Tuesday, July 14, 2009

see "white" and "male" as neutral conditions

I think it's always worth noting when someone in the corporate media points out the following:

The raced and gendered identities of white men tend to go unnoticed in our white-framed society, allowing white men to pass under the banners of such adjectives as "objective," "neutral," "unbiased," and so on. Who they are supposedly has little or nothing to do with how they think.

You need to read today's Washington Post column (excerpted below) by Eugene Robinson.

It's been my understanding for awhile now that this white-male identity charade is much more visible as the farce that it is to people who are not white and male. It's no surprise to me, then, that Eugene Robinson is black.

Non-white people have a lot to teach white people, not necessarily about non-white people, but about ourselves. As Richard Wright said decades ago, "White Man, Listen!" Maybe Sonia Sotomayor's hearings will in part serve that purpose, forcing white men to listen to someone who understands that everyone's social positionings affect how they view and "judge" the world.

White men often simply don't see how they're fooling themselves this way. In many cases, and probably most, it's not that white men are pretending to be more objective and neutral and so on than say, a black civil rights leader, or a Latina Supreme Court nominee. They just assume that they are, without even consciously thinking they are. And yet, to assume that women and people of color are subjective, biased, and so on is, nevertheless, to assume and imply the opposite about oneself.

As a white man who's still trying to keep this common white tendency up in the more conscious realms of my own psyche, I'm grateful to Eugene Robinson for calling out so clearly its most recent public display. Maybe some of those important white men will read his column and really listen, especially to such bits as these (and again, I strongly recommend the whole thing):

Whose Identity Politics?

By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The only real suspense in the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor is whether the Republican Party will persist in tying its fortunes to an anachronistic claim of white male exceptionalism and privilege.

Republicans' outrage, both real and feigned, at Sotomayor's musings about how her identity as a "wise Latina" might affect her judicial decisions is based on a flawed assumption: that whiteness and maleness are not themselves facets of a distinct identity. Being white and male is seen instead as a neutral condition, the natural order of things. Any "identity" -- black, brown, female, gay, whatever -- has to be judged against this supposedly "objective" standard.

Thus it is irrelevant if Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. talks about the impact of his background as the son of Italian immigrants on his rulings -- as he did at his confirmation hearings -- but unforgivable for Sotomayor to mention that her Puerto Rican family history might be relevant to her work. Thus it is possible for Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) to say with a straight face that heritage and experience can have no bearing on a judge's work, as he posited in his opening remarks yesterday, apparently believing that the white male justices he has voted to confirm were somehow devoid of heritage and bereft of experience.

The whole point of Sotomayor's much-maligned "wise Latina" speech was that everyone has a unique personal history -- and that this history has to be acknowledged before it can be overcome. Denying the fact of identity makes us vulnerable to its most pernicious effects. This seems self-evident. I don't see how a political party that refuses to accept this basic principle of diversity can hope to prosper, given that soon there will be no racial or ethnic majority in this country.

Yet the Republican Party line assumes a white male neutrality against which Sotomayor's "difference" will be judged. . . .

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) was more temperate in his remarks than most of his colleagues, noting that Obama's election victory ought to have consequences and hinting that he might vote to confirm Sotomayor. But when he brought up the "wise Latina" remark, as the GOP playbook apparently required, Graham said that "if I had said anything remotely like that, my career would have been over."

That's true. But if Latinas had run the world for the last millennium, Sotomayor's career would be over, too. Pretending that the historical context doesn't exist -- pretending that white men haven't enjoyed a privileged position in this society -- doesn't make that context go away. . . .

(read the rest)

h/t: resistance at Resist Racism


  1. Macon

    How could that politician argue that his career would be over?

    Has he heard of Jesse Helms or Strom Thurmond? How about old boy from West Virginia?

    Those cats had THRIVING careers despite histories of virulent racism and remarks that dwarf anything Sotomayor said.

    See, another example of white folks rewriting history to make their argument sound better.

  2. These attacks on Sotomayor do not surprise me at all and I was expecting to see this type of "retaliation" from this panel of what I mostly understand consists of mostly (yawn) older white men. I think that politician is wearing rose colored glasses. But I guess when you're in power, you also have the power to manipulate situations to your liking. My mom's from South Carolina and she remembers Strom Thurmond very well.

    Not to go off topic, but this article reminds awhile back when I was in college and heard about some rioting going on at university in Maryland after a game against Duke. My friend said they destroyed the place, costing the university a considerable amount of money to repair the damage.

    I remember jokingly asking a male friend, who is white, "Why do you guys do that? Who cares if Duke won."

    He looked at me and said in a casual way, "Think about it. We have nothing to rebel against. Like women, we don't have to fight against sexism and like people of color we don't have to deal with racism on a daily basis."

