human tendencies that are vestiges from preindustrial times but are not compatible with our current, highly technological society. (Hey guys, we now have nuclear weapons! Warmongering and jingoism may not be a good way to approach diplomacy.)

    I'm not justifying racism; just trying to approach it realistically so as to better get a grasp on how to deal with it...

  8. lol... yeah I love that one! it's great! (referring to the cartoon, not the above comments)

  9. Sarah,

    I agree with you that the "let's f-ck our way out of this" attitude is problematic because it's no solution at all. (Did you get that Just Me?)

    Whiteness won't be going anywhere soon when the only change in the status quo is average skin tone. I really hate the "race relations" talk that says nothing about POWER RELATIONSHIPS.

    People kill me when they misinterpret the 2050 census projections that estimate Whites being right at or below 50% of the population. Some folks, because of the hysteria that goes on when talking about that subject, even get confused and say Hispanics will be the majority when they most definitely won't and couldn't be with the Black population holding steady and Whites at least being a plurality for as long as the census numbers can project.

    Recently, I believe the overall Hispanic/Latino population in California and Texas has moved Whites below the majority line and there is no end to White power via the business owners and controlling influence in government in those places (and businesses exert a lot of influence over government).

    So, IMO, this "milk chocolate" fantasy is just another way to say, "let's let White Supremacy die of natural causes" vs. ever lifting a finger to do a damn thing about it save for at the threat of internal, riot level strife. As such, this "milk chocolate" fantasy is not a bullshit idea. It's a flat out cop out.



    1.) Blacks/Whites/etc. "Working Together" against Racism

    2.) Anti-Racism

    Talk about what you think those things are about, since those things came up in another thread.

  10. @Nquest - Yes Sir, I got that.

    (I wasn't certain when I initially posted what "problematic," and "common bullshit" were attached to, "the vision of ending racism" or, "inter-racial breeding.")

    Nonetheless, thank you for your esteemed kindness in pointing out for me what I should have obvious in my first reading. Please allow me to return your kindness and convey a little assistance (or clarification) toward you.

    The Hispanic/Latino group will triple in size and will account for most of the nation’s population growth from 2005 through 2050. Hispanics/Latinos will make up 29% of the U.S. population in 2050, compared with 14% in say the so-called "confused" experts.

    And yes... I would agree with you re confusion. But I would go even further by stating that the whole world is mired in confusion. There's certainly enough of it to go around, CONFUSING even those that amazingly project themselves to be way above the obfuscation while employing the poor, tired and overused "strawman," against any perceived don quixote persona(s) who appears on the scene.

  11. topic ideas
    - white supremacy in a global context, it is not just an American phenomenon
    - building an anti-racist network
    - politics and why the approach of 'changing hearts and minds' is problematic
    - death penalty in a racist society
    - and perhaps a difficult topic but nonetheless I think it's important: How white supremacy/Eurocentrism also destroys (the souls of) white children

  12. > One topic I'd love to see discussed is the vision of ending racism that goes, "in the future, due to inter-racial breeding, everyone will look the same and racism will disappear." The future is milk chocolate, etc. Does this seem like a common bullshit idea to anybody else?

    It's an illusion because the roots aren't skin-color

  13. [jw posted this in a different thread--I'm re-posting it here so more readers will see it.]

    [jw, if you're willing, please write to me at unmakingmacon @ gmail . com because I have an idea to ask you about.]

    I would like to post a German spot against racism:

    This is what the people say there:

    White woman: "I can't sit here. It's unacceptable"

    White man, addressing the Black man: "It's really unacceptable that you have to sit here. Because of this you get a seat in business class."

    text: racism makes lonely, show civil courage

    What are your thoughts?

  14. Hey Macon,

    Have you considered activating the backlinks feature for blogger? There are times I wish you had trackback.

  15. lb, as far as I know that function is turned on . . . if you go to the bottom of this post, for instance, you'll see links to other sites that have linked to that post. Is this the function you're referring to?

    I've noticed that it can take awhile for this kind of, er, trackbacking to show up. (And thanks for the posts at your blog on mine--I've been meaning to say something there about them, will do soon!)

