Monday, December 9, 2013

How white liberals shut down conversations about racism

Some of you might be aware of the fact that over the Thanksgiving week a battle about racism was engaged on the Daily Kos web site . If not, don't worry, I'm not going to bring the whole thing here. But I do want to use some of the fallout to help us understand why talking about racism - even amongst liberals - is so hard to do.

What kicked off the conflict at Daily Kos was that a cartoonist posted a diary with drawings of President Obama that resembled a gorilla/monkey. To understand the reaction, you have to be aware of the history of racism being expressed by this kind of depiction. As many challenged the use of that imagery, a battle ensued.

What I found most telling was a reaction by one of the cartoonist's fans at his web site who said this:
Being called a racist is really about as bad as it gets. It’s like being called a pedophile.
I think that perfectly sums up what the problem is here. So lets break it down for a moment.

First of all, a few years ago I quit calling people "racists" after viewing this advice from Jay Smooth. If you've never seen it before, please watch - it might just be the most important thing you ever learn about talking about racism.

Jay expounded on all this later at a TED talk he gave at Hampshire College. That one is a bit longer but is also well worth a listen. In it Jay talks about how we tend to see racism as a binary proposition - either you are or are not racist (as does the person in the quote up above). He offers a different paradigm for understanding racism by saying its not like your tonsils - which you can have removed in one operation. Its more like plaque that builds on your teeth and needs ongoing attention.

What I appreciate about Jay is that he's trying really hard to understand and identify the reasons why white people have such a hard time talking about racism. His approach can diffuse defensiveness. But sometimes a more confrontational style is also necessary. That was the approach taken by Kai in one of the most powerful statements I've ever read on-line about progressives and racism titled: The White Liberal Conundrum.
Some might be surprised to learn that when people of color talk about racism amongst ourselves, white liberals often receive a far harsher skewering than white conservatives or overt racists. Many of my POC friends would actually prefer to hang out with an Archie Bunker-type who spits flagrantly offensive opinions, rather than a colorblind liberal whose insidious paternalism, dehumanizing tokenism, and cognitive indoctrination ooze out between superficially progressive words. At least the former gives you something to work with, something above-board to engage and argue against; the latter tacitly insists on imposing and maintaining an illusion of non-racist moral purity which provides little to no room for genuine self-examination or racial dialogue.

Countless blogospheric discussions on racism amply demonstrate the manner in which many white liberals start acting victimized and angry if anyone attempts to burst their racism-free bubble, oftentimes inexplicably bringing up non-white friends, lovers, adopted children, relatives, ancestors; dismissing, belittling, or obtusely misreading substantive historically-informed analysis of white supremacism as “divisive”, “angry”, “irrational”; downplaying racism as an interpersonal social stigma and bad PR, rather than an overarching system of power under which we all live and which has socialized us all; and threatening to walk away from discussion if persons of color do not comform to a narrow white-centered comfort zone. Such people aren’t necessarily racists in the hate-crime sense of the word, but they are usually acting out social dynamics created by racism and replicating the racist social relationships they were conditioned since birth to replicate.
That demand for a "white-centered comfort zone" was demonstrated years ago when Glenn Greenwald said this in a blog post titled: Awkward Discussions of Race and Obama.
...part of the reason people intently run away from discussions of because it is too easy to unwittingly run afoul of various unwritten speech rules, thereby triggering accusations of bigotry.
At the time I was reading several small blogs by people of color and witnessed the reaction. For example, here's Nezua from The Unapologetic Mexican:
In this analysis (or this part of his post at least) the problem is the various unwritten speech rules. But guess what? There really aren't any. There are just poor attitudes we keep about people who look different. Or who we've been taught to think of differently. And there is a "White" attitude of deciding for everyone else how they should live, be, self-identify, and do many other things. There are old slurs and old tropes that hurt people. These are the things that are flushed out when people speak: attitudes, thoughts, beliefs, manners of speaking that hint at lurking attitudes.

People avoid talking about race because they are scared of exposing their thoughts and views on race. They are afraid they are A RACIST. They are not afraid of "unwritten speech rules." They are afraid that what they really think and feel will cause them to be ridiculed or ostracized in public, or that they may see a part of themselves they have to feel bad about. So they keep the potential to themselves.

