Monday, August 31, 2009

rarely notice their white moments

If you're a person who fits the category of "white," how often do you actually notice that you're white?

I propose the concept of "white moments." These are moments when something happens to a white person -- usually something positive, or good -- that would have happened differently if he or she were not a white person.

These also tend to be moments that the ordinary white person doesn't notice as a white moment. As a moment, that is, in which something happened differently because they were white than it likely would have otherwise.

I also propose a corollary, "non-white moments" (or if you prefer, "people of color moments"). These are moments during interactions with white people when something happens to a non-white person that would have happened differently, or even might have happened differently, if he or she were white. It's also a moment that the non-white person -- as opposed to the white person in a white moment-- is likely to notice as a racial moment.

Non-white people, that is, are more likely than white people to notice how their race affects, or may affect, the things that happen to them. If this is true, then this difference is part of a more general difference: non-white people generally understand racial realities, including their own parts in them, better than white people do.

In Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege, Shannon Sullivan explains how the psychoanalytic concept of "leading ideas" can help to understand common white ways of thinking and being, including this particular mode of white oblivion.

Freud points out that "leaders" of groups are usually thought of as individual people, but that the members of groups also follow big ideas that function like the people who lead groups. Such leading ideas are often conscious, but they can also be unconscious.

Also, a leading idea can be more conscious for one group than it is for another. Generally, the leading idea of "race," especially one's own race, is more of an unconscious leading idea for whites than it is for non-whites. As Sullivan writes,

Because the white supremacist consciously affirms white supremacy as her leading idea, she is consciously aware of her membership in a group of white supremacists. In contrast, it might sound strange to describe a person as unaware of what groups she belongs to, and Freud does not discuss this as a possibility.

But people who are not aware of their leading ideas often are not aware that they belong to a particular group and that the group's attitudes affect the way that they view and interact with the world. This is certainly true of many white people with regard to their membership in whiteness. The seeming naturalness and resulting invisibility of white privilege often prevent it from being recognized as a leading idea.

In contrast, Sullivan adds, members of racial minorities tend to be highly aware of their racial membership, "because it often is forced upon them by a racist world."

Michelle Johnson attempts to quantify the black experience of this phenomenon in her book, Working While Black: The Black Person's Guide to Success in the White Workplace. She calls the overt, relatively frequent black awareness of being perceived as black "the 15 percent difference":

What I think many whites, including (ironically) even liberal whites, don't get, is that even though our experiences as black people can be 85 percent the same as white people, some days that 15 percent difference is the only difference we feel.

Johnson explains that this difference comes about in moments when a black worker in a largely white workplace either knows, suspects, or wonders if what just happened had something to do with his or her race. Johnson is careful to note that not all blacks feel this difference in the same amount, and that different jobs will produce different percentages. "One could say," she writes, "that when you're a leader in the civil rights movement, your 15 percent is actually 100 percent."

Of course, different people of color will also feel this difference differently, and in different percentages. I'd like to hear, for instance, what percentage of time a Korean American feels his or her race in largely white settings, or a Latina, or an Arab American, or an Indian in England, or an Indonesian in Australia.

These will all differ, but the main point here for me as a white American is that when I interact with others in largely white environments, I'm almost never encouraged to know, suspect, or wonder if what just happened had something to do with my race. As a result, my awareness percentage in those terms could well be below one percent. And so, paradoxically, one of the "leading ideas" of whiteness is the false idea that being white has next to nothing to do with who I am and how other people treat me.

One thing that white people are often encouraged to do in anti-racism discussions is take note of their "white privilege," as Peggy McIntosh does in her pioneering article on the topic. I try to do that, and doing so has actually become something of a habit for me. I often pause in the midst of a day's events to think about how much easier the day is going for me, simply because I'm white (I wrote about such a pause here).

One thing that I think even fewer white people do is notice, during ordinary, everyday moments, the dynamic relevance of their whiteness -- aside from white privilege. Notice, that is, that they are white, and that it does affect how many situations play out for them, whether or not those situations clearly involve "privilege."

And yet, when I do think of such moments in my own life, they always do seem to boil down to privilege. At the very least, any moment I can think of in a largely white setting that seemed to play out in a particular way because I'm white also went more smoothly or easily than it would have otherwise. That smooth easiness is a form of white privilege.

For example -- was the following just a "white moment," or a moment of "white privilege"?

I went to a movie the other night with a white friend. As the previews began we found seats, as we always do, in the third row. We like being that close to whatever big fantasy world the filmmakers have put together; also, we can sit in the middle of the screen, and rarely have anyone sitting next to us. Plenty of arm-room that way.

But last night the theater was crowded, so a white woman ended up sitting next to me, along with her white male partner. As she sat down, I removed my arm from the armrest between us.

"Oh, that's okay!" said the blond, thirty-something woman cheerfully. "You can put your arm back. I'm not worried about catching cooties from you!"

My friend and her friend/partner heard this, and all four of us laughed. I've noticed that strangers often use such cheerful, joking comments to put each other at ease. The laughter assures everyone that we're all okay with each other, and with being thrust together like this, into a sort of intimacy that we wouldn't otherwise share.

However, as we all turned to the screen, sitting sort of together now in the dark, I also realized that we could all laugh about her "cooties" comment, and laugh more easily, and more together, because we were all white.

What if, that is, I hadn't been white? Would she have even said that to a black man or woman? Or someone clearly Hispanic, or Asian? "I'm not worried about catching cooties from you"? And if she had said it to someone of another race, what might that have meant, or implied?

She might not have even chosen to sit next to me if I hadn't clearly been white -- there were some other empty seats. Again, if I'd been a member of a clearly different race and she had chosen to sit next to me, she might not have said that. Or, she might not have said that, but still thought it. Or rather, some version of it: I better not sit next to him -- I might catch cooties!

As the movie began, I also thought about how I was probably the only one among us four who thought about what it meant to be white in that moment. I don't mean to pat myself on the back for that. But I do mean that I'm more aware of what it means for me to be white than I used to be.

That awareness makes me understand my own life better, and how it typically goes for me, and how I got to where I am. It helps me understand how my becoming white has meant adopting a distorted and oblivious view of the world, and of my place in it. This better understanding of the daily workings of my whiteness also makes it a little easier to understand how others got to where they are, and to think about them, and react to them and treat them differently, and I hope better, than I would otherwise. It also motivates my social activism, my efforts to reject the complacency encouraged by my whiteness by joining anti-racism efforts.

The movie, by the way, was that muddled racism allegory, District 9. The theater was almost full, and most of the viewers were white. As we watched, I noticed something else that I think a lot of white people there didn't notice.

When the cartoonish villain who was a black guy (a Nigerian gang leader) got his head blown off, most of the audience laughed. Later, when the cartoonishly villainous white guy (a murderous mercenary) was also decapitated, most of the audience was silent.

I think that together, those two moments in time became another white moment.

Friday, August 28, 2009

focus obsessively on one part of black women's bodies

Here's a screenshot from the current Gap campaign for its "1969 Jeans" (you can click on this image for an interactive, 360-view of each woman).

Notice the racial choreography here -- six apparently white women modeling a variety of styles, from "Sexy Boot" to "Always Skinny," and off to the side, one black woman, who's wearing a style named "Curvy."

Is the Gap's shopping demographic really THIS white? Why not also include another black woman here (or for that matter, another non-white one) wearing, say, the "Perfect Boot" style? Do only white women wear boots with their jeans? And would only black women buy "Curvy" jeans?

Aside from the lopsided racial composition of this model lineup (it's odd how that arrangement brings to mind a police lineup . . .), the bigger problem here is the limiting of black women to one, all-too-familiar role and body-type: "Curvy." This label -- especially for a style of jeans depicted alongside a row of white women wearing other types of jeans -- perpetuates a cultural fixation on one part of a black woman's body, a denigrating conception of that part as something that fundamentally differentiates their bodies from other women's bodies.

