Thursday, December 31, 2009

offer amateur diagnoses of mental illness

During the course of writing this blog about common white tendencies, I sometimes discover as I do so that I myself am unwittingly enacting a common white tendency. In my previous post, for example, I responded to an email from "L," a reader of this blog, about a white man who only dates non-white women. I thought I was writing about this man as a white person, but I also ended up writing a lot about a particular personality disorder that I thought he might have.

As many commenters soon pointed out, writing about a personality disorder, and suggesting that this interracial dater might have it, was not a good idea, primarily because I'm not a medical professional. The offending post provoked such a strong reaction that I deleted it (I've reposted that response, for the record, in the comments to that post, here). My response implied that I was diagnosing this man with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and yet, I don't know him; again, even if I did, I'm not qualified to diagnose him with anything like that.

My gratitude goes out to that post's commenters for diagnosing my demonstration of this common white tendency, and for their thoughts on that tendency, especially Commie Bastard, RVCBard, Ana Paula da Silva, Thaddeus Gregory Blanchette, Kit,IzumiBayani, Lady Dani Mo, Cloudy, Restructure!, Victoria, honeybrown1976, Spiderlgs, Sheila, Doreen, Kinsley, bluey512, Julia, and Jillian (please let me know if I've missed anyone). These observers taught me something that I hadn't realized about my whitened self -- white people often offer amateur diagnoses of mental illness. Apparently, non-white people rarely do that (further comments on these provisional claims are of course welcome here).

In response to complaints about my response to L, I tried to point out in the comments that the post was really about whiteness itself as a sort of narcissism, but that didn't go over well either. Explaining what one meant to do after a screwup -- instead of simply acknowledging and apologizing for what one did -- is also a common white tendency (one that also deserves its own swpd post). As Kinsley wrote in that comment thread, "More and more it seems to me that with whiteness, the impulse to explain and the act of derailing/taking center stage/etc do sit awfully close together."

I'm more aware of that common white tendency than the tendency to diagnose mental illness without professional training, but I still do it sometimes (and hey, I'm writing and running a blog -- it's all about explaining things! just kidding). I won't do it here; that is, I won't explain anything else about my messed-up response to L's query. I acknowledge it, I apologize, I appreciate the chance to learn about another common white tendency, and I promise to do my best to never do it again.

Finally, there's this question: if white people do tend to offer amateur diagnoses of mental illness more often than non-white people do, why do they do so? When they offer such diagnoses of non-white beliefs, attitudes, behaviors and so on, I think it's more clearly a racist tendency. What is it that's happening differently when, as in my case, a white person offers an amateur diagnosis of mental illness in another white person?

Since I just learned about this tendency in myself, I don't have answers to these questions, so I'll simply offer them to you.

Monday, December 28, 2009

only date non-white people

A reader who prefers to remain anonymous sent the following email; for the sake of convenience, let's call her L. I added my response below, and we both welcome yours in the Comments. (I gave the post a different title from the one that L suggests below, because I think her situation exemplifies a broader phenomenon.)

I enjoying reading your blog over here in the UK. I think your approach to the discourses on race and white privilege is necessary, interesting and relevant. Anyway, the reason I'm contacting you is because of a recent experience I've had. I was wondering if you could do a post on your blog entitled "Date a black girl and expect her to be grateful." Or perhaps just post my email, I'd be curious to hear what your thoughts are on this.

I'm a black woman in my mid twenties in London, and recently I was involved with a white guy also in his twenties. I'm pretty open minded about who I date, having dated black, asian and white men.

To cut a long story short, this guy and I were friends first, but he pursued me pretty doggedly for about two years. . . . I think this guy suffered from a white superiority complex and a white saviour complex. He seems to exclusively prefer women of colour. Now there is nothing wrong with this in and of itself, but when he started making comments like "I hate white women," alarm bells went off. Also, he was forever rushing to the aid of black damsels in distress (usually only good looking ones), always through the guise of the magazine, but then lamenting over how much he helps black people.

Our relationship was tempestuous. He claims that I hate white people and was constantly finding racism in everything. Not true, I hate racism and oppression and I was very vocal about it. I thought it was positive that I felt comfortable enough with him to talk about this, but his interpretation was that I made him feel bad, guilty about his race and privilege, and that it was all so "draining."

He was like a jekyl and hyde character, very nice when he wanted to be but verbally and emotionally abusive if things were't going his way. He was capable of saying anything in an argument, racially loaded and offensive comments, but whenever I'd pull him up on it, after the red mist had cleared he would pretend as though he never said those things.

It was absolutely shocking, the response would be "How can you accuse me of that? Didn't I tell you that I hired that PR girl from the Carribbean, and one of our picture editors is from Cambodia for God's sake! Look how I champion the plights of people of colour! I could have an easy life and just care about the cash, but I put myself on the line!" I lost count of the number of times this was said, as though he got some sort of validation out of it.

Also, he often acted as if he knew more about the black experience than I did. I found this completely patronizing. He would say things like "you really should get hold of Franz Fanon's Black Skin White Masks" (even though he already knew I owned a copy). He would nauseatingly try to behave as if he was some sort of expert, as if he had experienced what it was like to be black in a Eurocentric society, when in fact he was clueless.

Also, if we were out and happened to see other interracial couples made up of a white male and black woman, I noticed something interesting. He didn't like it and would say things like, "That guy's only doing it to be rebellious, everyone's mixing it up these days." He would always discredit the motives of the men, as if he was the only white guy in the world that had genuinely honourable interests in black women. It was almost as though he thought he was unique somehow, and when confronted with the reality that he wasn't, he didn't like it. Those other white guys were somehow stealing his shine.

Things came to a head when he asked me out one weekend and I turned him down. He later bumped into me with a male friend of mine who happens to be asian. Now I repeat, this guy was just a friend, but he went completely nuts. He bombarded me with some of the most vitriolic, shocking emails, voice messages and texts I've seen, including telling me that my friend was "fucking ugly," and how dare I be seen out with an asian guy, that most black women would laugh at me for it, and at least with him being white, people would take me more seriously. I'm not kidding, he actually said that.

Now bear in mind that I've been selective about what I've told you, but there were other hideous, shocking things that were said. Suffice to say this guy and I are no longer involved.

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this Macon, thanks for taking the time to read this.


[UPDATE: Please see the comments for this post regarding problems with my response below; I may soon edit the response below accordingly, and/or do a follow-up post about what seems to be a common white tendency that I wasn't aware of, something like "administer amateur psychiatric diagnoses" ~macon]

[UPDATE II: My response to L's email has been deemed so ineffective and full of fail by a series of commenters that I've come to admire and trust that I've followed suggestions and deleted it. I'll decide soon whether to repost it in a revised version, or to discuss what was wrong with it in a followup post, or to just leave it deleted. If you'd like a sense of what went wrong, you could probably gather that from the comments. ~macon]

[UPDATE III: If you'd like an even better sense of what went wrong, I re-posted for the record my original response to L in the comment section for this post, beginning here. I also address more fully the common white tendency that I unwittingly displayed in that response -- the tendency to offer amateur diagnoses of mental illness -- in this blog's next post. ~macon]

Thursday, December 24, 2009

idealize jesus christ

For those with Jesus Christ on their minds (and maybe even more for those who don't), here's a clip I posted this past summer. I certainly hope the implication here -- that Jesus Christ was a racist -- doesn't curdle anyone's eggnog. (The original swpd post currently has 39 comments, many of which have a go at the possibility that Jesus had it out for a certain group of people.)

In a more serious vein, those of you with Jesus on your minds might also ponder this post from awhile back on the white/Western whitening of him/Him: "recreate jesus in their own image."

And speaking of Jesus' own racial status -- why is it that nativity scenes with very likely inaccurate white characters pop up all over the place, and no one seems to consider that a problem, but when someone puts together a nativity scene with more accurate black characters, white people issue a call to arms? (Well, okay, the white complainers in that story are members of Italy's rabidly anti-immigration Northern League Party; I certainly hope that if someone in my own neighborhood ever decides to get a bit more real by adorning their front yard with a black nativity scene, none of my white neighbors would sneak over and desecrate it, or otherwise complain. Maybe most of them wouldn't even mind.)

