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So, how about that racism?

14 October 2010
(This post is going to be old news for the folks who write on race, so y’all might want to skip it.)

Racism?  I don’t know what you’re talking about.  I don’t see colour.

Yes you do. Even if you can’t physically see ‘race’ due to sight impairment, we all learn what it is and what it means in the context of our stratified and disparate world.  Racism isn’t just about pointy sheets (as basically every anti-racist writer ever has had to say), but systemic, subversive, and subtle stuff, as well.

Also, racism is prejudice + power with reference to socially-constructed ethnic categories and skin pigment.  The ‘+ power’ part of that is the part white folks most often misunderstand or choose to ignore.  More on that later.  Anyway, ‘race’ means different things to different people, and it has a lot to do with geography.  Growing up near Chicago (one of, if not the most, segregated cities in the US), the immediate connotation for me was always that race meant “black, white, whatever.”  (My own speculation as to why that is has to do with the strength/visibility of the Civil Rights movement and obvious/undeniable centuries of slavery.  The atrocities committed against other groups just don’t get the same recognition in our history textbooks or popular imagination.  See Howard Zinn on the Arawaks and Columbus.)  This framing of race issues as black and white is increasingly expanding to recognise brown—Latin American and ‘Middle Eastern’ in particular.  These two categories, however, have very specific associations in the US: immigration and terrorism, respectively.  While black Americans are far from embraced in the “our country” of the political upper-right quadrant,[1] brown folks (and add to this particular list East/Southeast Asians) are perpetually foreign and are considered incapable of interacting fully with American culture.  It’s patently false that you can’t be pigmented and American, of course, but this line is pretty influential.  Ask an East-Asian-looking person how many times ‘well-meaning’ white folks have asked them, “No, where are you really from?”  (Wait, don’t actually do that.  Unless you’re sure they’d want to have that conversation.)  When we talk about race in the US, we spend the majority of the time forgetting about/ignoring the people who have been among the most severely wronged by white folks in the ‘New World’: Native/indigenous/First Nations folks.  I’ll just drop this link here: “Maze of Injustice: The failure to protect Indigenous women from sexual violence in the USA” (please tell me ‘maze’ isn’t supposed to be some sort of pun, Amnesty).  It’s only the tip of the iceberg, of course, but nobody seems to know about it (except Michele Bachmann, who wants to make sure that nothing can be done about it).  I will attempt to be an especially good ally to NA people, as I did grow up on/benefit from land that was stolen from them (but we kept their names for the places, natch), and because my ancestors and lots of people who looked like them were personally responsible for exploiting/raping indigenous people while they were stealing the land.

Living in the UK, I came to understand ‘race’ as usually meaning white/brown-Asian-looking (though Sub-Saharan Africans and Turks can also get white people riled up).  As with (East) Asians in the US, a substantial range of national and ethnic groups are crammed together for political reasons, and white folks have the privilege of not needing to learn even the most major of differences between them.  (Interestingly—to my US-upbrought brain, anyway—for a while, ‘Black’ was a pretty well-established term for POC as a political class, and it basically included anyone who wasn’t white).  While it’s true that you can take a single bus through central London on any given day and hear at least as many languages as there are continents, there is still significant segregation along the lines of historical immigration patterns.  The history of East End demographics is pretty interesting if you’re into that sort of thing, and serves as a good indicator of which groups have been considered Black over the past two-ish centuries.  In the UK, race and religion are quite bound up politically, as the major targets for racism (West/Central/South-Asian-looking people) are assumed to have connections to Islam, and political Islamist ideology in particular.  These religion-based fears are also pretty apparently on the increase in much of Europe. The climate of suspicion and ostracism tightens a proverbial lasso around those who aren’t Muslim (punishing them for the extreme parts of a religion they don’t even adhere to) and around those who are (contributing to mistrust and increased fundamentalism locally and around the world).  As I only lived in London for a year, I’m not going to attempt to extend my empirical ‘expertise’ into a longer paragraph than this.  Race is definitely an enormous deal in the UK, though, and migration in particular.