The collective white imagination has long arranged beauty in a hierarchy, with supposedly common white characteristics at the top, and supposedly common black ones at the bottom. This Gap advertisement perpetuates this racist hierarchy, by limiting the role of black women to a stereotypical representation of, well, their bottoms -- their supposedly big "booties." Nothing else about their bodies gets nearly as much mainstream cultural attention as this part does.

This common white, denigrating fixation is, of course, nothing new, as it evokes the sad eighteenth-century spectacle of Saartje "Sarah" Baartman, who remains better known by her objectifying label, "the Hottentot Venus."

Baartman, an enslaved Khoikhoi woman, was sent to England by her Dutch "owner" in order to display her nude self as a sideshow attraction. As Wikipedia explains, "Baartman was exhibited around Britain, being forced to entertain people by gyrating her nude buttocks and showing to Europeans what were thought of as highly unusual bodily features."

In her insightful analysis of today's white-framed media fixation on this body part of another black woman, Serena Williams, Renee Martin connects contemporary white interest in this topic to the degrading curiosity of Europeans in Baartman's body:

Since the days in which Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman was forced to reveal her buttocks and labia to curious Europeans in a human circus, the bodies of Black women have been scrutinized and uniformly judged as lacking and/or sub-human. While our bodies may no longer be on display, the fixation with the buttocks of Black women reveals that the “The Hottentot Venus” stereotype is still very much a part of social discourse.

Fox News recently ran a story on Serena in which the author, Jason Whitlock, referred to her as an “underachiever” and called her derriere a “back pack.” It would seem that though she is ranked number two in the tennis world, it is acceptable to claim that her athletic frame is little more than “an unsightly layer of thick, muscled blubber,” because her body does not conform to what is understood as the beauty norm.

Those who more readily conform to the beauty norm are white women. This is not, of course, because they are somehow more intrinsically beautiful; it's because white people have been imposing their own beauty standards on others for centuries. And as this toxic, racially clueless Gap jeans campaign suggests -- with its exaggerated and marginalizing reduction of black women to a stereotypical fixation on one part of their bodies -- white people still do that.

Anyway, it's not like a lot of other women, who are white and otherwise non-black, don't also have, and even appreciate, bigger -- excuse me, "curvy," booties.

Just ask Leslie Hall.

[many thanks to swpd reader Jillian]

Thursday, August 27, 2009

pine for a "great white hope"

Lynn Jenkins (R-Topeka)
"Republicans are struggling right now to find the great white hope."

So was this a Freudian Slip, or was Lynn Jenkins simply being especially honest about Republican strategy these days?

This phrase -- "great white hope" -- reminds me of a phrase I used to hear when I was a kid: "Say, that's mighty white of you!"

For a long time, I didn't realize that that phrase had anything to do with race. And I think it's possible -- unlikely, but possible -- that some of the adults I heard saying "that's mighty white of you!" didn't realize that either.

Is it possible that, despite the racialized context of her remarks, Lynn Jenkins didn't mean that the whiteness of the hope she says Republicans are looking for has anything at all to do with race?

As the Topeka Capital-Journal reports, Lynn Jenkins now claims, of course, that she wasn't talking about race:

U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins offered encouragement to conservatives at a town hall forum that the Republican Party would embrace a "great white hope" capable of thwarting the political agenda endorsed by Democrats who control Congress and President Barack Obama.

Jenkins, a Topeka Republican in her first term in Congress, shared thoughts about the GOP's political future during an Aug. 19 forum at Fisher Community Center in the northeast Kansas community of Hiawatha.

In response to inquiries by The Topeka Capital-Journal, a Jenkins spokeswoman said Wednesday the congresswoman wanted to apologize for her word choice and to emphasize she had no intention of expressing herself in an offensive manner.

Jenkins told people at the Hiawatha forum the nation could benefit from inspired leadership of a group of "really sharp" young Republicans in the House, particularly Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va. Cantor was mentioned as a possible GOP vice presidential candidate in 2008 and is thought to be interested in seeking the Republican nomination for president in 2012.

"Republicans are struggling right now to find the great white hope," Jenkins said to the crowd. "I suggest to any of you who are concerned about that, who are Republican, there are some great young Republican minds in Washington."

A videotape of the presentation contains footage of Jenkins identifying three members of the U.S. House -- Cantor, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. -- as future movers and shakers in the GOP. All are white, as is Jenkins.

"So don't, you know, lose faith if you are a conservative," Jenkins said in Hiawatha . . .

The Capital-Journal also helpfully explains the term's racist origins:

The phrase "great white hope" is frequently tied to racist attitudes permeating the United States when heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson fought in the early 1900s. Reaction to the first black man to reign as champion was intense enough to build support for a campaign to find a white fighter capable of reclaiming the title from Johnson.

When Lynn Jenkins' use of this phrase raised eyebrows and hackles, she sent out a minion to explain what she really meant:

Mary Geiger, a spokeswoman for Jenkins, said the reference to a great white hope wasn't meant to denote a preference by Jenkins for politicians of a particular "race, creed or any background." Jenkins was expressing faith fellow GOP representatives in the House would be key players in returning Republicans to a leadership role in Washington, Geiger said.

"There may be some misunderstanding there when she talked about the great white hope," Geiger said. "What she meant by it is they have a bright future. They're bright lights within the party."

Jenkins wasn't available to comment personally on her presentation in Hiawatha, Geiger said.

Geiger said she had never previously heard Jenkins use the phrase "great white hope" in a political speech or private conversation.

Yeah, that's it -- by "white" she mean "bright," as in a "blindingly bright, white light."

That works. Doesn't it?

Bright, as in, a "blindingly bright, white political party."

Oh, wait a minute . . .

[thanks to swpd reader AM]

UPDATE (8/28/90): It appears that the phrase "great white hope," and its racist origins, had just recently crossed Jenkins' mind. According to the Ottawa Herald, Jenkins

supported a resolution that included that exact phrase last month when the House approved by unanimous consent a measure urging President Obama to pardon black U.S. boxer Jack Johnson. . . .

Within the resolution passed by the House July 29 was a passage that read, “Whereas the victory by Jack Johnson over Tommy Burns prompted a search for a White boxer who could beat Jack Johnson, a recruitment effort that was dubbed the search for the ‘great white hope.’”

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

wear their whiteness with humility

Edward Moore Kennedy
(1932 - 2009)

What do you think of The Root's (unsigned) eulogy for Ted Kennedy? The editors applaud how he and the other Kennedys carried their whitened selves: "They didn't wear their whiteness with authority -- they were big on playing the human card and left matters of race and class to be argued by the pundits."

Brother Kennedy: Good White Folk
The Root

For the longest time, besides family, black people would only put three pictures up on the wall: Jesus Christ, Nipsey Russell and John F. Kennedy. The Kennedys, in general, have always had a soft spot in the hearts of many black folks because they have always been, as old timers say, "good white folk." The kind of white person you didn't have to worry about giving you the soul handshake (WTF?), talking black jive to get along or dropping the "N" bomb by accident. They were the kind of white people who are at ease with everyone; white people you could have over to dinner. The Kennedys as Irishmen, knew how it felt to be marginalized and, despite their wealth, this marginalization seemed to inform the politics of the whole family. The passing of Edward "Ted" Kennedy last night doesn't just leave a gap in the Democratic Party. Who will bring his empathy and compassion for the rest of America? Who will take up his causes?

John, Robert and Ted were different men with seemingly the same directive: to make America's dream accessible to everyone. John, Robert and Ted Kennedy seemed not to be just pandering politicians, but officials who people of color could trust to listen and respond, to act in the interest of people struggling to grasp a hold of the American Dream; to acknowledge everyone as stakeholder and not dismiss The Others as irrelevant. The Kennedys seem to value compassion as an essential human virtue and walked the talk in ways uncommon for politicians of any stripe. They didn't wear their whiteness with authority -- they were big on playing the human card and left matters of race and class to be argued by the pundits. Ted Kennedy wanted a more perfect union and was willing to fight for it.

