Monday, September 26, 2011

Race Talk

Melissa Harris-Perry has written a response to the arguments she received against her column about the double standard white liberals are using to evaluate President Obama.

She's not so much trying to make her original point again as she is talking about what gets in the way of conversation about racism with white liberals. In that sense, it takes up the same topic Kai did several years ago when he wrote about The White Liberal Conundrum.

Harris-Perry puts it all neatly into three talking points.

The first is a common strategy of asking any person of color who identifies a racist practice or pattern to “prove” that racism is indeed the causal factor. This is typically demanded by those who are certain of their own purity of racial motivation. The implication is if one cannot produce irrefutable evidence of clear, blatant and intentional bias, then racism must be banned as a possibility. But this is both silly as an intellectual claim and dangerous as a policy standard.

In a nation with the racial history of the United States I am baffled by the idea that non-racism would be the presumption and that it is racial bias which must be proved beyond reasonable doubt...

I believe we must be careful and judicious in our conversations about racism. But I also believe that those who demand proof of interpersonal intention to create a racist outcome are missing the point about how racism works. Racism is not exclusively about hooded Klansmen; it is also about the structures of bias and culture of privilege that infect the left as well.

This demand to "prove it" is why I loved expostfactoid's title on a recent blog post: You can't fact-check a dog whistle. The expectations of what most white people would think of as "proof" are totally unrealistic. In my experience, understanding racism involves listening with empathy to try and understand life from another person's perspective.

She also talks about the mistaken idea of many white people that racism requires intentionality. A blog friend once shared a wonderful analogy on that one. She said that if I drop an anvil on your foot, it doesn't hurt any less if I didn't mean to. Racism is not just what is in one's heart - its more often about how it impacts the person on the receiving end...that's why listening is so important.

Secondly, Harris-Perry brings up something Kai also eluded to...the old "I have Black friends" routine.

Interracial friendship should, ideally, encourage the desire to investigate one’s own racial privilege and bias, not to use the identity of one’s friends against any claim that such bias even exists.

I'd apply this thinking beyond that of having Black friends. Anything in your life that you use as a buffer to suggest that "I can't be racist because..." is nothing but a form of distraction and denial.

And as a matter of fact, it is often the subtle racism of friends and allies that hurts the most.

Finally, Harris-Perry talks about the dismissal of her own professional credentials.

It is common for my interlocutors to question my professional, intellectual and personal credentials. It is as though my very identity as an African-American woman makes me unqualified to speak on issues of race and gender; as though I could only be arguing out of personal interest or opinion rather than from decades of research, publication and university teaching.

I understand what she's saying here and believe that someone with her credentials needs to be acknowledged for what she brings to the table in this kind of discussion. But I also want to say that her personal experience as an African American woman gives her all the credibility she needs to be listened to on a topic like this. Her credentials are icing on that cake.

This, my friends, is how you have an open dialogue about racism:

It is completely possible that I am absolutely wrong about white racial bias on the left against President Obama. Certainly, it wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong in my political analysis. But listen to this for a moment white allies: many African-Americans (not all, but many) feel that the attacks on President Obama are racialized on both the right and the left. This feeling has meaningful implications for the quality of our national, political fabric. When we tell you that the attacks are racially troubling, painful, we would like you to take our concerns seriously rather than working to simply defend yourself against the claims.

That's how it happens folks.

There is an honest, open give and take, non-defensive dialogue: This may sound obvious, but a lot can go wrong when you are trying to prove you are not a racist, intolerant or even mildly prejudiced. Let it go. Defending your credentials deflects attention from the issue at hand.

The emphasis is not getting it right, just on getting it: You have to step out of the “right or wrong” dilemma. The point is not to agree or debate, or to win, but to understand. This takes an entirely different type of listening.

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