The US and UK show two ways of thinking about race and racism that are different in the details, but hung upon the same ‘logical’ insider/outsider framework.  I mention these two places because I’ve lived in and studied both, not in order to imply that they’re necessarily the most important or interesting (race in Brazil is popular to bring up and good to know about.  As someone who has never been to Australia, the first racial dynamic I think of is white/Aboriginal.  Someone who lives there, particularly in large cities, may be far more likely to think of migrants from Southeast Asia.  Each particular location is going to be a blind spot to most of us (in addition to white privilege where applicable), so I will usually encourage commenters to bring in their own geographic perspectives if the subject at hand isn’t necessarily specific.  Every country has a sociopolitically-dominant group and ‘Others.’  Each country is also part of the world system in which countries with white political control are the ones with global economic and political power.[2]  Although I’ve been doing a pretty good job of keeping them apart for the purpose of this post, race cannot be examined independently of gender and class, particularly at the global level.  For material on ‘global care chains’ and other glamorous ‘women’s work,’ I’ll recommend Barbara Ehrenreich’s Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy even though it’s still sitting unread on my shelf, because she tends to know what she’s doing and writes in an accessible way.

A word on ‘model minorities’/’positive racism’ before we skip off to the next section: in a sense, it’s not in a very different boat from male ‘chivalry’ toward women, and they both have to get sunk.  It’s a way of putting the Other onto the ladder without jeopardising the dominant group’s position on the top rung.  The success of the model group may be cited as ‘proof’ that racism is over (because look, those people are getting on with life without complaining about it to the rest of us, so your people have no excuse).  Individual failure is seen as an individual’s problem, whereas achievement may be attributed to some ‘inherent’ characteristic of that group (Chinese kids sure do love to study and hate to dishonour their ancestors by getting a math problem wrong).  Non-model groups tend to be defaulted in the other direction so that success is an individual triumph that says nothing positive about the capabilities of the group as a whole.  Additionally, there can be tremendous pressure on people within the model minority to maintain the status it may have taken generations to earn, which can be psychologically and physically exhausting, not to mention suffocating for individuals who aren’t interested in toeing the line.[3]

Anyway, white privilege… Oh yes, it’s time to go there.

First off, let us dispell the goofy notion that whiteness (and maleness, and American-ness, while we’re at it) is in any way the default, objective state of existence.  If and when there is Absolute Truth™ to be discerned in the social realm, people generally have a hard time of it, as 100% of us have our experiences affected by and our perceptions filtered through the social categories we occupy.  We have a sort of tunnel vision in this sense—many issues are simply off the radar if we don’t learn about them.  The more privilege you have, the easier it is to be oblivious to these issues.  The level of obliviousness often correlates with the amount of unintentional harm done to others, so it’s a good idea to cut back on both.

White privilege is institutional as well as personal.  Take a look at who’s in the government (hint: Obama is not ‘the government’), on the boards of the most wealthy corporations, and at the head of news/entertainment media in any country with a sizeable white demographic for the most straightforward indication of institutional racism.  Recall who you learned about in any history class not ghettoised into “[Ethnic Category] History.”  In my high school, descending from junior to freshman year, we had to take US history, Western Civ, and Everybody Else (er, Non-Western Civ).  Only one of those wasn’t whitewashed, not that they would’ve had time to try what with cramming the ‘everybody else’ in there.[4]  Anyway, this stuff is pretty hard to deny, though some people still pathetically try to.  It’s usually harder for people to see on a personal level, particularly if they’re disadvantaged in tangible ways across other intersectional lines.  This US-oriented Amptoons comic shows how benefits to those recognised as white have accumulated at the generational level (yes, there were even benefits in the 19th century for my poor-off-the-boat, non-English-speaking, apoplexy-dying-during, never-even-owned-slaves! ancestors).  It reveals a link between institutional and individual privilege: white people were more readily accepted into a country recently stolen by other white people, and they got a decent head start in accumulating property and social capital.  These are the roots of white privilege today.  Now, on the level of personal privilege benefits, I think a useful way to look at it is by breaking it down into bits—erm, privilets, if you will.  Got into fights with POC at school and took a lighter, off-record sentence? Could’ve been a privilet.  Occasionally made off with stuff from shops because nobody followed you around? Privilet.  Could afford college instead of having to go directly to work, and got caught doing drugs there, but it stayed off your record again? Big privilet.  Not having a criminal record because you didn’t look ‘suspicious’ enough to check in the first place?  Humongoprivilet—okay, basically just back to privilege again.  And racism.  Having a criminal record but getting hired over the black guy who doesn’t? Welcome to America, land of opportunity and bootstraps.