When he cosigned Barack Obama last year, Ted Kennedy helped assuage a lot of fears among white and black Americans: his "ups" signified to many that Obama could be trusted to uphold what was important to this country. Ted Kennedy was not a perfect man by any stretch, but he was the kind of white man you sometimes find at black barbecues and barbershops, enjoying a drink, a plate or a laugh. The only white man at your wedding, the only white person your grandparents ever let in the house because he was at ease. He was at home. He left his burden of privilege at the door. You know who I'm talking about -- Ted Kennedy was that dude.

Brother Kennedy: Good White Folk.

Now that Ted Kennedy has passed, who has the gravitas, the compassion and the credentials to take up his mantle?

I also recommend Nezua's post at The Unapologetic Mexican, which includes a formal statement of appreciation for Senator Kennedy by the United Farm Workers, and a sober assessment by Louis Proyect of some other features of his legislative work at The Unrepentant Marxist.

get caught committing racially disastrous photoshop

I've written before about the efforts of various organizations to alter the racial mix of photos by inserting non-white people who weren't actually there when the photo was taken.

Here's an example of the reverse -- Microsoft has apologized for changing the head of a black man to that of a white man.

It's unclear at this point whether they also apologized for NOT changing the black man's hand to that of a white man.

As the BBC reports,

Software giant Microsoft has apologised for editing a photo to change a black man's head to that of a white man.

The picture, showing employees sitting around a desk, appeared unaltered on the firm's US website.

But on the website of its Polish business unit the black man's head was replaced with a white face, although the colour of his hands was unchanged.

Microsoft said it had pulled the image and would be investigating who made the changes. It apologised for the gaffe.

The altered image, which also featured an Asian man and a white woman, was quickly circulated online.

Bloggers have had a field day with the story, with some suggesting Microsoft was attempting to please all markets by having a man with both a white face and a black hand.

"The white head and black hand actually symbolise interracial harmony. It is supposed to show that a person can be white and black, old and young at the same time," said one blogger on the Photoshop Disasters blog.

Others have suggested the ethnic mix of the Polish population may have played a part in the decision to change the photo.

Other bloggers having a field day: Photoshop Disasters, endgadget, SoftSailor, Rocketboom. (See for another disaster that once appeared on Microsoft's site.)

Monday, August 24, 2009

represent "america" abroad

Via Lisa at Sociological Images, an ad for Miller beer that began running in Vietnam last week.

Note the lyrics: "It's American time, it's Miller time."

As I've noted before, Toni Morrison has summed up what's going on in terms of race here most succinctly: "American means white."

But then, these people aren't just white, are they?

Noting that "the whiteness of the ad is purposeful," Lisa continues, "Miller is selling a specific version of 'America' characterized by white people, urban life, sex-mixed socializing and, also, really bad music."

These are young, apparently professional, urbanized, heterosexual white people. Various other sorts of Americans are just as likely (and in some cases, even more likely?) to drink Miller beer, but they were excluded by this ad's makers from representing America to the Vietnamese.

Are you aware of other ad campaigns that sell something distinctly "American" in other countries? If so, do they also represent American-ness with exclusively white Americans?

Here's a link to a brief feature on the Miller ad at Adweek; it describes the ad, but fails to label the whiteness of these people, who instead get labeled "young urbanites."

Young urbanites . . . are young people of color who live in cities commonly described that way? Or is that term a sort of code or euphemism reserved for young white people who live and/or work in a city?

And finally, speaking of terminology, I put America in quotation marks in this post's title in recognition of the illusory, fantasized "America" that this Miller ad promotes, but also to acknowledge the problems that many have pointed out with referring to the United States as "America." I try to avoid using "American" that way, but I've yet to refer to a person with U.S. citizenship as a "United Statesian."

Back in 1986, Rachel F. Weller declared herself a United Statesian in the pages of the New York Times, because, she wrote, the word American "implies an unbecoming arrogance on the part of one segment of the vast Western Hemisphere." Obviously, her example hasn't caught on in the ensuing decades, but again, given the existence of other Americas, it makes sense that so-called Americans should be calling themselves something else instead.

[Here's one more stark example of common white United Statesian conceptions of white people as the best representatives for "America" in other countries ; it's a 22-second snippet from FOX News -- which I can't figure out how to embed here -- that took place during last summer's Olympics.]

Saturday, August 22, 2009

wonder where to start when they join the fight against racism

This is a guest post by Robin F, who lives in Toronto. She writes at Dragon Life, and offers the following in the hopes of helping white anti-racist newbies, and of relieving PoC from the burden of said newbies.
Since Robin chooses to write about what she knows and the only countries she's lived in are the United States and Canada, this is written from a North American point of view, but in general, the principles also apply to other countries such as the U.K., Australia, etc. As this guide is a work in progress, she asks that you please offer any suggestions and thoughts you may have. The original post is here and that's the version that will be updated on an ongoing basis.

Racism 101 for Clueless White People, Written by a Slightly Less Clueless White Person

People of Color (PoC) encounter the following on a regular basis: they're online or in real life and suddenly a white person, who barely understands privilege or racism, is demanding that they educate them regarding the topic. The white person says, in essence, "Hi! What can I do to help fix racism?" or "Hi! Can you explain racism to me?" or "Hi! What's this 'privilege' stuff?"

Understandably, the PoC says, "Google. You know how to use it." They say this because they're real people, who have real lives and commitments and other things they need to do, and they weren't born to go around educating white people who want to sit on their ass and have an education handed to them on a silver platter.

And then the white person gets butt-hurt because all they want to do is learn and they're trying to educate themselves and that PoC is being so mean to them! And then they sulk about it and often post about how they're trying to learn and become better people but damn it, PoC are so hostile, all that does is teach whites to shut up and sit down! And the white person fails to understand that the PoC wasn't saying, "You're a moron, shut up and sit down," they were saying, "Look, I don't have time to teach you. It's not my responsibility to give you Racism 101. Go educate yourself, the resources are out there."

(Of course even if a PoC says the latter, the white person often will respond with, "But it's such a big subject! I don't even know where to begin looking!" PoC just can't win in these discussions.)

Anyway, I'm familiar with this scenario because I was once That White Person myself, and I've since come across it repeated over and over and over. So, I have decided to make a Guide to Racism 101 for Clueless White People, written by a Slightly Less Clueless White Person.

1. Put some cream on your butt and get over the hurt. The PoC weren't angry at *you* per se; they're frustrated because you're the thousandth person who has made the same demand on their time. They're tired of being seen as objects that exist for the edification of whites, and even if you didn't realize that's how your question came across, the fact is that that's how your question came across.

2. If you're a LiveJournal user, go join [info]racism_101. Read the articles and posts linked to from within the userinfo and then start reading through the entries. It's an excellent starter-level community. Even if you don't have a LiveJournal account, you can still view all the public entries on the community.

3. Make sure you understand the definitions of the terms that are going to be used. The first thing you really need to understand is that the definition of racism that you probably have (which is the colloquial definition: "racism is prejudice against someone based on their skin color or ethnicity") is NOT the definition that's commonly used in anti-racist circles.

The definition used in anti-racist circles is the accepted sociological definition (which is commonly used in academic research, and has been used for more than a decade now): "racism is prejudice plus power". What this means, in easy language:

A. Anyone can hold "racial prejudice" -- that is, they can carry positive or negative stereotypes of others based on racial characteristics. For example, a white person thinking all Asians are smart, or all black people are criminals; or a Chinese person thinking Japanese people are untrustworthy; or what-have-you. ANYONE, of any race, can have racial prejudices.

B. People of any race can commit acts of violence, mistreatment, ostracizing, etc., based on their racial prejudices. A black kid can beat up a white kid because he doesn't like white kids. An Indian person can refuse to associate with Asians. Whatever, you get the idea.

