Wednesday, May 20, 2015

[Trigger Warning: Racism] I Am Perplexed

Last night I'm reading an article on Salon - which is something that I rarely do because they tend to push their advertisements a bit aggressively for my tastes and their script keeps messing up on my version of Firefox - when I came across the article titled, When “harshtags” backfire: Mocking #whitegirltears and joking #killallwhitemen stir up more university debate. In the article there is this suggestion that there is a legitimate debate about who can be labeled "racist" which I find disturbing to see coming up again.

See, back when I was in college I had a very intelligent young man try to argue that only white people could be racist because white people had the power in the United States. For him the term was a subjective one that relied on power structures. For example, if a Chinese man living in China hates a white man because of his race he would then be a racist because in that situation his race has all the power in that society. However, if that same Chinese man were to move to the United States he would no longer be a racist because in the United States the white man's race has power in that society. That the Chinese man hates another person because of their race is secondary to the power of his own race within the context of society. 

I pointed out that this argument struck me as disingenuous and as a way to excuse racism. The Chinese man in the above example is just as much a racist in New York as he is in Beijing. Making allowances for his terrible behavior because of his location and the society he currently occupies is wrong in every way. If you hate someone because of their race you're in the wrong and you're being a racist jerk. He had trouble with that argument because his mind was so wrapped up in the idea that power structures mattered more than anything else in the world. For him every relationship was bound up in who had the power and who was disenfranchised as a result. All his views were constantly shifting standards that would change based on what relationships you entered and your standing within those relationships. The argument was soon put aside, however, as other more pressing issues arose that occupied everyone's debates (read: 9/11, Iraq, and Afghanistan). 

Anyway, here that argument is again and after being away from it for so many years it's shocking to me. I am completely perplexed that people would actually believe that they're not racists because they happen to be a minority in a society even though they fully participate in racist actions. Look, if you hate someone because of their race, regardless of your own race and its standing in your society, you are a racist. You're not exempt because of your own race's societal power, nor are you a reverse racist (which is the dumbest term to ever be coined). You're just a racist and that makes you a shitty person.
Enough talk, Riker beard of space awesomeness.
Okay, that enough of this serious talk. More silly imaginary dwarf games shortly.

15 comments:

  1. I'm not sure that this argument (Ie what is racism) can be won. As long as people treat each other differently based on race it's racism and racist. As with most "Ism's and ist's" the harder a person argues that they are not a participant in that point of view the more material another person has to pick their argument apart. In other words the hard some one argues that something is not "racist" the more likely another person can come along and say "I think thou protest too much." Especially here on the internet when no one really knows anyone, and it's easy to point out another persons perceived privilege and judge them by it.
    the only way to really win an argument about racism is to be good to everyone around you every day, and let those interactions be the cards you hold.

    I prefer silly dwarf games, and would caress Riker's space beard again given the chance.

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  2. Racism is is a system of oppression based on race. In this country, the victims of racism are nonwhite people. A racist isn't just someone who makes judgements based on race; it's someone who plays into that system of oppression.

    Being "racist" against white people is like being "pantsist" against people who don't like to wear shorts. It doesn't play into a system of oppression, so the word has no power behind it. It's more descriptive, in those contexts, to use the word "asshole" instead.

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    1. Charles McEachern Said: Being "racist" against white people is like being "pantsist" against people who don't like to wear shorts. It doesn't play into a system of oppression, so the word has no power behind it.

      By this logic Charles an individual can be racist today but not in the future because a different race has come into power and now oppresses the individual's race. Imagine for the moment that a White individual hates Hispanics. Today he is a racist because Whites hold the power; but within his lifetime it is possible that Hispanics will not only become the majority population in his country but they may gain the upper hand politically and enact an oppressive system of political and societal retributions against all Whites. The man's attitude has not changed; he still hates Hispanics because of their race, only now by this definition he is no longer a racist. His race holds little to no power and is actively and systemically being oppressed by another race because of their race. Now he's just a jerk.

      By the definition that you are using the term has become situational and does not define a vile actor but an ephemeral state of being. "John's an asshole today," will be just as meaningful as "John's a racist today." The term becomes devoid of weight and just another four letter word to be tossed out as freely as any other. That does not reflect the reality of what the word conveys in the real world. It has a power that calling someone a "dick" can never possess because it describes an individual's belief that is far more meaningful both for society and their individual lives. To actively hate someone because of their race - whether they're black, white, Chinese, Korean, or Native American - makes you a racist. And being a racist is infinitely more terrible than being any other four letter word you can imagine because it makes you one of the worst sorts of people. To excuse someone from being a racist because they're a minority race with limited societal power is something I refuse to do.