  3. In order for minorities to be the "other" white maleness must be the norm yes. The Sotomayor would be the perfect venue to show these old white politicians the fallacy of the comfortable assumption of their objectivity irrespective of their identity. I will not, however, hold my breath.

  4. Hi Macon. I like Eugene Robinson too. But I think he's talking about Republicans, not "white people in general," because I think he's too smart to pretend to know what goes on in other people's heads. I also think he's not the kind of guy who likes to use race as a pretext to generalize. But I could be wrong.

    I'm probably a terrible person to ask about this, because personally I hate it when person A, white or nonwhite, decides to teach person B about herself. It always seems so smug, in my experience, whenever a person who isn't me decides to tell me about myself. After a while of it I almost always realize that the reason they're telling me about myself is that they aren't actually very interested in anyone except *themselves,* which means, in the end, that there's no reason to listen. I mean, for either of us.

  5. That's true, Big Man, the irony of that statement is just, literally, "appalling."

    Ebony, your friend's theory about white riots (which never seem to be called "riots," do they? hmmm) is interesting. I don't know if I quite agree -- have to think about that one, and for now, I think it's a pretty one-dimensional explanation. One of several explanations, I think, is that white revelers/rioters don't worry much about getting in trouble with the police. I'd guess that blacks and other revelers (let alone rioters) do tend to have that concern a LOT more in mind, and with good reason.

    I won't hold my breath either, Mr. Noface. But who knows? These psychological shifts can sometimes happen slowly, and never to everyone at once. Not that I'm saying anyone should be expected to wait patiently for them.

    Anonymous, I find it ironic, and hypocritical, that in the course of telling me that I shouldn't try to tell you about yourself, you end up telling me about myself. And on top of that, getting it wrong. Look -- if any particular post here about this or that common white tendency and/or action doesn't apply to you, then that post isn't ABOUT you. And there's no reason to make it about you.

    That said, and at the risk of committing my own act of hypocritical irony, I bet that if you're a white guy, and I could sit down to talk with you for awhile, I'd discover that you presume yourself to be more objective and "unbiased" than a lot of other perceivable sorts of people out there. That comes with our "white guy" territory, especially if we're not awake to that in ourselves.

    Why not admit it? All you have to lose is your ironically smug pretense of neutral objectivity.

  6. This comment is kind of unrelated to your post, but related to its headline. "White" and "male" are often seen as neutral, but so is "American".

    I've seen scores of posts on ethnicity and sex, but as yet, none on nationality. Maybe it's because all the bloggers are American...

  7. I wasn't talking about you, Macon. I don't know whether you like to tell people about themselves. (OK, I guess I do NOW, since your reply, but ...) I was talking about your desire for "Non-white people" who "have a lot to teach white people, not necessarily about non-white people, but about ourselves." It's a weird thing to hanker for.

  8. Anonymous, I guess it would seem like a "weird thing to hanker for" to most white Americans. We're basically taught that if we're ever going to listen to non-white people speak about racial issues (and most of the time, we're subtly taught to ignore them instead when they do that), we should listen to them talk about THEIR experience, as if it's representative of their group experience. If white folks grant such speakers or writers or artists any credibility and authority, it's almost always credibility about non-whiteness -- and almost never about whiteness.

    And yet, think about it. Who better than those who have to study white people, who often grow up learning that they BETTER understand white people for the sake of their own safety, let alone success, in a white-dominated society -- who better than such people could teach white people some things about themselves? Especially when you realize how little white people understand about whiteness, and about what being white means to themselves, because they think of it as "normal" and "neutral," instead of what it often really is, "white"?

    I'm not saying that non-white people have any responsibility to offer such knowledge and teaching to white people about themselves, and about the white-dominated society they've set up. I'm also not saying that white people should even ask non-white people for such knowledge and teaching. But I am saying that when non-white people do have the generosity to share such knowledge, white people should listen.

    I've written about this before. In particular -- if you're really open-minded and willing to get past your sense that hearing about the significance of your racial status from non-white people is "weird" -- here's a partial list of such non-white offerings. Go for it, dude; white man, listen!

    I'll finally state again, for emphasis and clarification -- white people should realize that there's a lot to learn about themselves, and about the white-dominated society that their people have set up in their own interests, from people who basically MUST understand how that society is white dominated. And that "lot to learn" has already been said by non-white people, many, many times.

  9. I'm really disgusted by some of the questions Sotomayor was asked and am really tired of her being attacked for making the "wise Latina" remark. She wasn't saying that being a Latina made her wiser than everybody else but that, with her unique life experiences, she may very well see things differently than her mostly white male colleagues have. This is one of the reasons previously that the Supreme Court has allowed colleges and universities to consider race in the admissions process. They understand that a diverse student body will benefit all students by exposing them to different viewpoints, viewpoints they wouldn't necessarily have arrived at from their (arguably limited) life experiences. I'm also pissed that Sotomayor has been accused of being an "activist" judge simply because she's a woman of color. In reality, Sotomayor is not expected to change the ideological balance on the court. Yet, she's been characterized as this scary Latina, just like Obama was tied to fundamentalist Islam.