C. However, to be racist (rather than simply prejudiced) requires having institutional power. In North America, white people have the institutional power. In large part we head the corporations; we make up the largest proportion of lawmakers and judges; we have the money; we make the decisions. In short, we control the systems that matter. "White" is presented as normal, the default. Because we have institutional power, when we think differently about people based on their race or act on our racial prejudices, we are being racist. Only white people can be racist, because only white people have institutional power.

D. People of color can be prejudiced, but they cannot be racist, because they don't have the institutional power. (However, some people refer to intra-PoC prejudice as "lateral racism". You may also hear the term "colorism", which refers to lighter-skinned PoC being prejudiced toward darker-skinned PoC.) However, that situation can be different in other countries; for example, a Japanese person in Japan can be racist against others, because the Japanese have the institutional power there. But in North America, Japanese people can't be racist because they don't hold the institutional power.

E. If you're in an area of your city/state/province that is predominantly populated by PoC and, as a white person, you get harassed because of your skin color, it's still not racism, even though you're in a PoC-dominated area. The fact is, even though they're the majority population in that area, they still lack the institutional power. They don't have their own special PoC-dominated police force for that area. They don't have their own special PoC-dominated courts in that area. The state/province and national media are still not dominated by PoC. Even though they have a large population in that particular area, they still lack the institutional power overall.

F. So that's the definition of racism that you're likely to encounter. If you start talking about "reverse racism" you're going to either get insulted or laughed at, because it isn't possible under that definition; PoC don't have the power in North America, so by definition, they can't be racist. Crying "reverse racism!" is like waving a Clueless White Person Badge around.

G. If you go into an anti-racist discussion and start trying to claim the colloquial definition that "racism is simply viewing or treating others differently based on race", you're going to get a negative reaction. Stick to "racism = prejudice + power". Anti-racists aren't going to take it well if you wander in halfway through the debate and start trying to make them abide by your definition rather than the commonly accepted "prejudice + power". Imagine if everyone in a classroom was chatting about a particular subject and then someone walked in and said, "No! You're all doing it wrong! The REAL definition is ABC and I don't care that all the rest of you think it's XYZ!" -- do you think that would go over well? Of course it wouldn't; the newcomer would be considered rude. (Also, making an appeal to is not going to work. Pointing out that the colloquial definition is how Webster's Dictionary defines racism is not going to make anti-racists suddenly say, "Wow, you know what? You're right! I never realized it, but now that Webster's has backed you up, I see that you're totally right and racism really is just judging people based on their skin color!" Actually, they may say that, but they'd be saying it sarcastically.)

H. I'm under the impression there are a number of different reasons why anti-racists use the sociological definition as versus the colloquial one, but the major reason I'm aware of is that anti-racists aren't just focusing on individual acts of racism; they're looking at racism as an entrenched system that pervades every layer of our society. The colloquial definition reduces racism to an individual level; the sociological definition focuses on the systemic level. The systemic level is actually more important, because even as individual/obvious acts of racism become less socially acceptable, the systemic effects of institutionalized racism continue to work quietly, efficiently, and powerfully. Think of it like a body; it's easy to find a cancerous lesion on the skin and remove it, and then you'd look like you were cancer-free. But even as you looked fine on the surface, the real cancer would be inside your body, spreading from lymph node to lymph node, and invading your bones and organs. Individual and overt acts of racism are the lesions on the surface; the invisible cancer is the systemic racism. Unless you're addressing the underlying disease, eradicating surface symptoms isn't going to accomplish much. But that's enough about the definition of racism for now; let's continue.

4. Start learning about privilege. You need to understand what it is, and how it works. Read Peggy McIntosh's essay, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. (If that link is no longer good at some point, just Google it.) Acknowledge that you have privilege, through no fault or worth of your own; it was accorded to you at birth, and there's no way to get rid of it. It just is, under the current system of institutionalized racism.

If you feel like doing so, spend a little time coming up with your own list of the ways that privilege works in your life; this will give you a greater understanding of the disadvantages that PoC face. Understanding your privilege will help you learn how to:

A) use it for good when possible (for example, when I write this I am taking advantage of part of my white privilege, which is that whites tend to listen to other whites and afford them more credibility than they extend to PoC), and

B) not use it to hurt PoC inadvertently (for example, by going into a PoC "safe space" and taking over the conversation).

5. Put down that strawman! Nobody's asking you to feel guilty over having privilege. Guilt doesn't get us anywhere. We just want you to be aware of it. Just acknowledge it and be aware of it and move on, for now.

6. Next, learn about derailing. "Derailing" refers to the many ways that white people take a conversation about racism and privilege and, well, derail it -- make it all about them, rather than the PoC. This is almost always an unconscious act. Learning about how derailing works will help you learn how to avoid making the common derailing mistakes. Derailing for Dummies is a great resource. (Notice that the first two entries in Derailing for Dummies actually address the whole "educate me, PoC!" concept. It's THAT prevalent.) Then go read this post: The Art of Defending Racism. (You will also notice both the article and the post are written with a heavy dose of sarcasm. Sometimes it feels like you have to laugh so you don't cry, and sarcasm is a defense mechanism. Some people find sarcasm to be upsetting, but even if it bothers you, don't allow the tone to keep you from absorbing what's being said. It's important stuff.)

7. Do not make the mistake of believing that because you have a lack of privilege in one or more ways (examples: "I was/am poor", "I'm gay", "I'm female", etc), this means you understand what PoC go through.

A. We're all privileged in some ways and have lack of privilege in other ways. A straight black man has straight privilege and male privilege, but lacks white privilege. A gay white woman has white privilege, and lacks straight privilege and male privilege. (A straight white cisgendered male with no handicaps, born to wealthy parents, has all sorts of privilege.)

B. By saying that "you have white privilege", they're not saying "you don't know what it's like to be oppressed" -- they're saying "you don't know what it's like to experience racial oppression". You will not win points by saying, "But I'm gay/female/handicapped/etc, so I totally know where you're coming from!" Nor will it win you points to say, "But I live in an area of town dominated by [insert PoC group here] and people are always threatening me because I'm white, so I know what it's like to experience racism!" You don't. If that's your situation then you know what it's like to be on the brunt end of racial-based acts of prejudice, but you still don't know what it's like to live in a racist system day in and day out. (If you haven't yet read Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack as linked above, go do it now.)

C. To use an example of how racial privilege and class privilege are different: If you (as a white person) were obviously poor and at a country club, people would assume you’re a server. But if you were obviously rich and at a country club, nobody’s going to assume you’re a server. But if you’re a person of color and you’re at a country club, even if you’re obviously rich and dressed just as well as all the white people there, there’s still going to be some patrons assuming you’re a server and asking where their drinks are. Even if a PoC has ‘class privilege’ -- which means they’re rich or at least upper-middle-class -- that still never erases their lack of white privilege. They will always be seen first and foremost as a PoC. You, on the other hand, get to bypass that; people may judge you on your clothes or other visible markers of wealth, but they’re not going to judge you on the color of your skin en masse. That’s part of your white privilege.

D. To use another class/race example, if you were driving a really nice car, it's highly unlikely you'd get randomly pulled over (unless you were breaking the law, speeding, whatever), even if you're young. On the other hand, if you were black and driving a really nice car, you may well get pulled over just so the cop can check that it's really your car (and not just something you presumably stole).

E. You're going to come across the term "intersectionality". The definition is "intersectionality holds that the classical models of oppression within society, such as those based on race/ethnicity, gender, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, class, species or disability do not act independently of one another; instead, these forms of oppression interrelate, creating a system of oppression that reflects the 'intersection' of multiple forms of discrimination." In easier terms, this means that often different types of discrimination reinforce each other. Trying to tackle one system of oppression without dealing with other systems as well is going to leave some people in the cold. (This is a criticism often leveled at the current feminist movement; it's primarily working on issues that pertain to white women.)

