Wednesday, March 24, 2010

describe racism as political incorrectness

[A] couple of years ago here in Michigan -- there was a coffee shop chain called "Beaners" that ended up renaming itself Bigby's. The coffee still sucks, but at least it's politically correct.

--a commenter at BoingBoing

Why do a lot of white people shy away from using the word "racist" to describe something that is, indeed, racist? What's up with the preference that many have for euphemisms like "politically incorrect"?

These questions arose for me again as I read one of my favorite down-time sites, BoingBoing. In a brief post entitled "Vintage Sambo's restaurant photos," Mark Frauenfelder linked to a photographer's web site containing such photos. He also wrote the following:

Sambo's is a politically incorrect name for a business, but these vintage photos of the chain restaurant are wonderful.

Before going on to look at the photos, I had to pause and wonder, why did Frauenfelder write "politically incorrect" instead of "racist"? After all, as I'll explain in a moment, what's wrong with the name of that restaurant -- the only reason to call it anything like "politically incorrect" -- is that it's just that, racist.

Here's one of the restaurant photos, which also appears in the BoingBoing post; notice the painting on the wall, an image of a tiger chasing a boy (for a larger image, click here):

The Sambo's restaurant chain began in 1957, and it flourished into 1200 establishments during the Sixties and Seventies; apparently only one remains, in Santa Barbara, California (here's there, um, interesting site). The chain was started by Sam Battistone and Newell Bohnett, whom everyone called Bo -- thus the name, Sambo's. Which certainly doesn't seem like a racist beginning for the restaurant chain's name, buuuuuuut . . .

As Sam and Bo decided how to distinguish the look of their restaurants from others, they also decided to play up the echoes in the name "Sambo" of a famous children's story, The Story of Little Black Sambo. This was a book published in 1899 by a Scottish woman, Helen Bannerman, who lived for many years in Southern India.

The story is familiar to many people, even today -- basically, a very dark, or "black," Indian boy named Sambo goes into a wooded area, loses his clothing to some tigers, who then jealously chase each other around a tree until they turn into butter. Sambo then enjoys this butter on some pancakes made by his mother.

So, if you did look closely at the photo above, Sambo is depicted in the restaurant's paintings in some sort of "traditional Indian" garb, and he's not dark enough that most people would call him "black." The restaurant's decorators lightened the skin of "Little Black Sambo" -- perhaps in deference to the Civil Rights era? -- though I'm not sure if they did so at the outset.

Aside from the stereotypical representation of mildly exotic "Indian-ness," a bigger problem for the restaurant chain is that when Bannerman's book was published in America, various versions depicted the protagonist with features that echoed other stereotypes about African American children, all of which have been summed up as the "picaninny caricature." By 1932, the writer Langston Hughes was pointing out that Little Black Sambo was "amusing undoubtedly to the white child, but like an unkind word to one who has known too many hurts to enjoy the additional pain of being laughed at."

(McLoughlin Bros., 1938) 

This 1935 American cartoon, also entitled "Little Black Sambo," retells the story in a way that shows the American transmogrification of Bannerman's Indian boy into a bumbling, grinning, idiotic and racist caricature, whose mother is also another American caricature -- the mammy figure.

When I was a (white) boy, my parents adopted a black dog. We ended up choosing the name that my mother came up with, Sam. She explained that the dog reminded her of a childhood story, and I remember her using that phrase, "little black Sambo." Come to think of it, that was actually the dog's full name, Sambo; we just called him Sam because it was shorter and easier.

The idea in America that a "Sambo" is a certain image of a black child, or sometimes a child-like adult, lives on. In the movie The Green Mile, for instance, the character Wild Bill calls a prison guard "Little Black Sambo," right after blackening his face by spitting an entire chewed-up Moon Pie on him.

All of which is to say that the name of Sambo's restaurant is thus not "politically incorrect," it's "racist." That's because in its particular cultural and societal context, the name "Sambo's" evokes and perpetuates the Sambo/picaninny stereotype -- no matter how the restaurant owners originally meant that name.

According to a CNN story from 1998, on efforts to revive the faded restaurant chain,

"The cultural understanding of 'Little Black Sambo' is a negative," says Professor Frank Gilliam of UCLA. "It's meant to suggest that people of African descent are childlike, that they're irresponsible, that they're not fully developed human beings."

Carol Codrington of Loyola Law School said the character was used to stereotype African Americans as shiftless and lazy.

So why, as in the case of Frauenfelder's BoingBoing post, and in so many others, do white people use "politically incorrect" to describe that which is actually racist (or sexist, or classist, or heterosexist), and so on?

They often do it, of course, because they just don't agree that this or that action or thing is racist. However, I think they sometimes do it instead because they don't like having their buzz harshed. Or their squee. Or they don't like having their parade rained on, or however you want to put it.

In my experience, saying that something is politically incorrect instead of racist is often a way of avoiding racism, instead of denying it. It can be a way of saying in effect, "Yes, some would say that's bad, or 'racist,' but pausing to really consider that, and all of its implications, isn't something I want to be bothered with right now, because it's really just too much trouble, thank you very much."

In the case of the BoingBoing post, Mark Frauenfelder may well have used "politically correct" instead of "racist" to describe the Sambo's decor because the latter term might have interrupted his reader's ability to, as one commenter puts it, "GROOVE AWAY on the orange/purple/yellow schemes!"

The concept of political correctness, or PC, has of course been discussed and analyzed ad nauseam, and I'm not sure that I'm adding anything new to the discussion here. I do think, though, that Frauenfelder is using the concept in a different way than it's usually used. As with other posters at BoingBoing, I don't detect a reactionary streak in this post by him, nor in his other ones; he doesn't seem like the sort who would complain about "not being able" to use racial or sexist slurs, because he thinks being asked to use less hurtful terms is an infringement on his free speech, and so on. I actually suspect that if Frauenfelder were asked whether Sambo's restaurants are "racist," he would agree.