In a thread over at Stuff White People Do, commenter saraspeaking wrote something I liked, probably a lot more succinctly than I would have:

Talking about race creates a cognitive dissonance for white people because in their minds, it’s “Racism is bad. I am good. Therefore, I am not racist” – they are resistant to the concept of impersonal, systemic racism because to understand that requires first that they disassemble their own myth of individuality, and begin to understand their actions as part of a (white) pattern.

This comment raises an important question: is the wild rush to deny white privilege in race discussions more immediately motivated by direct individual prejudices or, as saraspeaking suggests, is there a deeper fear that the world they’ve always believed in has never actually existed?  I’ve usually been quick to assume the former, particularly when white commenters include an “a black person did a racism to ME once” anecdote (internet feminists are accustomed to this in the form of “b-b-b-but…women can be sexist too!”) or when they make some plot-losing remark about being too poor to have benefited from white privilege.  The whole exchange usually reeks of privilege-clinginess and iceberg-tip prejudice that goes exponentially deeper into the rabbit hole with each subsequent comment.  It appears (and is, really) an entirely out-of-proportion response.  If it is how saraspeaking states, however, the frantic attempts to buttress the pillars and condemn the suggestion that Rome is burning isn’t quite so overblown.  It’s still the wrong response, of course, but I think that people who deny white privilege and systemic racism could feel utterly panicked when they recognise a bit of irrefutable reality through the cracks in their worldview.

Specifically to white people: Ultimately, whether you as an individual are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is unlikely to have any real effect on systemic racism.  Of course that doesn’t mean you should run around spewing racist crap, because that’d make you an asshole.  That should go without saying.  Some people take serious umbrage when others call them out on racist statements, but here is something essential to keep in mind in any discussion about oppression dynamics: you don’t get to decide what other people shouldn’t find offensive.  It can be difficult to own up and apologise, but it sure is a lot harder living on the receiving end of hate and indifference.  Most of us don’t call out prejudiced statements because we find doing so heartwarming, empowerful, and fun.  It can be downright dangerous in the wrong environment.  Privilege means that at the end of the day, you can walk away from the issue while those without that privilege can never escape it.  It’s your responsibility to own up and move on.  You can’t get rid of your privilege, but you can use it to help POC.  See Tim Wise in the sidebar for oodles on that,[5] and of course Peggy McIntosh’s Invisible Knapsack.

Privilege privilege privilege.  I’ve typed this word so many times in this post that it’s just a bunch of lines and loops that make a funny sound.  I have to get out of this section!

But I love [stereotypical monolithic statement about POC subgroup X]!  I don’t want to hurt them, I want to celebrate them by appropriating [stereotypical and significance-detached noun].  You can’t stop me!!!

I’m 5’/152cm and write longwinded posts on an internet website that nobody reads.  I can’t stop anybody from anything.  Also, intent is irrelevant.  But anyway, this is a pretty problematic area.  One problem with appropriating a piece of clothing, a hairstyle, some mannerism, or whatever (other than it often looking like outright mockery) is that it removes that thing from its specific context.  Adrienne K. at Native Appropriations frequently writes about the general clusterfuck that is the hipster headdress.  Where headdresses were/are used at all, each feather has to be earned, and it’s a pretty big deal to do it right.  You can’t just slap one together out of craft store shit and kindergarten glue and expect to look like anything but an oblivious, culture-conflatin’, history-obfuscatin’ ass.  I mean, you do know that people who (generally) looked like you genocided the people who came up with that thing you now feel entitled to wear, right?  And wear incorrectly, on top of that.  That doesn’t say “I want to honour your culture.”  It says “I don’t give a fuck and I don’t have to.”