F. For another way of thinking about how privilege works, here's an analogy. Imagine a racetrack with all those little divided aisles for people to run. Have a rich, white, cisgendered, straight male on the farthest aisle, and he has an aisle that only has a few hurdles. Have a rich, white, cisgendered, straight female on the next aisle, and she has a couple more hurdles. Have a rich, cisgendered, straight female of color on the next aisle, and she has a few more hurdles than the rich, cisgendered, straight white female. Keep going down the line, adding more and more hurdles as you add each form of lack of privilege. And if you've got a situation where intersectionality is often at work -- for example, a PoC who lives in poverty -- throw an additional few hurdles into their aisle beyond what they already had.

Now, let everyone run the race. It's likely that straight rich white guy is going to finish first. And as for everyone else -- well, many of them will still make it over their hurdles and get there too, but it's going to take some people a lot more effort than others. And some people have so many hurdles that they're going to be psychologically beaten from the get-go. No, being white didn't get you where you are now -- nobody showed up in a car and drove you to the end of the race simply because you're white. But being white made it easier to finish that race, even though you will have had additional hurdles from the other ways you may lack privilege (being gay, poor, etc). No matter how many hurdles you had, at least you didn't have the additional hurdles that the PoC faced.

Also, what's even more unfair is when that white guy finishes and says, "Well, I got here on my own two feet, so I don't know what you all are whining about! If I can do it, so can you!" That's the nature of privilege, both to discount the ways it helps us and to refuse to see the ways a lack of privilege makes it harder for others.

8. Read. Read read read read read. I suggest starting with these blogs: Angry Black Woman (, stuff white people do (, and Resist Racism ( There's a lot of other amazing anti-racist journals too; try checking the blogrolls on those sites for links to other blogs. (If you're a LiveJournal user, there's syndicated feeds for the blogs I recommended: [info]abwoman_feed and [info]whitesdostuff and [info]resist_racism .) Also, go read the public posts on the LiveJournal community [info]debunkingwhite. (If anyone else has good resources to suggest, please do so.)

9. Accept that you will make mistakes and you will show your privileged ass and people will get upset at you about it. It doesn't feel good to have people upset at us; we're social animals and we don't like it when we hurt people and people get angry. But don't get defensive; relax, take a deep breath, and know that however upset you're feeling about being jumped on, the people on the other side of the exchange are probably even more upset about what you said. (If you're feeling very defensive and angry, the best option is not to respond right away; give yourself a little time to cool down and think things through. It's a natural reaction to want to dig our heels in and defend ourselves, but it's not the most productive path to take.) What you need to do now is accept that you screwed up, make a sincere apology, and figure out what you did wrong so you don't do it again. Making mistakes is part of the learning process and it won't kill you, so don't get butt-hurt about it. Just make a sincere apology, figure out your mistake, and keep learning. (If you don't know how to make a sincere apology, it goes like this: "I'm sorry I hurt you by saying XYZ." Statements like "I'm sorry I did XYZ, but [offer excuse here]" or "I'm sorry if I upset you" or "I'm sorry you found my statements offensive" are not sincere apologies and they won't help the situation.)

10. Once you reach a place where you are somewhat less clueless, start reaching out to other white people and trying to educate them about these issues. The weight of educating white people does not and should not rest on the shoulders of PoC; as a white person, you're in a good position to educate other whites. White people generally listen to other white people (who are seen as being "more rational" about the topic of race, but that's a whole other topic), and it's less frustrating/upsetting for us because we're choosing to educate others, rather than it being demanded/expected of us.

11. No, you can't erase your privilege, or dismantle racism. But you can do as much as you can. That's all any of us can do.

So there! Now you know how to start educating yourself on this topic, and the more education you get, the easier it will become for you to find ways to apply it. :)

Friday, August 21, 2009

miss "their" america

These days, a lot of people in the United States are decrying the loss of "their" America. So far, every person that I've seen crying like that is a white person.

I mean, seriously -- how many non-white Americans go around shouting, "I want my America back!"

In other words, just what kind of America is it that these white Americans -- most of whom would never, ever consider themselves capable of a "racist" act -- just what kind of America is it, in racial terms, that they want back?

Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore
"The Daily Show"

For a more sober analysis of the racism that's been bubbling up during the great health care debate, I highly recommend two recent pieces by Tim Wise, who identifies this racist resurgence as symptomatic of a conservative "movement."

This movement, Wise writes, "is trying desperately to create a groundswell of support behind the notion that white people are the new victims of massive discrimination, the new victims of the Obama era: the ones who don’t get picked first for the Supreme Court, and who can no longer take for granted their hegemonic power."

Wise explains how and why conservatives are reframing socialism as the "new black bogeyman" here, and the bizarre connections they're making between health care, Obama, and Hitler here.

The good old days are gone for good. Of course, they never really were all that good, were they. Why is it so hard for some folks to keep in mind that "Leave It to Beaver" was just a TV show?

"Leave It to Beaver"
(the "Magical Beatnik-jazz Hairdo" episode)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

display racist memorabilia in their homes

I had an interesting encounter with racism when I stayed at a "bed & breakfast" recently. It became one of those moments in which I now wish that I'd said more than I did at the time.

I've never stayed at a B & B before, and one thing I liked about this one was that the sole owner, a middle-aged white woman, was friendly and talkative. She lets her guests wander freely about the house, including the kitchen, where she prepares the breakfasts that are part of the lodging deal.

One morning I was in there with her, chatting about what to do in and around her small town, when I noticed a small statue of a woman, about eight inches tall, standing at the base of a door. I saw that it was shaped to look like Aunt Jemima, that old racist stereotype of sturdy, domestic, maternal black comfort. Comfort for whites, that is. Some whites, and less and less of them, I hope.

As I bent over to pick it up, I asked the B & B owner -- I'll call her Jenny -- if it was an antique. She said she wasn't actually sure if it was or not, and then I wondered what else to say about it. It certainly wasn't something I would display anywhere in my own home.

As I've been writing this post, I Googled Aunt Jemima, and I quickly found the exact same item (I guess I'd rather not identify with a link just where it's available for sale online . . .).

"Wow, this thing is heavy!" I said, surprised at its weight.

"Yes," said Jenny. "Makes a perfect doorstop."

"Um, perfect?" I said.

Jenny paused in mid egg-scramble to raise an eyebrow at me.

"Have you had any black guests stay here?" I asked.

"Yes, one. Once. He was a man. Why do you ask?"

"Well, I wonder what a black person would think of such a thing. In a white person's house."

"I don't know," Jenny said. "That one didn't say anything. But then, I'm not sure he saw it."

As I weighed Aunt Jemima back and forth in my hands, Jenny went back to her eggs as she added, "And you know, I hear black people actually collect those things. If they can afford to."

I had noticed before a lot of antique-y things in Jenny's place; I figured she was trying to match that decor with this old-timey item. Even if it wasn't an antique (and I now know that it wasn't), it certainly looked like a relic from another time. A more racist time. A time when many white people who couldn't afford the extensive, daily assistance of a black maid envied those who could. A time when few white people thought or cared about the costs to the lives, and to the family lives, of those countless black maids, who usually exhausted themselves with running the houses of very demanding white people. People who often paid such women a pittance.

All of which is why, I think, that for a white person to display such an item in her home, as if it's just another part of the pleasant, intriguing decor, is itself a racist act. No matter who ends up seeing it.

But something held me back from saying that to Jenny. Everything else about her, and about her B & B/home, had been perfectly accommodating and charming. Still, as I placed Aunt Jemima back on the floor, although I'd already said something, I felt I had to say something more.

"It's kind of appropriate," I said, "that you've got her holding open the back door, isn't it?"

By this point, Jenny was frowning a bit. I think she'd begun to wonder just why I found that simple doorstop thing that interesting.

"Why?" she asked. "Because black servants and such used to have to come to the back door instead of the front?"

"Yes, exactly."