  16. Macon, I'd love to see some conversation on how white people deflect their own racism by using big ivory-tower language to demean, isolate, and condescend to other people (including other white people) in conversations about race and racism. Before being indoctrinated into academia-speak I was probably still able to talk about these issues, but I would have been shut out of discussions because I couldn't out-syllable the liberal arts grads.

    I often hear people say that the solution to racism is "education" (implying college), but I don't know that formal postsecondary education is necessary (and it's certainly not sufficient) to becoming racially aware. I'm not going to knock education, but some higher learning can have the unfortunate consequence of giving white people a set of tools with which to navel-gaze and obsess over who is the least racist. Many of the conversations I've had with other white people about race are so laden with academic jargon that their point is lost on me, except to be preen-fests. (See the hilarious entry on Stuff White People Like on "Being Offended.")

    So how do we arrive at a plain language conversation on racism that is humble and free of academic one-upmanship? How do we start talking authentically about our own experiences - which often exist outside the realm of easy terminology - without resorting to quoting textbooks and college class notes and going into inquisitor mode when someone fails to say things in just the right way?

    In other words, how do we stay focused on the real issues while maintaining our humility and avoiding getting into pissing contests with others who are, fundamentally, on the same journey as we are?

  17. It is a problem, Annie. I think that, in partial defense of the academically informed, there are a lot of academic terms that function as a form of shorthand for complicated topics. Not that I think I'm telling you anything you don't know here, but, take for instance the currently hot term "intersectionality."

    To me (not having looked it up anywhere), that means an approach to social phenomena that takes into account simultaneously the apparent significance of several socially constructed categories--race, class, gender, sexuality, religion, and so on, depending on the phenomenon at hand. Many academics now assume that such a multifaceted approach is important, and that it should always be used, and that others should be called out on the proverbial carpet whenever their description or analysis of a problem lacks such sophistication. So to point to an insufficient "intersectionality" can be a shortcut (and in academic realms, a mutually understood one) to pointing out what would otherwise require a lot more time and words.

    That said, I think that academics who speak to non-academic listeners should realize that others haven't learned these sophisticated shortcuts, and that they're thus coming across like pompous asses. And non-academic listeners should feel free to tell them so, and/or to ask what various terms and concepts mean, and why they're important for the particular situation at hand.

    But to answer what seems like your main question, I think academics should also be pressed, continually, to explain the real-world significance and applicability of the finer distinctions they often get obsessed with making. They should be able to stay focused on some main, real-world task at hand. And if their meticulous, "navel-gazing" distinctions don't really matter much in those terms, then they should be told to get off their high horses and start walking with their supposedly beloved peasants. Or excuse me, the proletariat.

  18. Oh, you're right. How lame that it only works with blogger. Well, carry on then, I'll just have to make do with what I've got.

  19. Macon, I agree that "shortcuts" are useful in academic work and perhaps elsewhere in certain contexts. But in conversations among white people I think the danger of these very complex constructs is that they also become shortcuts for introspection and for dealing with the intense feelings that racial conversations can engender. In psychological practice I become wary of too much intellectualization - the person who knows everything about her disease, for instance, but has a great deal of trouble identifying how she thinks, feels, and reacts in the moment. So maybe it's not so much that the academia-speak is not useful, but rather than it is not enough to do the work that needs doing, no matter how much sophistication or nuance it seems to convey.

  20. annie,

    Sorry, I don't think we can have a "plain language" conversation on racism. Plain language simply does not have the vocabulary to describe the complexity of racism. Even on sites like Racialicious that are geared towards the 'intersection' between race and pop culture, there is a lot of jargon that the general populace is unfamiliar with.

    People do not use jargon in order to be pretentious. People create jargon because these terms are useful. The term "Oppression Olympics" did not gain traction because people wanted to complicate things. The term "Oppression Olympics" was popularized because it was a name given to a phenomenon that did not previously have a name.

    Even if you have non-academic folks talking about racism, they are going to invent jargon to refer to patterns that keep coming up. Language evolves. Jargon is not exclusive to academia.

  21. So how do we arrive at a plain language conversation on racism that is humble and free of academic one-upmanship?

    When and where have this occurred?

