Saturday, March 6, 2010

two curious assumptions of anti-racists

Larry linked to Kate Nepveu's How to Discuss Race and Racism Without Acting Like a Complete Jerk, so I followed it, mostly to see if it mentioned class, a subject that has been taboo among the anti-racists in the science fiction and fantasy community until very recently. (Two examples: At How to Suppress Discussions of Racism, talking about class is considered a technique of suppression, and on the racist bingo card, "class issues" is a square.)

Nepveu's post touches on class tangentially in a brief section titled "The line between intersectionality and derailing can be very fine" which includes this: "first, you should be aware that people often say "well, what about X?" because, whether they realize it or not, they are uncomfortable talking about racism."

That made me see the first curious assumption of anti-racists. People who reject anti-racism's tenets are very comfortable talking about racism. When we say, "What about X?" we're not saying, "It can't be Y because it's X." We're saying there's an entire alphabet available, and you're insisting the problem is Y? We are saying, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Many of us have read enough about the history of racism to know that racism was not born in a vacuum. Thandeka sums it up nicely: "...we must not forget that white racism was from the start a vehicle for classism; its primary goal was not to elevate a race but to denigrate a class. White racism was thus a means to an end, and the end was the defense of Virginia’s class structure and the further subjugation of the poor of all "racial" colors."

Recognizing one anti-racist assumption helped me spot another. Nepveu says,
Suppose I step on someone's foot. They say, "hey, ouch, you stepped on my foot."

My proper response is, "Gosh, I'm sorry. I'll be more careful." Depending on the situation, I might add something like, "I was looking for my kid's sneaker that she always kicks off," or "I've got something in my contact," etc.

My proper response is not, "Well, I didn't mean to step on your foot, so why are you angry?!"
and also
people who are subject to racism are much more likely to recognize it, especially because white people are taught that even noticing race is rude.
She assumes that patients can accurately diagnose the cause of their suffering. But that's often not true. (See, for example, Keith Sampson's story, or the story of racist fried chicken at NBC.) You may believe there's something wrong with your arm when you're having a heart attack.

Anti-racists hide a double-standard when diagnosing racism: they ignore or dismiss blacks who reject anti-racism, whether they're progressives like Thandeka or conservatives like Winkfield F. Twyman, Jr.

Why are people like Kate Nepveu so reluctant to discuss class? I suspect the answer is in her section titled ""Racism" and "privilege" are often used to mean very different things by different people." She says she is "upper-middle-class." In your own words, Ms. Nepveu: "Your privilege is showing."

Bonus curious assumption: Where she gets the idea that "white people are taught that even noticing race is rude", I dunno. Based on my googling, Bill Bennett is the only white person who thinks we live in a post-racial society, and Stephen Colbert is the only white person who can't see race.


  1. Where she gets the idea that "white people are taught that even noticing race is rude", I dunno.

    There have been various experiments that showed a tendency on the part of white people to avoid using skin color as a descriptor. So they'll do things like describing a man as tall, dark haired, and brown eyed... but fail to mention that he's black. Although I've listened to people doing this before, it is possible that it was a 1990's northern white people thing rather than a nation wide pattern. I don't know if anyone has studied the phenomenon more recently or how well the research was done.

    I don't think anybody was being explicitely taught that noticing race is rude, though.

    (I know there are articles about the subject out there somewhere, but I can't find any of my old links at the moment and my Google-fu appears to be broken.)

  2. I have heard that it's an issue for the police. If you report a "black" suspect, you'll automatically limit the pool of suspects in ways that might be harmful. Did the witness see accurately? A "light-skinned black person" might look like a "dark/tanned white person" and vice versa.

    But police reports follow their own rules. I've been "the white guy" in some groups, so when the simplest way to identify a person is as "the black woman" or "the Asian guy," I don't hesitate. Guessing games are stupid.

  3. Ah, here's somebody doing current research on it:

    (The first paper listed is Seeing race and seeming racist? Evaluating strategic colorblindness in social interaction. I haven't read it and I'm not familiar with the researchers so I don't vouch for its quality.)

  4. Will, I'm not sure you should count the mention of class on the race bingo card; I suspect you're the primary reason it exists.

    That being said, it looks to me like you're cherrypicking their arguments to highlight what they dislike, the same way they cherrypicked yours at the height of the debate.

    However, I really don't want to get back into a lengthy argument about this, as I don't think I'm likely to change any opinions or have my own changed - just thought I'd point out that since the bingo card I'm familiar with was made about this time last year, the mention of class issues on it is probably due to the primary source that was injecting class repeatedly into the discussion at the time. :-)

  5. Matt, if I'm the primary reason, I'll be surprised. It's true I've been bringing up class issues since 2005--the first big conflict with these folks over class issues was in 2007. But they claim I'm not the only person to bring up class issues, and that's sure true. Thandeka pointed out the class problem in the '90s. Or see these short pieces by Sharon Smith or Walter Benn Michaels, neither of whom have a clue who I am, so far as I know.

    As for cherrypicking, I'm just pointing out the parts of their argument that seem most askew. There's a lot that anti-racists say that I agree with. Contrary to their claims, I've never denied that racism is still a problem. But their extreme focus on race makes them blind to its underlying causes, and it makes them see racism in cases where other factors are at work. The saddest thing about their limited vision is it makes them want to treat symptoms rather than causes. In too many cases, that's because addressing the causes would limit their own class advantages.