      Let me put this another way: I have dealt with real racism against myself, my family, and my employees. I have confronted racists at places I've worked at when they have acted out their racial prejudices against my employees (and on several occasions myself). I have confronted racists that were Black, White, Korean, and Hispanic. The only difference between them was the color of their skin. They were all racists and I won't let them off from owning what they are.

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  3. It seems like you believe that "racist" is a stronger insult than "asshole" -- why? If their actions are the same, why is it worse to hate someone on the basis of their race than it is to hate them for the clothes they wear?

    In the case of a black person hating a white person, it's not. In both cases, it's one individual hating another individual for a dumb reason. On the other hand, for a white person hating a black person, "racist" _is_ worse than "asshole."

    Think about it in terms of racial epithets. Nobody cares of you call them a cracker. But the N-word has weight behind it. It's a throwback to the days of white supremacy, and a reminder that plenty of historical baggage remains.

    On an individual level, you might say that anyone harboring race-based hatred is a racist. But racism doesn't make any sense on an individual level. It's a population-level phenomenon, built on centuries of oppression. "Racist" is a word to describe someone who is a part of that phenomenon. To use it any the other way dilutes its meaning.

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    1. Did you even read my comment Charles or are you just responding to what you hoped I would write?

      (1) I did not make an equivalence between "asshole" and "racist" and went out of my way to show that the term "racist" has more weight due to its impact on the individual and society.

      (2) Comparing racial epithets is a false tactic designed to undercut the seriousness of the word "racist" by attempting to draw an equivalence between the terms that does not exist.

      "But racism doesn't make any sense on an individual level. It's a population-level phenomenon, built on centuries of oppression. "Racist" is a word to describe someone who is a part of that phenomenon. To use it any the other way dilutes its meaning."

      (3) By this logic Charles an individual can be racist today but not in the future because a different race has come into power and now oppresses the individual's race. Imagine for the moment that a White individual hates Hispanics. Today he is a racist because Whites hold the power; but within his lifetime it is possible that Hispanics will not only become the majority population in his country but they may gain the upper hand politically and enact an oppressive system of political and societal retributions against all Whites. The man's attitude has not changed; he still hates Hispanics because of their race, only now by this definition he is no longer a racist. His race holds little to no power and is actively and systemically being oppressed by another race because of their race. Now he's just a jerk.

      By the definition that you are using the term has become situational and does not define a vile actor but an ephemeral state of being. "John's an asshole today," will be just as meaningful as "John's a racist today." The term becomes devoid of weight and just another four letter word to be tossed out as freely as any other. That does not reflect the reality of what the word conveys in the real world. It has a power that calling someone a "dick" can never possess because it describes an individual's belief that is far more meaningful both for society and their individual lives. To actively hate someone because of their race - whether they're black, white, Chinese, Korean, or Native American - makes you a racist. And being a racist is infinitely more terrible than being any other four letter word you can imagine because it makes you one of the worst sorts of people. To excuse someone from being a racist because they're a minority race with limited societal power is something I refuse to do.

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    2. As an aside, I think it's weird arguing with someone with my own name. Always have.

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    3. I did read what you wrote. I saw your claim that "racist" is a stronger word than "asshole." That's why I asked you to justify your assertion.

      "It has a power that calling someone a 'dick' can never possess because it describes an individual's belief that is far more meaningful both for society and their individual lives."

      White bias against black people has a societal impact. Black people are punished more harshly than whites for the same crimes (by a mostly-white justice system); the death penalty in particular exhibits a statistically astounding racial bias. Media portrayal of black people is abysmal -- there's more focus on rioting in Ferguson or Baltimore than there is on the hundreds of (mostly black) people shot by police every year. Racially-motivated bias against black people is at a critical mass where it is more than the sum of its individual parts. The effect is so important that we gave it a name: racism.

      What's the societal impact of black bias against white people? What makes that hatred more than the sum of its individual parts?

      Racism is less definitionally elegant when it's asymmetrical. And, as you bring up, it is awkward to think of racism as relative rather than absolute. But racism is only a useful concept insofar as it addresses issues that actually exist.

      Right now, racism is about white supremacy. That's not going to change any time soon. We've made huge strides in the past century, and the country has diversified significantly, but the elite are still overwhelmingly white. Check out a list of billionaires, or high-powered CEOs, or congressional leadership, or top-billed movie stars. It's blinding.

