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.


  1. This was clever and brilliantly written. :D

  2. Thank you thank you thank you for posting this "interview." It answered a lot of questions I had about so-called reverse racism and offered insight into contemporary racism.

    I recently moved to poor-to-working-class neighborhood that is almost exclusively Latino and black. As a white, educated, young woman, I assumed I wouldn't be wanted, and I wouldn't have blamed them one bit.

    I was wrong. Everyone has been friendly and unfailingly kind. I've been teaching myself Spanish. Still, I feel guilty. I worked my ass off to put myself through college and then graduate school. I now have a well-paying job that I love. But I had a lot of help. My skin color opened doors, and enabled opportunties that wouldn't have been made available to people of color. And, I'm beautiful. Bosses love to hire me. Teachers love to mentor me and then pat themselves on the back for doing so because I'm the only student that drives a beater car and works two jobs. Still, I'm white, and therefore privileged.

    When I was a teenager, I was in group homes. The other "patients" were mostly black and Hispanic, and mostly ignored me. With my tall, willowy frame; big blue eyes; and erudite ways, the staff loved me. They brought me sushi and baked goodies from outside. They bought me books and magazines and showed me pictures of their kids. I was their special cause that made them feel good about themselves, even though I wasn't the one that needed their attention.

    I despise rich and middle-class white people. Their offspring ridiculed me when I was a scholarship kid at a private school. They picked on my thrift store clothing, my sack lunches, and that I took the bus home. Being a Jew didn't help. Still, I look at the faces of the neighborhood kids--who love my burly pit bull and talking parrots--and know that they don't have it nearly as good as I did. I hate it and I feel guilty.

    I hope I didn't go off on too much of a tangent, it's just that this article really spoke to me about what being white in America means, which dredged up a lot of the guilt, sadness, and anger I feel about racism.

  3. Very neat; I especially liked the part about the 'racism bar.'

    I'm not a huge fan of the "interview" format, I feel like it sort of trivializes the situation by making it too easy to dismiss. It reminds me of one of Michael Moore's books (stupid white men I think) where he writes one chapter speaking as God. That example was more extreme and particularly stupid in my opinion, but I still feel like personifying racism here makes the article a bit too cutesy and harder to take seriously.

    That said, I thought the content was great!

  4. Awesome idea. So very original!

    I'm wondering though about Chelsea's post and other similar ones elsewhere. I am not white and am having the most difficult time understanding all this 'guilt' that people are talking about. Why are people feeling guilty? I just don't get it. Why guilt? (Chelsea, I'm not aiming this comment at you personally. It's just something I've been seriously confused about for awhile.)

    I think it's counterproductive to feel guilty. There is no need to feel guilty. Isn't guilt just another form of

  5. I really like this. Great post.

  6. i've only taken a very small sample of your work but from that sample I feel like racism has been and will continue to be a black/white matter. I feel as though the dialogue and discourse ignores or labels racism against other "colors" as less significant. What about colonization of Natives? What about anti-immigration rhetoric against Asians and Mexicans? What about analyzation of "stuff white people do" beyond racism against Black/African Americans? Why do I feel the comfort zone for talking about race/racism doesn't extend beyond being black?

  7. This is, over all, very interesting an well written. I agree with most every thing it, and I am still struggling with coming to grips with my privilege and my inherent racism.

    However tackling one part of social injustice does not allow you to ignore other parts. I found the characterization of "Race Card" as a female prostitute who is being abused by the right wing, but who brought in on herself as sexist and insensitive to the very real plight of exploited sex workers.

    I feel guilty because I have been given many, many privileges that I did not work for and that I do not deserve merely for being born to the parents I was born to. Certainly it is not my fault, but I need to remain alert and sensitive to do my best to raise others to my position of privilege, and, hopefully, beyond.

  8. @fromthetropics: Yeah, exactly. It's a way of re-centering the conversation on ourselves, and an excuse to not take action (that would actually be helpful to people of color). See also: the "dirty fork" Monty Python skit. :D

    OP: This is great! Thanks for posting. Everything about how "racism" has been flattened and dumbed down is perfect & well said. I'll refer back to this a lot, I think.

    But -- what's up with the "Reverse Racism" bit? I was all happy that you didn't default everything to male, but then it was just so you could have a prostitute joke. And, being a sex worker is shameful and pitiable? Come on.

  9. Thanks for the feedback, everybody.

    @ Blame: I honestly thought about doing this as a straight essay, but I wasn't motivated to write it. Plus, I wanted to do something a little different and make it more accessible.

    @ Sarah & softest: The "Reverse Racism" part was deliberate, but in no way was it sexist. I applaud sex positive feminists for promoting the idea that adults should be free to do with their bodies what they please. I have no doubt that there are prostitutes (I'm sorry, I don't go for this euphemistic "sex worker" business) who are fully realized agents.

    However, I believe that this vision is romanticized and largely the province of mostly white, educated sex positive feminists who are only feigning solidarity with poor women (esp. women of color) who find this option a necessary evil.