So, again, I think the use of "politically incorrect" in that post to describe the racism perpetuated by Sambo's restaurants is a way of keeping the taint of that racism out of an otherwise fun and pleasant post about groovy vintage retro restaurant decor. It's almost as if directly acknowledging racism would be like acknowledging a bad smell in the room -- as if that would be a rather rude way of spoiling all the fun.

I've actually noticed this tendency many times among middle-class, college-educated white people. If I bring up or point out something racist, it's often like I burped or farted. In many situations, it's just not a welcome subject for conversation. And if such a subject does come up, describing it as "politically incorrect," or in some other vague, euphemistic terms, and then quickly dismissing it, is much more common than directly describing and discussing it as "racist."

That said, I do think this use of "politically incorrect" as a euphemism for "racist" is similar to other, more reactionary or "conservative" complaints about PC in terms of race in one significant way -- they're both expressions of white privilege. And maybe class privilege as well. People who bear the brunt of oppression usually don't have the luxury of just waving it away like that.

Have you seen or heard "politically incorrect" used as a way of avoiding more direct or blunt terms like "racist"? And have you been in situations where even bringing up racism is considered inappropriate or impolite? If so, do you go along with that, or do you get blunt and impolite?


  1. I absolutely agree with this post, and I would like to add that if there is something done to whites as a monolith that is racially motivated, they are quick to decry "THAT'S REVERSE RACISM!" and because of that will feel free to use racial epithets in a "if they can do it, I can do it too!!!" manner.

  2. Macon my man, nice post, but...

    And have you been in situations where even bringing up racism is considered inappropriate or impolite?

    ...WTF kind of question is that?

    Under the auspices of global white hegemony, the plain answer is EVERY SINGLE FLAMING DAY IN ANY GIVEN SPACE WHERE THERE IS MORE THEN ONE WHITE PERSON present (and sometimes that's even dicier, cause as the sudden "minority" they already feel all scared and outnumbered).

  3. Well, personally, I think this blog is way too politically correct.

  4. Calling something anything other than racist is another form of white denial. It also helps minimize the reality of how racist something is. It's like saying that it's no big deal to those offended when it is a big deal.

  5. I've always lived in the American South, and here "Politically incorrect" is code for "You are so unreasonable to take offense at such a silly thing." Or even worse, "If I had used a different word/if there were no black people in the room, you wouldn't have pretended to be upset." It's taken for granted that being white means I'm really as racist as the speaker and am "just looking for something to get upset about." (I'm not inferring this last part; people have said it to my face.) And I get blunt and impolite. Damned impolite.

    I think in this context, though, it does mean "Let's all ignore that smell."

  6. Right wing talk radio guys / fox news glen beck types LOVE to bash political correctness. It's a handy term for them.

  7. It's taken for granted that being white means I'm really as racist as the speaker and am "just looking for something to get upset about."

    UM, hold the phone. As a POC, I get hit with the "just looking to be offended sentiment" too, only in a much more patronizing, spiteful demeanor. One so-called antiracist white claimed I had "an open check to be obnoxious," which is as honest an articulation of "playing the race card" as ever I've heard.

    Whites do not treat POC who speak out against racism with any more deference than they treat other whites; wuite the opposite. Just because they're scared of us doesn't mean they don't throw tantrums when we call them out on their racism.

    (I'm not inferring this last part; people have said it to my face.) And I get blunt and impolite. Damned impolite.

    Well, unlike you white people, 98% of the time I don't have the luxury of getting all righteously indignant or "impolite."

  8. Reinforcing CB, as a White woman it is my impression that I get a lot less flack when I call something racist than when a person of color does it. Not to say I get zero flack, but I agree completely with the observation that people of color get much more extreme reactions when they raise racial concerns.

  9. island girl in a land w/o seaMarch 25, 2010 at 7:12 AM

    as long as whiteness dominates the discourse on race, some white people will feel entitled to name what is and is not racism. "political (in)correctness" is but one discursive strategy used by some white people to maintain control over naming and assigning value to POC's perceptions and experiences.

    in 2000, eduardo bonilla-silva & tyrone forman examined the discursive strategies white college students use to express racism and unquestioned privilege while simultaneously distancing themselves from the bullshit statement they just uttered. the study is 10 years old, but still(unfortunately)very salient.

    @ CB, i am with you. many times i have found myself in situations when getting righteously indignant over some white person's racist behavior simply costs too much socially or professionally, when i have nearly bitten off my tongue suppressing what i really wanted to say.

  10. i saw this on boing boing and just had to click off.
    they've been trying on the antiracist viewpoint lately, but sometimes they just fail.

  11. Yeah, like olderwoman - my experience with other WP when I bring up racism is similar in that I get the same "gosh, why do you have to be SO serious about this?!" responses but not nearly as frequently as I imagine many POC get. Usually, my comments are met with deafening silence. But the implication in that silence is that I've ruined the happy vibe we were all supposedly experiencing.

    To answer some of the questions though: I use the word "racist" when I call something out. I don't care what the person on the receiving end thinks. I don't care how they will respond. I enjoy engaging in this argument because I know it's the type of shit people take to bed with them later. I know that despite the verbal argument taking place, that feeling that they might be racist is floating around ALL day after that.

    I think that quietly on their own, most WP think about this stuff, but what comes out of most of our mouths is "I'm not racist! I don't like to be seen that way because I don't view myself that way!" And the focus is on the perceptions people have of our characters and not on straightening things out. I like to use the word racist and get people away from thinking that it means you burn crosses or don't have friends of color.

  12. I wrote about this a long time ago.

    Here's the link if you and your readers are interested:

    Basically, it's a fear of being labeled racist themselves since they know they do or have done many of the things minorities and certain white folks call "racist."

