tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
[personal profile] tim
"In order to fix what is fundamentally wrong with race in America, those who had a lion's share in making things bad must bear a greater responsibility in making them better. Whites who have benefited, whether explicitly or unconsciously, from racial inequality must now be courageous in rejecting a belief in the moral equivalency of black and white views about race. Instead, they should acknowledge their obligation to give black beliefs the weight and consideration they justly deserve. Thus, when blacks view the criminal justice system with suspicion, when they are wary of white juries, when they believe that innocent blacks can be framed by police---for instance, as many blacks did in responding to the verdicts in the O.J. Simpson murder and civil trials---they are responding to a verifiable history of racial inequality. In such an unjust world, white skepticism about black juries' ability to convict white criminals does not have the same moral gravity as the claims of blacks victimized by a legacy of racial injustice.

To ask whites to understand this is not only counterintuitive; it demands a rejection of the claim to ethical innocence that masks white privilege and supremacy while reinforcing black inequality. That inequality brought into existence broadly differing group perceptions about what is good, what is normal, what is desirable, and what is achievable in regard to race in America." -- Michael Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There With You

International Blog Against Racism Week is over, but hey, why stop at a week?

During a discussion of the Henry Louis Gates arrest, a LiveJournal commenter who I'll call "Alice" wrote the following comment (making an argument along the lines that if Prof. Gates had just been a little more polite to the police officer who eventually arrested him, the whole unpleasantness could have been avoided):
"I must admit that 70 years as a woman has taught me not to expect any specific behavior from anyone, whatever the color or gender, and to realize that doing so can get a person into all kinds of confusion. Expectations of good behavior and good intentions often brings them in return, and courtesy often pays off with courtesy in return."

This account of race relations insults people of color, who know that if redressing racial inequality were a matter of simple courtesy, we wouldn't be having this conversation. And it excuses white people from the burden of understanding why a person of color might reasonably expect bad behavior from law enforcement officers and other authority figures.

But Alice isn't a racist. Or at least she would say she isn't. Guess what? As far as I know, nobody in history has ever admitted to being a racist.

And perhaps that's because for at least 200 years, nobody in America has ever had to be a racist. The racist decisions got made a long time ago. We perpetuate racism by failing to question the social structures whose original purposes have been forgotten but that quietly keep racial inequality going. We perpetuate racism by telling black people that if they were just a little more polite and less uppity, police brutality would stop. We perpetuate racism by exclaiming "I don't see what that has to do with race!" before giving the nearest person of color or ally a chance to explain what it has to do with race. We perpetuate racism by mocking those awful baggy pants the kids wear these days without recognizing that that particular fashion is how young black men express that their lives feel like prison. We perpetuate racism by chalking up racist actions either to the stupid behavior of individuals or to color-blind abuse of power. We perpetuate racism by arguing that black people themselves need to "address black-on-black violence" as a condition for white people addressing police brutality (as if one has nothing to do with the other). We perpetuate racism by arguing that social inequality is "about class, not race", while pretending not to know why you're far more likely to be poor if you're black than if you're white. We perpetuate racism by feigning concern for the effect of affirmative action on black self-esteem while esteeming ourselves highly despite the perks of a century of affirmative action in favor of white people. We perpetuate racism by cherry-picking black views when they agree with our existing prejudices (whether that means Bill Cosby or Barack Obama) and by relying on what (we believe) our black friends (would) say is OK rather than taking responsibility for our own moral integrity.

We perpetuate racism most of all by loudly asserting "I'm not a racist!" or "I don't see color" or "You're never going to convince people of your point of view by calling them racist." When you say those things, you're perpetuating racism because you're depriving yourself of a chance to learn what someone with a different perspective would say about, for example, the reason why a black man would see a police officer in his home as a harbinger of the dismal fate of black men in America while you would see it as someone trying to help you. In particular, you're telling any people of color in earshot that it's not worth it for them to bother to try to explain their perspective to you, because you've already decided you're not a racist and hence nothing they say can make you see your own unquestioned racial biases.

Does any of this mean that I, as a white person, am obligated to believe everything any person of color says? Besides the obvious logical problems with that idea, no, of course not. It does mean that I'm obligated to listen (not obligated to agree) and to defend my views (not myself). Ultimately, when I say things that reflect unawareness of how different America looks to a person different from me, that only reflects poorly on me. It's in my best interest to confront my own prejudices as often as I can, and to embrace situations where others urge me on in that process, even if sometimes that's painful.

It is unproductive to hold a press conference to declare you're not a racist. It is productive to take responsibility for your own actions and to admit that you're not a special, non-conforming snowflake and that social structures influence your behavior.

"There are no sexist decisions to be made.

There are antisexist decisions to be made. And they require tremendous energy and self-scrutiny, as well as moral stamina in the face of the basic embarrassment campaign which is the tactic of those assured of their politically superior position. ('Don't you think you're being rather silly offering your pain as evidence that something I do so automatically and easily is wrong? Why, I bet it doesn't hurt half as much as you say. Perhaps it only hurts because you're struggling...?' This sort of political mystification, turning the logical arrows around inside verbal structures to render them empirically empty, and therefore useless ['It hurts because you don't like it', rather than 'You don't like it because it hurts.'] is just another version of the 'my slave/my master' game.)

There are no sexist decisions to be made: they were all made a long time ago!" -- Samuel R. Delany, "Shadows"

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-06 05:24 am (UTC)
bibliotomy: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bibliotomy
I agree, and I appreciate this post a lot.