But if we keep the focus on Speech Rules, we miss the opportunity to change ourselves.
As a white person, what I learned from listening to these folks was that in order for me to enter into a conversation about race, I was going to have to be prepared to feel uncomfortable. That's what we're avoiding when we scream "How DARE you call me a racist?!" But the truth is that people of color have been living with the "discomfort" (an understatement for sure!) of racism for centuries now. If we're ever going to mitigate that, we're going to have to be willing to take some on ourselves.

But more than that, we're going to have to admit that there are some things we just don't know. Here's Nezua again giving us the best description of white privilege I've ever read.
Mi novia says that it really frustrates White people that no matter how much they know or want to know, there may be an area of experience or knowledge that they cannot access. Bingo, Gringo.

This is another way of saying White Privilege.

How dare the world harbor some sort of Thing that I cannot experience! How dare you insinuate that you possess knowledge I may have to ask you about in humility! How impertinent of you to even imagine that I cannot, with study and great wisdom and effort, also know what it is like to grow up Brown™ in America! The voice of privilege thinks no seat is unavailable, no land unconquerable, no food untasteable, no right deniable, no experience out of reach. It is a slap in the face to this line of thought that there exists an area that cannot be known, even to a WHITE person. Gasp.
Yep, its all about giving up our sense of entitlement and learning a little humility. That's what makes it so hard for us. But I can tell you that when I've been able to do that - a whole fascinating world opens up that I never saw before. Its SOOOOO worth it!!!!!


  1. Yep. From the moment the white liberal blogosphere decided that Obama was exactly who they wanted him to be (regardless of who he said he was), through the scorned privilege and hurt emo fee-fees of Obama not being their magic negro--- the left has squandered five years that could have been filled with an honest dialogue about white supremacy and the many ways it wittingly and unwittingly protects itself.

  2. And worse yet, the left has turned to and has found allies with people who are against everything the left has stood for--and they've done it only because these folks have complained about Obama. People like Greenwald, Ron and Rand's disheartening to see all the adulation laid at their feet by some of the voices on the left while ignoring the very real and very positive changes the President has made.

    I am all for honest criticism of this President. And certainly he is welcoming such criticism. Sadly, that's not what's coming from the Far Left. I mean, it was bad enough when Dave Lindorff defended the Congressman who shouted "You lie!" during the SOU address...but now, it's reaching a point where (at least it's probably me) there appears to be a convergence of the Far Left and Libertarians.

    I hope I'm wrong.

    1. "Greenwald, Ron and Rand Paul"

      Who happen to be actual racists: "Liberty Tour" VIDEO: "The Convergence of Glenn Greenwald and Rand Paul’s 'Southern Avenger'”

  3. Thanks, as always, Smartypants. And I also appreciate these two other comments.

    The biggest irony of all is that so much of our country's political, social, and economical issues are tied up in race. So, this isn't just an issue of overcoming personal prejudice. It's a question of policy and the overall direction of the nation.

    To me, the biggest threat racism poses is the very one both commenters have pointed out. It's leads you to trust people you shouldn't and to immediately mistrust those you should.

  4. Very thoughtful post, thank you, and I appreciate the quotes from Kai and Nezua. What becomes terribly frustrating is to raise the issue of racism or privilege on the left and then to be told that you "hate white people" no sooner than you've attempted to have a a discussion with people you are in coalition with. I use Jay Smooth with my students, but he isn't smooth enough to slice through the defense mechanisms online that have often become impenetrable barriers to understanding.

    Many poc's have given up even making the attempt.

  5. Very good post. Reminds me of Malcolm X's admonishion about the White Wolf of open racism baring its teeth and snarling and the White Fox of liberal racism smiling at you, you end up being eaten just the same. I guess throwing out the last batch of Black people who would have stopped the presses and went into battle with Ted Rall and his supporters didnt take.

    I think that's what pissed me off about Rall. He wasn't banned they actually ban the Black people you can tell by the skull and cross bones they put over you.

  6. Correct: stop saying"racism" and start using "white supremacism" - that ought to get their attention. There's no shortage of links between GOP Tea Party leaders and dyed-in-the-wool white supremacists.


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