    And for any actual instances you might have in mind, what made you think that was going on?

  22. @jw
    "What are your thoughts?" of my thoughts was that if the woman didn't like her seating arrangement she should have removed herself from the plane (before take-off).

    Seeing this short YouTube clip brings to mind an article I read a couple of months ago. Here's a short excerpt of that article (written by Dr. Carl Bell, a Professor of Clinical Psychiatry at the University of Illinois School of Medicine).

    "African-Americans are subjected to daily, minute insults and aggressions; situations Dr. Chester Pierce calls microinsults and microaggressions. These offensive mechanisms are designed to operationally keep Blacks in the inferior, dependent, helpless role. The mechanisms are nonverbal and kinetic, and they are well suited to control the space, time, energy and mobility of an African-American, while also producing feelings of degradation. An example of a microinsult occurs when a white person (who is 'innocently' operating under the stereotype that any African-American in a hotel must be a bellhop) asks a well-dressed African-American male waiting in the lobby to carry his luggage. An example of a microaggression is when a white person edges in front of an African-American at a sales counter, despite being the second to arrive. In both instances if the offended African-American shows ire, the perpetrators wonder why African-Americans are 'so sensitive'."

    In my own personal experiences similar to the one shown in the video and the ones in the above excerpt, because of my physical size and large presence, if I did not keep my "ire" undercover, white people (almost always) would certainly feel threatened and very ill at ease. And as you probably know, in racist America, large, unhappy black men are powerful magnets for (unwarranted and unnecessary) violent police intervention.

  23. [i]@jw
    "What are your thoughts?"[/i]

    for me this short video shows a few things. First the feeling of a white to be safe due to a supposed/imagined "race solidarity". So the assumption, that other whites automatically share the same belief system when it comes to race. She expects an agreement of the white guy, probably reinforced many times during her life. Also feeling safe to degrade somebody Black openly without consequences. The white entitlement that (according to her point of view) her 'uncomfortable situation' will be understood and improved by getting another seat.
    The white guy disrupts this "white solidarity". And it's also a little example that racism is a white problem and that working in solidarity with Black people is not waiting for Black people to act and whites just jump on the train but that whites understand a situation and act without forcing somebody Black to act.

  24. I like JW's comments on the video. White solidarity is one thing that is rarely discussed even when white privilege is.

    It's another thing I see a lot in whites who proclaim to not be racist and want to do anti-racist work.

  25. To restructure!:

    You said: "Sorry, I don't think we can have a "plain language" conversation on racism. Plain language simply does not have the vocabulary to describe the complexity of racism."

    I beg to differ as I lack any compelling evidence in support of your claim. I offer, for illustration, the example of communication in the sciences, particularly recent trends in the communication of biomedical sciences. I think it's reasonable to state that medical research, for instance, can be a field with many complicated topics. In decades past the dense, jargon-laden medical journal article was held up as the standard for medical communication, the compression of many intricate concepts into the least amount of type (or the shortest spoken presentation). All in the service of brevity, or so we are asked to believe. And yet there seems to have been (and continues to be) an implicit pride in one's facility with that jargon, a certain power that comes from speaking a unique and decidedly uncommon language. Modern standards for biomedical communication stress the importance of avoiding jargon and using plain language whenever possible to explain complex concepts. Some of the premier medical journals (such as the New England Journal of Medicine) have been especially influential in encouraging the communication of ideas without jargon. In fact, NEJM now publishes highly readable "lay summaries" that intelligently describe the content of high-impact research articles for people without research training. The point is to make the content accessible to the non-specialist, the "uninitiated" so to speak.

    Other academic media would do well to follow the example of the NEJM and other leaders in biomedical communications by also making discourse accessible to lay persons. The idea that you just can't say what needs to be said without the need for jargon is so, so TIRED. Frankly, I think that statement needs a lot of unpacking.

    The problem with jargon is not only that it is inaccessible to many people but that it does too much of our thinking for us. Its use implies that the speaker has done the intellectual work to arrive at the construct that the jargon represents, and that it not always the case. When you are employing multiple intellectual "shortcuts" in a conversation, you may or may not know exactly how your conversation partner came to know or understand the concepts behind the jargon. That context might be quite important.