    Hell, if I had money, I might be just like them. Insert my favorite Sinclair Lewis quote here: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

  6. Matt, a PS: I totally agree the best bingo card of all time has "class" on it because of me.

    It gives me the warm fuzzies.

  7. RE: Identifying people by race:

    When my older son was entering kindergarten or maybe 1st grade, his mother and I were at some kind of orientation session with him. He made some passing reference to another kid, who happened to be black (most of the other kids were white). Don't remember what the reason for commenting on the kid was, but I know it was not negative. Anyway, he referred to him as "the kid with the red shirt" -- NOT "the black kid" or anything like that. My reaction (and that of my then-spouse) was, "Cool. He doesn't see race as important."

    I should note that his uncle, my brother-in-law -- who was his godfather at his infant dedication ceremony [sort of like baptism, but not the same] -- is black.

  8. DSD, you may remember this, but there was a study which showed that kids who're surrounded by people of many skin colors have no biases regarding skin color. Now I'm wondering if there were two black guys in a group and I had to identify one, whether I'd say "the guy in the red shirt" or "the black guy in the red shirt." Hmm. It would depend on whether there was a white guy in a red shirt, I hope.

  9. Janni, my parents were Minnesotan, which is almost Canadian, which means my first response is always, "Sorry!"

    Then I look to see whose foot was actually stepped on. Just because some topics upset some people does not mean they should not be talked about. If anything, it *especially* means they should be talked about. Was NBC's black cook being racist when she wanted to serve fried chicken, a traditional southern food that she (and Martin Luther King) loved? Was Sampson's choice of reading material racist? Should we ban Huckleberry Finn because Mark Twain says "nigger"?

    Just because your foot hurts doesn't mean the person you're blaming stepped on it.

    Also, by the anti-racist logic. Nepveu should not be making generalizations about white people, 'cause she isn't one. (I don't buy that logic, of course, but anti-racists really like to have it both ways. They'll say people of color understand the problem best--except for the people of color who disagree with them, and the white people who do agree with them. That kind of cafeterianism is very human, but it leads to false conclusions. If you can't see the problem clearly, you'll never see the solution.)

  10. Just because your foot hurts doesn't mean the person you're blaming stepped on it.

    This may be true if I'm afflicted with some mysterious internal ailment, but if I can see the other person's foot on top of mine? Then I can be pretty sure that's why it's hurting. Likewise, if someone says, "Hey, your words, the ones you just spoke, they were rude and hurtful" -- I can be pretty sure they know better than me that my words were hurtful to them, regardless of whether I think they should have hurt.

    Done with a bit of common sense, this isn't a means of hiding subjects that need to be talked about. If I think there's a discussion that needs to be had -- well, first I might think about whether I can remove my foot from atop the other person's -- recast my language and my attitude a little bit -- and still talk about what needs talking about.

    If I can't do that? Well, first I am going to think hard about whether it really is crucial that I keep talking -- whether something larger is at stake -- or whether it's just about my own need to be heard. If it's the former, I'm still going to acknowledge that I'm being hurtful, and I'm still going to apologize. Something along the lines of "hey, I'm really sorry my foot is hurting yours, but I really think we need to talk about this now and here's why."

    And if the other person says, no, sorry, my foot really does hurt more than I'm comfortable with and I really do want your foot off of it now? Then I need to take my foot away and go talk to someone else. Because doing anything else has a good chance of sliding into bullying or abuse, and because the person being hurt has every right to decide that they don't want me hurting them, and also every right not to have me tell them that that pain isn't really my fault after all (or that, say, changes in barometric pressure can make their feet ache too), and so my foot is staying right where it is.

    But really, if I could have found a way to have that conversation with my foot planted somewhere else instead, that would have been better, because then we might have actually gotten somewhere.

  11. Janni, victims are often wrong. Eye witnesses are often wrong. Your presumption shapes your conclusion; that's just being human.

    The anti-racists tell people to shut up and accept their doctrine. If you're white and you continue to disagree, they then say you're racist, or rather more racist, since anti-racism began with the belief that all whites are racist. (I don't know what they think Thandeka or Twyman are--race traitors, maybe, though usually they just pretend all people of color agree with Critical Race Theory.) They say shutting up and accepting their interpretation is a matter of politeness, but that's no different than the tactics of the Westboro Baptist Church--just because someone says gay marriage is Satan's work, I'm not going to stop speaking up for gay marriage. Similarly, I'm going to point to classism wherever it arises, no matter how uncomfortable that makes people who graduated from expensive private schools.

  12. Janni, a PS: Years ago, an Asian-American was telling me about people who didn't like him because he was Asian-American. Because I didn't know him well, I couldn't tell him that he might be right in some cases, but in general, he was a bit of a jerk, just like white and black jerks, and what he was crediting to racism was actually a personal failing.

    Which is not to deny that racism exists. It's only to say that in this case, he misidentified his problem because he knew that racism existed, and it was more comfortable to blame racism.

    I believe this is why rich people are so fond of Critical Race Theory. They can excuse their class privilege by running around accusing others of racism.

    Again, this is not to say that racism does not exist. But it is to say that their tactics will not solve the problem.