  13. I feel like the labeling something politically correct or incorrect is just another tactic to dodge the "race talk". I think this is one of the main reasons we have such heavy race issues in this country. We don't wanna talk about it….actually some white people don't wanna talk about it because it makes them uncomfortable and may reflect badly on them….and we can't have that. I remember two years ago in my junior year of high school we had an issue where some white kids were making some racially insensitive comments about Obama. To make long story short, we had this little "workshop" to dissolve the issue and parents were called. I should make note that this was an honors group and we're usually kept separate from the rest of the school. And in this honors group theres about 10 black students out of like 100. I remember how mad the white students were and how we were made to feel like we had done something wrong and I could hear jokes being said behind our back. So to ease the pressure some of just pretended like nothing was wrong and even tried to make it seem like we weren't trying to use the race card. now looking back, that was pretty stupid since I remember some of the white kids calling us fu****g idiots and saying they weren't really sorry. They had had only said sorry to get the heat off their backs. They actually said this OUT LOUD. I guess we'll never have a post racial america if this is the next generation. sigh

  14. I think the use of "politically incorrect" in the posting is problematic in that it takes attention away from race, which is the actual issue. But I also see another motivation besides the euphemizing of racism to avoid association with the term. White people's common experience of race talk is that when it occurs, it's only in the form of complaint, either by white people or about white people. The idea that race can be discussed at all without somebody making disparaging remarks or escalating it into a fight or shouting match is completely foreign to many white people's experience. What passed for race talk in my experience among other white people was a kind of "tsk, tsk" directed either at white "racists" or at people of color for any old reason. So the idea of bringing race into a conversation is like using "fightin' words" to many white people. If we want to make a point, we euphemize; if we want a fight, we say "racism." It's stupid, I know, but I think something like that is behind the use of "politically incorrect" when it's used by a well-meaning white person.

  15. Definitely agree with this post. There are times when I think that it's necesarry to be politically incorrect: ie, when studying literature. The vast majority of great works of literature in English are mysoginistic--that's just a fact of the social context in which they were written. Many of them are also anti-Semitic or at least full of religious intolerance, and many, especially coming out of the colonial period, are racist. I think it's important to keep those kinds of documents around and in the public consciousness as a reminder of some of the more disgusting periods of human history. If we pretend it never happened, how can we stop it from continuing to happen today? I don't think high school children need to be protected from the reality of racism - that just serves to help whit people forget that racism still exists. Eurocentric literature needs to be out in the open, discussed, and denounced, with other points of view--feminist, postcolonial, etc--made equally available for comparison.

    The problem with this story is that this is a restaurant TODAY that people are expected to dine at. The owners should be well aware of the racist aspects of Sambo. How can such an environment be a safe place for people of color? If this decor is really a "cultural icon", it belongs in a museum somewhere, not on a wall next to me or my friends while we're trying to enjoy our dinner. It's not politically incorrect, it's racist, plain and simple.

  16. I think you are right, it is used as a dodge to avoid pointing out racism. They know it is racist but are afraid of blowback so they will say it is anti or un-pc. And the word PC is so fraught, overused, and misused it just disgusts me. However, as I said in a previous post, I personally try not to talk to most white folks about this stuff too much any more b/c as others have said, too often they make it about them and they often discount what you have to say as a POC. It is very disheartening.

  17. another white girlMarch 25, 2010 at 9:44 AM

    I think what Victoria says in her last paragraph and what Big Man talks about in the post he linked to are very much related to this. White people have learned that Racism Is Bad but have a very narrow idea of what it includes, which is why you get celebrities and politicians saying blatantly racist things and then announcing, "I'm not a racist! That's not what this was!" when they make their non-apologies at the press conference -- or better, "I've been called horrible things as a result of this misunderstanding. I've even been called a racist, and I just can't tell you how much that hurt me." As if having our bigotry publicly called out for once in our lives is the white person's equivalent of putting up with other people's bigotry on a day-to-day basis -- unfair and dehumanizing and something we have a RIGHT not to experience.

    Being called "politically incorrect" isn't nearly as bad because then you get to feel like a revolutionary martyr for the cause of free speech in this evil suffocating lefty-fascist nanny state of ours. Or a fun-loving provocateur in this post-racial utopia, if you're an optimistic racist.

  18. island girl in a land w/o seaMarch 25, 2010 at 9:52 AM

    just curious: is this really about the fact that words like "racist" and "racism" are so "upsetting" to some white people?

    it seems to me that saying that some white people "describe racism as political incorrectness" in order to save face, hide fear or avoid uncomfortable emotions keeps the discussion of such actions on the interpersonal level and frames racism in terms of individual actions and affect rather than systematic inequality.

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  20. @island girl . . . re: 'it seems to me that saying that some white people "describe racism as political incorrectness" in order to save face, hide fear or avoid uncomfortable emotions keeps the discussion of such actions on the interpersonal level and frames racism in terms of individual actions and affect rather than systematic inequality.'

    That says it. It's like we can't call it racism unless we can see the veins bulging on the forehead of a shouting bigot, as though racism has to have ill-will behind it. Another thing that calling Sambo's racist means is that we've tolerated a racist expression for fifty years; if it's only politically incorrect, we can just shrug and say, "Times sure change, don't they?" (When I was a kid, my family used to go to a Sambo's, and I remember noticing when Sambo was "lightened," but we never talked about the former use of the picaninny caricature.)

    I think that's also why the insulting mascots of sports teams are called un-PC instead of racist, and why white people in general do nothing about that. I mean, after all, so many people have shirts and hats and so on with Chief Wahoo or "Redskins" on them. We might have to call all of them racists, too! That's why I think it's important to keep pointing out that racism isn't an individual failing, but a cultural one.