And finally, what's up with this relatively new annual tradition, the wounded cries about some fictitious "War on Christmas"? Is that a "white" thing too? Why IS it that the people I see busting their blood vessels over that are always white people?

Anyway, all the best to your and yours, every one and all of you! Thanks for all the reading, the comments, the emails, the guest posts, the support, the challenges, and so much more. I'll probably be posting lightly for the next week or so, and then I'll be back in the saddle for the new year.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

express their racist opinions with t-shirts

This white American, who was recently caught on camera in Washington, D.C., probably doesn't realize that the opinion he's expressing with this t-shirt is racist. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that he's the sort of ordinary white American who swears up and down that he's not only not a racist himself, but also that the real racists are black people, because they keep "playing the race card." And also, if he himself does happen to be a tiny bit racist, well, that's only because they make him that way, by "constantly crying 'racism!'"

I snagged this photo from Wonkette, where it's accompanied by their usual, extra-hot Snark Sauce:

Wonkette operative “Rob J.” sends us this pic of a Real American he saw at L’Enfant Plaza today, making some point about the Blacks and their long history of enslaving others. What a horrible misspelling of that one country’s name! There are two g’s, idiot.

Wonkette's writer of this post set it up as a "caption contest," and if you're into clever snark, I recommend the comments (which is not to say that I recommend all of the comments). I can't resist reprinting the proposed caption that I'd pick as the winner -- commenter Patty Dumpling wrote, "The back says: 'Mustache Rides: 25 Cents (NO COLOREDS).'” (Sorry if that offends anyone; there's no accounting for what makes different people laugh.)

So here's the main reason I reproduced this sad, infuriating, and ultimately delusional t-shirt -- it's another iteration of a concept covered most ably by Abagond (in an swpd guest post, and at his own blog), "The Arab Trader Argument." Among his blog's many other ponderings, Abagond regularly explicates common white tendencies. In addition to explaining so clearly what these tendencies are and how they work, Abagond also provides convenient labels for them, labels that I think should be used again and again, so that they acquire common currency.

As for that man in DC and his racist t-shirt, it's hard to take seriously a public message from someone who can't even be bothered to spell correctly the names of the countries he's splayed across his chest (or maybe, there just wasn't quite enough room for all the letters in "Mauritania"?). Still, this t-shirt is worth noting, because its message, or argument, is such a common white mode of derailment, and oblivion. It's basically saying, "They did it too, so stop blaming us for doing it!" It's basically, that is, childish.

It's an example of The Arab Trader Argument, which, as Abagond explained,

goes like this: if white Americans do something evil and terrible it is all right -- or at least not all that bad -- so long as they can find at least one example from world history of someone else doing the same thing. Thus the Atlantic slave trade was not so bad because Arabs traders sold slaves too!

This argument isn't just childish and silly. It's also insidious, because white people so often use it, and variations of it, to justify their people's own past and present abuses of other people. It's also a way of shrugging off collective racial responsibility for such abuses, including one's own complicity in them.

The Arab Trader argument appears in many guises. Here, for instance, is another example that I heard recently --

Well, it may be true that white people continue to benefit from white privilege. And yes, institutional racism exists too. BUT, if the tables were turned, black people wouldn't do anything about it either.

And so, the logic goes, "Since they would enjoy the perks of racial privilege and ignore oppression that they've caused, why should white people do anything about all that? Get off our case, why don'tcha? We're really no one worse than anyone else would be in our position. They'd do it too!" (And something else -- it always seems to be "the blacks," doesn't it?)

So yes, I think "The Arab Trader Argument" is a mighty useful phrase, in part because it covers so many common white modes of racial deflection. In fact, these deflections are so common that they're even showing up on t-shirts.

Have you heard other forms or examples of The Arab Trader Argument?

Also, do you know of other race-cognizant terms or phrases that have gained common currency in this here Age of the Internetz? Actually, I'd like to see "common white tendencies" get some traction (not that I think I necessarily created it, nor that I want credit for it -- I just think that white people should realize that they have common tendencies -- that they're not all the free-floating individuals they tend to think they are).

Nezua has an extensive "Glossario" of such items -- I've read other people's usages of, for instance, "The Drowning Maestro" (though the common white tendency described by that term seems to be described more often as "the tone argument").

Other examples of recent Internet race-jargon that you've seen widely used? Or, are there others, like The Arab Trader Argument, that you think deserve wider use?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

fetishize native americans in aspic

I came across your blog by accident this morning and read it with interest. Don't now why I'm writing to you, but I have this strange feeling inside that tells me to write. This all sounds very weird I know, and no, I haven't had too much Xmas eggnog or drunk all the brandy that was meant for the Xmas cake. 

Anyway -- I live in New Zealand and I am white, but I have this absolute passion for Native American people, their history and their culture. I have had it since I was young and it still burns inside of me. I have photos all over my office walls of chiefs, warriors and just beautiful Native American people. I collect artifacts and paintings -- anything I can that is remotely Native American -- through the internet, and I have a bookcase full of books on and about everything Native American. I have done history papers extramurally through a university in the States and I still can't quench my desire to know more. 

Why is it that I have such a passion for this race of people? Why do I feel so at peace when I gaze at pictues of them? Why is it that their wisdom and beliefs seem so natural and right to me? How is it that I feel them in my soul?

I will give you one other piece of info and that is that as a baby, I was adpoted into the family I am in. And a very loving family, to say the least. My natural father I know is a Dutchman, and who is to say that generations ago ,somewhere way back in history, someone on my father's side did not end up in early America. And as we say -- the rest is history.

Or perhaps that is just wishful thinking on my part.

I know you can't answer these questions and I don't even expect you to reply. It just seemed right to put it all down in an email.

Thanks for listening, kind regards,


Thank you for writing, Cathie, and for letting me present your questions to this blog's many racially cognizant readers -- it's actually a great follow-up to yesterday's post. I don't know if many readers here, or even any, self-identify as Native Americans, but I do think you'll still get some thought-provoking responses in the comment section here.

Since you asked me what I think about your Native American fetish -- and I do think your extreme interest qualifies as a "fetish"-- I'll try to respond too. I don't know you, of course, so I can't know much about your motivations. I can say, though, that what I'm primarily trying to do with this blog is identify and analyze what I call "common white tendencies." Your extreme interest in Native Americans is an example of a common white interest, or tendency -- not only in the U.S., but elsewhere in the world. And like many other common white tendencies, it's widely considered problematic, at best.

As a reporter for a German newspaper notes, the extent of German interest in the "Wild West," and especially in its "Indians," is "a little astonishing":

At powwows -- there are dozens every year -- thousands of Germans with an American Indian fetish drink firewater, wear turquoise jewelry and run around Baden-Württemberg or Schleswig-Holstein dressed as Comanches and Apaches. There are clubs, magazines, trading cards, school curriculums, stupendously popular German-made Wild West films and outdoor theaters, including one high in the sandstone cliffs above the tiny medieval fortress town of Rathen, in Saxony, where cowboys fight Indians on horseback. A fake Wild West village, Eldorado, recently shot up on the outskirts of Templin, the city where Angela Merkel, the chancellor, grew up.

And on and on. The writer of this article attributes the German phenomenon to one person, "a writer named Karl May (1842-1912), virtually unknown in the United States but the most popular author in German history." May wrote dozens of enormously popular books about a fictional Apache chief named Winnetou:

A con man and Walter Mitty-like homebody who spent eight years in jail dreaming of Wild West adventures, May (the name is pronounced My) wrote dozens of tall-tale books that have sold more than 100 million copies, maybe twice that many if you count translations from the German. Kaiser Wilhelm II, like May a fantasist who loved to dress up in exotic costumes, adored May’s books. So did Einstein and Albert Schweitzer, Kafka and Fritz Lang. Hitler did too.