Also, reading Delany's Dhalgren bothered me a lot at various points, but I like that quote.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-06 06:59 am (UTC)
miang: Ashelia B'nargin Dalmasca, FFXII: Non ministrari, sed ministrare (Wellesley, Wellesley, only to be there). (ashe - wellesley)
From: [personal profile] miang
I kind of really want to think I shall print this out and tape it to my office door tomorrow. For an office staffed mostly by sexual and ethnic minorities, we could collectively stand to get this message a lot better than we seem to at present.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-06 06:18 pm (UTC)
miang: Miang Hawwa (with Opiomorph), Xenogears: May God's love be with you (and there's nothing I can do). (does not compute)
From: [personal profile] miang
Heh. Around here it's not so much racial tensions as Whitey (and, um, Asian-y?) deciding they know what's best for everyone...which leads to decisions like laying off the only black person working on an intervention specifically targeted at black gay men. That was a fun month.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-06 07:46 am (UTC)
luinied: This is from the Sega Saturn game, which I haven't played. (dark)
From: [personal profile] luinied
So, let's say I want to get roughly this message across to a certain sort of white person. In addition to having plenty of unacknowledged racism and privilege and the like, this person has some other unpleasant but shockingly common traits, namely that they're extremely attached to the idea that they're a Good Person who's Doing Just Fine, they get defensive pretty much immediately if something sounds at all accusatory - be it suggesting that they're not perfectly free of racism or suggesting that they may have neglected some mundane obligation - and once they get defensive they're never, ever going to accept the possibility that they have been truly in the wrong and need to change their behavior. How the hell do you even make partial progress with these people?

I know, the tempting answer is "those people just need to fucking grow up", but that doesn't actually change any minds. And, unfortunately, there are so many people who fit this pattern - I'd be tempted to say that it's the vast majority of humanity, really, but it's not like I have statistics for this. I suspect that, if there is an answer that gets results, it's in the space of "being diplomatic" that could be more accurately described as "being manipulative for a good cause", and I have my doubts that there are any experts on that here. But my real fear is that there just isn't a way to make progress with these people, and that all we can do is wait for them to die out and hope that the next generation of similarly problematic people freeze their worldviews at at least slightly more positive points on the spectrum than the older generations.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-06 07:33 pm (UTC)
luinied: Maybe it's Brinstar, maybe it's Doppleganger Alexander Hamilton's secret lair. (pained)
From: [personal profile] luinied
That is a good article, but this quote reminds me of something discouraging:

What is so disturbing to me about white denial is that we are denying the reality of other people's experiences.

The thing is, people deny the reality of other people's experiences all the goddamn time, in situations where there's way less emotional grounds for doing so than "if they're right, than I might be racist, and racists are awful people, like Nazis and elderly southerners". I mean, people deny the reality of other people's experiences with software. How are we supposed to fight this when it comes to race?

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-06 06:21 pm (UTC)
miang: Miang Hawwa (with Opiomorph), Xenogears: May God's love be with you (and there's nothing I can do). (eldridge crew - alert)
From: [personal profile] miang
You'd probably be interested in Gaertner and Dovidio's work on aversive racism -- I don't know how much headway they've made in solving the problem, but they sure have defined it well. This is probably a good start, and I bet I can get you their original journal articles if you're interested at some point.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-06 06:40 pm (UTC)
luinied: Wakaba is doing science! (focused)
From: [personal profile] luinied
Well, more studies to cite in conversation can be helpful, as can very neutral-sounding articles to link to people. And, honestly, if I'm talking to someone where neither of those will make headway, they're probably not someone whose opinions I could ever influence.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-06 07:43 pm (UTC)
luinied: The Illusion of Gaia / His Dark Materials connection never gets old! (determined)
From: [personal profile] luinied
Maybe I should read up on effective application of peer pressure. I've never been particular good at it, even on topics where there isn't a risk of long indignant arguments being repeated over and over until someone gets defriended. (Or whatever the meatspace equivalent of that is.)

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-07 02:54 am (UTC)
asrabkin: (Default)
From: [personal profile] asrabkin
I'm not sure I understand the Dyson quote you lead off with.

He uses this phrase "mark of ethical innocence." But if I step off the boat from Ukraine and benefit from white privilege, I really am absolutely "ethically innocent." I didn't choose the privilege, and can't waive it. And people have no ethical liability for things they cannot control.

He says that we should reject "moral equivalency of black and white views about race". There are two problems with this.

First:
He tells us to pay more attention to "black views". But racial groups aren't monolithic. Which "black view" should we follow? Does this mean that progressive whites need to defer to Thomas Sowell's views?

But let's suppose that he means something like "majority view." It's reasonable to say "most people tend to err on the side of dismissing black views, and they should watch themselves." But it doesn't appear that that's what Dyson is saying. He describes the views, themselves, as being morally inequivalent. But this is saying that the morality of person A having a view is influenced by whether or not B does. And that can't be right.

(no subject)

Date: 2009-08-09 04:28 am (UTC)
asrabkin: (Default)
From: [personal profile] asrabkin
I am interested and will put the book on my reading list.

But I submit that any passage this opaque and in need of justification is a bad one to use for raising awareness and encouraging sensitivity.

Something I've learned, in my little bit of experience in political writing is that it's a bad idea to say anything in need of defense, if you don't have room to defend it convincingly. As Thomas Sowell put it [in the context of book reviews]: If you cannot resist the temptation to include the more debatable issues, then be prepared to see the reviewer ignore all the points on which you caught him red-handed and devote his whole reply to making the debatable issues crucial, even if they were tangential before.

This probably applies to discussion of sensitive social topics as well.

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tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
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