  21. "Politically correct" is an umbrella term often directed at all the various isms: racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ablism and I'm sure I'm missing some.

    It's a term used by some to do a quick characterization of whatever is being debated, and then a dismissal of it as "the sort of thing that those over-sensitive unhappy people are obsessed about." Basically, it's a buzzword that was devised intentionally to be used to push back, and its since been picked up by others who aren't as clear about how and why the term came about.

    I don't think using the term "politically correct" instead of the word "racist" is any different from using it instead of "sexist" or "classist" etc. I also don't think situations involving race get singled out for being dismissed as "PC" any more than situations involving sexism, homophobia, classism etc. In this sense, to see this as only about racism is to miss the forest for the trees.

  22. Yes. The term "politically incorrect" serves to take a racist word/concept with a bad history and turn it into a problem on par with bad spelling, or whatever. The very first time I encountered this, I was a baby anti-racist and I had called into a radio station re: the ridiculously racist joke they had just told on air. The dj was like, "aw, political correctness, how adorable. Are you a university student?" Being new to the whole thing, I couldn't fathom what my occupation had to do with his racist joke, but it was of course a way of saying "you care about things that everyone else knows don't matter".

    @Jonathan L. I think quite a few African-Americans in "the US at large" would consider the restaurant racist. But they also wouldn't use terms like "racist past", since racism is still around. If the restaurant name was considered okay in the 1950s, and it should be considered okay today, then what exactly has changed?

    You're not saying anything different than what's already been pointed out, that "politically incorrect" is one more way of white people determining what is and isn't racist. And white people have a vested interest in as few things making the list as possible.

    @Wurty your point is factually true, to be sure. I think the focus on racism is because this is a blog about racism.

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  24. @Jonathan L. re: 'What I was suggesting is that, instead of there being an insidious white agenda to suppress the recognition of racism by renaming it political incorrectness, most white Americans draw a distinction between something that is racist . . . and something that is racially insensitive. . .'

    You do realize that that's the problem, don't you? The drawing of that distinction allows racism to remain in place by rendering "harmless" anything that doesn't fit a very narrow definition of racism. The little things support the edifice of racism rather than occupy a separate but related place in the behavioral spectrum.

    I understand that "racist or just PI" is a distinction many white people make, but I think it's a false distinction. Rather than levels of crime like felony and misdemeanor, I think it's more like racism is the crime while euphemizing it as political incorrectness is aiding and abetting racism. It's still the same crime.

  25. Jonathan:

    Why would you ask Elaine if Sambo's is offensive to Black people instead of, oh, I dunno . . . BLACK PEOPLE? Especially considering that there are quite a few of us contributing to posts and comments to this blog.

    Your most recent comment carries the whiff of the common White tendency to take racism more seriously when white people discuss it and/or devalue non-white experience and expertise about non-white countries (which can simply be altered to "devalue non-white experience and expertise" and still mean the same thing).

    Before you think of doing it, please don't bother posting a thesis-length comment defending your actions and your intentions (aka offer white apologetics). Many of us have seen that bullshit here and elsewhere enough times that we no longer believe it.

    Instead, try something we keep telling people to try that happens all too rarely. Just listen and read (reading is fundamental) then . . . think about it (for more than 5 minutes - try for a day or two, even a week). After that, if you're still confused, come back to this thread and ask about it. And I mean ask - as in present an inquiry for greater understanding of non-White POVs - not to convince us how "not racist!" you are.

    You might be surprised by the reactions you get.

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  27. Jonathan L. your logic has no place here.

  28. @wurty, why does it have to be one or the other? I think it is necessary to call out individual acts of racism and also address systemic institutionalized racism. If we ever change the insititutions, the individuals who make up those institutions must also be changed. I don't see how discussing one takes away from the other when both should be addressed.

  29. @Jonathan (and all people who find the lives of POCs "interesting):

    If you want to have a productive conversation on an anti-racism blog, it would behoove you to learn the difference between engagement and debate - and keep in mind that dealing with the same cluelessness over and over again costs POCs.

  30. @righto,

    Your derailing and trolling has no place here. Move along.

  31. @Jonathan L: Maybe you should read a bit longer before you pretty much get on here and go "Well, I read some stuff and I hear what you're saying but I thought I would get on here to tell everyone that you are all wrong about what white people are doing."

    Honestly, it's just not needed here and it's DEFINITELY not appreciated.

  32. And to actually comment on the actual post (and not just the concern trolls), I totally agree. Calling things politically incorrect is just sugar coating racism so white people don't have to bother with it.

    I've also seen it used as a comeback for when someone points out racism. Like to talk down to someone "Now you're getting all PC on us" which is basically calling someone oversensitive AND the situation non-important at the same time. It's just ridiculous. The anti-pc movement is basically a big fuck you to everyone who happens to have feelings and get offended by OFFENSIVE material. Which is pretty much anyone who isn't a hetero white middle/upper class male. Heaven forbid the white hetero middle/upper class man EVER have to think about the feelings of others. -_-

  33. Others have already done a remarkable job of responding to the ways in which this is a tactic to deflect or redirect attention from systemic issues, so I'll just chime in with what @Commie Bastard said:

    Under the auspices of global white hegemony, the plain answer is EVERY SINGLE FLAMING DAY IN ANY GIVEN SPACE WHERE THERE IS MORE THEN ONE WHITE PERSON present...

    Absolutely. The ironic part of this use of political incorrectness is that it's actually more politically incorrect (if we take that to mean "not polite dinner-table conversation") to talk about racism than not. What's interesting to me is to see how this leads people of colour to specific types of self-censorship that are reflective of internalised oppression - I know that I personally routinely leave out details of colour when talking to certain (usually white) people because I have learned and internalised the message that such conversations are not welcome, and that they are unwelcome specifically because they disrupt the comfort of the person to whom I am speaking - as the woman of colour, it is not my place to discomfit my listener, particularly if that listener is white and/or male.

