Monthly Archives: February 2011

Talking to whites about their (our) racism: a question for anti-racists

Memphis, TN, is one of the few American cities where a critical aspect of white privilege is almost impossible to sustain—namely, the part that means almost never finding oneself in the minority. In Memphis, whites are outnumbered 2 to 1 by blacks, and other demographic factors can make the ratio “feel” much higher. (The city provided my first experience of being the sole white person in a filled-to-capacity venue. This was at the Applebee’s down the street from my house—hardly the Apollo fucking Theater.)

My wife and I spent a year there as part of her (pharmacy) grad schooling. The UT Health Services program attracts a large crop of students each year. Of course, many of these students are white, and as grad students who can afford to relocate—future doctors, dentists and pharmacists, at that—are privileged even among whites.

A quarter of the pharmacy students must complete their final three years at a satellite campus in Knoxville. My wife and I made this move, and naturally drew many acquaintances from this smaller “expat” community.

Among the white classmates, there are frequent expressions of “relief” to be out of Memphis due to the tangible “racial tension” there. When pressed, this inevitably reduces to anecdotes about how some (or a lot, or most) black people there were rude or standoffish toward them. (Note that the alleged cases are typically ones in which the white person is the patron of some customer service the black person is providing them; buying shit is really the extent of the “victims’” experience with local, non-school-related African-Americans.)

While they accuse these blacks of poor behavior, I have never witnessed overt racism attending these accounts. However, I strongly suspect that these impressions are due to latent racism on the part of the white students. (Shit, I know it is.) And naturally I have the urge to “prove” this to them.

I have tended to argue in the following way:

(1) My own experience has not matched theirs. Note too, my data set is probably far larger and more representative: Not being a student, I was more in “the real world” than they. My friends, neighbors and coworkers were likelier to be drawn from the general population, rather than the grad school community.

(2) Studies strongly suggest that high majorities of whites who do not perceive themselves to be racist tend to hold latent racist views. I like to say: “If an open, avowed racist—a klansman or something—relayed a string of negative encounters with blacks, wouldn’t we suspect his racism had something to do with these impressions?; but then, why not suspect a latent racist’s racism as responsible for the identical class of impressions?”

Specifically, those studies indicate that whites tend to rate the same ambiguous behavior as more aggressive or “personal” when performed by blacks rather than by fellow whites. (The evidence is broken down in sect. (ii) of this post; the citations are in Tim Wise’s blog, my original source.)

None of this really “works,” despite my confidence that my associates are overall decent, well-intentioned types. To them, as to most whites (most people?), “racism” always refers to bald, deliberate nastiness toward people of color; knowing they don’t feel this way about blacks, they resist the attribution of racist ideas. (Though I always include myself in the charge.)

Finally, to myself, I entertain a completely different defense angle:

(3) Assuming the white complainants are accurately recounting these exchanges, the “inhospitable” behavior could be perfectly justified. The fact of generalized white racism—or rather, the fact that blacks are aware of generalized white racism—can engender perfectly rational “trust issues.” (None of these are very exotic in kind; they are the sort of thing each of us has dealt with in some relationship or another.) One is reluctant to bestow much effort on someone who is not sure to appreciate it, much less to sincerely reciprocate; or to bend over backward in a service capacity for someone who is likely to think it is his or her “proper place” to do so in the first place; etc. (If you already see me as a clown, the last thing I’m gonna do is tell you a joke.)

(Note that “erring on the side of niceness” is not a risk-free option here. Acting within a trust deficit is no zero sum game. Turning out to be a sucker—or in this case, wondering if you’ve been one—takes a psychic toll.)

I haven’t pressed this line of argument for fear it concedes too much to the whites’ accounts; I don’t wish to reinforce a belief that blacks are standoffish. (Again, that hasn’t been my experience.) I’m only saying that if this is the case, there may be a good reason.

* * *

To conclude with a question:

This issue points well beyond what to tell my friends in isolated conversations. Any anti-racist work will encounter the “rude/unruly black” meme soon enough.

For example, during the 2009 Henry Louis Gates, Jr. flap, anti-racist advocates such as Tim Wise and Michael Eric Dyson were afforded public fora on the matter. They had to address the routine charge that Gates needlessly escalated the confrontation.

Some responded to the effect that, given the prevalence of racist ideas, racial profiling, etc., “it isn’t a crazy idea to ask if racism had to do with the incident.” And I agree—just as I contend it “isn’t crazy” to ask whether racism accounts for these impressions of those white students.

But this answer seems unsatisfying. My burden is how we might go further and actually answer the question with a, “yes, it was indeed racist” in a given case—especially in a way that might impress a (decent, well-intentioned) white critic.

So is the case I make to the white students even a good one? Is it the best sort of case one can hope for? Or what?