    "People do not use jargon in order to be pretentious." I wish that were true, but I don't think it is in every case. Whether we like it or not, the use of jargon confers exclusivity to the conversation. This is not ALWAYS a bad thing - i.e., jargon might facilitate conversations between academic colleagues (though even then, perhaps at the expense of real clarity and insight). But when we're in the public sphere, or when we're talking to people whose perspectives we know little or nothing about, I think minimizing jargon is a good goal. Otherwise, it feels like so much preaching to the choir (or alienating the "uneducated" in a linguistic power play).

    In the interest of full disclosure, I write from the perspective of a working class background, with a well defined sensitivity to the notion that some concepts are just too complicated for poor folks/uneducated folks/women/young people/old people/people of color. to understand. I've heard damn fine lay summaries of the theory of relativity, so I am skeptical of most claims that we need a special language to talk about concepts that affect EVERYONE.

    If conversations about race need to take 15 minutes longer for the sake of clarity of concepts, so f'ing be it!

  26. Annie, what you said is all well and good but, in the spirit of supporting evidence or even an example of inaccessible language... Well, you've yet to point it out, unless I missed something.

    It would help if you would readily point that out and, since you write from a working class perspective, then it's seems incumbent on you, first and foremost, to use such plain language yourself instead of making unsupported claims about others using language that's too academic.

    The title of this blog is Stuff White People Do. Can't get much more plain spoke than that.

  27. Annie,

    I was unaware of this trend in biomedical journals, and I can see how avoiding jargon benefits the general public. It's a good point and interesting to learn, but this biomedical analogy is inappropriate for discussions about racism.

    See think they have the right to go wherever they like:

    Those non-white dialogues tend to include words, phrases, and coded understandings that outsiders don’t know about. The trouble here with white interlopers, Sullivan writes, is that in addition to obstinately insisting that they see no good reason to resist the inclusion of white voices in such dialogues, they also tend to expect that this “unfamiliar” material be translated for them. Not only does this slow down the dialogue—it can also change it. Translation for the sake of white anti-racists can also reveal modes of resistance to whiteness that non-white people don’t necessarily want to open up to white people, however well-intentioned they may be.

  28. Restructure!: Great point. I should have limited myself from the outset. I can't and won't speak to work within communities of color. My remarks are geared more toward discussions of whiteness and racial awareness among those who are least likely to recognize those dynamics: white people.

    nquest: You seem to imply that I'm criticizing the language of this blog. Far from it. I read and comment on this blog because it avoids the sort of thing I am criticizing. My data are personal experiences in which I've seen academic-speak drown out substantive dialogue where opportunities for good conversation existed. I don't have empirical stuff for you; sorry. :( I didn't think the details of those experiences were really the substance of what I had to say.

  29. To clarify, I brought up the issue of jargon/academic-speak abuse as an example of stuff white people do, hence my reference to white conversations. Though I can only speak to my experiences as an individual, I have only encountered competitive jargon-slinging in discussions among white people, which makes me think that this practice might have something to do with whiteness. But I might be way off base. Thanks for everyone's responses.

  30. Annie, I'm glad you don't find this blog full of slung jargon. I do read a lot of academic books on race and whiteness, but yeah, I also try to appeal to a wider audience here by toning down and sometimes sort of translating that jargon (not that I'm any good at slinging it around in the first place).

    On your most recent comment's point, I think its excessive use could be more of a white thing, if that sort of jargon is being used merely as a way of demonstrating one's own "linguistic capital" (to use some academic jargon) in a purely self-aggrandizing way. I think whiteness could be a contributing factor there if more white academics do that in non-academic settings than non-white academics do. If it's true that they do, then it could be that the more individualistic orientation that I believe whiteness encourages could be a contributing factor. But as I think Nquest is in part saying, I'd have to have some data on this, maybe a sociological study of such conversations, to be sure, since my own experience with them isn't enough for me to say.