In New Zealand, has there been someone like May, or some other form of popular culture, that romanticized and/or sensationalized "cowboys and Indians" for you?

It's interesting that while New Zealand obviously has its own indigenous population, the Māori, you're instead fascinated with the more distant Native Americans. Also, your particular fascination is "distant" not only in geographical terms, but also historically. Native Americans still abound today, as do the Māori, and in very different guises, or modes of living, than the ones that you're fascinated with.

So, another good question arises -- why the distance? Why not instead be fascinated with indigenous people less distant, in both geographic and temporal terms?

If you do some poking around on the Net, you'll find that there's a lot of discussion out there -- and frankly, much of it is disdainful -- of white people who are fascinated with what amounts to Native Americans in aspic. I choose that gastronomic metaphor because different kinds of food -- dead food -- are suspended in aspic in such a way that eaters can still see them. The metaphor also works here because it echoes a well-known American cultural critic's analysis of the common white tendency that's exemplified by your Native American fetish.

In her essay "Eating the Other," bell hooks points out that seemingly "exotic" cultures and ethnicities often intrigue white people as a kind of escape from the norms or conventions of mainstream (that is, white) society. As hooks writes, "ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture."

There's clearly more to your longing of sorts, for bygone and dubious conceptions of Native American life, than a mere desire to spice up your life. Still, hooks does point a way here toward a probable motivation for you -- an escape from what you see as a problematic modern (and, perhaps, "white") existence. I would guess that you imagine that the ways "those people" supposedly lived are better than the ways your people currently live?

But then, as hooks points out in her essay (which I highly recommend), your desire for a fantasized, primitive, and romanticized "Other" is situated within, and influenced by, a white supremacist framework and culture. Idealized, airbrushed, and ultimately "self"-serving images, like those that adorn your walls and so on, have been handed down to you, made available by a mainstream culture that feels remorse for its theft, displacement, and genocidal treatment of indigenous peoples. Adoring those people, especially a lost and really unrealistic version of those people, is a way to emotionally and psychologically atone for that loss. You may well feel that kind of remorse yourself. (For more on why white people romanticize "Indians," you could also start here.)

Some -- actually, a lot -- of these love-struck white people even go so far as to proudly proclaim that they themselves have Native American blood. Again, this claim is based on a romanticized and unrealistic conception of what Native Americans were supposedly like; the white "wannabe" of this sort is rarely thinking about today's actual, living Native Americans when they embrace this blood (also revealing -- how very rarely whites make the same claim about something that's more likely to be swimming around inside themselves, that is, black blood).

Such "atonement" rarely has much real effect for the injured, damaged people in question (who, again, are still here). This fetishizing mode of "eating" a primitive Other is a common white tendency in that its really about, and for, the white person doing it. It's almost never instead about or for the Other; if it were, the white people reaching out to Native American-ness would be reaching out to actual, living Native American people. Or in your case, actual, living Māori people.

So that's my tentative guess for some possible motivations for your passion for "anything," as you put it, "that is remotely Native American." Does your passion extend as remotely, or actually as nearby, as actual indigenous people? If not, why not? Also, how much of this passion about an Other is instead a set of feelings and/or emotions about yourself, and about your own people? Again, I don't know you, but I'm guessing the answer is, "a lot." If so, is it really fair, or appropriate, to basically use another people this way?

Thanks for writing, Cathie, and good luck rethinking your fascination. I welcome your response, either in comments here or over email -- please let me know, especially, if you think I guessed anything wrong about you here. And as I said, I also hope that other readers of this blog will have further input for you.

Monday, December 21, 2009

wish they were "ethnic"

This is a guest post for swpd by Izumi Bayani, who writes of himself, "I identify as a straight male who is 100% Japanese and 100% White and I am 25% deaf. Izumi is my middle name and Bayani is a word in Tagalog and Persian for 'Heroes of the people' and 'the Word' respectively."

The other day at work, one of my co-workers who identifies as a white woman (and implicitly straight and able) asks me "what are you?" I fend this question off, but eventually I reveal that my father is a white guy who was born and raised in Illinois and my mother was born and raised in Japan. As I fend off more predictable qualifying questions that focus on what makes me different ("yes I can speak it, yes we eat sushi at home sometimes," etc.), questions that consequentially ignore my whiteness, my co-worker finally ends her line of questioning with, "I wish I was ethnic."

This wasn't the first or the last time I've heard someone say this, and I don't think I have ever experienced anyone other than a white person say it. Most people of color don't have any reason to say it.

I remember when I first heard someone wish they were ethnic as a kid, and I was blown away. Based on my experiences, I couldn't understand why anyone who had it so good being normal, blending in, would want to give that away and become singled out, picked on, and labeled an Other.

I think what most white people mean when they say they want to be "ethnic" is that they want culture. In turn, this implies that white people think they don't have culture. So I started to try and identify what white culture is, and it is really, really difficult to even begin. I think that’s because I'm a victim of its invisibility. Although I live in America and see, feel, and experience white culture on a daily basis, I still can't define it. At the same time, I don't feel like I'm included in this culture because I am of mixed race.

This invisibility of culture in America leaves some white people feeling empty. And many conclude that since their family doesn't eat with chopsticks or take their shoes off at the door, it's a boring family. But the fact that they don't specify, "I wish I was Japanese," and instead say "ethnic," tells me that really it's "I wish I was anything but white."

I think what really puts me off when I hear this common white wish is how it's loaded with privilege. White people don't have the first damn clue what people from "other" cultures go through in the United States. They just want the "cool stuff" without recognizing the daily strain of being an Other. Statements such as "I wish I was ethnic" make it painfully obvious how unaware this culture is to the experiences of those who don't fit.

"I wish I was ethnic" makes me feel like I'm at a museum, where people walk by and go, "How cool is that? Can you imagine getting A's in school all the time?" "I wish I was ethnic" has such a voyeuristic feel to it.

In addition, I think it's reflective of white people's relative freedom to define themselves as individuals, to come up with their own identity. When I reveal that I am Japanese (read: Asian), I feel like who I am to other people are the stereotypes associated with it. When I see a Black man on campus, I have to fight off the assumption that he plays football or basketball. When I see a Latina, I fight off the assumption that she's a mother. When I see a white person, I don't think twice, which gives them the opportunity to be who they are, since there aren't any assumptions that I make right off the bat. So really, only white people can say "I wish I was ethnic" and have it make sense.

I was just wondering, am I way off base here? Am I looking too much into this? It'd be great to have some outside input.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

enjoy white-guilt redemption fantasies

I was going to join the masses and go see Avatar, and then I was going to write about its glaring white-centricity, but now I don't have to. Instead, I just read, and can highly recommend, an excellent take-down in precisely those terms at (of all places)

This piece (excerpted below) is by a person with a familiar name, Annalee Newitz. Among her varied publications, Newitz is the co-editor of a foundational Critical Whiteness Studies volume, White Trash: Race and Class in America (she's also the author of many other smart things).

In her review of Avatar, Newitz places it in the context of other white-centered fantasies of racial redemption -- formulaic, big-money spectacles in which "a white guy manages to get himself accepted into a closed society of people of color and eventually becomes its most awesome member." Here are some excerpts from Newitz's analysis, and I highly recommend the whole thing (but not, predictably enough, the comments below it).

"When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like 'Avatar'?"

Critics have called alien epic Avatar a version of Dances With Wolves because it's about a white guy going native and becoming a great leader. But Avatar is just the latest scifi rehash of an old white guilt fantasy. Spoilers...

[It's] undeniable that the film -- like alien apartheid flick
District 9, released earlier this year -- is emphatically a fantasy about race. Specifically, it's a fantasy about race told from the point of view of white people. Avatar and scifi films like it give us the opportunity to answer the question: What do white people fantasize about when they fantasize about racial identity?