    @Jonathan: I'm admittedly a little reluctant to engage here, because I think that @bloglogger and @RVCBard are already doing a wonderful job, but perhaps a third perspective might be useful to you. The general argument you're making appears to be that, simply stated, white people like to differentiate between something that is "racist" and something that is "racially insensitive," with the line being a matter of intention or ill-will on the part of the person committing the word/deed. You then go on to say that you do not believe this to be a particularly useful distinction to those offended, which leads me to wonder why you felt the need to name it in the first place. If you're willing to agree that intent does not mitigate impact, what good does it do to point out that some other people think it does? It appears as though you in fact support the distinction, which (as has been pointed out to you) is a false one that is frequently used to bolster the comfort of the disturbed privileged folk by avoiding an honest discussion of the harms done.

    Also, you used scare quotes around white people in your last comment. I would be interested to hear why you felt they were necessary.

  34. @Jonathan L.

    I am a woman of color who has lurked on this blog for quite a while before commenting. You're right, there is often a great deal of anger expressed here. However, I have yet to see any hate expressed here, and find it interesting that the very legitimate and valid anger expressed by people of color and their allies is often characterized as "hate", suggesting that it is unreasonable, unfocused, illogical, and excessive. If you have truly read the posts RVCBard linked to, you should have a better grasp of where that anger comes from, and how your comments might provoke an angry response. You continued to do what many people new to real antiracism work do: think that white people can define "real racism" as opposed to "racial insensitivity" and draw clear distinctions (with the unspoken implication being that white people use calmness and logic to deconstruct the hysterical, over-sensitive claims of people of color...after all, you were just "describing and clarifying", right?), and insisting that intention matters more than impact and outcomes. These are elementary components of white privilege that must be dismantled to get any further along this journey, if you are truly interested in making it. Its great that this blog makes you think. But I think you need to visit Macon's recommended reading list and get much more well-versed in the subject, or much of this blog will remain "unusual" to you.

  35. @Jonathan L. re: 'I was saying "white people" don't describe ALL racism as political incorrectness, and that the distinction is in the severity of the action.'

    I know what you were saying. My point was that the distinction itself is the problem, i.e., that there is actually no such thing as politically incorrect in a race-related context; anything that could be called that is really a manifestation of racism.

    And nowhere does the posting say--or even imply--that white people (we are real people and don't need quotation marks, BTW) describe all racism as political incorrectness. It says that white people tend to use the term when they feel some need to avoid calling something an example of racism. The discussion here has been about what might engender that need. RVCBard is right; you need to read more carefully.

  36. Beg pardon, CB and olderwoman--I didn't mean to imply that the "You just want to be offended" phenom only happens to white people. And yes, I am in a position to get nasty about this in many situations in which POC are not. Nonwhite voices, even when they speak about stuff white people know very little about, like racism, are easily, instantly dismissed by white people.

    I meant to talk about my own experiences only. And that's probably part of the problem: white woman=individual; person of color=part of a monolithic group "looking for something to get upset about."

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  38. How did such a potentially good topic turn into a dissertation on Jonathan L??


  39. what about when someone old like Harry Reid says negro? most of the responses I've heard from POC regarding that were pretty understanding of the context but were like "c'mon man, really?" about the outdated terminology. even though I totally get what you all are saying that we shouldn't categorize racism or call it anything less than what it is, my brain wants to file that incident under politically incorrect.

    (i did a search for some discussion of that incident here but didn't find anything)

  40. @Jonathan L: Before I respond to you, I wanted to ask other commenters whether it would be appropriate to do so. As @Chloe has pointed out, he's taking up a lot of space and energy in this thread, and I'm not familiar enough with the way these situations are typically handled here to feel comfortable proceeding and contributing to his space if it will stifle further discussion from others. Thoughts?

  41. saraspeaking,

    I don't think it's worth it. His picking of nits has pretty much derailed this thread, which is partly my fault because I didn't cut him off sooner. Sorry about that everyone, and I hope it's not too late to get back to what this post is actually about.

  42. So why, as in the case of Frauenfelder's BoingBoing post, and in so many others, do white people use "politically incorrect" to describe that which is actually racist (or sexist, or classist, or heterosexist), and so on?

    I am sleep-deprived so maybe I missed your mention of it, but this is a euphemism only applied to instances where the the person(s) in question = white, right? Otherwise, in my experience, WP don't hesitate to call POC racist.

    As to why? -you could answer this better than I could, Macon- perhaps it is because WP are not used to the sting of harsh judgment based on race, however (in)accurate that judgment may be? Most will go to any lengths to avoid it. While some of it may also be attributed to the privilege of not having to think about the many different manifestations of racism, other than overtly-avowed white supremacist groups like Nazis and the klan, I also believe many WP have bought their own hype about racial supremacy. They're too educated, evolved to exhibit such pedestrian tendencies as racist behavior.

    So a WW second-grade teacher where I live can tell her 7-yr-old Somali student that he looks like a terrorist...and have WP insist that it wasn't racist. It was merely a PI way of saying he looks like (is?) one of 'those people' in the news. Don't know if she told her white male students that they looked like terrorists...seeing as they had the same skin color/hair texture as Timothy McVeigh and the Columbine shooters and all.... (I know I've digressed.)

  43. Have you seen or heard "politically incorrect" used as a way of avoiding more direct or blunt terms like "racist"?

    Yes. Non-PC disclaimers typically accompany breath-takingly backward statements, worn as a badge of honor (maverick!). Besides, it's a far more fashionable self-applied label than the rather unvarnished "bigot."

    And have you been in situations where even bringing up racism is considered inappropriate or impolite?

