Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Funny, and yet not

I think if I went to a workshop like this, I wouldn't be able to keep from laughing at it.

11 Comments:

At 4/06/2010 6:05 AM, Blogger Chris Zeichman said...

I'm sorry, dude... I can't figure out what's funny about this. Even setting aside the condescending tone portrayal of them as earnest and misguided (or the entire conclusion, for that matter), the author seems to have put minimal effort into understanding the dominant scholarly work on the generic categories "race," "gender," "ethnicity," etc. and instead assume his quasi-libertarian worldview (which his primary readership presumably shares) is self-evident. Perhaps I'm too used to scholarly articles that require a thesis and actual arguments to support a point, instead of ridicule and appeals to "common sense" (I mean this of the media in general; even my beloved Stewart and Colbert do so on a regular basis).

If nothing else, at least there is a group of laity that is putting in a sincere effort to reduce their participation in structural racism. As opposed to, say, writing a snide op-ed about them for a major Canadian news web site and not actually addressing the underlying issues (which I infer is the myth of meritocracy, though you may disagree) in any clear way.

 
At 4/06/2010 7:06 AM, Blogger Randomscrub said...

I agree that this is not exactly a substantive article, but it fairly accurately reflects many of my impressions of what I'll refer to as (for lack of a better term, which you may be able to supply) the "academic" approach to racism.

It's probably a function of the fact that there is a fairly large philosophical divide between how I (and this author) think about racism, and how academics in the field do. I essentially view most of that literature as so removed from reality as to be useless. They seem to us to focus on semantics, rather than content, and to require one to avoid direct confrontation of problems in favor of what looks more like dancing around the issues and refusing to actually address them. (Not to mention requiring ruthless self-censorship so as to avoid the remote possibility of offending anyone.)

Essentially, I much prefer a world in which I can do/say what I think, and if someone views me as having been racist, they pull me aside and we can discuss it like adults. This ideally would boil down to "Dude, that offended me, here's why," followed by me saying "I'm sorry, I never thought about it like that, I feel like a jerk now, and I will avoid that behavior in the future." Honestly, I don't see why that's a terrible alternative, and the way those who espouse the "academic" view seem to look down their noses at people like me, rather than actually try to convince us of anything, doesn't really help. Quite frankly the elaborate contortions of speech and thought espoused by the "academic" alternative just looks like a lot of unproductive work.

Why am I wrong? It seems like nobody ever wants to tell me, they just want to assert that I am and then feel superior about themselves because they're so "culturally sensitive" or something.

I'm not quite sure what you mean by "the myth of meritocracy," which seems like it's probably referencing a milieu with which I am unfamiliar, so I can't really engage with that point.

 
At 4/06/2010 8:06 AM, Blogger Chris Zeichman said...

I guess I DO see it as something eminently "practical," in that the way we mentally structure and relate race-related concepts immediately affects our actions. For my own research, I'm concerned with how modern conceptions of race and ethnicity inform our readings of the New Testament; that its constituent books are used primarily to legitimize religious and social policies, I think, helps my point that the "ivory tower" charge is flawed (Edward Said wrote a book entitled Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, which, while composed before 9/11, still proves relevant). I guess I tended to see it the other way: by claiming "colorblindness" (or similar concepts) we exempt ourselves from acknowledging the perpetration of various forms of racism, akin to trying to cure cancer by refusing to go to the doctor - to use a friend's analogy.

The incomplete picture we got of the group (necessarily so, it would be unreasonable to expect a complete transcription of the event), we can only speculate as to the logic the leaders used, which I am not so certain is that much different from what you're saying with your comment "This ideally would boil down to "Dude, that offended me, here's why," followed by me saying "I'm sorry, I never thought about it like that, I feel like a jerk now, and I will avoid that behavior in the future.""

This sentence, "I wasn't treating Karen like a "full human being" who might have thoughts and worries at variance with the superficially friendly workplace attitude." leads me to believe that the leaders were trying to figure out if it is something "Jim" does systematically (via superficial friendliness with Karen), which would add complexity to Sandy's understanding and be able to address the issue head on. That's just my speculation, since the article (or the leader, perhaps) never says what Sandy is "supposed" to do after talking to Karen. Whether the writer was a smart-ass who decided to mock this group before he even went in, was genuinely put-off by the ideas they pushed, or some combination of the two is difficult to tell, to be honest.

With meritocracy, I'm going to quote Toby Young: "America is a faux meritocracy in which abhorrent levels of inequality are justified by an appeal to a principle of social justice that, however sacred, has yet to be implemented. To use a baseball analogy, America's most successful citizens were born on third and think they've hit a triple." This quickly translates into race, where much criticism of Affirmative Action, for example, obscures the fact that there are other devices in place which do similar work for Caucasians in the University (most especially "Legacy" programs, but also more benign things like favorable school districts, differing concepts of "leisure" time and how that effects study routines, etc.). This isn't to say that Affirmative Action isn't deeply flawed in its central conceits, but that the assumption that there is something resembling a level "playing field" where the worthy succeed is naive and unhelpful, and seems to have been a major part of the workshop discussed in the article.