    Interesting topic, though, and I'm glad you brought it up. Who knows, maybe an academic or two will read this thread at some point and realize that their linguistic habits can be alienating and ineffective in non-academic settings (and even in academic ones?).

  31. I doubt that white academics are more likely to use jargon than non-white academics. However, when white people use academic jargon, their words are respected and assumed correct even if the listener/reader does not fully understand, while when non-whites use academic jargon, it's assumed to be bullshit. If a non-white makes a complex argument about racism, people assume that she is talking crazy talk, but if a white person says the same thing, he is lauded for his insight and higher-order thinking.

  32. Thanks Macon. Admittedly I am writing about behavior I have observed personally, but this may not be the space for it. Clearly we are talking about something a little more serious than the way white people dance and hence I get the need for sort of externally valid data. (I'd like to see someone study white dance moves, though!)

    I retract my observations and humbly relabel them as "Stuff Some White People That Annie Met Do." :) And I will blog about this stuff elsewhere with that caveat.

  33. Restructure!: As a general tendency you are probably correct - and there probably are data to back up your point - but when I've seen white people talking theory about race and ethnicity my bullshit meter gets very twitchy.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment with me. I appreciate your insights.

  34. Yeah, it's a bit odd to assume that in discussions about sexism, the usage of "plain language" would make it more accessible for women compared to men.

    And by 'odd', I mean sexist.

    "Plain language", its metaphors, its similes, tends to be racist, sexist, and homophobic anyway, and needs to be challenged.

  35. ..oh, one other thing and I'll leave it alone, promise! Though I am wary of jargon per se, and I got off on a tangent about that, my original thought was that jargon can serve a need to avoid feeling threatened. It COULD keep some otherwise "risky" conversations that much more cerebral, that much more shielded from one's own raw, ugly feelings - is it too jargony to call this intellectualization? In any case, I wasn't making claims about whether white people use jargon more often than people of color, but about whether they use it more often to that particular end.

    And with that, good people, I am done.

  36. All I'm saying is whatever "jargon" (Whiteness, e.g., is "jargon") that is presumed inaccessible needs to be clearly identified.

    The one up-manship thing too. That's the only data I asked for.

    Once that's done then folks can assess whether the language can be put in a simpler, more accessible form.

    I'm just trying to figure out who/what exactly Annie is talking about. She definitely felt someone was guilt of this. Examples please.

  37. Nquest, I don't need examples of the sort of "discourse" (to use one of those academic bits of jargon) to know what Annie is talking about. But if you'd like one, here's the first sentence of an article I just read (or tried to read--I gave up because the whole thing is written like this):

    The condition of an interiority that does not achieve the turgid and defensible formality of privacy is the condition of an insufficiency in determination, or an indecision in existence that both mimics and lacerates autonomy.

    I could have picked through this author's writing to extract its meaning, but to carry on like this for page after page struck me as pretentious at best, so I stopped in disgust.

    Trouble is, I've met people who more or less talk like this too. If I'm reading Annie right, this is the sort of conversational posturing that she's referring to. Her point about whether some whites who can speak this way do so to shield themselves from race in a way is a new one to me, something I'll be watching for in the future.

    By the way, I'd like to recommend a blog on race by some academics who don't write (and presumably) speak that way, Racism Review. LOTS of good stuff there. They often write about whiteness too.

    Its authors write about their blog,

    Contributors to RacismReview are scholars and researchers from sociology and a number of other social science disciplines and a variety of academic institutions across the U.S.

    RacismReview is intended to provide a credible and reliable source of information for journalists, students and members of the general public who are seeking solid evidence-based research and analysis of “race,” racism, ethnicity, and immigration issues, especially as they undergird and shape U.S. society within a global setting.We also provide substantive research and analysis on local, national, and global resistance to racial and ethnic oppression, including the many types of antiracist activism.

    Launched in 2007, RacismReview is produced and maintained by Joe R. Feagin, Texas A&M University and Jessie Daniels, CUNY-Hunter College.

  38. Annie,

    I don't mind the 'tangent' at all, which actually isn't a tangent, since this is an open thread. I find the topic of language and communication interesting, and I learned about the "plain language" trend in biomedical journals and that it could work.