"Hmm. Yeah, I guess that is appropriate, in a way. Anyway. These eggs are done. Are you ready?"

"Sure," I said, and turned toward the dining room, where other guests were already eating, drinking coffee, chatting and laughing. "But, you know . . . "

This had all become awkward.

"I really do wonder what a black guest of yours would think if they saw that thing. Don't you?"

"Well," Jenny said, looking down at her Aunt Jemima. "I don't know what they'd think. Maybe something bad, eh? Who knows!"

I smiled, because she was smiling.

"Yes," I said, "who really knows?"

And I for one did not really know.

But I did have at least some doubt now that Aunt Jemima would be holding back that door much longer.

CODA (8/25/09)

KatinPhilly wrote in with a description of her own amplified experience:

I had your experience magnified by literally 1000 times.

The B&B I stayed at in 1991 outside of Richmond was lovely. The owner invited me and the ex into the kitchen where we were surrounded by over 1000 racist salt and pepper shakers, cookie jars, "dolls", etc. I had never seen such a collection in my life. And they were antiques and museum quality pieces. The only thing missing was a loop of "Oh, Susannah" on the stereo.

We were absolutely speechless, our mouths agape in horror. And we found ourselves staring at two unsmiling, silent black employees sitting amongst this lovingly assembled paean to White Virginia's idealized racist past. They immediately read our reaction; one put their finger up to their lips to shush us before we said anything and maybe cause trouble for them. I kid you not.

It was almost midnight, and we decided to stay (I wish we didn't, but the ex pointed out that could have caused problems for the workers too). We cut our visit short and left the next morning, without breakfast.

See the comments to this post for other stories involving these objects, from both sides of the color line.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

contrast white individuality with non-white homogeneity

"White Australia:
Australia for the Australians"

(badge, circa 1906)

Jeanswest, a clothing outlet in Australia, is currently offering jeans made of "Japanese denim." Here's part of their ad campaign.

As Gwen notes at Sociological Images, the white people here "are foregrounded and depicted as specific, individual human beings."

On the other hand, the apparently Japanese people are used as mere props -- an undifferentiated group told to look away from the camera and at the ground, as if in submission to the white wearers of "Japanese denim."

What we see here is an extreme example of a tendency in Western culture that appeals to and reflects a demographic white majority. Another Australian, Ross Chambers, explained this tendency over ten years ago, in his essay "The Unexamined":

In contrast to minorities, whose identity is defined by their classificatory status as members of a given group, whites are perceived as individual historical agents whose unclassifiable difference from one another is their most prominent trait. Whiteness itself is thus atomized into invisibility through the individualization of white subjects.

Whereas nonwhites are perceived first and foremost as a function of their group belongingness, that is, as black or Latino or Asian (and then as individuals), whites are perceived first as individual people (and only secondarily, if at all, as whites). Their essential identity is thus their individual identity, to which whiteness as such is a secondary, and so a negligible factor.

This form of Western culture -- centered, white individuals contrasted with undifferentiated, typecast minorities -- is pervasive. This recent Palm Pre ad is another example, as are cinematic and literary "magical negroes." Older instances include racial and ethnic sidekicks, such as Jack Benny's Rochester and the Lone Ranger's Tonto. I think the common white use of non-white backup singers often serves this purpose, as did Gwen Stefani's "Harajuku Girls."

It seems to me that in most cases, when stereotypical minorities appear alongside white characters, their primary purpose is to define and individualize the white characters. And yet, it's a paradoxical dynamic, because while white people are depicted at the center of such stagings, they're usually not depicted as white. Rather, as in the ads above, the non-whiteness of the homogenized others helps to emphasize their individuality. At least for white producers and consumers -- I don't imagine their whiteness is as secondary, negligible, and invisible to non-white viewers as it is to them.

Aside from how such usages of nonwhites de-individualize and dehumanize them, another problem here is another paradox -- privileged white people who, instead of recognizing their privileged state in relation to nonwhite people, feel instead that those people have something that they themselves lack. Something specifically "cultural."

The Jeanswest ad campaign appeals to this white sense of lack by describing these jeans as "a little bit exotic." It also explains that their material, Japanese denim, "is made by the top denim mill in Japan that has been manufacturing denim for over 110 years." In an odd twist, this very Western item of clothing -- jeans -- is being sold as authentically Japanese. And "you," the targeted non-Japanese/white consumer, can become "a little bit exotic" by purchasing and wearing them.

The exotic quality of these jeans is further enhanced in other ways:

* Each style has been finished with unique trims echoing the Japanese origins, including the red button at the button fly, hand painted buttons and Japanese printed pocket bags.

* The rivets have been engraved with the Japanese characters that mean 'Genuine and Authentic', ensuring even the smallest of details has our Japanese denim hallmark.

So here we have an Asianized product aimed at white people in a white majority country, a country that, like the U.S., used to have exclusionary immigration laws that explicitly targeted Asians. One such law in the U.S. was the Chinese Exclusion Act. Australia's parallel was the White Australia Policy.

According to Wikipedia,

The White Australia policy comprises various historical policies that intentionally restricted non-white immigration to Australia from 1901 to 1973.

The chief architect of the policy, Michael Pilcher, believed that the Japanese and Chinese (Asians) might be a threat to the newly formed federation and it was this belief that led to legislation to ensure they would be kept out:

"It is not the bad qualities, but the good qualities of these alien races that make them so dangerous to us. It is their inexhaustible energy, their power of applying themselves to new tasks, their endurance and low standard of living that make them such competitors."

Nowadays, of course, Australia has eased racial restrictions on immigration, and its government officially forbids discrimination on the basis of race for any official purposes.

And if these "Japanese denim" jeans are a further indication, it seems that white Australians have gone from rejecting Asians to embracing them.

But then, have they? Really?

Monday, August 17, 2009

take pride in their lower-class status

Here's a news clip about a "car launch" staged in Turtle Lake, Wisconsin, which is a place with, I'm sure, very few non-white people. What interests me, aside from the question of just why people find smashed-up cars entertaining, is two things: the way this news report frames and presents this "redneck event," and the pride that some of the spectators take in being "rednecks." There's actually a third thing too -- just why do people like this kind of staged violence?

News reporters don't merely present "news." Aside from whatever biases they may have, they also shape the stories that they present in light of their beliefs and presumptions (some no doubt unconscious) about their audiences.

The framing of this local TV news report is carefully coded to suggest that the presumed viewers of the TV station's metropolitan area (KARE is in Minneapolis-St. Paul) are seeing something that's definitely outside of their own experience. This rural spectacle is carefully marked for them as a "redneck" event.

KARE's Joe Fryer begins his report this way:

Joe: The spectacle drawing hundreds to a gravel pit down this rural dirt road might make most city boys blush. But here in Turtle Lake, Wisconsin, You'll find no red faces . . .

Shot of a laughing woman in a lawn chair: Redneckfest!

Joe: . . . just proud rednecks. It may look like a demolition derby or NASCAR race, but those events feel like the opera compared to this.

At one point a fan says, "Everybody likes crashing metal and crunching steel!" But then, that's not true, is it? The reporter Joe Fryer, for one, probably doesn't like that enough to attend events like this on his own, and he's framing his report in a way that suggests his assumed audience doesn't either. It's these people who like that -- people who aren't used to explaining and elaborating on just why they like what they like.

And Joe Fryer isn't about to try to explain why they like it either. He's just there to present his viewers with this "redneck" spectacle.

Actually, I don't think I can explain why "rednecks" like these events either. I have working-class roots in my family, but I was mostly raised in a privileged, middle-class, white suburb. I thought smashing things and blowing up other things was kind of cool when I was twelve years old, but I don't anymore.

I don't mean to look down on this kind of entertainment, which seems harmless enough (and uses a lot less fuel and resources than something like NASCAR, or, for that matter, a more upscale sport like golf). I'm just wondering why some adults like it.

At one point a spectator says, "I think it's cool to legally destroy something."

