Thursday, July 24, 2008

Hating the racism not the racist

Jay Smooth at Ill Doctrine breaks down how to have a conversation with someone who makes a racist statement (tip of the hat to Racialicious--btw, you should read their comment thread because Jay Smooth chimes in with his two-cents as comment #25)

It's good advice, because he's right--calling people "racist" (even if you KNOW they are) shuts down the conversation pretty quickly. I don't mean that you shouldn't call people on their stuff. But if you really want someone to hear you and make change, then calling them names (even if it's accurate) won't accomplish much in the way of making them see your point. Plus, the further truth is, it's obvious. And I don't mean that it's obvious that the person is racist because s/he made a racist statement, I mean that we have been living in a nation imbued with white supremacy* and white privilege, so OF COURSE almost all of us are racist to various degrees and have internalized these beliefs--people of color and non-people of color alike. So saying the obvious doesn't push the conversation to the point where you get people to STOP saying racist stuff.

[*Note about "white supremacy": I know some people will read this and assume I mean white people in white sheets burning crosses. That's not what I mean. Sure the KKK and other "white pride" groups are part of a white supremacist ideology, but they are easy targets to take down and even to understand--in other words, their brand of hatred is so over-the-top (and violent) that it's easy to condemn and to brand as "white supremacy." The harder kind to understand--the one that I'm talking about, is the subtle (and not so subtle at times) ways in which the foundation of this country has been a racial hierarchy that reinforces the message that the more white-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant you are, the better--that those who are most "white" hold the most power and are most attractive, most intelligent, most capable, most American. Everyone else has to try to get as "white" as they can if they want access to the goods, if you will. Hence, "darker" Euro-Americans like Italians and Irish, ones originally marginalized and vilified ("wop" is an acronym for "without papers"--undocumented people--illegal aliens), eventually achieved "whiteness," in some cases because they were contrasted with a worse, less white, unassimilable group (in the 1ate 19th C. the debate was whether Irish or Chinese were the worse pestilence in terms of immigrants. Irish lost--they got to be "white"--Chinese were relegated to "yellow peril"). For more, read David Roediger's The Wages of Whiteness.]

Now, having said that, just calling people on their stuff doesn't mean that they thank you or that they even apologize. Most of the time when you tell someone in whatever way, polite or rude, that what they just said was offensive because of [fill in the blank] and that you have construed their comment as "racist"--that person will (a) get defensive (b) call YOU a racist for turning every conversation into one about race (c) re-direct the conversation (d) tell you that s/he is not racist and s/he has LOTS of friends who are black/Asian/Latino/American Indian.

And THAT kind of reaction can drive you to want to (a) throw heavy and sharp objects at this person (b) sputter incoherently until your eyeballs roll back in their sockets (d) call them all sorts of names (including screaming YOU ARE A [pick your expletive of choice] RACIST! (d) all of the above

I was once at a cocktail party and had grown so passionate and righteous that I literally cornered a guy (the type I like to call WIWL: Well Intentioned White Liberal) and pointed my index finger at him, jabbing the air to punctuate my points, particularly the one in which I said "What are YOU doing to end racism in this country!"

WIWL did not hear me. I didn't call him a racist directly, but everything else about our interaction clearly indicated that if I was in a forced-choice exercise (racist/anti-racist) that I would have slotted him in the big "R." The glass-half-full part of me would like to think that I managed to get into his head, somewhere and somehow. And that maybe, just maybe, this will get him to re-think some of his positions--or at the very least to realize that he is going to get called out on racist bullshit like saying "I don't understand why black people have separate churches and can't go to a regular church like everyone else." AGHHH!!!!!! But more likely what I did was shut down the conversation because all he heard was "this woman is calling me a racist."

So what should we do? It's hard to hate the racism and not the racist, but it IS important to do that if we want to engage in effective anti-racist practices (and cornering someone and pointing your finger at them is NOT effective--it is hard for me to practice what I preach, I admit. I'm trying though...I really am). But if anyone else has any practical strategies for dealing with these scenarios, I'm sure everyone is all ears (or eyes rather).

[BTW: If anyone is confused about how I am using terms like "racism" and "anti-racist practice" you can look to one of the sidebars that breaks down key selections of previous posts on issues of race (as well as mixed-race and Asian American issues) or you can go to this previous post "Defining Racism."]


Evan Carden said...

My advice, from the one time I feel I was actually helpful, instead of standing around like a lump, I made sure that all the communication was in writing. Obviously not helpful at parties, but you might try e-mail exchanges, then sitting down with them to discuss it. With speech, there's too many ways things can be misheard on both sides.

The problem is that people usually hesitate to write things they'd say without hesitation, just because writing makes them see it, not just think it, before it goes out into the world...

Well, that's not real helpful actually.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for finding your way to this blog (I noticed you left 2 other comments and I'll get to those in a bit).

I think you are right--that writing often keeps us honest. The difficulty in this case was that it all happened so quickly. And perhaps that is part of the answer--that I should have been better at de-escalating things by slowing down.

To be a bit fair to myself, I didn't set out to make this guy feel bad or back him into a corner. It all started out friendly and cocktail party-ish. And then it turned.

So what do we do when things turn? That seems to be the question. And perhaps, slowing down internally is what I should have done. Excused myself to get a drink and then come back in a more calm manner to discuss things.

I appreciate your suggestion--perhaps next time I can figure out a way to put my thoughts down in written form and to have that kind of communication, which would slow things down as well as provide a more thoughtful (and accountable) forum for our thoughts.