    I think both whites and non-whites intellectualize racism, but whites can only intellectualize, while non-whites both intellectualize and experience it directly. I'm a non-white, and I can't help but to intellectualize my experiences to make sense of them. I think and realize that such-and-such an incident was not really about me personally, but about a larger pattern or system.

    Whites can only intellectualize racism, unless they are personally connected to the racism of people they know intimately, and even then, there is a lot that they don't know. What I find strange about white anti-racists with respect to 'intellectualization' is that they may write one thing about racism and show apparent understanding, but if you change the context, they may not be able to transfer the knowledge.

    For example, in misunderstand non-white gatherings, a commenter named Karen made an analogy, comparing the victim of an accident to the victims of racism, saying that both have to deal with the aftermath and the healing, but they are not responsible for the injustice and should not have additional burdens. However, later on she said that both whites and non-whites have an even duty to end racism.

    Another example is Macon D writing a post about how white people forget the names of non-white people, but later on, he thought Latoya Peterson's name was Latoya Jackson.

    I don't think the problem here is that they 'intellectualize', but the problem is that they haven't spent as much time thinking through and working out the implications of what they have learned, applying it to all aspects of their life. Perhaps the problem is that they don't intellectualize enough, since they don't have to, as they can forget about it when they go have dinner.

  39. Macon? What academic piece on Whiteness/race did your example come from?

  40. Also, what kind of audience was that academic piece, your example article on Whiteness/race, geared towards?

    Note: I asked for examples not because I doubt the existence of heavily jargoned writing but because I want to know what public intellectuals (those who are supposed to speak in accessible language) are speaking over people's heads and what particular jargon needs to be unpacked.

  41. Thanks for pointing that out, Restructure. It's true, you just can't trust us white folks! But some of us, when we do learn things, also try to use that new knowledge to change old racial habits, some of which take awhile to die.

    Nquest, the quote is from this:

    Dolce Stil Novo: Harmony Korine's Vernacular

    Thomas Carl Wall

    CR: The New Centennial Review 4.1 (2004) 307-321

    The academic writer's audience is, clearly, other academics and/or scholars. I can see now that it doesn't really serve as an example for you, though, since you're asking about the rhetoric of public intellectuals instead (something Carl Wall obviously is not). To me, the term "public intellectual" is almost an oxymoron in America. Can ordinary American people name even one living "intellectual," let alone one on race? Some might know of Henry Louis Gates or Cornel West, or maybe bell hooks, but I'd bet that "some" would be less than one percent of the population. (More would know of Toni Morrison, or Spike Lee, both of whom I consider intellectuals, but I don't think ordinary folks would use those terms for an "author" and a "director").

    For what it's worth, I think Annie is talking more about academically trained white folks who try to discuss race in smaller, non-academic settings, not public intellectuals, who again, as I understand it, try to address race, or other topics, to broader audiences.

    Here are some terms I've heard the former use in conversations on race that included both academics and non-academics: hegemony, intersectionality, interpellation, postmodern, gendered, racialized, prison industrial complex, epistemological, ontological, patriarchal, cultural capital, code-switching, normative, naturalized, internalized racism. And so on. (Strange, as I wrote that, it started to sound to me like someone cussing out another person.)

  42. Okay. Now come up with plain language for those terms and a reason why most (not all) are inaccessible.

    For example: code-switching

    Both terms by themselves are rather plain, I would think. So, too, is "racialized."

    I've read/heard some White people, laypersons and columnists, e.g., who use the term "racial" in what is, for me, a very awkward manner but I can access what their trying to say because every third word doesn't cause me to go to the dictionary.

    Tim Wise would be a "public intellectual", IMO. I just used the term for the lack of a better description of whomever Annie was including in:

    " do we arrive at a plain language conversation on racism that is humble and free of academic one-upmanship?"

    I guess it's probably none of my business, along with not being something I would be privy to -- i.e. your fellow White anti-racist travelers who scrap over who coined the most abstract and sterile term with the most syllables to describe something that already had a pre-existing and more descriptive one or two syllable word in common use.

