22 May 2005

Dialogue dialogue

For readers' convenience, I've created an index of dialogue with Demondoll2001 so you can see the full progress of the discussion
Some time ago, I posted a piece about some of the challenges of deep interracial dialogue. More recently, DemonDoll2001 stumbled across the post and made some interesting, pointed comments about it. I responded there, and dropped her a line --- might we stir up some interracial dialogue ourselves? She said yes, and picks up from our exchange on the original post.

I invite the brave to read the next round of dialogue ...

DemonDoll2001 responds to that previous post:

I'm sure I have blind-spots, too. Who doesn't? I'm glad to hear that that is not your blind-spot, however.

Yes, we bring our past experiences to our conversations. But I wasn't making any accusations, Jonathan. I was simply stating what I have seen in the past. Most "white" people I have met in the past were insincere when they said they wanted to become anti-racist. I think they felt guilty, but at the same time, I think they were comfortable with how their lives were, and they did not really want to change and become "anti-racist", because that would require having to change how they lived. Most adults get set in their ways by the time they reach a certain age, and they don't want to change. That goes for anyone, not just "whites".

As for the term "PoC", it's just too broad for my liking, but it serves the purpose of this conversation, so I will continue using it. "White" is another term I dislike. I don't like color-coding people, and of course, race is a social construct. Middle-Easterners used to be seen as "white" in the early 1900s, but as society changed, they came to be labelled as non-white later on. What is white but an arbitrary category?

Having said that, I'd love to have a conversation about race with you. I think I could definitely point out some things about race that you may not have noticed. And I'm sure you could give me a perspective which I myself lack. So, what do you say? Are you game?

I'd like to pick up on a couple of things in that reply, DD, that relate to some things I've been thinking about for quite some time: the level and type of commitment that Whites should have to antiracist practice, and the language of "color" in reference to race. I'll take the language first.

The specific language we use to refer to race is, of course, highly loaded. "People of color" is semantically indistinguishable from "colored people," but culturally very different; strangely, though they mean the same thing, it does not mean the same thing to say them. The first signals familiarity with a certain contemporary rhetoric of antiracism, while the second echoes the langauge of the Jim Crow South. I think we share a certain discomfort with this arbitrariness --- which as you say, points to the arbitrariness of race itself as a cultural invention.

One way I tend to respond to this is to avoid the odd, currently fashionable term African American. It seems that every couple of decades we have to come up with a new term for this racial flag --- we can walk back from African American to Afro-American to Negro to Colored to the Word We Dare Not Use, feeling more awkward as we take each step, and encounter the roots of retro-sounding organizations' names: the United Negro College Fund, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

So for this category, I tend to use "Black," as it is so old and metaphorically rich a word that it feels, to me, like it transcends changing fashion in language. Yes, it is a strange word: to be called Black is not, after all, to be the actual color black. Just as to be called White is not, after all, to be the color white. I like that strangeness, a little wink at the cultural artifice at work.

I wish I could come up with a suitable corresponding word for "Asian," which I use for lack of options. Thanks to Edward Said's wonderful and influential book Orientalism, we cannot help but hear the racism lurking in the word "Oriental." "Yellow," obviously, is utterly unacceptable, far too laden with racism. But "Asian" is a poor substitute --- it is very awkward that we use it in reference to people with the distinctive features of southeast Asia, but not the Indian subcontinent, the steppes of Russia, Persia or Arabia or the other parts of the vast continent of Asia. But lacking a viable alternative, I use "Asian" in this strange way myself.

Likewise, I feel stumped looking for a replacement for "PoC," short for "person of color." We need some term for all people in America culturally marked as not-White. I use it with no enthusiasm, until better language comes along.

But the more interesting question is White antiracist practice. What kind? How much?

I think that it's important to start by underlining the important distinction between practice at the society scale and at the individual scale. There is need for both, but they need different kinds of action. This discussion started with some comments of mine about the individual scale, and I'd like to focus there, but I think in order to do so it's necessary to first set things things up about the broad social scale.

At that level, we see explicit and implicit institutional mechanisms of racism: bank redlining, differential police enforcement, poverty, and on and on. These compel institutional remedies --- government regulation, police oversight, education and antipoverty efforts, and so forth. Whites as a class have a responsibility to accept the costs --- financial and social --- of these institutional changes. And this links to Whites as individuals needing to embrace the necessary scale of these efforts, rhetorically and politically. There is some room for discussion and disagreement about what kind of effort will be effectively antiracist at this scale. But I affirm that there is no room for disagreement about what amount of effort is warranted: there is a lot of work to do, and a moral imperative to undertake it.

At the individual scale, however, things get murkier.

Yes, I've just said that Whites need to say that big efforts at the social scale are warranted, and to politically support those efforts. That's where the small and personal meets the large and social. And needless to say, too many Whites don't do even that much. But that's just part of the picture.