    Yes. Co-signing Commie Bastard's comment. Also, in my experience, a charge of racism is not considered inappropriate or impolite if applied to POC, esp. if it's about "black racists" - that's always appropriate where I live (prairie state with a pervasive pre-Civil Rights Era mentality).

    Actually, I'd broaden it past charges of racism to any criticism of WP by a POC. In a place where Swedes and Norwegians used to have separate hospitals, churches and cemetaries, and some people in their 60s+ *still* refer to Swedish/Norwegian marriages as "mixed," the racial hierarchy (with blacks and Native Americans on the bottom, natch) and concepts of genetic and cultural supremacy is fairly entrenched. Any criticism by a POC of a WP -even using the less-loaded PI- is seen as talking out of turn. I wouldn't have believed this stuff myself...then I moved here. (We intend to move - we have two tender, innocent, young humans to protect from irreversible infection.)

    If so, do you go along with that, or do you get blunt and impolite?

    Depends. Since moving here, I've become much better acquainted with racism than I ever wanted to...and sometimes biting my tongue is more than I can bear. I understand that because I am a WOC criticizing a WP, regardless of my "tone," I will be perceived as impolite. Plus, since I am slight, there's always the possible threat of violence to consider.

  44. Thanks for those two revealing comments, TAB, and it's good to hear that you have plans to move away (from Lake Blackbegone?).

    I think you've answer the "why" better than I could.

  45. @macon d, thanks for clarifying. I'll refrain from adding to further derailment.

    In which case, I wanted to go back to something @island girl in a land w/o sea said upthread: it seems to me that saying that some white people "describe racism as political incorrectness" in order to save face, hide fear or avoid uncomfortable emotions keeps the discussion of such actions on the interpersonal level and frames racism in terms of individual actions and affect rather than systematic inequality.

    I've been chewing on this since you brought it up, and I'm left wondering how best to address it. I do agree that the framework in which we're currently operating in this thread - in which we're talking about the motives of individual white people who substitute "politically incorrect" when a more accurate term would be "racist" - does put a lot of emphasis on racism existing as an interpersonal phenomenon, which as you've said detracts from the larger nature of racism as a systemic power. What I'm left with, then, is how to frame this particular white tendency as a systemic issue, as opposed to a "merely" interpersonal one. (I use scare quotes to indicate that I do not personally believe that the interpersonal interactions are somehow less valid or experienced than the overarching structural issues.) Would it be more useful to a structural analysis to then talk about, say, the white privilege that enables this conversation to become about the emotional reactions of white people to racism? The privilege that permits white people to privilege their comfort and politesse over the distress their actions may cause? Where would you like to see this discussion go?

  46. island girl in a land w/o seaMarch 26, 2010 at 11:41 AM

    @ saraspeaking

    thank you for your thoughtful response. i writing under deadline (more accurately, past deadline) and thus am unable to give the points you brought up the consideration they deserve. i would like to acknowledge your comments and thank you for giving me more food for thought.

    do yall have suggestions about how to reframe the discussion about racism-described-as-political-correctness in a way that centers systemic inequality and decenters the emotional responses of some white people?

  47. In my memory, the term politically correct has its origins in the left (where groups debated what was politically correct) and in the 1970s took on its critical meaning as an internal left self-critique. As a critique, it meant "you are focusing too much on picking nits about using the right words or getting the theory right and losing track of substance." So in the 1970s, I might complain that worrying about calling someone a "chair" rather than a "chairman" was too much focus on political correctness and not enough on substance. This phrase then got picked up by the right and began to be used to criticize any attempt to remove hurtful language from public discourse or even any attempt to challenge dominants. (FYI I have also heard students occasionally use it to refer to being careful how you speak in front of powerful people, including sometimes the idea that you should not say left-wing things in front of right-wing people.)

    So back to the main point, I think ALL usage of the terms "politically correct" and "politically incorrect" these days inherently include a criticism of the very act of policing the language/images in question. For this reason, I believe that calling your own speech "politically incorrect" is never just a way to avoid feeling bad about racism, but is rather an aggressive move designed to assert that people who are criticizing the language are at fault for focusing on something trivial rather than something important.

    If I am attempting to soften a blow about something I thought was due to ignorance rather than meanness, I'd use the term "insensitive," not "politically incorrect." Similarly, I have heard POC object to things using "insensitive" or "silencing" or other language that avoided the word "racism." I have never heard anyone seriously criticize anything as "politically incorrect" but I have heard people brag about their "politically incorrect" speech or attitudes.

  48. PS I viewed my comment as a direct response to get back to a more structural view, rather than focusing on WP's personal feelings. I'm trying to say what I think the phrase "politically incorrect" actually means when it is used.

  49. What is the motivation for white people to deflect claims that racism is a systematic issue? I can't really fathom what is so threatening about that concept. Just so we don't have to acknowledge white privilege? That's not so hard once you have a reasonable grasp of what it is. I feel like once you realize that racism is systematic, it's kind of liberating because you can begin to see your enemy.

  50. When I see this kind of bullshit posturing (as in the boingboing post, not the righteous anger here), I immediately know that someone is terrified of calling racism for what it is because they want to keep their deathgrip on their absolute finite say on not having to think about it.

    There's nothing in their little white bubble that can disturb them, and they don't want to make an opening, because that means they have to acknowledge that this shit is wrong.

    But I really, really don't understand what makes other WP so afraid to talk about racism - we're all of us, all WP, tainted by the legacy of our racist past - wouldn't it be better to pull it out into the open and say "right, what can be done to change this injustice"?

    But, of course, that would mean listening to PoC, and that's too hard for a lot of WP, who are so used to centering themselves that it doesn't even occur to them that they don't have the final say on objective truth.