  43. Interesting side-note (well, right on topic actually):

    Perhaps, a prime example of the need for plain language is what happened during the course of a Sirius talk radio show I listen to (MIP/Make It Plain with Mark Thompson).

    A caller asked Thompson specifically to take more time to explain what certain words used in the presidential campaigns and stories about them mean.

    The caller specifically asked what what the word "magnanimous" meant. I sympathize with the caller not because I didn't know what the word meant. It's just an awkward term. It's even more awkward to describe. Few words (especially since I'm familiar with the word) and even whole sentences really help in terms of capturing the essence of what it means and the dictionary doesn't help much, IMO.

  44. who scrap over who coined the most abstract and sterile term with the most syllables to describe something that already had a pre-existing and more descriptive one or two syllable word in common use.

    I seriously doubt that's what academics are doing, but then again, I have a background in analytic philosophy, and I think the purpose of academic language is the clarification of thoughts, not the obfuscation of it.

    I'm actually quite pissed now that people think the subject of epistemology is something that academics made up to sound smart, rather than it being a deep and fundamental mode of inquiry that naturally arises again and again. "Normative" is also an interdisciplinary word, and it makes sense that other disciplines would borrow the concept that already exists rather than invent a new word for the same idea.

  45. Re: internalized racism

    I thought the meaning of "internalized racism" was intuitive, at least to people who have internalized racism.

  46. I think women can more easily understand what 'patriarchy' means than men; non-whites can more easily understand what 'white supremacy' means than whites (and I don't mean like the KKK or Neo-Nazis); and black women can more easily understand what 'kyriarchy' means than white women or black men. When men and whites are first introduced to these concepts, they have no conceptual background, and require 'examples' to make it 'concrete'. On the other hand, when women and non-whites are first introduced to these concepts, they already have the conceptual background and the examples, and it's more like finally putting a label on the concrete experience.

    When white people think that terms such as 'internalized racism', 'racialized', 'microinsults', etc. are complex concepts instead of simple concepts, abstract and detached from reality rather than real and concrete, it's because they are viewing it from a white lens.

    I mean compare the 'plain language' term 'ethnic' with the 'academic' term 'racialized'. The former makes more sense to whites and less sense to non-whites, while the latter makes more sense to non-whites and less sense to whites.

  47. Sorry, I mean 'ethnic people' (or 'ethnics') versus 'racialized people'.

  48. Annie,

    I agree with you on many different levels. While completing my masters in quantum chemistry, I worked with and took classes from physicists trained at Princeton and Cal Tech.

    These were some of the smartest people I have ever met who were working on some of the most intellectually difficult subjects, but... they loved to use analogy and cartoons to communicate with each other and their students, not heavy jargon.

    In my experience, those who are very secure about their intellectual capabilities take it as a moral responsibility and a challenge to be able to make their ideas understandable on an intuitive, not just intellectual level.

    Some jargon may be unavoidable and even helpful in developing a dialog
    about racism. But, what about all of the explosive emotions underlying this issue? Big words and concepts aren't going to make a racist understand the hate and anger underlying his or her opinions and behaviors. Nor will they heal the pain and hurt of those who have been on the receiving end of racism.

    There is a lot of explosive anger floating around here. Heady, philosophical discussions can and do serve to deflect these strong emotions.

  49. mthgk,

    These were some of the smartest people I have ever met who were working on some of the most intellectually difficult subjects, but... they loved to use analogy and cartoons to communicate with each other and their students, not heavy jargon.

    Okay, but people of colour are not the teachers of white people, and I don't think it's fair to imply that people of colour who don't make it understandable for white people are less intelligent.

    In my experience, those who are very secure about their intellectual capabilities take it as a moral responsibility and a challenge to be able to make their ideas understandable on an intuitive, not just intellectual level.

    I'm a bit annoyed at this. People of colour do not have a "moral responsibility" to make their ideas understandable on an intuitive level to white people. You are not saying this directly, but you are suggesting that people of colour use jargon when talking about racism because they are insecure about their intellectual abilities. Now there may be some degree of truth to this, that people of colour have some insecurities about their intellectual abilities because they have internalized racist beliefs about whites being more rational, but people of colour are also not always talking with white people. People of colour often discuss racism with other people of colour and avoid discussing racism with white people, because white people get all sensitive and angry and call the person of colour oversensitive or angry.