      But sure, hypothetically, let's say that hispanics overtake whites in population, politics, wealth, etc. Let's say they subjugate and persecute whites, completely eliminating the power dynamic between whites and blacks. In this situation, "racism" would be a word used to describe the oppression of whites by hispanics. It would be an important word, because it would help educate people about the history and reality of an unjust system. And if black people started throwing around the word "racist" to talk about asshole whites, they would be diluting the meaning of the word. They would be weakening its power to talk about systemic bias, by using it to focus on individual-level problems.

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    4. Charles McEachern wrote: "White bias against black people has a societal impact. Black people are punished more harshly than whites for the same crimes (by a mostly-white justice system); the death penalty in particular exhibits a statistically astounding racial bias. Media portrayal of black people is abysmal -- there's more focus on rioting in Ferguson or Baltimore than there is on the hundreds of (mostly black) people shot by police every year. Racially-motivated bias against black people is at a critical mass where it is more than the sum of its individual parts. The effect is so important that we gave it a name: racism.

      What's the societal impact of black bias against white people?"


      It's me getting refused service because of the color of my skin. It's my friend getting attacked while riding his bike and being beaten nearly to death because he was a "white boy." It's getting called racial epithets that are way worse than "cracker" and watching a 14 year old girl cry her eyes out next to me because some racist bastard decided she wasn't a human being. It's . . . you know what? I've dealt with too much racism against me, against my friends (of many colors), and against my family (who are also of many colors) to talk about this without it getting personal and angry.

      So let me just put it like this: there is a societal and individual impact for any person, regardless of their race, when they hate another because of their skin color that expresses itself through a variety of ways that range from violence to a refusal of service. To argue that a black person who attempts to kill a white person because they are white is not a racist because they are black is wrong. It fundamentally ignores the act and why it was committed and excuses the person from what they are.

      I realize that you want to talk about it in a detached way but I've lived with actual racism and dealt with actual racists for too long to be able to do that I'm afraid. You see, I've confronted black, white, hispanic, and asian racists in my life and I refuse to let any of them not be recognized for what they were - because the only differences between them was the color of their skin and what race they happened to hate at the moment. They all used the same language (with a change of racial epithets), attempted the same (often violent) solution to dealing with their target, and all of them ended up on their ass outside my work place because I wouldn't put up it.

      A racist is someone who hates another person because of their skin color. Take that from someone who's been dealing with them his whole life.

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    5. I'm not trying to belittle your experiences. I absolutely believe that you, and the people you care about, have endured hardship as a result of racial bias. Hatred from one individual to another is appalling, period; I don't need to know anything about culture or history to be nauseated by unprovoked violence.

      I hope you see my point, too. Within a social justice context -- in a country trying to talk about Ferguson and Baltimore and wealth disparity -- "racism" refers to systemic phenomena. The word "racist" is powerful because it refers back to the disenfranchisement of millions.

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  4. You might as well give up Charles (Akins). You are not even communicating with these people--you can't--you're not even speaking the same language. It might look superficially like English. They probably insist that they are speaking English, but in fact you are just shouting oddly familiar sounding words at each other that have totally different meanings in their 'English' than they do in yours. It's pointless.

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    1. Oh, I don't know about that. Charles (McEachern) and I agree on a lot of things. He's very clever and I think that he's speaking honestly from a position that he earnestly holds. That we disagree and that we're having a conversation about that seems a natural part of the human condition and not some sort of gibberish that we're babbling at each other.

      Also "these people?" Which people are you referring to Tom?

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    2. Specifically I was referring to Charles McEachern, and the person you described from your college days, but also more generally a number of individuals that I have tried to argue with in the past on a variety of topics, not just racism (and you may have had a similar experience).

      Some people that I've debated with who may seem totally rational and even agree with me on a lot of things, have one or more "hot-button" issues where there seems to be just no possibility of common ground. You can try to build a logical argument. You can try drawing analogies to other things that you once agreed on, whatever, nothing gets through. They seem to misinterpret everything you say, no matter how clearly and simply you think you stated it. Then it dawns on you that you might as well be speaking different languages, because neither party to the conversation is willing to accept the other's definition of the terms needed to discuss it.

      As an example, to you racism is hating someone because of their skin color, etc. To other Charles, racism "is is a system of oppression based on race." The difference here is not a small one. You think of racism as an individual choice. He seems to think of it as a massive institutionalized conspiracy.

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    3. Well said.

      Also, I was just teasing because I knew who you were talking about but you responded with eloquence and now I feel like a chode for trying to be funny.

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  5. Yeah, electronic text so ofter fails to convey tone. I took your jest for a serious question when I probably shouldn't have...

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