 
At 4/06/2010 10:50 AM, Blogger Randomscrub said...

You say that "I guess I DO see it as something eminently "practical," in that the way we mentally structure and relate race-related concepts immediately affects our actions." This is the way I look at race, because quite frankly, I find the study of it uninteresting, and I only care about it insofar as being racist is bad (and thus to be avoided).

It looks like a lot of the disagreement centers around conflating two different kinds of racism: (1) structural, and (2) personal. Normal people are pretty solely concerned with (2) personal racism, i.e. not being a racist personally. Academics are primarily concerned with (1) structural racism, which I interpret as an intention to reorder society such that societal institutions are not racist.

When me, normal schmuck, hears all this talk about racism, I immediately think about (2), because it's all I can control. So when I hear people calling out others about being racist, that's the only definition I can see. If they meant (1), then calling someone a racist by that definition is meaningless, because it is not the person, but the system.

I still don't really get why "colorblindness" would be a bad thing in daily life. What is so appalling about denying that race is a useful classification? (Keep in mind that this term, as used by most people, comes from an individualist perspective, and tries to convey the goal of evaluating each individual according to their own merits, and denying the validity of racial stereotypes in informing these evaluations.)

The meritocracy issue seems at best tangentially related (and I think you state the argument in a stronger form than I'd buy). I don't really feel like getting into that one.

 
At 4/06/2010 11:23 AM, Blogger Chris Zeichman said...

I'm glad to hear that we are in substantial agreement.

But a lot of academics have argued that we CAN resist structural racism and actively combat it. Tim Wise, in White Like Me suggests the following:

~Refuse to accept jobs that come your way thanks to personal connections, unless those same connections are also open to persons of color

~Refuse to use your alumni status at a school in order to get your kid into college, if you're white

~Refuse to shop at institutions with a pattern or history of discrimination

~Refer to white people with a racial designation when discussing them (just as we so often do with people of color) so as to stop normalizing whites as synonymous with human beings, or Americans.

~Refuse to attend a religious institution that insists on representing Jesus and/or God as white, or if you do attend such an institution, challenge the imagery

~Spread the word to folks of color you know, on those occasions when you learn of job openings, and give them any inside knowledge you may have about things the employer might be looking for in a candidate.

He has several more suggestions, but I think that those work well with my point that structural issues can be addressed by "normal people," even if the consequences/labor may be difficult. Then again, that's part of the point. We can't think about addressing race as thought it were some sort of prisoner's dilemma, by which defection for personal interest is a reasonable action.

Regarding this idea: "I still don't really get why "colorblindness" would be a bad thing in daily life. What is so appalling about denying that race is a useful classification?"

1) Most people who ask this question are white, for whom "the importance of race" is associated with "white pride," something atypical of minority conceptions of ethnicity, where race has only recently become something to be proud of.

2) As much people might wish for a meritocracy (I use this in reference to your idea of judgment-of-individuals), this idea is, I think, too unrealistic to be of significant use. This is simply because we cannot judge people apart from race completely (keeping in mind its frequent marriage with the hierarchies of language, "values," religion, class, education, art, etc. by which people order their world) and to pretend we can do so accomplishes relatively little when compared to approaches dealing with race in an emphatically self-conscious manner. In my research, innumerable scholars and theologians make claims to colorblindness and then proceed to make incredibly racist comments (most often those unfortunately perpetuated by Christian [and especially Protestant] caricatures of Jews). This is a matter for another time, though.

3) This approach requires little self-reflection about one's own conceptions of and interactions with "race," which tends to mean that people let themselves off the hook rather than recognizing patterns of interaction.

 
At 4/06/2010 12:30 PM, Blogger Randomscrub said...

Interesting take on structural racism, which looks a bit different than I'd imagined it (though, again, it's a fuzzy thing, which makes it all the more annoying and difficult to deal with). I'll try to engage with these points, in hopes that this will give you a better view of my perspective.

1) Refuse to accept jobs that come your way thanks to personal connections, unless those same connections are also open to persons of color

This seems a bit strange. I guess I have a hard time as viewing a network of human relationships as possibly "racist." I'm trying to make sense of it, and no matter how I squint at it I have the nagging suspicion that I just don't understand where he's coming from here. My networks contain few people of color (for some reason, nobody likes to count the various Asian ethnicities as such). Does this mean that in order to fight structural racism, anyone for whom I act as a connection should refuse my help until I go find a token "person of color" to shoehorn into my networks?

2) Refuse to use your alumni status at a school in order to get your kid into college, if you're white

Not happening. I can't see myself sabotaging my child's future for the sake of a minuscule change in the admissions process. I would however, lobby the school administration to kill that part of their admissions system. This however, would be based on my desire for a meritocratic admissions system, which is a broader concern than that about racism per se.

