24 February 2004

Interracial dialogue

Cobb has a terrific post about one of my favorite points, our lack of a good language for talking about racism in America.
The reason 'racism' seems to be such a squishy term is because of racism. That is to say, blacks and whites and others are not engaged on a permanent basis in discussions about race and racism. They are separate. So if you grow up white talking about racism with whitefolks, then you will have a separate idea about what it is from that of blackfolks. What's also implied is that you will have fewer ways to talk about it in practice because it is a theory to you. So being provocative about it, theoretical discussions about racism within in a single race group only exacerbates the problem of racism itself because it reinforces words with meanings that are not shared outside of the group. Without firsthand experience this dissonance may be irrevocable.
I think this is a powerful insight. It is very, very hard just to get to the point where we are communicating clearly about this stuff, much less are gaining any insight. In my experience, even smart well-intentioned people of mutual goodwill keep saying to each other, ''you're misreading me!''

I suspect this isn't even primarily about miscommunicating the content of what's said -- though there is that. I think a lot of this comes from assumptions in the background. I've had countless dialogues which looked (to me) like this:

Me: I want to get some insight about what kind of things I can do on an individual level to act against racism.

Person of Color: You're letting yourself off easy. Racism exists on an institutional level.

Me: Not at all. I recognize that racism exists at an institutional level, and I think that part of my responsibility is to act against it. I just wanted to open a discussion about individual action.

PoC: I think you're trying to let yourself off the hook, saying ''racism isn't real because look, I personally am not a Klansman.''

Me: I recognize that racism is real. Maybe it's more productive to talk at the institutional level first. There's a lot going on there. What should responsible whites do about it? Voting Democrat sure isn't enough.

PoC: You have to stop accepting the white privilege that comes from those institutions.

Me: Absolutely, but I'm puzzled about how to go about that on an individual, day-to-day level. It's not like I can just sign a form saying ''I renounce my white privilege as of today.''

PoC: You're not recognizing the privilege you experience. Whites don't, because they don't have the perspective that comes from suffering the effects of racism.

Me: Maybe so, but I'm trying to, right here.

PoC: I know you don't see this and you never will, nor are you even capable of even beginning to do so.

There are several breakdowns going on in a situation like this. My perception of this kind of dialogue is that somehow I'm incapable of engaging without repeatedly appearing to dismiss racism as a phenomenon. Indeed, it seems to be hard to ask for elaboration on anything without sounding dismissive of it. It's hard to talk about fixing these rhetorical problems without seeming like I'm saying our problems demand rhetoric rather than action. All of these are in the background before we even get to what's being said.

The net effect is that whites and PoCs both lose interest in the dialogue because it leads nowhere, or even seems to demonstrate intransigence on the other side. I'm stumped for how I personally, or we as a nation, can pull out of this trap.

For readers' convenience, I've created an index of dialogue with commenter Demondoll2001 so you can see the full progress of the discussion


demondoll2001 said...

Hello, I found your Blog by way of Sophiaserpentia's LJ post.

It seems to me that you simply haven't talked to enough People of Color--we're not all alike, after all. I'll admit that some PoC tend to behave the way you've described--that is usually because they're tired of upper-middle-class white people who pretend to be "anti-racists", but who are not sincere.

If you'd ever asked me that question, I could certainly tell you some ways that you can be anti-racist effectively. I'm Asian-American, by the way, not that it matters. I don't really like the term "People of Color", because it lumps everyone who is not white together into a not-so-logical category, as if we were all essentially the same and had the exact same needs, which is of course not true at all.


Jonathan Korman said...

I certainly take your point about PoCs being rightly weary of attempting this kind of dialogue.

But I see your response to my post as a small example of the very point I was trying to make.

You've read me as implying that all PoCs are alike. That's surprising to me; I don't doubt that I have many racism blindspots, but I'm pretty clear that this isn't one of them.

I doubt that your surprising reading springs from something I really said. Rather, it springs from encounters you've had in other contexts. All of us walk into these subjects informed by past encounters, and I think it's easy to misread someone as falling into a pattern that you've heard before.

So I read this as another example of how we lack a language in which I can flag that I'm talking about PoCs in a general way for a specific purpose in this context only.

And ... for what it's worth, I'm no more fond of the term "person of color" than you are, for a whole host of reasons. One of these days, I'd like to blog about it, as I think there is some deep screwiness in the language of racial categories used in anti-racist circles. Still, it is sometimes useful to have a term to refer to any-people-who-are-subject-to-racism-in-America, as in this post. So I settled for PoC as a term of convenience, rather than double the length of the post on a subject that didn't contribute to my main point.