Why There Is No Such Thing as “Reverse Racism”

January 27, 2013 / one comment

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This is a revised version of an essay I published on DailyKos.

In any discussion of racism and it’s alleged reverse, it’s crucial to start by defining prejudice and discrimination,  racism  and institutional racism.  There’s a reason these different terms exist, and a very good reason not to conflate them.

Prejudice is an irrational feeling of dislike for a person or group of persons, usually based on stereotype or on a generalization based on personal experience or perception.  Virtually everyone feels some sort of prejudice, whether it’s for an ethnic group, or for a religious group, or for a type of person (like blondes, or fat people, or tall people, or that guy who looks like their evil Uncle Howard).  The important thing is they just don’t like them. Prejudice is a feeling, a belief.  You can be prejudiced, but still be a fair person if you’re careful not to act on your irrational dislike.

Discrimination takes place the moment a person acts on prejudice.  This describes those moments when one individual decides not to give another individual a job because of, say, their race or their religious orientation.  Or even because of their looks (there’s a lot of hiring discrimination against conventionally “unattractive” women, for example).  You can discriminate, individually, against any person or group, if you’re in a position of power over the person you want to discriminate against.  White people can discriminate against black people, and black people can discriminate against white people if, for example, one is the interviewer and the other is the person being interviewed.

Racism is the belief that one race is superior to another.  People who believe this are called racists. They advocate the creation of systems that enforce their prejudices, and that will allow them to discriminate, but unless they live in a racist system, their individual racism can be expressed only in personal acts of discrimination.  For example, a black person in the U.S. might believe in black supremacy, and might think black people are better than white people, but he or she doesn’t have the ensure that the society’s institutions reflect those racist beliefs.  It is very important to understand that individual racism, and racism as an ideology, are not the same thing as a racist society, which is why the term institutional racism has emerged to describe racist systems.

Institutional racism (sometimes simply called “racism,” as well) describes patterns of discrimination that are institutionalized as “normal” throughout an entire culture.  At this point it’s not just one person discriminating at a time, but a whole social structure that evolved to enforce discrimination. A racist system actually makes it difficult for a person not to discriminate,  no matter how well-meaning they are. Continue Reading…

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Playing the Race Card: A Rightwing Meme

January 27, 2013 / no comments

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This is a revised version of an essay that appeared earlier on DailyKos.

Right-wingers love the phase “the race card.” They drum it into our heads, flood the media with its repetitions, and sponsor the publication of articles, tracts and books that condemn African Americans—at every opportunity and on widely disparate occasions—for “playing the race card.” Its use is so ubiquitous, so pervasive, that it’s crept even into the vocabulary of some progressives, who invoke it to criticize and silence African Americans who point out racism within the progressive movement itself.

As a white, antiracist progressive, I find this both a sad testament to the power of right-wing propaganda, and an appalling example of the unexamined racism that unconsciously underlies much contemporary white progressivism. Most progressives who use the phrase do so unselfconsiously, as if its meaning were widely understood and the conclusion foregone, but an examination of the assumptions and arguments that underlie the phrase easily reveal it to be completely counter to the principles of progressive politics.

Scholar Linda Williams, who wrote a whole book on the history of “the race card” as a concept, argues that the term is part of “an extended cycle of racial melodrama seeking to give a ‘moral legibility’ to race.” And melodrama it is, invoking the image of a super-charged “card” (racial guilt on the part of whites) which allows magically powerful African Americans to subjugate whites. In the drama, the use of this “card” makes white people helpless to defend themselves or their own rights because they are consumed by guilt. Resisting the card, then, becomes a kind of white heroism: “standing up to” those dominating African Americans who are “trying to take away our rights.” This particular melodrama conveniently omits any reference to the centuries-old structures of institutional racism upon which the Republic was built, and which we progressives are allegedly dedicated to disassembling. Continue Reading…

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White/Het/Male Privilege, Identity Politics & Progressivism

January 27, 2013 / no comments

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This is a slightly revised version of an essay I posted on DailyKos.

A refrain that I’ve heard again and again—primarily from white, or male, or heterosexual progressives in response to identity-based organizing—is that “identity politics” is counter-productive, and distracts “us” from the real issue. Often, in their opinion, the real issue is class warfare. They often blame the alleged fragmentation of “the left” on identity-groups who impede “our” progress. At best, they argue, identity is a “distraction,” and, at worst, a cynical tool of manipulation. The “neutral” position—consciously or unconsciously—assumes that the majority group (white, male, and/or heterosexual) is normative (the standard by which the behavior and ideas of all other groups should be judged).