3) Refuse to shop at institutions with a pattern or history of discrimination

I can't really fault that one. The boycott is a classic move to express disapproval of institutional behavior.

4) Refer to white people with a racial designation when discussing them (just as we so often do with people of color) so as to stop normalizing whites as synonymous with human beings, or Americans.

This makes sense in some contexts, but not all. I can see what he's trying to do, but it only makes sense if racial designation is a useful signifier in that context. For example, his suggestion seems silly and stilted here in central Indiana, because no matter how much one may want to pretend otherwise, saying someone is "white" is about as useful as saying that they were wearing pants. Identifiers are only useful insofar as they describe something unusual that can be used to differentiate the individual under discussion from the rest of the people in that context. White is a useful description in many places with large "minority" populations, but I do not live in one of those places.

5) Refuse to attend a religious institution that insists on representing Jesus and/or God as white, or if you do attend such an institution, challenge the imagery

Well, seeing as how Christ almost certainly looked like a pretty standard Jewish/Semitic man of the period, I can't fault that part. Also, representations of God the Father are a little presumptuous, given how little we have to go on, and I prefer not to go there at all.

6) Spread the word to folks of color you know, on those occasions when you learn of job openings, and give them any inside knowledge you may have about things the employer might be looking for in a candidate.

I don't see how this is helpful. I try to do that for all the people in my network of friends (assuming I think they're good candidates for the job in question). This seems to fall clearly into the "don't be a dick" category, not the "don't be a racist" category.

As a whole, this says to me that we're still struggling to bridge the gap between our worldviews.

 
At 4/06/2010 12:30 PM, Blogger Randomscrub said...

On the colorblindness topic:

I am horribly confused by the concept of ethnic pride. We are told that "white pride" is evil and racist, but "black pride" is empowering and helpful. Since we are not allowed to be proud of our racial heritage, I fall back on attempting to disregard everyone's racial heritage. But colorblindness is also decried as evil and racist (or at least counterproductive). I look for a consistent rule to apply, and cannot find one that will not have me condemned as racist. You seem to be arguing that colorblindness is an impossible ideal to live up to, and simultaneously allows people to refuse to engage on the issue. Is that correct? What do you recommend for a substitute? As I stated in, I am, or try to be, a systematic thinker. From my perspective, this looks like a double standard that is merely used as a rhetorical cudgel with which to batter white people for the sin of having been born into a historically privileged race.

 
At 4/06/2010 2:46 PM, Blogger Chris Zeichman said...

First off, I'm not convinced most instances of "Black Pride" are prejudiced against other ethnicities in their formulation. Second, I probably should have started off earlier with the idea of racism I am working with, since it would have clarified much of the discussion. It is emphatically not "prejudice with respect to race," but "power/privilege + prejudice with respect to race." Thus, even if they are prejudiced, I think they have a completely different structure from "White Pride."
Third, Caucasians have not historically had their race worked against them, leading to considerable shame. That is, Black Pride originated from the margins and sought to empower a historically disempowered people, whereas classic "racism" and white pride has consistently originated at the peak of society (the ruling classes and the intellegesia). Despite what many would have us believe, it did not originate with the working classes.
Fourth, "whiteness" for Caucasian-Americans is extremely different from "Blackness" for African-Americans for identity formation. I hope this clears up some aspects of the issue.

Your repeated point about tokenism seems to be missing the issue. It's not "available to A person of color," but "available to persons of color." The difference, to my mind, is not simply numerical. Do these connections come from groups where racial minorities are absent or excluded? For me, these would be, frankly, largely church-related social networks.

I'm trying to force myself to be a less systematic thinker than I used to be, so I'm afraid I won't be a lot of help with that. As far as double standards go, I can only ask you would encourage others' children to use Affirmative Action to their advantage to get into college - regardless of any opinion about the policy itself. It sounds like your take on the legacy program would be a rough analogy to this principle. Regardless, I don't agree with the sort of self-interest principle you appeal to.

My only suggestion for creating a systematic worldview around it is the sort of definition of racism suggested above, by which consciousness of privilege and power are incorporated into assessments of interpersonal interactions.

 
At 4/06/2010 6:09 PM, Blogger Randomscrub said...

We clearly have far less common ground than you think. You have zero chance of getting me to buy into a theory that finds that only white people can be racists. (And yes, I've been over the power/privilege ground several times before with others.) This conversation's going nowhere.

 
At 4/06/2010 7:15 PM, Blogger Chris Zeichman said...

Yeah, I never said or implied that "only white people can be racists," since I never said that only white people are empowered/privileged. The prevalence of white-based racism in Canada and the States (relating this back to the op-ed) was the reason I addressed this particular form almost exclusively.

I just wanted to be clear on that.

 
At 5/04/2010 10:18 AM, Blogger Karl Aho said...

I know I'm late to this conversation (the hazard of bookmarking interesting things and then not following up on said bookmarks), but this looks to me like a helpful conversation, regardless of whether you two actually agree on things. Good job guys.

 

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