    Some jargon may be unavoidable and even helpful in developing a dialog
    about racism. But, what about all of the explosive emotions underlying this issue? Big words and concepts aren't going to make a racist understand the hate and anger underlying his or her opinions and behaviors. Nor will they heal the pain and hurt of those who have been on the receiving end of racism.

    There is a lot of explosive anger floating around here. Heady, philosophical discussions can and do serve to deflect these strong emotions.

    I think there is too much focus here on trying to change white people's minds and make white people feel guilty. Discussions of racism are not always with white people and trying to get white people to see that they are racist. Many people of colour feel that it is useless trying to engage a dialogue about racism with white people. The idea is that if the white person is open to the possibility that they are racist, they will learn on their own. Many people of colour talk amongst themselves (ourselves) because we don't have to explain and elaborate, as the other person of colour will just 'get it'.

    Does this mean that we are insecure? No. It just feels like a waste of time to try to explain things that are 'obvious'. We know that white people don't get things because they are white and don't experience certain things firsthand. Just because we don't explain it in 'plain language' (read: white language), it does not mean that we are insecure elitists.

  50. Hi Restructure!,

    I am not at all implying anything about people of color. I myself am a person of color (at least I think I am. I am not white by most people's standards.)

    I just think racism is a very multifaceted human experience that we cannot fully address on a purely intellectual level. In fact, I think most people, including myself, have experienced racism on a very raw, emotional level.

    It is interesting to talk about racism in abstract terms and maybe informative. I just don't think it is the best or only way to address these issues when they are steeped in so much emotion on the side of both the racist and the person affected by racism.

    Also, there is intellectual posturing that I find pretty annoying. These are not genuine people grappling to understand and express complicated issues. The people I am talking about, and I think Annie may be referring to as well, are people who either get some sort of ego gratification from using words that confuse the uninitiated or just don't care who their audience is when they are speaking.

    In fact, most of the people I have meet of this ilk happen to be white. The problem with white people who do this is that it sets-up yet another power dynamic where they are "on top" with an arsenal of words only a small subset of academics are really familiar with. Furthermore, I think over-intellectualizing a discourse on racism can even seem patronizing to those who have had a "blood, sweat and tears" experience with it outside of the ivory tower.

    Maybe there should be more room for expressions of pure frustration and anguish here that abstract concepts just cannot capture.

  51. Maybe there should be more room for expressions of pure frustration and anguish here that abstract concepts just cannot capture.

    Okay, but white people are not the ones with frustrations and anguish to express with respect to racism. If a white person tries to emphasize, "I feel so guilty!" or some other emotion like that, I find it annoying and unhelpful. Guilt is not productive. What is productive is doing actions to combat racism, and intellectual understanding helps with this, while expression of emotion does not.

  52. Restructure!,

    I agree with you that an intellectual spin on racism can make a discussion seem less threatening and volatile to those involved. I am not advocating sitting around and whining to or screaming at each other about grievances.

    It just seems to me that racism comes from an emotional, not intellectual place, of insecurity, fear and anger. Why are racists so full of hate and anger? Where the hell does that come from? Until we can get to the bottom of those emotions, I don't think racists, including institutional racists and those with racist views they are not even aware of, will be able to fully understand the source of their destructive thoughts and world view.

    Does anyone have any ideas about where the insecurity and anger implicit in racism comes from?

  53. "Does anyone have any ideas about where the insecurity and anger implicit in racism comes from?"

    It comes from a "spirit":

    -The general atmosphere of a place or situation and the effect that it has on people.
    -A fundamental emotional and activating principle determining one's character.
    -The vital principle or animating force within living things.

  54. That cartoon is surprisingly insightful in spite of its brevity, but there's a video piece on Bill Moyers site about how slavery didn't really end in this country till the late 1940's. I've heard of Jim Crow, but I had no idea slavery is such a recent part of this country's history. Apparently black people know all about this; I certainly didn't learn this in school.


Please see the "commenting guidelines" before submitting a comment.

hit counter code