What I’m saying is, the history of Euro-American human trafficking, genocide, and colonialism sort of complicates the idea of taking something that belongs to someone else for yourself.  No?  It wouldn’t be unproblematic even if the ramifications of those actions weren’t still reverberating today, but it’s far worse since they are.  And in addition to historical exploitation of the globe, we have contemporary economic, social, and political imperialism.  So those fake feathers and beads you bought a paragraph ago were probably made in a sweatshop by indigenous Central American labourers.  Et cetera.  (“But they wear jeans and ride buses!” is not, by the way, a counterargument, but I’m going to leave it to the diligent reader to figure out why, because there are already too many words here and most people who disagree with this pretty standard view of racism, privilililege, and appropriation have probably already literally stomped away from their computers at this point.)

Is it ever possible to appreciate but not appropriate?  I honestly don’t know.  In some cases there’s probably nowhere to draw the line that doesn’t yuck somebody out—which is totally understandable, and I’m for erring on the side of caution.  Personally I am a huge fan of ‘traditional’ textiles from all over the world (having created, purchased, reworked, studied, and written an undergrad capstone on things related to them).  I find shalwar/churidar kameez and kurtas to be the perfect storm of comfort, attractiveness, and functionality to wear anywhere, ever.  But—especially when I lived in London with a large and generally disrespected South Asian population—am I going to chap someone’s ass if I do my grocery shopping in them?  It’s a distinct possibility that I am obligated to give a shit about.

So, what is to be done in this precarious position of wanting to combine cultural elements, but respectfully?  Does this desire itself have inherent connections to cultural imperialism?  Is there ever any benefit to ‘mixing things up’ as such?  These questions are for the comments, really.  I’ve read a lot here and there, and I don’t think there’s a conclusive answer.

It seems like you’re finally shutting up!

Yes.  And I’m just as relieved about it as you are.  But a few dozen more words first. As I mentioned above, it’s pretty much impossible in real life to separate race from gender and class, but there are other subjects we care about here and myriad important factors we haven’t made explicit in our shortlist (ability, geography, age, sexuality, political activity, and so on) that also interact with race in society.  Intersectionality isn’t just the big buzzword in academia right now—it’s central to the reality people experience, and therefore essential to our analyses here.  As for my thoughts on emphatic references to yet-undiscovered colours of people to prove how colourblind I really am, I’ll just drop a quote from Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai’s video linked above: “…although I do not think the blue or purple or silver or green people exist, red, and yellow, and brown people do.”  So try not to do that here.  It makes you look ridiculous.  Toodles!


[1] Let me make something absolutely clear here: in no way am I suggesting that the centre and left have fixed all their race issues.  But let’s also not pretend that there’s no qualitative or quantitative difference between race issues (ideological and legislative) on the left and right.

[2] The PRC, India, and Saudi Arabia are very influential, have certainly been Big Deals in past centuries, and will likely again rise to those levels of power within the next few decades.  What I’m not sure about (mainly because I’m not particularly learned in this area) is how global producer/consumer relationships will interact with these resurgences.

[3] Sources for my dissertation have touched on the idea that first-generation immigrant parents are often horrified if their kids aren’t straight–because it jeopardises their model minority status to have members of the community who deviate in what is commonly considered a most scandalous way.

[4] Seriously nothing against the teachers of those classes.  They were both awesome and a huge part of why I am where I am today (so thank them if you hate my posts, I guess, harhar).  They didn’t have a whole lot of say in what they had to teach.  This is a problem at the district and probably national level.

[5] I’ve read really mixed reviews of Tim Wise (er, that sounds weird).  A lot of POC blogs really like what he’s doing, but others have repeatedly called him out on specific comments he’s made, as well as how much time he spends talking about Tim Wise.  I personally have a small complaint about something he’s said, but that’s neither here nor there.  For now he stays in the sidebar because he’s pretty influential on the subject of white privilege.


Further reading, for real

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