Tuesday, September 22, 2009

From the vault: May I be offended on your behalf?

[Originally posted on July 31, 2008.]

All of us who suffer inequalities related to race hope that one day the mainstream will "get it." We want them to get institutional bias. We want them to get the nuances between funny and offensive. We want them to get their own privilege. We want them to get our cultural differences, while also getting that we are individuals apart from cultural markers.We want them to understand these things, but there is a fine line between developing an awareness of bias and arrogantly believing that you are so enlightened that you "get" all there is to know about being a person of color. If I am honest, I want white people to "get it," but I don't want them thinking they "get it" better than me--a black woman who actually lives with race bias.

A little over a year ago, I was discussing with a white woman a portrait of a famous black figure, painted by a black artist. Now, this woman is a vocal progressive who views herself as a champion of equality. She sniffed at the image, which I was quite fond of. She said she found the artist's portrayal stereotypical, that the subject's features were exaggerated and--this is the part that really got me--that any black person who saw it would be offended. Except that I am a black person and saw nothing offensive. I bristled at the woman's privileged arrogance--that she would presume to lecture me on what black people think.

I was even more annoyed recently when, on "The View," Elizabeth Hasselbeck started blubbering over the "N word" as two black women looked on in consternation. I thought: "How dare you co-opt the pain of black people. How dare you make this issue about your feelings and not those of the people who have been demeaned by racism. How dare you attempt to "school" two people of color on the perils of racism."

But am I being fair? As white people learn to recognize racial prejudice, don't we want them to call out these injustices when they see them? I mean, that's the point, right? And what about me? As a black woman who understands how race affects my people, what latitude do I have to speak on what is or isn't offensive to Japanese or Native American or Puerto Rican people?

Late last year, when I was writing more pop culture/race stuff, I was tempted to write a post about the Korean American comedian Bobby Lee, who is a cast member on Fox's "MADTV." I have long found Lee's shtick on the show offensive. The way he consistently plays female characters...the running gag that has him pining for his white, female co-stars (never the lone black woman) who treat him with disgust...it seems like the actor is participating in the typical Western emasculation of Asian males (All this aside from his cavalcade of other stereotypical Asian characters). I never wrote that post, though.

See, I don't know how Lee is received in the Korean or larger Asian community. I may be missing some cultural nuance that makes the comedian's work satirical or brave or something. I mean, as much as I am not a fan of Tyler Perry's "Madea" plays and films, it bothers me that white film critics review Perry's work through the lens of majority culture, not understanding the cultural touches that attract so many African Americans to the work. I may agree with the critics that say "Madea Goes to Jail," is an abysmal film, but they often totally miss the important cultural reasons why the film draws both disgust and devotion. And that offends me as much as Perry's poor portrayals of black women. With this in mind, I don't even know if I am right to be offended by Bobby Lee.

There is also maybe a less rational reason I have avoided pontificating too much on offenses against other people of color. I recall a middle-aged white guy, who in an attempt to make conversation with me, brought up how he hates that "the black movies" always portray African Americans as loud and ghetto...and fat. WTF? Actually, once he went on to name some recent movies of the time ("Norbit" and some other stuff), I sort of understood and agreed with his point, but coming from this guy (Who, by the way, isn't known for his racial tact.), the message felt icky. (Never mind that this conversation had fuck all to do with anything. It was one of those "Hey, you're a black person. Let me search for something 'black' to talk about" things.) I felt instinctively on some level that I, as a black person, have the right to critique these things, but his criticism made me want to defend...my people...black actors...something.

It's complicated, no?

I recall every time a non-black editor has changed my use of "black" to African American, "because 'black' is offensive"...I recall every time I have been challenged, overruled and lectured about the feelings of my own community in particular and people of color in general...and I don't want to be the person who does that. About the Bobby Lee post: In the end, I decided that I don't have enough information to dissect Asian stereotypes in popular culture, and I certainly have no right to discuss how a Korean man's acting choices affect his cultural community. I left the topic alone.

It's just too easy to move from being aware to being offensively presumptuous. And, I have to say, as someone who runs in liberal circles, progressives do offensively presumptuous like no one else. There has been a rash of the problem of late. In discussions of sexism vs. racism, the Michelle Obama lynching illustration on Daily Kos and the scandalous New Yorker cover, a lot of progressives have been eager to explain to black people why they should or should not be offended about a thing. My most jaw-clinching encounters have been with white liberals who have done anti-racist work or academic work on a group of non-white people. (African studies, Asian studies, etc.) Sometimes I want to shake these folks--allies who generally mean well--and explain that studying a people, visiting message boards or really admiring a cultural group, isn't the same as being a member of that group.

I guess what we all want is that allies will be sensitive and intolerant of race bias, but that they will keep their privilege in check and remember that the voices of the marginalized should be the loudest ones. The victims of an "ism" must take the lead.

Am I right? Or, can I be offended on someone else's behalf?


Aron said...

As an aspiring ally (white woman), I loved this. As near as I can figure out, my role in this conversation is to be aware there might be issues, to believe people when they report their experience, and to speak up to MY group about what I have seen and been told about. This lesson comes home to me on a regular basis, but one recent one was disliking David Alan Grier as a self-hating black man...only to be told in no uncertain terms by two friends that they loved his work. I went back to look again with new eyes.

OneBrownSnowPea said...

That is such a complex situation and co-sign on your sentiments and feelings. I want white people to "get it", but sometimes when the do "get it" they think they have "it" more than you who actually has to experience and live the reality.