Avatar imaginatively revisits the crime scene of white America's foundational act of genocide, in which entire native tribes and civilizations were wiped out by European immigrants to the American continent. In the film, a group of soldiers and scientists have set up shop on the verdant moon Pandora, whose landscapes look like a cross between Northern California's redwood cathedrals and Brazil's tropical rainforest. The moon's inhabitants, the Na'vi, are blue, catlike versions of native people: They wear feathers in their hair, worship nature gods, paint their faces for war, use bows and arrows, and live in tribes. Watching the movie, there is really no mistake that these are alien versions of stereotypical native peoples that we've seen in Hollywood movies for decades.

And Pandora is clearly supposed to be the rich, beautiful land America could still be if white people hadn't paved it over with concrete and strip malls. In
Avatar, our white hero Jake Sully (sully - get it?) explains that Earth is basically a war-torn wasteland with no greenery or natural resources left. . . .

These are movies about white guilt.
Our main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color -- their cultures, their habitats, and their populations. The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the "alien" cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become "race traitors," and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed. This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It's not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it's not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It's a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.

Think of it this way.
Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege. . . . 

Read the rest here

Friday, December 18, 2009

friday open thread

We haven't had an Open Thread here in a long time -- shall we?

It's been a busy week for me, so I didn't get a chance to comment on some of the hot topics flashing across the Racial Radar (do people even use "radar" anymore?). What did I miss?

Also welcome: do drop links to other good reads, including your own. Be not shy.

Write what you like in a relevant mode, and if you need a jump-start, you could try answering one of the many questions below.

The following queries (some of which I've slightly edited for typos and such) came from this blog's stats. These are the droppings of people who Googled their ponderings, and then ended up here at "stuff white people do." In most cases, I rather doubt this blog managed to answer their questions, which is why I offer them to you.

Compiled together this way, these questions read for me like some great, big, almost symphonic dialogue on race. Kinda like, "found poetry." Or maybe, it's just a sad, messy cacophony.

Anyway, I also just like reading interesting lists. Hope you do too.

What would black people do to whites if they were in charge?

     Why do white people have to act like they’re perfect?

Can you get in trouble for dressing up as a Native American?

     Why don't white people like spices?

Where can I buy chopstick training wheels?

     Why don't white people ever think about reparations?

What do you do when black people move into your neighborhood?

     Why do white people take up so much space on the bus?

Do black people think white people look the same?

     Where do white people REALLY come from (because it's not Europe)?

Why do black people say at the end of sentences, "you know what i mean?"

     Why do white people always say "amazing"?

When will white people take their country back?

     Why do white people say "hi" to everyone?

Why do black people have such loud laughs?

     Why do white people think like they do?

Is it offensive for a white person to wear a sari?

     Why does white culture seem so anti-social?

Do Asians see less?

     How do you make white people food?

Ghetto talk from white kids -- what's that all about?

     Why did they make me the only black girl in class?

How many splinters do Chinese people get a year from chopsticks?

     Why do white people want to save whales?

Is the term "slave-driver" racist?

     Why do white people always think that a black person is going to steal something?

Why do we give money to Native Americans?

     Do white people come from black people?

Why do Native Americans have long hair?

     Why do white people bury their dead so quickly?

Should White People Be Scared To Give Black People Compliments?

     Why can't I be close to a white person?

How do I find a Native American husband?

     What are some tips to get a white boy like a black girl?

Why do you never see Native Americans bitching like blacks?

     Why do white people become obsessed with a foreign country?

Can white people use black blood?

     Why do white people run from black people?

How do you say it's okay in ghetto terms?

     Why are white people white?

Why is it considered racist to worry about illegals?

     Do white girls hate black girls who date white guys?

Why don't black people own pets?

     Why are white people fascinated with dogs?

Why do Native Americans have white names?

     Why do white people take Native American names?

Are black people cooler than white people?

     How can I be confident around white people?

How are people viewed when they stand up for racism?

     Why do white people walk so fast?

Are high school girls really going after the black guys?

     Why do white people walk with tight butts?

How should I shake hands with black people as a white person?

     What kind of food do White Power people eat?

Is it racist to call black people black?

     When co-workers make fun of my accent -- tips, please.

How do you make blacks feel comfortable in white company?

     How should I act around white people?

What's the difference between "colored people" and "people of color"?

     How can I turn white people's racism back on them?

Are white people too friendly?

     Why do white men have ethnic fetishes?

Why do black people blame white people for their problems?

     Why do whites stop talking to a black person when they see other whites?

Do I act like a white girl?

     Why do white people claim they are Indian but never claim they are black?

Why won't the media talk bad about black racism against white people?

     What’s the worst thing to say to a white person?


     Are Asians the white man's "bitch"?

How can I not act so white?

     Why do white people go camping?

How come black people never go camping?

     Why do I get nervous around white people?

Do other races look up to white people?

     Why do white people like dangerous stuff?

How should a father deal with daughter's black boyfriend?

     Why does it tend to be white males that do the shooting?

What is someone suppose to do with an eagle feather war bonnet that was given to a non-indian over 50 years ago?

     Why are white people the only ones who matter in movies?

Do Asian women shave?

     How would white people describe themselves over the phone to someone who has never seen them before?

What do black people use on their body to get it so shiny?

     Why do white people only have 1 black friend?

Do asians like to be called oriental?

     Why do white people leave blinds open at night?

Is it bad to ask an Asian's nationality?

     What's that white smile about?

What do black people say about white people?

     What do white people think about people of color?

What do people Google?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

ask non-white people how to fight racism

Fightin' Whities mascot

In response to A. Smith's recent guest post about her frustration with passive white readers on the Internet, some commenters wrote about white people who would like to do what they can to fight racism, but have little idea how and where to start fighting. As I've come to understand in my own efforts to push back against racism, asking non-white people how to do so is not a good way to start. It's even worse to expect non-white people to provide such answers, and to get upset if and when they decline to do so.Worse yet is the terrible irony that sometimes occurs, when white people use anti-racist information generously provided by non-white people against them.

I think one of the first actions that such concerned white people should take is to ask themselves why they want to fight racism. If they're honest with themselves, some will realize that they're asking how to fight not because they're actually going to fight, but instead, simply because they don't want to seem like a "racist." Simply saying that you're a fighter can seem like a good way to avoid that label, and asking a non-white person how to fight racism can seem like a good way to say to the non-white person, "Hey there, aren't you glad I'm not a racist?"

That kind of motivation is really just another example of whitened individualism, an ironically selfish approach of the sort that's inspired everywhere by today's mainstreamed racial whiteness. As Jasmin noted in a comment here yesterday, some white people are merely looking for affirmation from non-white people that they themselves are not racists; what they really want is "to get their pats on the back for being 'hip' and 'enlightened' and 'not a redneck' (their word, not mine), but [they] don't really want to do the hard work, i.e., standing up to their friends, lovers, parents, grandparents, etc."

When white people really do want to act because they recognize that racism exists -- not only in the feelings, thoughts, and actions of white individuals, but also at larger systemic and institutional levels -- and when they recognize that racism enacted at both individual and institutional levels hurts non-white people and provides unearned, unfair advantages to white people -- well then, I think that's a better first step. That first step calls for some reading, some Googling. You know, just some relatively accessible helpful, "Racism 101" work.

However, even after doing such preliminary work, the next step in seeking ways to act against racism should not be asking non-white individuals for help with that. An apparently white commenter here named special cornflake did just that yesterday, asking a self-identified black woman who writes as Witchsistah:

I hate racism, and I hate that I benefit from it. So what do you want us to DO? What specific actions do you think would help?

I read here and learn about things I shouldn't "do." I appreciate that, and I know I'm less racist for it. But, yeah, what else should we who are white and care "do"?

This common white plea inspired a swift response from another commenter, RVCBard, who wrote in part,

Why do White people always ask POCs stuff like this? I just spent 30 minutes Googling "white allies" to find resources. Why the hell did I have to do that? Why does it never occur to White people to do that? Why is the onus always on POCs to make it easy for White people to learn to be less racist? Why do we always have to do the heavy lifting? Why is the footwork always left to us? Why are we always asking the hard questions? Why do we have to have it all figured out? Why is the burden always on us to go out of our way to make the world less racist?

