Monday, January 12, 2009

Is it worse to call someone a racist or to be one?

It’s not so clear in today’s allegedly post-racial landscape. Lately, too many real attempts to discuss racial injustice are met with gnashing of teeth, rending of garments and exasperated cries of “political correctness” and “race card.” This is the modern way to shut down discussion about race in America. And with the country inaugurating its first black president next week? Ya’ll it’s only going to get worse.

It is galling—this playing the “playing the race card” card. And reading Kevin Young’s poem, “No Offense,” has helped me understand why this particular bit of mainstream insensitivity hurts me so. Don’t they know? Don’t they know how often we swallow our offense? How many times we remain silent on the playground in the face of some “what do you get when you cross a black person with…” joke or a sing-song “ching-chong” chant? How many times we shut up when a trusted friend of another race reveals a hurtful bias? How many times we cringe after finding out a lover wasn’t chasing us, but an exotic adventure? How often we keep going in a job we love even as the glass ceiling presses on our heads? How often we remain calm while being hassled by police for being black or Hispanic in the “wrong” neighborhood? There is so much injustice people of color abide quietly that to treat real spoken concerns with eye-rolling mockery, to paint us as petty and thin-skinned, is like a dagger to the heart. I’m just saying, it’s real hard to be thin-skinned and a person of color in America.

Are all charges of racism justified? Of course not. But those who pretend that a handful of race-baiters are more a detriment to society than actual racism are like those who focus on rare cases of false rape accusations rather than the fact that 17.7 million American women have been sexually assaulted in their lifetime. They are looking to salve their egos and avoid a difficult conversation that may reveal something ugly inside.

During the 2008 presidential election, I was surprised to hear some unexpected people talking about political correctness and the race card—progressives…feminists…But there are reasons that even good liberals are quick to dismiss racism and play the “playing the race card” card:

Americans don’t understand racism anymore (if they ever did). We’re not talking dogs and hoses and separate water fountains anymore. Today’s injustice is usually more about unexamined biases (executions on BART platforms aside). It is covert and institutional. There always was a “silent” aspect of racism, separate from the lurid images broadcast nationwide during the civil rights movement. A lot of that racism still exists even though black folks can sit in the front of the bus now, but it is a racism that is hard to explain to someone who does not experience it.

How to explain the whole history of black women and their hair to the uninitiated so that they understand why picturing an afro’d and militant Michelle Obama on the cover of the New Yorker is offensive? Most white folks don’t even know that the straight styles most African American women wear are an attempt at assimilation—the result of much manipulation. They’ve never tried to get a job in the banking industry while wearing locs or twists or a curly fro. They don’t know how damaging it is to reinforce the natural-haired black woman = angry, militant, troublesome black woman.

Our image of a person who holds prejudiced beliefs is cartoonish. If racism to most Americans is synonymous with bombings in Birmingham, then the image of a typical “racist” is a cross between Bull Connor, David Duke and Snidely Whiplash. In reality, prejudice in general is boringly human and racial prejudice is a byproduct of being an American. Sadly, even people of color in this society are biased against people of color. But our society wants to believe that prejudice is rare and that persons that harbor racial prejudice are one-dimensional villains. It is no wonder that merely suggesting someone’s views might be racist results in unproductive defensiveness. Tell a liberal who may have black friends and neighbors, that he holds a belief that is racist and to his ear you are comparing him to society's villains--the skinhead, the neo-Nazi.

It’s hard to examine personal prejudices. It’s much easier to brand African Americans whiny and entitled than to admit that, after all this time, the idea of whiteness and white culture as normal and right and supreme persists in our “egalitarian” society.

And even if mainstream America “gets it,” maybe they just don’t care. A recent article in The Globe and Mail reveals people may not be as concerned about racism as they claim.
You are sitting in a waiting room when someone makes a racist comment about a black man who has just left. How would you respond?

Most people say they would feel upset and take action, but researchers at York University who put student volunteers in a similar situation found many reacted with indifference, even when the slur was as offensive as "clumsy nigger."

Many of the students reported feeling little emotional distress after hearing a white man say something denigrating about a black man who had bumped him on his way out of the room. Minutes later, they were asked to choose a partner for a word comprehension test. The majority - 63 per cent - chose the racist white guy.

The results help explain why racism persists in our politically correct age, says York University psychologist Kerry Kawakami, the lead author of a paper published in today's edition of the journal Science.