First of all, I want to say this is an essay about pragmatics, and not theory.  Theory is wonderful and important, and I write about it all the time, but that’s not what I want to talk about now.  I want to discuss the myths that are impeding our progress as progressives. We’ve indulged them for a long time, but we have to put a stop to them now if we want an ice cube’s chance in hell of pushing a progressive agenda in the U.S. To make my points, I’ll use examples from my own life, because I think it’s easier to understand this particular problem if we personalize, rather than theorize.

Much has been written about “identity politics,” and I’m not going to try to recapitulate it here.  I will say, though, that if you’re not familiar with the various schools of thought on identity politics, you’ll likely miss some of the nuances of the essay, because I’m discussing a common reaction to a frequently misunderstood phenomenon.  Hence, I suggest that you turn to the very good article on Identity Politics in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy if you need background for the discussion. I don’t entirely agree with the author, but the article provides an excellent theoretical overview of the uses and the problems of identity.

I start with the assertion that there isn’t a single one of us who doesn’t define ourselves based on both conscious and unconscious, and chosen and imposed, identities.  To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, “We are who we think we are, so we must be very careful who we think we are.” I don’t care if your primary identifications include “left-hander,” “African American,” “Catholic,” “gay,” “Irish,” “Muslim,” “geek,” “middle child,” “Marxist,” “sports fan,” or “normal guy/gal.”  We all have identities, and multiple identities at that.  Who can fit themselves into just one or two simple categories and be satisfied? Individually, we all want our personhood acknowledged from our head down to our little toes. Continue Reading…

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One in Five Women in the US Has Been Raped: The War on Women

January 27, 2013 / no comments

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This is a slightly revised version of an essay I published on DailyKos.

The results of the CDC’s National Intimate Partner & Sexual Violence Survey for 2010. The figures are stunning:

  • 35.6% of women have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner
  • 24.3% of women have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner
  • 18.3% of American women have been raped in their lifetime.
  • 51.1% of those rapes are by an intimate partner
  • 40.8% are by an acquaintance
  • 79.6% of rapes took place before women were 25
  • 42.2% of rapes took place before women were 18
  • 16.2% of women have been victimized by stalkers
  • 66.2% of stalkings were carried out by former partners
  • Across all types of violence, the majority of both female and male victims reported experiencing violence from one perpetrator.
  • Across all types of violence, the majority of female victims reported that their perpetrators were male.
  • Male rape victims and male victims of non-contact unwanted sexual experiences reported predominantly male perpetrators. Nearly half of stalking victimizations against males were also perpetrated by males. Perpetrators of other forms of violence against males were mostly female.
  • 1.4% of American men have been raped in their lifetime. Most of them were raped by other men. 44% of men who were stalked were targeted by other men.
  • 4.8% of American men reported being forced to penetrate someone else.

There’s a war being waged against American women, and we’re taking casualties every single day. And now the Republicans want to force us to carry rapist’s babies to term. Continue Reading…

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Race & Gender Studies: Expertise Counts

January 26, 2013 / one comment

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A version of this post previously appeared on DailyKos.

This post was provoked by yet another stumbling attempt to re-invent the wheel by yet another person who feels perfectly entitled to start a conversation on race without doing any homework.

At the moment, I’m not interested in debating what “racism” or “sexism” is or isn’t.  My topic is expertise: it exists in the fields of race and gender studies & activism, just like it exists in the fields of physics, sociology, politics, philosophy, biology and anthropology.  The people who study gender and race, and who spend their careers in the field and in research are actually doing something. So are the activists who are out there, day after day, dealing with racism and sexism in our communities. Their long experience makes them experts. They’re  more prepared and more thoughtful about answering race- and gender-related questions than people who have spent their careers doing something else. If you’re a progressive and you don’t get that, you’re not nearly as much of a progressive as you think.

I’m not a physicist but…. I’m going to venture out here and explain the theory of relativity without reading any books about it or referring to the work of a single physicist. By the way, I suck at math.

You wouldn’t get much respect for that, and you wouldn’t expect it, would you?