I don't mean to hold up RCVBard, nor Witchsista, as typical black people who provide typical responses to such white requests for help. As RVCBard went on to say, "Each POC will give one or more very different answers because -- surprise, surprise! -- we're different! Our experiences of racism are different for a variety of psychological, social, economic, and political reasons." I'm quoting RVCBard's list of questions because it seems to me that on the whole, they make a great point in response to a common white plea for help: finding ways to fight racism is up to the oppressors, not the victims, and it's not really all that difficult to find answers on our own. White people are out of line when they ask non-white people how to fight racism, in part because it's work we should be doing ourselves.

At the same time, if a non-white person willingly offers advice and/or commentary on instances of racism, I suggest that we listen. Respectfully, that is, while trying to put aside the skepticism that white people commonly feel, and display, in such encounters. White people tend to think that when it comes to matters of race (and to other matters), white individuals are just that, individuals, and thus "unbiased." The flip-side of that is our tendency to think that members of non-white groups are biased, and all too ready to "play the race card," or too impassioned and "angry" and resentful to think straight, and so on. We should try to keep in mind that quite to the contrary, non-white people instead tend to be experts about racism, especially compared to most white people. It makes sense if you think about it -- who would better understand a form of oppression, by necessity, than its victims and survivors?

As I write this, most of what I'm saying seems fairly obvious, and yet, white people make such requests of non-white people frequently. What also seems obvious, but apparently isn't, is that asking for help can end up being the only action that a seemingly sincere, concerned white person undertakes in the fight racism. Again, the effort sometimes stops with the mere request, and some polite listening, because the white person only wants to seem sincere, and concerned, and, ultimately, "not racist."

Something worse can happen when the seemingly sincere white inquisitor does listen to willing non-white explainers patiently, and does make other Racism 101 efforts, but only in order to enhance their own credibility as "anti-racists." I've written before about the ills of "hipster racism," as an insincere, ultimately self-centered attempt to prove that you're not a racist by "ironically" acting like one.

But what about "hipster anti-racism"? Don't a lot of white people who pin the Badge of Anti-Racism on themselves merely do so as a sort of guilt-leavening adornment? As just another hip accessory?

And then, descending even further down the ladder toward truly destructive anti-racist insincerity, the proud Anti-Racism Badge wearer can actually end up using information against the non-white people he or she is supposedly fighting for. That happens, for instance, during discussions of racism, when the seemingly sincere white anti-racist counters non-white knowledge and testimony by playing the "But My Black Friend Says" card, or by citing Malcolm X or MLK, or by claiming that the real issues are larger and more abstract, or that they know more about the issue at hand because they've worked with this or that organization. (Actually, not to pull my own "Black Friend" card, but it was a black friend who alerted me to this additional rung on the anti-racism ladder, the one that stretches downward toward truly destructive anti-racist insincerity, but also upward, toward truly committed,  counter-racist action.)

So basically, if you're wondering where to start fighting, and you're tempted to ask non-white people you know where they think you should start, then start instead by asking yourself just why you're tempted to ask them. If it's only because deep down, you want them and others to know that you don't have a racist bone in your body -- if it's really about you -- then you've got some self-work to do. There's some socially induced racist training implanted within you that you should work on, before you go out and fight other forms of racism. It's not that you're going to be able to solve or undo all of that internalized training, but it's very worthwhile to become aware of it, and of the racist thoughts and actions that it sometimes prompts you to commit.

Much of the Racism 101 material linked above (and widely available elsewhere) can teach you about both racism and your own whitened self. To quote RVCBard's commentary once more, "instead of asking random POCs what to do about racism, you [should] figure out how racism operates in your own life and how it affects the POCs you interact with, then work from there." I don't mean to make fighting racism sound too complicated, but doing it right takes some serious effort.

In the meantime, there are some basic actions you can take to fight racism right away. When you encounter clearly blatant racism from others anywhere -- in daily conversations, forwarded emails, TV shows and movies, and even on the Internet -- point it out to the perpetrators. Resist the urge you often feel to comply silently with ordinary acts of racism; instead, speak up and defend its victims. If something's still stopping you from doing that, think about what those forces are, and whether you really want to be the kind of person who obeys them.

Racial "whiteness" is many things, but one of its consistent qualities is power. As people granted unearned privileges by our own whiteness, and as people who have likely harmed non-white people with our own whiteness, it's our moral and ethical duty to find ways to combat racism. There's no good reason to expect its primary victims to tell us how to do that. But then, again, if they're willing to do so, we should be grateful and respectful, and we should also check our overdeveloped sense of skepticism.

Finally, here's another thing that whiteness is -- a pathology. Being raised as "white" is to be rendered delusional about the true order of things; a healthy dose of Racism 101 will reveal that to us. Fortunately, since combating racism effectively tends to clarify our vision, working to reduce the effects of racism on its victims does have a selfish component to it after all -- a good kind of selfishness. Fighting that good fight opens our eyes, and it also restores some of our stifled humanity.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

wonder how to talk to black people

Bruce A. Jacobs is an author and speaker who blogs at "Alias Bruce." Jacobs wrote the recently revised book, Race Manners for the 21st Century (excerpted awhile back here). Jacobs has spoken at universities, churches, and community gatherings, and appeared on C-SPAN, NPR, Pacifica, and other radio and television shows. Jacobs writes at his blog that he's a Harvard graduate, a widely-published poet, a drummer, an "almost-competent saxophonist, and an irretrievably fanatical fisherman."

The video below is the first in a series by Jacobs (his YouTube channel is here).  Apparently the series will offer advice on the topic of his book, "race manners." I transcribed the video below for those who can't access it. 

Okay, you’re not black, and you want to ask somebody who is black what they think about something. Or, maybe you want to tell them what you think about something. Maybe something they said, or something you saw them do that you’re curious about. And like I said, they’re black, and you’re not. Which doesn’t matter.

Except, it does matter. Because you want to be able to treat it like it doesn’t matter when it doesn’t matter. But at those times when it does matter, like let’s say you want to ask them, “What do you mean that white guy had no right to say that? What’s up with that?” Let’s say you want to ask them that, right?

At those times when race does matter in the conversation, you want to be able to treat it like it matters, without acting like a racist.

So what are you supposed to do?

Rule Number One: If you’re asking a black person what they think, or if you’re telling them what you think about something they think or something they did, always address them with the word “you.”

Y-O-U, singular, as in “you, the person here, who I’m talking with right now.”

That way, no matter what you ask them about -- the white guy they’re irritated with, some racial thing you saw on the news, your relative who loves black music but doesn’t like black people -- you’re not treating them like they’re the ambassador for black people. You’re just treating them like Carla, or Kevin, or Karen, this person you know who’s black, who has their own opinion that you want to know about.

When you address a person that way, they know you want to talk to them, the person who’s there in the room with you. And then they’ve got a great reason to want to talk with you, about what you want to talk about, or about what they want to talk about, which is what you want. 

But if you address them the other way, they know you don’t want to talk to them. You may like them, you may respect them, you may be good friends for them. But at the moment, you’re using them as the mouthpiece for a whole bunch of black folks. And they know it, and they don’t like it. In which case, they’re likely not going to want to talk to you, except maybe to tell you something that you don’t want to hear.

What you want is for them to know that you want to know about them.

And here’s the thing -- what they tell you might come partly from their being black, but it will be them talking to you as a person who’s black, not blackness talking to you through a person. They need to know that you know the difference.

And once they know that you want to have this conversation with them -- I mean with them -- they’re probably going to want to have it with you. Unless of course, they don’t, but then it will be for some other reason, not because you did it wrong. 

By the way, everything I just said, replace the word black with white, or brown, or gay, or Muslim, or Republican, or any other group, and it’s the same rule.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

passively accept racist commentary

This is a guest post for swpd by A. Smith, who writes of herself, "I write a blog that is hard to explain except to say I write what's on my mind. In the real world, I'm a recent college graduate who's had enough of DC and it's politics and is ready to go back to school, for a different, albeit familiar, kind of politics. I'm also a black woman with 22-almost-23 years of experience in this race thing..."