People imagine they would be angry and punish a racist, she says, but in reality their response is far more muted. "When you actually put them in a situation in which they see an overtly racist act, they are not upset, generally, and they don't censure the racist. They don't respond negatively to them at all." Read more…
So, what’s the answer? How do we take the movement for racial equality forward as it gets harder to win the hearts and minds of mainstream Americans? How do we point out racial injustice in the face of the finger-pointing and cries of “race card?” Two thoughts come immediately to mind (I want to hear some solutions from you readers.):

Maybe our language needs to change. Does the word "racism" (and its derivatives) help or hurt the modern anti-racism movement? At first, the question seems crazy. But I'm beginning to wonder if those of us who wish to see increased racial equality don’t need to find a more effective way to talk about inequality. If “racism” and “racist” are so loaded that their mention ends reasoned conversation resulting in action, then maybe their continued use hurts us. Perhaps we need to be more nuanced, making distinctions between “racial biases,” “prejudice” and “racism.”

Allies rush in where angels fear to tread. White anti-racist allies here and on Anti-Racist Parent sometimes express a hesitancy to talk about some racial issues because they are afraid to “get it wrong.” There is a fear, I think, that something well meaning could be misconstrued, or worse, reveal a hidden prejudice. I implore you to talk about it anyway. Talk about race and be open about your feelings. Being challenged about your prejudices—if you are challenged--is not the worst thing that can happen. And yeah, I know, easier said than done. It’s especially easy for me to say. I’m a black woman who is not likely to ever know what it feels like to be called a racist. But the reality is that unless we can have discussions about race that are equally frank on both sides, we’ll get nowhere.

What else? How do we talk about racism effectively in allegedly post-racial America?

7 comments:

Lady C said...

Tami, people don't want to have a frank and open discussion about racism. They are so determined to dismiss its existence, because we just elected our "first Black president."

I don't believe we live in a post-racial society. Call me cynical, but I do believe we have a ways to go.

I watched Fareed Zacharia's GPS on CNN yesterday, and I was dumbfounded by what his Arab guest told him. Apparently, the Arabic word Al Qaeda's Al-Zawahiri used in referring to Obama does not translate into "house negro," but "black slave". "Black slave" translates to a derrogatory word close to "nigger."

Did the media know this and decided it was best not to correctly translate the word?

Second item of the day: Ann Coulte was on The View this morning pushing her racist book, "Guilty." Why in all that is good and holy on this planet did Barbara Walters allow that hateful, vile woman on to peddle her book. The right-wing nuts hate the MSM, but they are not above using them for profit. Ann doesn't have to go on Fox to promote her book, because she would just be preaching to the choir. Ann is trying to garner an audience that doesn't usually listen to her, and Walters gave her a platform.

Ann Coulter and her ilk are why we will not ever have a real discussion about race in this country.

Julia said...

Man, if there is one expression that I would vote to eliminate from the English language it would be "play the race card." (And "politically correct" would be a close second.) It makes it sound like talking about race is some kind of game--which it only can be, let's face it, for white people. (And "politically correct" suggests that language doesn't matter--another idea it's only possible to hold if you're priveleged, and probably white, and probably male). I belong to an online forum of adoptive parents (black and white)of black children. There was a nasty discussion once where a white parent accused a black parent of "playing the race card." Another black parent responded "there are no cards." I think of that every time I hear that phrase.

As for your larger question, Tami, I don't know. I am reading "Why do all the black kids sit together in the cafeteria" right now, and the author makes an interesting distinction between racism and prejudice that I think is useful, but I doubt will ever catch on. Prejudice, she says, is discriminatory behavior etc toward another because of their race or ethnicity. Racism, however, is being a product of white privelege--all white people are by definition racists (although they can counter this by becoming actively anti-racist). This seems to me to get to something important that white people often forget (imho): white people and black people have a different relationship to questions of race. That's what's so problematic about "race card"--it suggests that racism is some kind of equal opportunity sport, when it isn't either.

Thanks, Tami, as always, for your blog.

Rebecca said...

Tami, I think you've hit on an important point talking about the word "racism." It's absolutely a loaded term, and I'd certainly get defensive if accused of it. "Bias," on the other hand, is something I can accept about myself (and try to change).

You wrote: "How many times we shut up when a trusted friend of another race reveals a hurtful bias?"

Don't. Please don't shut up when a friend reveals a hurtful bias. Point it out - as tactfully as possible, of course, because otherwise people will just get defensive. How am I, a white girl, supposed to know something is biased and hurtful if it's NEVER pointed out to me? For example, you wrote:

"They don’t know how damaging it is to reinforce the natural-haired black woman = angry, militant, troublesome black woman."