    "Reverse Racism" "brought most of her problems on herself" was meant to suggest that she chose her life, that she wasn't forced into it; but it's clear that she isn't realized or fulfilled by this life.

    There is a larger point here that would take me hundreds of words to flesh out. The gist of it is that the well-meaning liberal impulse to avoid judgment of social choices (even those choices that can be sub-optimal and self-destructive) has, I think hindered practical social progress.

  10. It was not deliberately sexist, but it was still sexist.

    The only female anthropomorphized word was the one who was sexually abused. But because she chose to be a prostitute she brought it on herself. This scenario is victim blaming at it's finest.

    No matter how many bad choices a person makes they have the right to not be abused.

    I understand that many, in all likelihood most, people who become prostitutes do so out of need and are extremely exploited, and that most of these people are poor women of color and children. This is why I take such exception to your statement that "Reverse Racism" "brought most of her problems on herself," and why I am such a strong advocate of legalizing, legitimizing and protecting prostitutes and other sex workers.

    There is a conception in western culture that prostitutes are less valuable and that they do not have a right to their bodily integrity. It is such a strong and perverse idea that it is important that we fight it wherever we can.

    And the phrase sex worker is not meant to gloss over prostitute, but to include other people who work with sex and are often exploited as well, like porn stars and strippers.

    I don't mean to nitpick or attack you! I think that over all your blog is very good, and the point you intended to make was well made! I just want to try and reach out to other activists so that we can all become more aware of how we propagate social inequity and try to end it. :0)

  11. "[White people] get to live their lives without confronting the most uncomfortable aspects of racism, namely, its real world consequences and legacies."

    I've heard this idea before... and I've never really understood it.

    Since about the age that I could understood the word "racism" I've been taught that racism was bad, and that one of the worst things you can be is to be a racist. And this holds for most white people I know of a similar background (Gen X, middle class, college-educated, liberal families).

    From childhood to the present day I feel as though I have constantly been "confronted" with the reality and legacies of racism. "Confronted" seems like a harsh word - it hasn't been something that I've avoided or resented - of course I don't want to be a racist, who does? And of course I've embraced every learning opportunity.

    But this post makes me wonder... after a life of being educated in anti-racist theory and practice, is there some sort of "confronting" that I and others like me still need? If its any consolation to the writer of this article, I (and pretty much every one close to me) have been made very well aware of racism and its legacy for my entire life.

  12. @ fromthetropics: You bring up a good point about guilt being another form of pride, and I gave it some serious thought. What makes me feel guilty (I can't speak for all white people) is feeling bad about opportunities that I have had that others haven't simply because of the color of their skin.

    When Rudyard Kipling wrote about "white man's burden," he was asserting his belief that white people were responsible for ensuring non-whites adopted Western ideals. It was a racist, paternalistic view, one that tried to cast imperalism in a noble light. I would argue that there is a new white man's burden, and that burden is history. I feel history very acutely when I walk through my neighborhood; I think about everything from Aztlan to the crappy schools that populate poor areas.

  13. ...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!

    Thank you! Clever way to get the points out there. Liked the point on how the very definition of racism has been molded for the benefit of white people: individual acts of meanness/hate v. systemic barriers and inequity.

    But the money quote: the South, the fetid asshole of Jim Crow. I did actually cough on my water with that one.

  14. Chelsea's comment = definitely made up! Or else she needs to stop writing/thinking in cliches.

    "systemic barriers and inequity. " if this is the definition of racism, what is the definition of classism?

    "There is a conception in western culture that prostitutes are less valuable"

    I had no idea that Eastern cultures do not devalue prostitutes. Really?

    As a working class white person I've put up with countless indignities. My family has done shit jobs for centuries.I relate more to POC than upper mddle class whites. I feel no guilt whatsoever!

    And no, you can't make me, especially if you keep telling me to shut up. I will of course just stop listening.

    This blog, like others such as Stuff White People Like, needs to be clearer that it is referring to upper-middle class whites.

    Then it would make a LOT more sense.

  15. Great comment, Jerold.

    After a life of being educated in anti-racist theory and practice, is there some sort of "confronting" that I and others like me still need?

    In short, yes. Even liberals who talk about ending racial hatred need to confront the following 2 realities:

    1: that the racism that really matters is about systems, not attitudes. I don't dispute that you and most white people have been "taught that racism was bad, and that one of the worst things you can be is to be a racist." I believe that most white people have internalized the idea. That's a feat that shouldn't be downplayed; however, as I write in the interview, the idea is framed in terms of believing that all races are equal. What is needed is action to address the fact that racism and its legacies place heavy limitations on the life chances of a lot of people.

    2. that the confrontation you reference needs to come from those who benefit from white privilege. Such confrontation is useless if those who benefit aren't interested in hearing it or doing anything about it.

    Forget affirmative action, which is becoming less popular among even liberal whites; white liberals don't seem to devote much political capital to correcting racial disparities in the criminal justice system, in housing, in loans, etc.


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