  10. One of the white male Americans who questioned Sotomayor today is the senator from Alabama (I think his name is Jeff Sessions). Sessions, in the early eighties, was up for a federal judgeship (is that the right word, "judgeship"?) before the same committee, whose chairman at the time was Joe Biden. Sessions was not seated as a judge, because his active racism was exposed. So this is a guy with an axe to grind against those "evil people" of colour.

  11. [Vicente Duque, if you have something specific to say here about the posts on this blog, that's okay, but please stop trying to promote your own blog and repost your blog entries here as comments.]

  12. Non-white people have a lot to teach white people, not necessarily about non-white people, but about ourselves.

    I find that I agree with this, but I find also that I resent that it is true. I find myself resenting the luxury that white people as a group have of being unconscious of their behavior towards others, when non-white people have to be very conscious of a host of things from the danger of playing into stereotypes to the danger of being perceived as playing into stereotypes when we are just being ourselves. I find also that I resent that a Colored People's Burden exists in which many white people leave it to non-white people to educate and correct them when white people, with just a bit of interest in and care for the world around them, could easily teach themselves.

    As far as I can tell, you are an example of how a white person does not have to be incapacitated by his whiteness, does not have to be held hostage to his race, and can take initiative in exploring the experiences of others and in understanding his place in the world as a person who has responsibilities to the world by virtue of drawing on the benefits of existing in the world. So, I appreciate your blog very much, even as some things you write about dig at resentments and irritations of mine. :)

  13. Fi'ola'kemi,

    I have to echo your sentiment. Do you sometimes find yourself tired of being a POC, even though you are proud of your heritage? Sometimes I do. I get exhausted at wondering if I should pull back on debates for fear of being seen as the "angry black woman" or watching what I wear as to not adhere to the "Jezebel/sexy Mulatto" stereotype.

    It's just exhausting to be a POC on a daily basis. Why should I have to tell some Whites how to be civil toward others?

  14. Thank you for your comment, Fi'ola'kemi, and for the followup, honeybrown1976. I was thinking today about how lucky I am to be white in a similar sense -- not having to spend energy on a daily awareness, and carefulness, about my skin color. The arrest of Henry Louis Gates made me think that. He'd just gotten off a fifteen-hour flight, then had to try to bust his own door down because it was stuck, probably aware as he did so of his white neighbors' eyes on him, feeling physically exhausted from his travels, and then a police officer doubts he's the owner of his own damn house and follows him inside, demanding to see some ID. . . well, with all that, who wouldn't start yelling things about what so often happens to black people in America? (Assuming he actually did start yelling.)

    Actually, I guess white people wouldn't start yelling that, or anything like it, because we'll never understand what that's really like, to not be white. What a strain it must be at times, maybe most of the time.

    Anyway, yes Fi'ola'kemi, I certainly do feel responsible for at least trying to understand what I have better access to, which is my OWN racialized perspective, and what being raised to be "white" encourages me to feel, think, and do. One of the things I'm encouraged to do is NOT see how I simply can't put myself in Professor Gates' place. I can never know what that would feel like, what kind of weight of life experiences comes up again and again in such situations.

    And finally one other thing, I realize now that the statement of mine quoted by Fi'ola'kemi could be misread:

    Non-white people have a lot to teach white people, not necessarily about non-white people, but about ourselves.

    I greatly respect that kind of non-white knowledge (and other kinds), but I do not expect anyone who's non-white to teach anyone who's white anything. If they're willing to, that's very generous, and I spend time reading and listening to such knowledge when it is offered. But I certainly don't expect it.

  15. Since the recent election, there appears to be in American society perhaps more racism than in my previous experience. Much of it including "reverse-racism", a term which is loathsome in itself IMO. Especially annoying are the over generalizations where the individual is forgotten and blanket statements are applied to an entire skin-tone variation. Recently I attempted communications with a blogger going by Moorish Brooklyn Intelligence and he wrote back declaring that "all white people were evil." Being of mixed ancestory yet mostly native American I responded that historically the so-called "black" people were referred to as "black white people" by natives here, because they acted in general similarly. In Mexico, after the conquest the mixed Mestizos were hated by both the Spanish and Indios. Now what we seem to have is a world populated by alleged "humans" of all sorts of mixed bloodlines, yet all share the same mitochondrial dna suggesting a common mother. What good is science if nobody pays attention to the discoveries?


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