Another says, "I've never seen that before. Always wanted to do it, but never seen it."

These audience members seem to be projecting themselves into the event -- they're seeing something that they'd like to do themselves. Is this violence an outlet for those who lead otherwise frustrated lives? A harmlessly vicarious "catharsis"?

I realize that I'm revealing something about myself here, something in terms of class especially. I do have rednecks in my extended family, but again, I wasn't raised to enjoy stuff like this. I was raised, by both my parents and by my larger suburban environment, to abhor violence. And to stifle my own violent urges, or find "healthy" outlets for them, like exercise or competitive sports. Who knows, maybe that stifling was too stifling. Maybe a car launch would have been a good outlet for us generally disciplined, restrained, and rather anxious suburbanites. Nevertheless, had there been a car launch like this one nearby, most of us would have avoided it, just like we avoided local stock car races and demolition derbies. Especially the adults.

As I said above, I'm interested not only in why some people like this kind of event, and the explicit, distanced framing of it by Joe Fryer as a rural "redneck" event. I also want to note the redneck pride expressed by the participants, as another example of "stuff white people do."

The news reporter also wants to note that pride, as an example of the stuff that these white people do. At the end of the clip, Fryer describes a row of lowered pants as a "redneck bow," as he asks, "How else would you end a redneck car launch?" Then a participant speaks the final words: "I am proud to be a redneck."

So there it is again, at the end of this report, like three exclamation points at the end of a sentence -- redneck, redneck, redneck.

Redneck is an identity held by some white people, but of course, it's not just a racial identity. It's also, and probably even more so these days, a class-based identity.

Americans are often described as oblivious to the realities of social class, and I think that's true in many respects. We're often unaware of just what social class is, and how a class-based hierarchy works in and shapes our society, and our own life chances. Most white Americans, when they think about their socioeconomic class status at all, describe themselves as "middle class," whether their income is forty thousand dollars per year or five hundred thousand.

But those who embrace the label of "redneck" are more aware of their class status, just as non-white people in general are more aware of their racial status, and women are more aware of their gender status -- subjugation does that to a person. Most "rednecks" know that they're near the bottom of the class ladder, and they claim to like it there. Or at least, that's what they seem to be claiming when they wave their various banners of "redneck" pride. They're taking pride in their lower-class status, as well as, usually, whatever cultural manifestations of that status happen to be going on at the moment as a demonstration of redneck culture, such as a car launch.

I can't think of another racial/ethnic group in the U.S. that has a subgroup within it that takes such an overtly class-based pride in its lower socioeconomic status -- can you?

We're often encouraged to be proud of who we are. But is redneck pride a good thing, or something that just further holds such people down, by distracting them from the real causes of their own immiseration?

Friday, August 14, 2009

think that racism is dead

This is a guest post by Gordon Gartrelle, one of the writers at We Are Respectable Negroes. These respectable bloggers write of themselves, "We are 3 black folk whose friends got tired of hearing our daily rants, and reading our many (and often forwarded) emails. Collectively, we read too much, have opinions on everything, and have too many degrees--and the debt to prove it. Collectively, we are respectable negroes who are just a little angry...and you don't want to see respectable negroes when they get angry."

Is "Racism" dead?

An in-depth interview with America's most inflammatory and most misunderstood word

Don’t ever say that we don’t deliver. The We Are Respectable Negroes News Network (WARNNN) has scored an exclusive interview with Racism…Yes, the actual word Racism.



WARNNN: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

Racism: Thanks for having me.

WARNNN: You’ve been extremely busy over the last few weeks or so.

Racism: You have no idea.

WARNNN: And actually, the last year must have been a whirlwind for you, right—what with Obama’s election, all this post-racial talk, and the backlash from the right?

Racism: Definitely. It’s just been too much. I all but shut down in the months running up to the election, and just when I thought I’d recovered, I get hit with this wave from the Right: Tea Parties, Birthers—it just never ends.

WARNNN: So how are you feeling now?

Racism: Frustrated, spent.


Racism: I still get national headlines, maybe even more than I used to, but I feel empty. I fear that I’ve become a shell of my former self. Scratch that—I don’t fear it; I know it.

WARNNN: That’s a pretty bold statement. What’s behind these feelings?

Racism: Popular race discourse in America has never been more uncritical and simplistic as it is right now. I mean, it’s certainly less explicitly hostile and bigoted than it once was, but what passes for discussion of racism today is pathetic. They've flattened me to the point where I have no meaning.

WARNNN: I assume you’re talking about some combination of white people and the mainstream media.

Racism: For the most part, yeah. White people aren’t alone, of course, but, by and large, whites have driven this process. But this isn’t to say…It’s not that white people are inherently bad or stupid or anything; they’ve dumbed me down strictly as a defense mechanism, as a response to threats against their interests—both material and psychological. And the corporate media have their own set of interests, as you know.

WARNNN: There’s just so much to unpack in that answer…I’m not sure where to start. OK, let’s bracket the media thing for a minute. First let me ask this: what exactly do you mean when you say that you’ve been “flattened” and “dumbed down?”

Racism: I really just mean that the criteria for what qualifies as racism has been changed to benefit white people: the bar has been raised impossibly high for whites, lowered for everyone else.

WARNNN: In what way? Can you elaborate?

Racism: Nowadays, only biological white supremacy, racial slurs (especially the “N’ word”), and explicit racial violence will get a white person labeled a racist. Therefore, many whites respond to charges of racism by saying things like, “I’m not a racist…Some of my best friends are black…I’ve never enslaved any black people or terrorized them with dogs and firehoses…I’ve never burned a cross on a black family’s lawn or called anyone ‘Nigger.’” You see? Nazis and Klansmen are the only racist whites from this perspective. This isn’t the only view, but it’s been the default for decades.

On the other hand, look at how conservatives have co-opted Civil Rights language to depict members of the black left as “racists.” I mean, in just the last week, these people have charged Obama, Sotomayor, and Skip Gates with racism. In some formulations, merely mentioning race and racial injustice gets you slapped with the racist label. Think about how, in the eyes of most whites, the Panthers, Malcolm, Reverend Wright—indeed, all blacks who offer savage critiques of white supremacy—are racists on par with David Duke.

WARNNN: Divorcing you from structure seems to be at the heart of this flattening.

Racism: Exactly. They focus on individual attitudes—racially hostile attitudes—so as to limit the scope of racism to the hearts and minds of benighted souls. Not systematic discrimination in housing, the criminal justice system, education, employment. Not racism with any kind of heft or history to it, but just attitudes. That way, anyone can be racist and all racisms are equal. They can say, “Hey, racism is a 2-way street!” That’s their new favorite saying.

WARNNN: That’s a great way to segue into your family, particularly, you younger siblings, “Reverse Racism” and “The Race Card,” both of whom have had quite a bit of success in their own right. How are they doing these days?

Racism: In all honesty, we don’t talk that much. We were never really close, but it’s hard to forgive the two of them for getting into bed with the lowest right-wing scum.

WARNNN: Your brother “The Race Card” is still wildly popular across the board, but your little sister “Reverse Racism” has fallen on hard times. Conservatives seemed to have abandoned her for you. Is there any truth to the reports that she was a prostitute for the Republican Party?

Racism: I’m not going to get into all of that. It’s a shame how they used her. That’s all I’ll say. She brought most of her problems on herself, but believe me, I take no joy in the fact that conservatives dropped her and are using me now. Both my brother and my sister are tragic figures.

WARNNN: Let’s go back a second. How do you combat the argument you just stated, namely, that anyone can be racist, that, that all racisms are equal? How is it not racism when people like the late Khalid Abdul Muhammad, Brother X Squared, and any number of black prison philosophers on public access TV go beyond a critique of the institution and ideology of white supremacy to espouse a hatred of white people?