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Two riffs on homophobia

(1) “Enlightened homophobia” and straight privilege

Everyone has heard some version of, “I don’t mind gays so long as they don’t bother me.” This is somewhat like saying, “I don’t mind grocery clerks so long as they don’t throw canned goods at me when I enter the store.” Even if the statement were acceptable on its own, the fact that one would bother making it at all calls even his qualified acceptance of grocery workers into question. The fact that he isn’t saying it about other groups of workers assumes some special propensity on the part of these groups to misbehave.

What these vaguely enlightened types mean by “gays bothering them” is most often: approaching them romantically, making out in front of their children, etc. Once we plug in this variable, the comparison to grocery store workers is less apt. Of course we blame grocery workers for hurling stock at patrons; but on what grounds do we blame, say, gay men for approaching straight men? (I target straight men here because they are the demographic from which the argument tend to emerge.) Why must gay men bear the burden of making absolutely 100% sure in advance that whomever they are approaching is receptive to the approach? It is quite possible that the target of a cold straight approach could be a lesbian; yet straight men hold themselves to no such standard. (And holding different social groups to different standards is, in a word, discrimination.)

And why limit mandatory advance knowledge to knowledge of sexual orientation? When I equated matching orientation with “receptivity,” this was a pretty cavalier simplifying device. Any number of straight women are unreceptive to any number of straight men, too; and sexual orientation is just one of many factors that would make them so. Men concerned to “not bother” an unreceptive woman would have to deal with this entire catalogue. The whole enterprise of flirtation would be fatally hampered by an attempt to obtain all the requisite information beforehand. A clinical demographic survey is quite the turn-off for an opener.

Nor would it be enough; receptivity to a romantic approach is at least in part determined by how the approach itself goes, and thus logically cannot be determined in advance no matter what “facts” we know about the parties. (My wife and I are damned compatible, but we’d never have gotten off the ground if on our first meeting I’d shat my pants and addressed her only through a ventriloquist’s dummy.) We simply cannot know if we are open until we see a bit more of what we are opening ourselves to.

(2) The “incomprehensibility argument” against homosexuality

Years ago, I thought I had heard a certain “argument” against homosexuality. It was so absurd that in time, I figured this was misremembering. But sure enough, I heard it again a few times lately. This prompted some light internet research which yielded many more references (including this recent invocation by Mike Huckabee). I talked to some of my coworkers about gay marriage and it was the first thing two of them said about it.

One might call this the “incomprehensibility” argument—insofar as it can be called an argument at all. It consists entirely in the homophobe’s sheer inability to understand why, for instance, a man would want to be with another man. (I hear this argument from both sexes, but mostly of gay men.) It is not entirely clear what this even means. This can’t be like not “understanding” a math problem or a foreign language. It is some kind of failure to “project,” to imagine or picture oneself in the position of having this attraction—and of course the conclusion that the attraction must then be wrong.

So much can be said here. Is the homophobe saying, because he can’t imagine these feelings, he doubts that gay men actually have them for one another? Surely not. But then, if it is true that someone can “imagine” this, the argument wouldn’t apply to those persons’ behavior, right? Homosexuality wouldn’t be wrong for them. Surely it is not the case that, if not everyone is gay, then no one can be. The strongest mandate the logic permits is: Don’t be gay if you can’t imagine what it is like. (And I imagine you wouldnt if you cant.)

By the same token, the homophobe can’t “understand” so many other things—why his friends enjoy cigarettes, or Indian food, and soforth. There are even straight sexual acts, no less—some underworld kink, if nothing else—which he doesn’t “get.” This is, I think, almost exactly what it means to have different interests; and everyone’s interests differ at least somewhat from everyone else’s. In such cases, we don’t work up our lack of imaginative projection into a norm against these activities. Another’s interests could be wrong, yes, but we demand other kinds of evidence to make the case. Nobody says, “I don’t get 70’s music, so it is immoral.” And nobody would listen if they did.

Conversely, many homosexuals will fail to “get” the homophobe’s attraction to women. They can’t imagine themselves wanting that. Should it not follow that the homophobe’s orientation is also wrong? For him to maintain that his own lack of understanding “counts” here, and the homosexuals’ does not, simply begs the question: His argument is supposed to show that homosexuality is spurious; that same argument cannot simply assume that conclusion when it gets in trouble.

Finally—and I consider this the kicker—even the most rabid gay-basher already accepts sexual ‘orientations’ he doesn’t “understand”: He is no more able to “picture” his wife’s or lover’s attraction for men, or for him in particular. He (we’ll assume) is not turned on to look at himself in the mirror, or at other men. But this inability does not lead him to doubt the reality nor the moral legitimacy of his lover’s attraction to him, or to males. He cannot have it both ways; if the “incomprehensibility argument” is rational, then, his lover’s behavior is not.