    ...and proves my point that we are living with a racist legacy that poisons the life we live, even if so many WP refuse to acknowledge it. But, like an abcessed tooth, it doesn't simply go away of you ignore it, and it is stupidity itself to act surprised when you poke at it, and it makes you hurt. It needs to hurt to get better. WP who avoid all talk of racism aren't making it disappear, they're abetting it.

    As for our concern trolls, WP are afraid of "fighting" when racism is brought up because it is extremely annoying for PoC to try and "engage" with a bunch of WP with their hands over their ears shouting "lalalalalala, I can't heeEEAAARRR yooooooou" when they try to speak. There's nothing more exhausting than trying to talk to someone who will not step out of their privilege bubble, and PoC can hardly be blamed for not wanting to deal with the same old shit every time they try to point out endemic racism.

    Because guess what happens? WP immediately go all "oh, it's too hard! What about meeeee? No-one ever listens to what I'm saying! My feelings are huuurrrrrt!" **whine**

    The first time I read about WWTears, I totally got it.

    Decentering whites in conversation seems pretty simple in the abstract - shut up, and listen, and give the PoC talking the absolute respect that you would give any expert on their own experiences. But IRL, it's hard as hell, and requires the help of all allies, because putting that work on POC shoulders is abetting.

    Yes, this pisses me off. I can't believe WP (and I is one!) have so little fucking empathy that they refuse to understand how fucking hurtful it is to PoC to continually deny reality just because they can. Most "discussions" in non-safe spaces become an exercise in gaslighting by WP, and then they say PoC "get angry"? WTF.

    Long comment is long. Sorry.

  51. This comment has been removed by the author.

  52. In the Andy Kaufman movie, "My Breakfast With Blassie," which was released in 1983, Kaufman and Blassie eat at a Sambos, but the mascot is a white guy in a chef's hat. They retired the little Indian/black boy some time in the 1970s, but I remember eating there as a kid and seeing that story mural along the wall.
    I actually liked the story and how the little kid outsmarted the tigers. Years later, I found out there were no tigers in Africa, where the story was supposed to have taken place.

    Anyway, I hate the term "politically correct." Ironically, the term itself is politically correct in that it preserves the delicate sensibilities of people who don't want to acknowledge racism (or any other ism).

  53. WP do this shit all the time. In fact, I know it's coming if I bring up individual incidents of oppression, so I just shut my mouth often. I'm CLEARLY paranoid or looking to be offended, even though I may only bring up racist shit once in a few months when it happens on a damn near daily basis.

    I think it's part subtle mockery, too. If we think about it, which is more politically incorrect, being racist in America, or calling it out? I would say the latter, BUT that's not what's called politically incorrect. I suspect it's a bit of a joke, too.

    WHY, some may ask? Why do I think this is done by white people who otherwise are not really connected to incidents of racial oppression?
    One reason to me seems to be White Back-Scratching. If I call this un-PC, then when I 'f' up, you can call my behavior un-PC. It's damn incestuous.

  54. Oh, Olderwoman, thank you. I also remember the way "politically incorrect" was used in the '70s, but never thought about the implications of that history for the way the phrase is used today to dismiss and trivialize protest. You just showed me the connection -- that helps a lot.

  55. snobographer,

    Are you sure the racist imagery is retired? Take a look at the one remaining Sambo's site.

    Johnathan L.,

    Dialogue isn't difficult for most of the people who comment here. It seems to be difficult for you, in part because you don't read carefully, and as part of that, because you mischaracterize what others have written. For instance,

    The post claims, more or less, that WP define racism as political correctness because they are racist and don't want to take responsibility for it.

    No it doesn't, and your inept summary obviates everything you wrote afterward. It says that white people often label (not "define") racism "political incorrectness." As for the second half of that sentence -- how the hell did you get that out of this? (That's a rhetorical question.)

    They often [describe racism as "political incorrectness], of course, because they just don't agree that this or that action or thing is racist. However, I think they sometimes do it instead because they don't like having their buzz harshed. Or their squee. Or they don't like having their parade rained on, or however you want to put it.

    In my experience, saying that something is politically incorrect instead of racist is often a way of avoiding racism, instead of denying it. It can be a way of saying in effect, "Yes, some would say that's bad, or 'racist,' but pausing to really consider that, and all of its implications, isn't something I want to be bothered with right now, because it's really just too much trouble, thank you very much."

    Btw, you also wrote,

    It's been my experience that "white people" are not calm and logical, so I'm not sure where that association comes from (this is one of the unusual statements I see here).

    It's not that they "are," it's that they tend to feel and sometimes think they are compared to non-white people. They also tend to feel and sometimes think that they're smarter, except in such limited cases as the supposed, and supposedly superior, inclinations of people of Asian descent toward math and science.

    How often does telling someone to shut-up and listen result in them actually being quite and honestly listening?

    Many white readers here have reported doing that. Who cares how often it happens? What does the frequency of it happening or not happening have to do with whether you're going to finally do it?

  56. The origin of the term "politically correct" is in 1930s Communism (outside the USSR), and it means "appropriately supportive of Stalin's current worldview."

    It later evolved to a general "appropriately supportive of /radical group's/ current worldview," but I don't think the Stalin association was ever fully lost.

    So every time it is used as a synonym for treating others with basic decency and respect it equates simple respect for others with adherence to a totalitarian state.

    Because Stalin was so scrupulous about enforcing respect for racial and ethnic diversity OH WAIT HE WASN'T AT ALL.

    Calling respect and politeness "political correctness" is an incredibly bullshit thing to do for that reason. Calling disrespect and rudeness and racism "political incorrectness" with a tee-hee of OH I'M A REBEL is an even more bullshit thing to do.

    The world, it has many bullshit people in it. Apparently, pointing out that "Little Black Sambo" is racist nonsense makes you exactly like Stalin. Who knew?