On some blogs, my favorite part is the comments. I like to see how many people had thoughts similar to mine after reading a blog post. I think people are honest on the internet in ways they would never be in a face-to-face conversation. In fact, people probably say things on blogs, in comments, on Twitter and even on Facebook (which is ironic) that you couldn't pay them to say to a close friend. They leave these thoughts and ideas out there for people to read -- people they will never, ever meet -- and they can be painfully honest. One thing I’ve noticed is that when apparently white people leave vile, racist comments, other white people who don’t feel that way almost never jump in to counter the vile racism.

One blog I love reading the comments for is Unsuck DC Metro (UDCM), a website dedicated to Washington, DC's transit system. Compared to, say, NYC's transit system, ours sucks. Majorly. So it's kind of comforting to know there are other people who ride DC Metro and have some of the same complaints I do.

I stumbled upon an old UDCM post that invited comments on the "Most Annoying Metro Behaviors." I was sorta excited to read through all 200 comments, because I know most metro veterans have some of the same annoyances: people who talk too loudly on their cell phones; folks who don't know that we walk left, stand right; tourists who are incapable of moving out of the way before they decide to shove their nose in a map, etc. I wasn't surprised by anything I read. It was what I didn't read that I took note of.

It doesn't matter what city you live in, whether you use public transportation or not, you can identify with this: annoying teenagers. We all know them, we cringe when we see (or hear) them coming. They're loud, obnoxious, aloof and bothersome. Typically, I remind myself that I was 15 once, and I and my friends probably liked being obnoxious, too. All teenagers think that they're cool because they're loud (or so it seems).

Here in DC, many metro riders will tell you that right before school and right after school, you can't help but be annoyed by the already overcrowded train cars filling up with teenage students who are rambunctious, loud and obnoxious. They play their music way too loud, use inappropriate language and act rude. Other riders agree that these behaviors are obnoxious, so it was no surprise that a lot of the commenters on UDCM's post did too. However, what the comments also revealed was that almost everyone seems to think it's only black teenagers who do this. What was even more striking is how they were referenced. There isn't any reference to "black kids." Instead, they’re all derogatory terms -- the rude, ignorant and racist kind.

One commenter referred to them as "Ghetto-ass bebe's kids," others called them the "Ghetto Fabulous Street Urchins," "section-8 welfare street urchins," and even "sewer ghetto rats." My favorite was probably from commenter Grrrrrr, who referred to them as "ghetto sewer rats with no upbringing or future." I won't lie, I laughed at the sheer ignorance of that comment. It wasn't enough to call them "ghetto sewer rats"; they also have no upbringing or future. I didn't know this, but apparently you can figure out everything about a person after less than 5 minutes of sharing the same space.

But like I said, it wasn't the comments that got me; rather it was that no one had anything to the contrary to say. No one came to the rescue of this maligned group to say, "hey, is there a reason you only refer to them with these racist terms? Is there a reason you don't reference white teenagers? They can be just as obnoxious."

The closest attempt to rescue this group was a comment from one person who pointed out that these obnoxious teens could have come from anywhere in DC, not just S.E. (Southeast is a predominantly black and poor area of D.C., though it is also being gentrified, so almost anyone could live there). But even that person didn't point out the extensive use of derogatory, hateful terms or the lack of anger pointed towards white teenagers.

All of this is in strong contrast to the treatment of other maligned groups, like the disabled. For example, plenty of commenters complained about people who "look normal," but make use of facilities that are supposed to be for the disabled. Many other commenters came to the rescue, stating that no one should be quick to think that a person who looks able-bodied can’t be disabled. Multiple commenters also came to the rescue of "men" who are often attacked for not giving up their seats.

No one, not one person, took issue with all of the hateful descriptions of loud and obnoxious black teenagers. No one said, for instance, that we should be careful about assuming who these teenagers are and where they're from. No one pointed out that many teens want to look like they're from the poorer and rougher parts of town, even though they’re actually from the more affluent parts, and furthermore, that this is a universal trait -- some black teens do it, just like some white teens do it.

There’s also the fact that most of these commenters probably don't ride the train to the parts of town where they seem to think these "street urchins" go -- so how would they know anything about where they're from and what they know? These are simple and basic corrections that anyone ought to be able to make, but no one did. Wondering why we would assume that only the truly disabled "look" disabled, and why we would be so quick to malign all men for the actions of a few, though, were corrections deemed plenty worth making.

I'd like to be clear: I’m not really taking issue with the obviously ignorant and racist commenters (in the sense that I know these people exist, and I personally don't waste a whole lot of breath or time on them). Rather, I take issue with the people who read the racist comments and didn't think enough to question their legitimacy or factuality. I take issue with the people who read those comments, knew better, but didn't think they should say so. Probably because, truth be told, they felt the same way.

Why is this? Why would people read these comments and not think enough of the absurdity to correct the original poster in the same way disparaging comments about the disabled, or women, or men are often corrected?

Even the commenter who pointed out that we can't assume all these kids are from poor neighborhoods didn't dare touch the horrible titles used to refer to them. I'm going to make a large assumption that I can't prove (but feel is true) that Unsuck DC Metro is frequented mostly by white people. If so, that would mean that white commenters feel a sense of security in expressing inflammatory views that I, as a black woman, might disagree with, but that another white person might readily agree with.

How white people speak to each other about minority groups when there are no minorities present is something I would never be privy to in "real life," but I have heard a lot about it. In an all-white environment, there’s an implicit assumption that because everyone looks the same, they have the same opinion about the "others." And so, it’s okay to spew vile racism about the “others.”

Not only was this assumption clearly made in this post’s comments, but no one refuted it. The simple failure to correct racist comments suggests that every person who read the comments agreed with the assertion that only Section-8 kids have no future or upbringing, and that they are street urchins, undeserving of the simple respect of at least being referenced as if they are human.

Of course, the other problem here is how all the obnoxious white teens get overlooked. No one mentions them, in either a derogatory or a straightforward manner. I guess they don't bother anyone when they run around train stations (like their black counterparts), act loud (like their black counterparts) and obnoxious (like their black counterparts), and generally make commuting just that much more annoying (like their black counterparts). Or, perhaps, it's actually that when they do these things they’re seen as normal, rambunctious teenagers, but when their black counterparts do it, it's seen as almost criminal...

I'm more interested in what the readers of this blog (swpd) think explains why white people do this, rather than affirmation that they do it. Is it because they don't think maligned minorities need someone to stand up for them, especially in their absence? Do they not think that's their job?

What about the commenter who wanted us to remember that these black teen subway riders could be from anywhere, but apparently didn't take issue with how they were referenced? Is there a fear that if they stand up for them, they will in turn be attacked?

One of my close friends was the first person to "hip" me to what happens in a room full of white people (read: the first person to make me consider what actually happens). She told me she's been attacked when she's tried to disagree, and that she always notices the difference in how she’s treated or spoken to after the fact (I told her that though I know it's hard, it's people like her who can make a real difference -- but that's another post for another day).

Is there, then, some fear that standing up to racism from other white people will make you less white?

I guess in the end I'm not so disturbed by what these teenagers were called because this is America in a supposedly post-racial society. However, it's the passive agreement in situations like these that furthers these ignorant and absurd ideas. These people are just like the police officer who forwarded that ignorant e-mail to his co-workers after the Dr. Gates' incident. He'd probably sent similar e-mails to a certain group and no one ever stood up to him. Or how about the TN state lawmaker's aid who did something similar? How many of us receive offensive e-mails everyday? Maybe it's not offensive to us, but it is to others, and yet we say nothing?