Racism: Yes…yes. Great question. Racial hatred, regardless of its source or its victim, is deeply destructive. It corrupts the soul and dehumanizes those who are subject to it. This should go without saying. But if I am to have any real meaning, racial animus by a subjugated group cannot be placed in the same category as a system of racial disenfranchisement and generations-long second class citizenship—hell, second class humanity!

WARNNN: Switching gears a bit—Isn’t it somewhat unfair to attribute this dumbing down to white people as a whole when, from what you’ve been saying, the process is driven by Frank Luntz-inspired, conservative newspeak?

Racism: Hold on, now. Wait a second. I’m glad you said that, because it gives me an opportunity to clear up a big misconception. While conservatives have done immeasurable damage to my image by denying that I exist and/or conflating me with critiques of white supremacy, it would be dishonest to pin this all on them. When it comes to dumbing down “racism,” white liberals have been right there on the front lines with their conservative enemies.

WARNNN: And what do white liberals have to gain from this?

Racism: The same thing that white conservatives have to gain: absolution. They get to convince themselves that their success is due entirely to their own hard work; that they possess no unfair advantage over their darker brothers and sisters. They get to live their lives without confronting the most uncomfortable aspects of racism, namely, its real world consequences and legacies. Again, material as well as psychological interests.

I also want to make it clear that black people have enabled whites in their effort to flatten me. Like I said, it isn’t just conservative whites; it's everyone.

WARNNN: How have black folks aided the processes?

Racism: Blacks embraced the platonic ideal of racism: The American South. The South, the fetid asshole of Jim Crow, was the perfect embodiment of what I should stand for: corrupt institutions and ideologies reinforcing and sustaining one another to create a semi-permanent underclass. In many ways, the decision to emphasize this most unmistakable form of racism would seal my fate. Focusing on the Bull Connors, the Faubuses, the George Wallaces, gave whites a convenient villain upon which to project their racial anxieties. But it made blacks sympathetic. It left no doubt as to the justness of their struggle. Blacks were helped tremendously by the focus on redneck crackers, but it came at a great cost in the long term.

WARNNN: Hmm. We just can’t win, can we?

Racism: {laughing} It appears that way.

WARNNN: Any parting words?

Racism: All I’ve ever wanted was to be a fully drawn, complex semantic being. There are people from all backgrounds fighting the good fight, in academia and in communities, and I never thought that I’d see the day, but we now have a President that speaks of me in nuanced terms. My days are numbered, however. I have no idea how long I have or how I will go, but then again, I’m not a political theorist or a linguist; I’m just a word.

WARNNN: We didn't even get to talk about the media's role.

Racism: {laughing} Perhaps another time.

WARNNN: Thank you again for joining us.

Racism: It was a pleasure.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

mistake non-white people for service workers

More and more frequently these days, white people are claiming that they don't see race -- that they're "colorblind."

"You know something?" they might say to a black person, "I never even notice that you're black!"

Which actually says a lot about black people, or rather, the supposedly white person's denigrating conceptions about black people. And on top of that nonsense, this black person is often someone whom the white person otherwise holds up proudly as a "black friend."

When white people claim that they're colorblind, what they're actually demonstrating is that they're delusional. What they fail to recognize is something about themselves, which is that they do notice the color of non-white people, and that it's often the very first thing they notice.

One way white people sometimes demonstrate that they're the opposite of colorblind is by mistaking non-white people for service workers. I've been in department stores, for instance, and seen white shoppers ask black shoppers where to find something.

Being mistaken by white people for a service worker also happens to other non-white people. I've also seen apparently Hispanic customers stopped as they're walking through restaurants by a white person, who wants to know where the restrooms are.

Chinese American journalist Thomas Lee recently wrote about his experience with this form of racism, when he went to interview a company president:

I arrived a few minutes before noon and told the receptionist at the front desk I was looking for the president's executive assistant.

"Oh. Are you delivering food?" she asked.

Oh, no, she didn't!

It wasn't the first time I was mistaken for a Chinese food delivery guy. In college, I had arrived at my girlfriend's dorm with dinner and the front desk dude assumed just that. I was embarrassed, to be sure, but let it go. That's the burden of being a Chinese-American with a penchant for baseball caps, jeans and takeout food.

Yet the receptionist's inquiry stunned me. I was wearing a dress shirt, black slacks and black dress shoes. True, I was sporting a backpack and sunglasses, but how many food delivery guys whip out kung pao chicken from a Gap bag?

After realizing her error, the receptionist offered a rather clumsy explanation. "I only asked because [the executive assistant] always orders food," she said.

Nice try, lady. . . . At least she didn't speak extra slowly and offer a tip.

Derald Wing Sue, a psychologist, labels such incidents "racial microaggressions" (he adopted the term from an earlier psychiatrist, Chester M. Pierce). Sue defines these behaviors as "everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being sent."

Ordinary, well-intentioned white people almost never want the word "racism" associated with themselves. In this post, I just labeled a common white tendency -- to mistake non-white people for service workers -- a form of racism, and I'm committed to that description.

White people usually think that "racists" are the ones who harbor racist thoughts and feelings, and thus the ones who commit "racist" acts. However, as Derald Wing Sue suggests, there are many, many ways in which white people can act with unwarranted and unconscious aggression toward people of color, and thus, act in "racist" ways. Mistaking non-white people for service workers is but one common example.

Another common example is something that sometimes happens after such incidents, when the non-white victims explain what just happened to another white person. After describing his racist encounter with a white receptionist, Thomas Lee writes about his subsequent encounters with, I assume, other white people:

I told the story to friends and colleagues. I expected them to laugh and sympathize. Instead they offered several explanations, everything except what seemed obvious to me.

It was my backpack. It was my sunglasses. It was my age. It was Elvis.

The backpack defense seemed particularly popular so I considered it. OK, maybe -- maybe -- I could buy that. But the receptionist didn't ask if I was delivering just anything. She asked if I was delivering food. Not documents, not packages, not flowers, but food.

Worse yet, people offered me tips on how I could avoid this problem in the future, as if I was somehow to blame. Wear a jacket. Carry a briefcase. Walk differently.

Walk differently? I wasn't aware that I walked like a deliveryman. I'm not even sure how a deliveryman walks. Just to be safe, maybe I should don a tuxedo, speak in a faux British accent and goose-step my way to the front desk.

As I've noted before, white people often feel a need to explain away racist incidents, to argue that they're not racist. This common denial of a non-white person's point of view -- which tends to be an informed and experienced point of view -- is itself another racial microaggression.

According to an article on Derald Sue Winger's work in Monitor on Psychology, he and his colleagues have been developing a taxonomy of racial microaggressions, in order "to help people of color understand what is going on and perhaps to educate white people as well" (other examples are listed in this PDF table and graph based on Sue's work):

"It's a monumental task to get white people to realize that they are delivering microaggressions, because it's scary to them," he contends. "It assails their self-image of being good, moral, decent human beings to realize that maybe at an unconscious level they have biased thoughts, attitudes and feelings that harm people of color."

I find it interesting (as well as saddening -- and thus inspiring) that white people are commonly reluctant to recognize not only their own actions as racist, but even those of other white people. This second reluctance is what they're displaying when, after hearing that someone white mistook a non-white person for a service worker, they struggle to come up with other explanations for what happened. Even though it wasn't they themselves who made the mistake, but instead someone they don't even know!

I can only conclude here with something that I've said before. Although white people commonly think that their racial status has little to do with who they are and how they act, they are nevertheless trained to be, and act, "white." If they don't understand that about themselves, and then work to counteract it, they will sometimes commit acts of racism.

Actually, even if they do come to understand that about themselves, they'll still commit racist acts at times. But, at least they'll inflict their common and largely unconscious white tendencies on fewer non-white people, and they'll better understand themselves, and the power that they often unconsciously wield. And if they then interact and work with non-white people and treat them more equally, but also as people with differing perspectives and understandings, they'll be countering racism at both individual and systemic, institutional levels.

h/t: resistance @ Resist Racism

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