Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Wednesday morning unanswerable question

So I've got a question for the blogosphere:

Why don't we call more things instances of racism?

Want more?

This is what I mean. Someone recently left a comment for me on my Hancock/Hellboy movie review post and in the comment noted that Hollywood had once again failed to note the obvious racism that was a plot pivot in the film Hancock.

[Spoiler alert: if you want to read the Hancock post and subsequent comments, click here, but I talk about the film's ending and the big "AHA!" element of the film]

And there are other moments too--for example, recently a Georgia Congressional member called Senator Obama "uppity" -- coded language used for centuries against African Americans in The South (and elsewhere). This is veiled racist language--it's intent is to disparage Obama racially.

I'm sure everyone can think of other instances of things that happen of a racist nature that aren't called out as such. And I have some ideas about why this happens--because I do think that we have to be careful in applying the term "racism" as accurately as possible. And I'm not talking about calling someone a racist. There are a lot of reasons not to do this, even if someone is blatantly being racist or saying racist things--again, I'm going to plug Jay Smooth for the third time in this blog because he really breaks down in a concise and eloquent way, why it's best to not call people a racist and instead address the racism.

[For more on definitions of racism, click here to a previous post]

But I am curious--what do you think? Why don't we say that "such and such" was an example of racism? Or used racist language? Or that this "thing" was an example of the legacy of racism in this country?


Greg said...

Ignorance, shame, denial, fear.

Take the "uppity" comment: In my dialect, the word "uppity" has no connotation of race/racism whatsoever. My ignorance prevented me from recognizing an instance of racism, much less calling it out as such. The covert quality racism often takes not only furthers people's ignorance, but furthers racism itself, making it all the more important for people to deconstruct and point out the racism they see. Racism can be difficult to see, too, because many times it exists not in what's there, but in what's not there, such as the lack of (even the potential for) a black/mixed president (up until now).

This country has a long history of racism, and that's not an easy fact to swallow. It's shameful. It's difficult to admit the level to which racism has been institutionalized and, for many (all?) of us, internalized. Calling things out as racist makes people feel uncomfortable (even if they weren't the ones who committed the racist act), especially people who have never been marginalized (or whose "people" have never been marginalized). They feel guilt and shame and discomfort.

Denial is just a couple of steps away from shame and ignorance. Denying that racism (still) exists and the power it has in shaping culture, society, politics (not to mention our personal lives) is easier than calling it out, confronting it, fighting it. Racism is a complex problem, with its reaches in all pockets of our society, that has no easy solution.

When we do witness racism and recognize it for what it is, calling it out can be dangerous. We can be put in physical, emotional, or political danger. No one likes to be told they've done or said something wrong; and ignorance, shame, and denial often prevent people who commit racist acts from recognizing they are doing such, and from even entertaining the idea of their own potential to do such.

CVT said...

We don't say it because nobody listens, anyway. When we say it, we get to hear it even worse in response. When we say it, we get told to "learn to take a joke" or to "stop over-reacting" or that we're playing "the race card." We don't say it because it gets so tiring and frustrating to constantly hear and deal with these things, only to be told that we complain too much - and we end up setting up defensive, more offensive responses.

Or, at least, that's why I don't say it a lot of the time. At least not in certain company . . .

Jennifer said...

Thanks for your very detailed and reflective/thoughtful comment.

I think you are right--some people literally hear things differently, so while it may have seemed obvious to me that "uppity" was racial code, I can see how others may not have heard it that way. I know since moving to "The South" I've become aware of the nuances of racial codes used here--and have been surprised at what I thought was an inoccuous comment by one person taking on a racist connotation/racial overtone overheard by someone else.

[And in a pop culture aside, I remember having to ask Southern Man while we were watching the second Harold & Kumar movie what the joke was about the spilling of grape soda in a scene with Rob Cordry (who is white) and an African Ameriacn dentist. It still doesn't make "sense" to me, but I suppose that has to do with not growing up with those types of racist stereotypes/codes]

CVT, I also agree that a lot of times we don't call out "racism" because people don't want to hear it and we get tired (at least I do) of trying to explain why such and such is implicated in a racist system.

But here's the thing--we do have to try, don't we? I mean, even if 9 people out of 10 aren't going to see the racism when you point it out, what about that 10th person? I'm not saying that we all have to be anti-racist educators 24/7 but I think getting people to see how systemic this is--racism that is--and more importantly, getting people to see the value of anti-racist work, well, that's worthwhile.

I guess what I feel discouraged by is that we have to find corollaries for using the word "racist" because it has become a term that shuts people down upon initial hearing, but I wrote a whole post about that today, so I'll let that stand for now.