That passive agreement furthers the assumption people make that everyone who looks like them thinks like them. It's important to nip that thought process in the bud, even at the risk of losing some of your "whiteness." It's ironic, but I believe that if we're ever going to truly realize the post-racial society people seem to so want, it'll be white people who push us over the edge. That's why it's important to include them on topics of race, and that's also why it’s especially important to expect them to speak up.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

implicitly deny that other people are fully human

For many decades during the last century, Preston Wilcox was a Harlem-based activist, scholar, and community organizer. In 1969, Wilcox was leading a discussion group on "Black Heritage" at a summer camp for teenagers, and the topic was a cartoon book entitled Black Is (by Turner Brown, Jr.). Wilcox later wrote that the teenagers found the book unsatisfying, and so they proposed another as an answer to it. Their idea resulted in another cartoon book, White Is, which is about what it means to be white. White Is was published by Grove Press in 1970.

Wilcox served as the book's editor, and in his introduction he writes,

White Is is not a sequel to Black Is. It seeks to produce a different perspective. Black Is elicited white sympathy and Black self-pity. White Is is designed to provide white Americans with a mirror with which to examine themselves.

The full meaning of "white is" unfolded as the young people involved in writing the book began to see and identify the meaning of being white in America. The group, composed of Jews, Blacks, Puerto Ricans, Indians, WASPS, and Chicanos, discovered that they were forming a portrait of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant "authentic American deception" that had blinded them all. . . . it was the first time that many of the young people had engaged the issue of their own right to be human in such an open setting.

At some points, White Is is a clear product of its time (for example: "White is allowing the blacks to fight for their freedom in Vietnam"). In many other ways, the book remains an effective and instructive mirror for today's white people. For the purposes of this post on a common and ongoing white tendency, I'd like to focus on this single image and caption from White Is:

"White is a flesh colored band aid"

The point that I see this 40-year-old, teenager-inspired cartoon making is that ordinary, everyday elements of daily life have been arranged to benefit white people, and not necessarily other people. If something as simple as a bandage indicates that "white" is the assumed default racial status in America, then in what other hundreds, even thousands of ways is that true? And what are the effects on non-white people, of this mountain of evidence that in their own country and society, they've been placed somewhere off to the side of center stage?

White people tend to assume, often without realizing that they're doing so, that the ways the world around them has been established, organized, and supplied are the most convenient and best ways for people in general. However, those ways are often instead the most convenient and best ways for white people, and not for others. And yet, white people usually fail to even see that.

The "band aid" that the black man in the cartoon is wearing is "flesh-colored." The problem (which you'd think the manufacturers of bandages would've seen early on as an obvious problem) is that a "flesh-colored" bandage doesn't match the skin color of a lot of non-white people. I don't know if the "band aid" in question was actually marketed as "flesh-colored," but I'm pretty sure if ordinary white people of the time were asked to describe its color, that's the term that many or most would've used. What this means is that many white minds accepted a delusion that many non-white minds did not -- the false notion that "flesh" is "white." The logical-but-absurd extension of that term is that if human "flesh" is actually "white," then non-white people aren't actually human.

Again, it's a profound set of points that Preston Wilcox and the teenagers he spoke with made over 40 years ago, points that can still be hard to see -- for white people, that is. Surely non-white people often have no trouble seeing that what white people think of as normal and natural ways of doing things are actually common white ways of doing things. Just as this conception of "flesh" actually stands for "white" flesh, so "white" commonly stands for "normal." The word "white" itself often gets replaced by the word "normal" -- in white minds. But again, often not in non-white minds, or so I'd guess.

The African American scholar and teacher bell hooks has noticed this difference between the minds of her white and her non-white students. While whites never actually forget that they're "white," many do tend to become so accustomed to thinking of themselves as "normal" instead of as "white" that when others point out that their being white has real significance in their lives, they're dumbfounded.

As hooks writes:

In those classrooms there have been heated debates among students when white students respond with disbelief, shock, and rage, as they listen to black students talk about whiteness, when they are compelled to hear observations, stereotypes, etc. that are offered as “data” gleaned from close scrutiny and study.

Usually, white students respond with naive amazement that black people critically assess white people from a standpoint where “whiteness” is the privileged signifier. Their amazement that black people watch white people with a critical “ethnographic” gaze, is itself an expression of racism.

Often their rage erupts because they believe that all ways of looking that highlight difference subvert the liberal belief in a universal subjectivity (we are all just people) that they think will make racism disappear. They have a deep emotional investment in the myth of “sameness,” even as their actions reflect the primacy of whiteness as a sign informing who they are and how they think. Many of them are shocked that black people think critically about whiteness because racist thinking perpetuates the fantasy that the Other who is subjugated, who is subhuman, lacks the ability to comprehend, to understand, to see the working of the powerful.

Even though the majority of these students politically consider themselves liberals and anti-racists, they too unwittingly invest in the sense of whiteness as mystery.

One of the crucial things that hooks highlights here is the validity of this racially critiquing non-white gaze upon white people. Why is it that whites are generally oblivious to that gaze? mthgk, a commenter on this blog, once wrote, with succinct precision, what I think is an answer: "White people don't seem to understand that the power structure they have created, predicated on whiteness itself, forces non-whites to categorize whites racially." It seems that white people don't know they're being watched because they don't know their own strength.

Again, just about every white American is of course aware of their group membership -- of their being "white." The point here is more that because their racial status rarely causes them problems, they don't think about it much -- in most cases, I'd bet, not even once a week, let alone once a day.  And to the extent that they don't think about it much, they instead think of themselves as just plain "people." They also think of other white people as just plain people. But then other people are certain kinds of people -- "black" people, or "Mexican" people, or "Asian American" people, and so on. So in that state of mind, who becomes just plain, normal people -- that is, "people" -- and who becomes abnormal -- that is, not quite "people"?

In that common white state of mind, to be able to perceive oneself as a member of the norm, instead of as a suspect-at-best and less-than-human-at-worst outsider, is a "privilege." Privileges are what they are because other people don't have them. More specifically, in terms of race, privileges are what white people have because they, as a group, have denied them to non-white people. As a group, they have had, and still have, that power. In this sense, then, the white "norm" actually isn't a norm -- it's a special, privileged, and empowered status. Again, though, the true, enormous significance of that status to their own lives rarely occurs to most white people. And in a lot of cases, when that significance gets pointed out to them, they react like bell hooks' students did, with disbelief, anger, and frustration.

Actually, for many decades, the company that made Crayola Crayons produced a crayon labeled "Flesh." As the company's web site now notes, that name "was voluntarily changed to 'peach' in 1962, partially as a result of the U. S. Civil Rights Movement."

In 1988, Peggy McIntosh published an article that eventually put the concept of "white privilege" on the cultural map. She identified and clarified the extensive presence of white privilege in America's social landscape, especially by providing a list of 46 examples from her own life. Here's just one of them:

I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.

Nowadays, 21 years later, it's easier for non-white Americans to find matching blemish cover and bandages. Indeed, the term "flesh-colored" seems a thing of the past, a relic as bygone as the equally nonsensical one-drop rule.

But then, what kind of slip-up was it when an Associated Press reporter recently described the color of a dress, worn by Michelle Obama no less, with that apparently undead term?

The first line of reporter Samantha Critchell's AP story about this night in the Obama's lives read, "First lady Michelle Obama chose to wear a gleaming silver-sequined, flesh-colored gown Tuesday night to the first state dinner held by her husband's administration." Critchell's mistake was later changed, to "cream-colored." That she wrote "flesh-colored" in the first place, and that the phrase got past at least one editor, both suggest that in some minds at least, the default color for skin, or "flesh," is still a color close to "white" skin. It's rather amazing that Critchell wrote that when the "flesh-colored" dress was worn by Michelle Obama, a person whose "flesh" is far away from that color, a seemingly obvious contrast that again renders the term "flesh-colored" absolutely nonsensical. 

So that term is easy enough to expose as bizarre nonsense (if you ever hear anyone use it, all you have to do is ask, "What? "Flesh-colored'? And just whose flesh would that color be?"). It's still very useful, though, as an example of the power of white presumptions. Presumptions, that is, of social, cultural, and political centrality. This is also the power to symbolically, and in some ways literally, obliterate the humanity of non-white people.