I'd never thought of that. Never even occurred to me. But now that you've pointed it out, I can see that it is, indeed, a stereotype that does not need to be perpetuated.

If you talk about it openly and tactfully, I really believe most people will hear what you're saying. They might not necessarily agree, but at least they have the another point-of-view to draw from, and maybe they'll look at things a little differently, or with more complexity, the next time they're in a situation dealing with race.

Jennifer said...

Tami,
This post really spoke to me--I guess because I think A LOT about race/anti-racism and I think a LOT about how to have open and honest conversations about race, with my college-age students in the classroom, but especially with my friends, colleagues, neighbors and people I meet out and about.

I don't know that we need or even want to get rid of the word "racist" or "racism"--but I think Jay Smooth's bit about how calling someone a racist even if you think they ARE a racist, doesn't allow for a teachable moment in the moment, is important to remember. But hanging onto the word so that later, after some time and some education has gone on, can be helpful to have someone reflect back on his/her actions/words and realize that yes, they have acted in a racist manner or held racist beliefs in the past, and may continue to do so in the future. But the important thing is in the here and now, they want to stop and try to lead an anti-racist life.

missing words said...

Hi Tami,

Not sure I can help answer your question but I really liked this post and wanted to add some thoughts anyway. (plus I'm not in America, and I think the situation there is very unique, in terms of current political climate, history, 'race relations'...)

Currently over here, as you've probably read in blogland, everyone is up in arms debating whether the princes are racist as they've both used racist terms as nicknames for their friends. It's a boring and predictable 'debate' - to me it is obvious that they are racist, I mean how can they not be?? But people here equate racism with being a fully signed up member of the British National Party and/or a violent skinhead, just like you say about racists being cartoonish characters rather than the real people we see and talk to everyday.

I think for me, as a white person, it has been useful to accept that to an extent I am racist, that it has been ingrained in me from birth, and work from that starting point to unlearn racism. It makes me react less defensively when I am called out for having done something racist, so then i can be constructive in changing my consciousness and behaviour. I think this comes back to your last point about white allies being worried to 'say something wrong'. If you know that you most likely will say something wrong at some point but that it's not the end of the world, then you're more likely to say something. Recently someone said to me 'racism has silenced us' and its so true - not just people of colour, but white people as well. The 'well-meaning' whites who are so scared of being called racist they become completely inert on anything to do with race, which makes them complicit in racism. Hence the whole cycle continues. So smashing the 'polite' silence of the political correct crowd is a big priority for me.

I think it helps to talk about power distribution, wealth, healthcare, access to education... all the big issues, when talking about racism to people who are suggesting you're 'playing the race card'. Because as soon as you start looking at the statistics and the details it is clear that we are far from being in a post-racial society.

Apart from that I have no great suggestions at this point, and I've hogged enough of your comment space, but I will be thinking about this more, so thanks for the post.

missing words said...

oops sorry I don't think I clarified that I live in the UK!

Jeyoani said...

Thanks Tami, I love your calm and intelligence on all race issues! So much. I couldn't agree with you more that people don't even know how much black people *do* willlfully excuse bias. Don't people understand that black people and people of all races and in all corners of the world have been enjoying white peoples' stories (via cinema) for the last 50 years? All people in the world regardless their backgruond are bonded to white people--whoever gets to tell their stories gets more loyalty than the other way around.
I don't think we should get rid of "racist" -- same like I don't think we should get rid of "feminist" . The issue in and of itself is difficult is the problem, not the word-people woudl become disgusted by whatever word/s replaced the dreaded "F" or "R" words. The issues surrounding thsoe words wouldn;t change. It's no use to change the word used to represent what the fighters have used to analyze the conditions that created those difficult words. I think it would erase too much codification that is helpful and that people don't wanta face no matter what words you use.
That said, persoanlly I find I usually use the word prejudiced alot. It's I think less off-putting and pretty all-encompassing.

God i couldn't agree with you more that I wish people of whatever backgrounds would call others out on prejudiced directed toward anyone. I have had people look at me like I'm crazy for saying I am uncomfortable with someone saying something against Mexicans, Jews, Asians, etc whoever. I always feel guilty if I don't speak up when someone says something especially blatantly racist. I don't like it when whites won't speak up or when anyone won't speak up if some group is being ill-spoken of with zero caveats or checks- , for me that is not people I want to be around any length of time-people who won't speak up.

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