  57. @Jonathan, I think that I know what you're trying to get at with your comments, but as Macon pointed out, poor word choice and assumptions make it difficult.

    Tell me if I have this right: I think you're posing the question of "What if when someone says politically incorrect they don't mean it as a euphemism for "racism" but as a related, but somehow distinct, concept?" Personally, I think this is a useful question to ask: NOT as a means of defending WP for saying "politically correct" instead of "racism" but because knowing why someone chooses the words they use and what those words mean to them makes it easier to explain* how what they're saying is harmful. I think Jonathan touched on just this point by suggesting that maybe the racism = prejudice + power definition isn't widespread (or is it?**). In the eternal words of Inigo Montoya, "You keep using that word/phrase. I do not think it means what you think it means."

    And while I have a theory born of conversations I've had with others about possible distinctions WP make between politically incorrect and racism (absence or presence of intent) and how those distinctions are themselves harmful, insulting, and offensive, (focusing on intent ignores effect) I'm not entirely sure diving down that road wouldn't be a huge derailment considering the original question Macon posed was regarding euphemistic use. Indeed, reading through the comments on the page I definitely see "politically correct" being used euphemistically. It's quite simply a case of "we don't want to stink up our fun by injecting such a dirty word as racism into the conversation." The more I turn it over in my mind, the more convinced I am that it's the euphemism that stinks.

    @olderwoman, thank you for crystallising some of the paradoxes in the use of politically correct. The facility that people have in using "politically (in)correct" ironically or derisively makes it hard to pin down not just definitions but intentions and perceptions as well. Like the word "thing" itself, politically (in-)correct can mean so many things that it's almost meaningless. And conflating a nigh-meaningless word to racism is SO harmful and dangerous.

    @Colin Bowden, I can only imagine the immense frustration felt in pointing out specific and relevant examples of racism only to have them shot down and dismissed out of hand. It's horribly myopic that people can't see the forest for having tree after tree after tree after tree pointed out to them.

    *Should the POC or ally choose to and/or be comfortable in broaching the subject.
    **While I'm tempted to say that I think this too, my first exposure to this definition was about a month or so ago when I really began following blogs that talk about racism, so that feeling means very little coming from me.

  58. JS thanks for augmenting the history. I came in late to leftist circles. So that's it. "Politically correct" used by Stalinists to refer to sticking to the party line. I heard Leninists using it to refer to having the correct line, and democratic leftists using it as a critique of policing thought/language. The right may have picked it up both ways, aware of its Stalinist history as they turned the term on anyone advocating broadening white male elite hierarchies. (My father once ranted that tenuring faculty who believed in Afrocentrism was "political correctness". I'm sure he heard about it from right-wing radio.) And too many of today's young white people think they are edgy and challenging hierarchies when they demean and insult people of color or other non-dominant groups. Sad, sad, sad.

  59. @ Johnathan

    "How often does telling someone to shut-up and listen result in them actually being quite and honestly listening?"

    About as often as being "polite" and simply sharing experiences. You wouldn't know that because you're not a POC though. You're white and male and most of the time, I'd wager that people listen to what you have to say. You're also usually not required to show proof that any negative experience you've had wasn't because of something other than what you say it is. There are several posts on here about the various ways POC are asked to prove their experiences were actually racism.

    Right now, you've completely crossed the line and derailed this discussion so you could get your very own special lessons and explanations on how you can better understand this topic. YOU DO NOT GET IT. Time to move along if you're done being interested. Time to read in stealth if you're still interested. But show a little respect for those readers who want to discuss the topic - and stop commenting!

    @ platypusrex256
    You're expressing the exact sentiment this post is about and trivializing.

  60. As a corollary: I loathe the implication (faced recently), when I call something out as racist that I'm doing so out of an urge to be "politically correct". It smacks of an idea that I'm trying to increase my position by pretending (politcally, of course) to care. That I'm only calling something racist so I can look/feel good.

    I'm certain this is an aspect of that oft-heard cry of "political correctness gone too far!" As if it was fine when we white folks were just paying lip service to look good, but now that people are actually expecting folks to CHANGE, that's too far.

  61. I recalled this post as I was trying to explain Thoroughly Modern Millie to my boyfriend. I had last seen it as a kid, and one of the major subplots kinda slipped by me entirely then, although now it seems pretty blatant. (The subplot in question includes a Chinese landlady and two Chinese minions operating a "white slavery" operation via a laundry service. All three characters speak stereotypically.)

    Anyway, I started googling TMM and racism together....and I kept running into link after link where somebody would exclaim that you would just LOVE TMM if you could get over the un-PC plot. Over and over again, people used the phrase "politically incorrect" rather than racism. Some of the Amazon reviews have folks use the word racism, only to say that some people want to see racism everywhere, but mostly they referred to the racist elements as "politically incorrect".

  62. @ Victoria

    You wouldn't know that because you're not a POC though.

    If !POC --> !Know, then (how) do you profess to know?

    If the answer is "I know because a POC told me," to what extent is that different from "I have a black friend and HE said..."?

  63. Eri, I'm not having a "my black friend told me so" moment at all. I can see how my comment sounds like that, though, after re-reading it. I'm specifically referring to posts (which I don't mention until the end of the paragraph) in which the topic and/or comments are about POC having to defend their views about racism or experiences with it. I would wager that you could choose just about any topic and find that sentiment being shared. I don't "profess to know" anything. I was too lazy to actually cite examples.

  64. The term "racist" is incorrect because there is only one human race, but there are many ethnic groups. If a person hated, let's say, martians, then feel free to call that person a racist.

  65. I'm way late to the party, but just wanted to say, you do good work sir. As a fellow white dude trying to figure out what it means, trying to unpack my privilege and Check Myself, it's nice to know you're out there.


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