Many Whites just about break their arms patting themselves on the back for their lack of personal racial prejudice. There is a grain of truth to that self-congratulation: I think it's fair to say that two generations ago there was a widespread and accepted level of prejudice among Whites that really doesn't exist any more in its breadth and acceptance. That is a great cultural victory, and I think that Whites can rightly claim to have policed it themselves ... driven by a forceful and much needed wake-up call from PoCs.

But too many Whites think that their personal responsibility ends there. As you say, DD, this is in large part because of unwillingess to change. But I think that it is also because of a shared failure of imagination on all our parts about what kind of change is necessary and appropriate. And this is because the problems are hard.

For instance, sheer ignorance is a powerful mechanism in racism in action. But it's a tricky one to act against. Combatting one's own ignorance is difficult ... and potentially a bottomless pit, impossible to address as fully as one ideally would want to. How does an individual White person learn the things that will overcome their ignorance? How does this need for wiser Whites fit together with PoCs' understandable fatigue with undertaking the educational process? If PoCs' can't always help, is it even possible for Whites to undertake it themselves? And how far does it go? How much need a White individual learn about Black culture? Latino culture? The history of race in America? How finely do we slice it? The Latino experience, for instance, is not monolithic after all --- if I live in San Francisco, how much should I have to understand the experience of Cuban immigrants who are concentrated in Florida?

Nobody, it seems to me, has fully satisfying answers to these kinds of questions. We don't even have a good context in which to talk about them. Which is why an experiment like this dialogue is so appealing --- to try to find that context, to look for those answers.

So. Asking your personal opinion, DD --- I'm White and I want to be more effectively anti-racist as an individual. What do you think are the most important things I can do? Where to start?


TheWayOfTheGun said...

Sometime around 1988 I was back in Michigan where I grew up. I was having lunch with my friend Jiro and his parents. At one point during the meal Mr. Masuda said to me, "Mike, I read in the paper that pretty soon [U.C.] Berkeley is going to have an oriental majority." Living in Berkeley, I'd grown accustomed to people jumping down the throat of anyone who dared to say "oriental" instead of "asian," but since Mr & Mrs Masuda were Japanese immigrants, I suspected their intentions were good.

Mr & Mrs Masuda were amazed to learn that "oriental" was considered offensive in California. Neither had ever heard the word used in an offensive manner. "What's offensive about that? We are oriental. That's what we are." Some years later, the migration from oriental to asian made its way to Michigan as well.

I can understand why some people want to adopt new terminology from time to time and throw off the connotations of the old. For the most part I'm happy to refer to people by whatever terms they prefer.

Battling actual racism is a much harder problem than battling terminology. For the most part, the "I hate [whoever]" flavor of racism has been defeated in this country. No doubt there are pockets of it here and there, but such hatred has gone from the norm to the fringes. I certainly don't know anybody who holds such views, and people who do harbor such overt racism seem to know to keep their mouths shut about it in polite company.

The next hurdle in race-relations is a far trickier one. Now we have to combat subtle racism. Just about anybody brought up in the USA has some ingrained racism but-- WE DO NOT THINK OF OURSELVES AS RACISTS. Racists are the guys sporting confederate flags, shouting the n-word from every rooftop. Instead the racism of most Americans manifests as a subtle bias. That makes combating racism a complex challenge.

If we notice subtle racism in action and call out the perpetrator, we have a problem. "You racist bastard! You make that hiring decision based on race instead of qualifications! You are evil!" If the perpetrator doesn't see him/herself as a racist, then angry accusations of racism just make matters worse. If you call me racist and I "know" that I am not, then you look like a hothead extremist and I stop taking you seriously. The situation becomes worse instead of better.

So how do we combat subtle racism? I don't know, but I am inclined to agree with Eleanor Clift who says that race relations is one of those rare problems where the solution is actually more talk.

The trouble is, we aren't really very good at talking about race. We must walk on eggshells. Even making REFERENCE to race can easily be misinterpreted as racist. Suppose I'm trying to point out a person standing across the room from me. If I am referring to the lone black guy standing with three white guys, I don't dare mention his race. I am going to scan for some other distinguishing feature, however subtle, just so I can avoid appearing racist. "He's the one wearing Dockers." "He's the one with the silver glasses." Anything to avoid the mention of race.

I would resent having to jump through that particular hoop if not for the fact that when the roles are reversed, and somebody says "he's the [whatever race] guy," I immediately think the speaker might be a racist. How can we have a productive dialog when it is hard to even speak the words aloud? We have a long way to go.

Jonathan Korman said...

Aye. That's stuff I want to write about at length at some point. For the moment though, a little story.

I'm told that the United States Marine Corps was grappling with these issues of language, and decided that all US Marines are green. If you ask a Marine if he knows Seargent So-And-So, he may point toward a truck with a black guy and white guy next to it and say, "Do you see that light green Marine over there?"