I think it is just their privilege showing when they try to dictate to black people how they should feel about something when it really isn't their place to do so and it never should be no matter how much they "get it".

Cheryl said...

It's such a hard balance to find.

In my feminism work, I find I'm becoming more and more angry that men don't speak up about sexism when I'm around; they sit back and let me take all the heat. And when I express my disagreement with their behavior, they lecture me about how they're my ally and I therefore should never criticize them or else they'll stop helping.

I've tried to use that anger to chart a course in anti-racism work much like the one you describe: participate, but don't lead. The tough part for me is to get up the gumption to stand up to white people who are being racist jerks without losing sight of the fact that I'm not by any measure an expert -- that I *can't* be. My natural inclination, upon recognizing my lack-of-expertise is to not open my mouth in the first place. But then I start to look like those male feminist allies who make me so mad.

So my job is to speak up, even knowing that I risk being wrong, and be willing to shut up and listen when somebody who knows better tells me I'm wrong. Not a comfortable place for me (but who said this was supposed to be comfortable?)

Thanks for re-posting this; it's relevant to what I've been wrestling with lately and I appreciate the opportunity to chew on it from another perspective!

genderbitch said...

It's a serious balancing issue. On one hand it really is good to address issues brought about by ism and privilege where ever one finds them. But at a certain point it tends to slide back into the realm of speaking for marginalized individuals instead of with them.

On one hand if you only fight against things when someone of the group you're helping is there you won't be able to address a huge number of things because people tend to wait until they're not in mixed company to drag out the really nasty stuff.

But on the other hand, speaking for a marginalized group borders on (and often falls into) silencing behavior and comes across as supremely arrogant and privileged.

One of the things that I often do to strike the balance as well as I can is to cite a portion. I know, for instance, that there are some Rroma (a small, spread out population of severely marginalized folk within a semi diverse racial and cultural group, all over Europe) who see the word Gypsy as a complete and utter slur, unusable in their presence in any context and needing to be shifted to the G word or G~ when discussing it even academically (because of how that word is used to attack and marginalize them, especially in Eastern Europe)

But there are also some Rroma folk who attempt to reclaim the word or use it in conjunction with Rroma as a name (despite some of the nasty stereotypes associated with it) because it's what most people think of when they think of the Rroma.

So when someone uses the G word the method by which I correct them is such: "Hey, that word is considered pretty offensive and a slur by a sizeable portion of the Rroma. I'd suggest not using that unless you're around Rroma folk who are okay with it and not near any who aren't."

That approach puts the power back into the hands of the marginalized group by making them the determiners. I still address the usage (and really, privileged folk ought to not use slurs in any case) but I make it abundantly clear that my word may be immediately deprioritized when compared to a Rroma person's word on this.

I know that for myself, the words shemale and tranny are both intensely offensive. But I also know one or two trans women who use those phrases in reclamation. An ally speaking in absolutes on those terms would be silencing those other trans women. Alternately, when I feel safe, I make jokes about the "trap concept" in relation to myself and how hard it is to tell I'm trans. People using it to slur or to hurt is a problem but many allies won't catch that fine distinction between me joking to reduce the impact on me and a privileged person joking in a way that hurts.

Dvd Avins said...

Even when one doesn't have enough knowledge to know whether a portrayal is offensive to those in the group being protrayed, one may have more understanding of how that portrayal will be perceived by those outside the portrayed group, and how that perception my reinforce or undercut stereotypes.

I woudln't want to presume to speak for any group that I am not a part of, but I should, when the occasion calls for it, be able to critique the effect of stereotypes on the culture as a whole.

Monica said...

Wow. Thanks for writing this post.

DancingGrapes said...

Maybe as an ally it is our job not to presume OR to be silent but to ask. Instead of informing you that any black person would be offended by the painting, or that the comedian is racists asking. "This makes me a little uncomfortable because of x - what do you think?"

Because really, it's all about being able to have conversations, not to prove you know best. And something sexist to one woman may be brushed off by another - so why shouldn't a man be offended? Just because ALL women aren't?

It's scary to be an ally because we can never fully take off our privilege, but if we let it prevent us from speaking out, from asking questions, or having conversations, then we all stay locked in our comfortable "people like me" box.

Anonymous said...

I think part of the issue stems from the tension between tribal thinking, and individuals. The tribe often controls consciousness, the individual breaks new ground.

We need our groups and solidarity, but this can also hold us back when we really want to test our wings or fly a bit higher.

teaspoon said...

I think I am guilty of "offended on your behalf" at times. I am of mixed Native American/Alaska native and white ancestry, and I have encountered racism and bias from many sides. My uncle once went on a long tirade about how black people shouldn't complain about slavery so much, because it wasn't as bad as what happened to us as indians. I was offended by that for many reasons, and mainly because following his logic, nobody could complain about anything ever.

On the other hand, I remember having a discussion about being Alaska Native with some progressive minded peers, and one of them asked, "Eskimo is an offensive word right? They use Inuit?" But as far as I know, not being of the traditionally considered "Eskimo" group, that some people may find it offensive, and others self-identify as Eskimo. I don't know anyone who identifies as Inuit; most other AN identify by tribal affiliation (I'm Aleut). I also know that "Indian" (or ndn) is supposed to be offensive, but it's how everyone on my NA side of the family identifies themselves and relates to one another. So I can understand the PC frustration there, too.


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