One way that obliteration occurs is when white people think they're talking about just plain "people," but they're actually talking about "white people." I used to do that, and I probably still do in some situations. But now I find that common white tendency chilling. Frightening. White speakers, and usually their white listeners, often fail to realize that their universalizing assumption that the group of unmarked "white" people they're talking about does not include all people. And that it actively excludes them. I suspect that on the other hand, non-white people often do realize that's what's happening -- that the "people" in question are actually white people, and that non-white people have been erased from the picture.

Recently, this presumptuous and obliterating white habit jumped out at me when I was watching a movie set in the American South. I sometimes like documentaries, and this one's actually supposed to be about "the South." It has an on-camera narrator, a white singer/musician who travels around rural areas and pontificates poetically on "the mood" of "the South," and by extension, on "Southerners." However, as I kept watching it became clear that those who this wandering narrator was really describing, but never identified as such, were "white Southerners."

I started watching for black people in this moody portrait of "the South" and "its people." By the end, after the wandering narrator had met dozens of individuals and crowds full of many more, only two black men had appeared. Each of these men surfaced briefly in the background, only to vanish without a word. Perhaps, although they'd probably lived in the South all their lives, the filmmakers didn't deem them "Southern" enough (and perhaps this was an unconscious thing -- perhaps), because they weren't "white."

I hope to write in more detail about that movie in another post. The typical white blindness that film displayed -- to whiteness itself by not actually naming it; to the underlying presumption that white people are the default for just plain "people"; and to the blithe power on display in its shoving aside of nearly all black Southern people, denying their very presence and humanity -- all of that eventually became infuriating.

When will my people ever stop acting like they're the only full-fledged human beings on earth?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

fail to understand that dismantling the anger and bitterness from racism is a very involving emotional process

This is a guest post for swpd by fromthetropics, who writes about herself, "I am mixed cultured, and always feel in-between -- both here and there, but neither fully here nor there."

Recently, readers of this blog have witnessed commenters accuse certain non-white commenters of being angry and snarky, and of shouting down others. For those who don't experience racism in the form of microaggressions on a regular basis, there’s something I think you need to know. Regularly experiencing microaggressions is seriously taxing on the psyche.

It’s hard to think of an illustrative analogy here. Okay -- imagine having a moody boss, and having to go to work every day without knowing if he/she is gonna yell at you or not that day. When they do yell, you have no idea what you’ve done wrong. You don’t know what you’re supposed to do to ensure he/she is pleased with you, because it doesn’t actually matter what you do. You have no control over what happens.

For me, the racism of microaggressions means having to be alert the minute I step outside the house, ensuring that I don’t carelessly do something that might reflect badly on my race. Every time I talk to someone, I’ve got my antennas up in the back of my mind, wondering whether white people will speak condescendingly to me or not. When they don’t, I am relieved. When something negative happens (e.g., being spoken to in a patronizing tone), I walk away wondering if it was racism or whether there’s just something wrong with me. Because quite often, I have no idea whether I did something wrong.

Sometimes it’s a car full of young white men driving by as they yell out something. Sometimes it’s incomprehensible, in which case the vibe still isn’t good. I keep walking, wondering if it was racism, or maybe they’re just boys being boys. Then one night they yell out something and I hear the words ‘Asian girl’ somewhere in their yelling. ‘Ah, that’s the vibe I was picking up that other week,’ signals my antenna. Or they throw my luggage at me and my family with a smirk at the airport, offended that I’d asked them to weigh our luggage again, to check if it really was overweight.

Or maybe I go to a shop, and a tiny merchandise rack that was standing extremely precariously (no exaggeration) falls over when I pass by. It isn’t my fault. I can pick it up, but I can see that it would fall over again anyway when the next person passes by. Then my antenna goes up: ‘But if I don’t pick it up, they’ll think Asians are rude won’t they?’

So I pick it up. The shopkeeper comes over and instead of just saying ‘thank you,’ she praises me for doing so, as though I was a child, and mentions how ‘good’ I am compared to that ‘Other’ girl who didn’t pick it up. My antenna goes up again: Was that other girl Asian too? Good thing I picked it up. Otherwise it really would have made Asians look bad.

Or let’s say, your good white friend brings up the topic of race. For the first time you think it’s okay to talk about racism. But one thing leads to another and she ends up telling you to go see a counselor/psychiatrist because you think racism is widespread. The friendship ends of course, painfully. Painfully because it was a friendship that mattered.

None of these (except the last one) are a big deal in and of themselves. But the regularity at which they happen is.* It wears you down. It really, simply wears you down to have that antenna up all the time. Some on this blog say it happens daily to them. For me, it happens about once a week. But I have to keep my antenna up every day. It’s tiring. I didn’t realize how deeply tiring it was until I went to Asia to live for a year. It’s amazingly liberating to not have to worry about this at all. To live, that is, like most white people do.

My point is, when the same thing happens again on a site dedicated to anti-racism, it’s extremely frustrating. Hence the anger, the snarks, the shouts, in many of the comments. Is it okay to be snarky? Maybe not. But this is where it’s coming from. I hope you can hear us on this.

Also, while white readers use this space to dismantle their ingrained racially prejudiced views, POCs are trying to dismantle our bitterness and anger and internalized racism. And it is a process, much like identity development (or perhaps, it’s part of identity development).

I started reading this blog in April of this year. I went from being very angry while wondering whether I was imagining racism (and if I concluded that I was, then I’d also have to also conclude that there is something very wrong with me to be regularly treated as less than equal); to being happy to know that I wasn’t imagining things but still very, very angry; to being just very, very, very angry to the point that for a few months I had a hard time picturing white people (in abstract terms as opposed to when I meet them in person) without thinking, ‘Ugh, disgusting.’ They became dehumanized in my imagination.

During this stage, I had to often remind myself of all the white friends and white people I know who were not ‘disgusting,’ who were very nice and very human. I started to make gross generalizations about white people a lot. An Asian Australian friend had to actually call me out on that.

Now, thankfully, my emotions have started to wind down. I don’t feel too angry anymore. This year, I’ve been lucky to meet several white people (some of whom are very fatherly), people who I can respect and who treat me with respect, both as a poc and a woman. With one of them, I felt comfortable enough to discuss racism (though I steered clear of the word ‘racism’ and used ‘prejudice’ instead). And yes, he got somewhat defensive, and for every point I made he would counter with the ‘anything but racism’ line of argument. But at no time did he show any disrespect towards me as a person.

I appreciated that (especially after I saw that video where White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs talks to April Ryan, a black female reporter, in a patronizing and infantilizing manner. I realized that the discussions I was having with this guy could have easily flared up into a Gibbs & Ryan type of exchange, had he been more prejudiced). It’s like pulling at the rope in a tug of war and the other guy lets go. When he got somewhat defensive, I started expressing my views more strongly and got frustrated (pulling at the rope with more gusto). But when I realized he didn’t then go around disrespecting me (he let the rope go), I calmed down and actually went back to apologize, just in case, for coming off too strongly (I let the rope go too). To which he said, convincingly, that I had no reason to apologize at all and that he appreciates that I shared my views (so the tug-of-war in my heart ended).

So it’s taken me months of venting on swpd and elsewhere, becoming ultra angry to the point of being ‘racist’ myself towards white people, meeting white people who are probably not fully aware of their whiteness but doing all they can to be respectful, and also doing other things to deal with the anger and bitterness. It’s been a long, deeply emotional and involving process. I don’t think it’s completely over yet either.

All of this is to say that I understand that being bitter and angry doesn’t look especially good or pretty. I don’t like being bitter or angry either. (The links from elise were helpful in understanding how to ensure that our poc anger doesn’t spill over into our comments in discussions of race.) But I think some of us here are in the midst of a process of dismantling our anger when we snark and vent. We’re not angry because we have an angry personality. The anger is part of a process.

I am not excusing anger. I want it gone too. But I want you to hear where we’re coming from, to hear from where the process is happening -- our hearts.

*If you picked one regular poc commenter and added up the number of times they say, ‘That happens to me too,’ I think you’ll start to see how frequently poc experience microaggressions.
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