It’s a mark of pervasive, systemic racism that, time and again, folks want to ignore the fact that there actually is expertise on the topic of race, racism, racial prejudice and discrimination. It’s a mark of pervasive racism that folks believe that the race scholar equivalent of the physicist has the time and energy to enter into endless conversations with people who don’t bother to get the equivalent of an 8th grade education on race before they start batting around definitions.  (Same goes for pervasive sexism, but for brevity I’m going to stick to the example of race thoughout the diary.) Then again, maybe it’s just that the opinions of the experts aren’t congenial to the beliefs of the proudly ignorant.

Would you get pissed off at the biologist who took issue at the misuse of the term Darwinism in the social sphere? Or who argued that “Social Darwinism” isn’t really “Darwinism” at all?  Again, I don’t think so.  A little courtesy across disciplines, please.

Stop pretending that it’s utterly outrageous that “racism” (a term invented by social scientists, by the way) has a technical meaning that specialists attempt to prevent from becoming degraded by its consistent misuse by those who don’t like to admit the reality of the concepts that the term “racism” was invented to describe.

When the U.S. falls far behind in science education, and people lose sight of the meaning of the word “evolution,” my guess is that most of you think that the best thing to do about it is improve American education, not change the definition of “evolution” so that it stops describing what it was invented to describe.  And yet, many of the same people who believe it’s a tragedy that the average American is so ignorant about science are totally cool with the fact that Americans are dangerously and aggressively ignorant about race.  Understanding complex topics (“evolution,” “racism”) requires education.  We’re progressives; we’re supposed to love education.

Race is a hard topic.  Chances are that you aren’t going to be able to contribute much to a discussion that’s been ongoing since the 1930s unless you already know where in that discussion your opinions and beliefs are situated. When you barge in with naive opinions (which, of course you are entitled to have) as if they are equivalent to educated opinions (which, of course, they are not), then you’re situating yourself in a position that’s not very pretty. That is entitlement.  That is racism. If you don’t want to be called a racist or a sexist, don’t act like one.

When you’re ready to come to a discussion actually prepared for it with more than something beyond, “I think…. ” you might find that other people who know a lot more than you do will be willing to actually engage with you to continue your education. You might even find that we’re willing to listen respectfully to your dissenting opinions, once you’ve done the research to show that your dissent is based on evidence and argument.

Until then, pardon me for assuming that deliberate public profession of ignorance on a hot-button topic is a trollish ploy meant to distract the energies of antiracists and feminists rather than to further knowledge on the topic.

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Nobody I Know Thinks of Themselves as White

January 26, 2013 / no comments

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This is a revised version of a post that originally appeared on DailyKos.

This is a meme that I see coming up again and again:  But nobody I know thinks of themselves as white!  I’m Dutch-Irish!  I’m Norwegian! I’m a proud Polish-American! And so on.  A lot of white folks get confused, or hurt, or angry when people of color start talking about how “white folks say this” and “white folks do that.”  And most of them get pretty upset when “white” is used as a pejorative term in by people of color and their allies.  As a white person who doesn’t take offense at this, I’ll explain the history that lies behind that category called “whiteness” and try to help you understand why “white” has become a shorthand term to describe a power structure that, in truth, most progressives, of any color, should oppose. I will also explain why “white” and “black” are not equivalent descriptions of individuals or groups, since both definitions were imposed by white authorities on both black and white people.  This is, by the way, a long-ass essay, because some things are just too complex for sound bites.

As always, a history lesson is a good place to start. In the U.S., in the period leading up to the Civil War, slave or free status often turned on an almost incalculable percentage of “black blood.”  Those deemed to possess “black blood” were defined as salable commodities. From the period of Colonization until the Civil War, and even after the Civil War, “black blood” determined where you could live, where you were physically unsafe, where you could work and play, and whether or not you could vote.

In the beginning, the Colonies imported both Africans and indentured servants for use as labor, and the status of Africans was somewhat ambiguous.  Slavery had not yet been established as the “peculiar institution” that came to distinguish the U.S.  But for a variety of economic and cultural reasons, it was more convenient and attractive to European colonists to retain the labor of African slaves, rather than to allow them the freedom and rights that indentured European servants inevitably earned. Eventually, African descent marked the difference between servants who were to be manumitted and servants who were to retain slave status throughout their lives.  Indentured servitude was eventually phased out, and slavery became the foundation of the laboring body that built America. It is important to note that the children of indentured servants were not indentured, but that the children of African slaves inherited the servitude of their mothers.  Slavery was thus determined by one’s “African blood,” and the condition was inextricably bound to the notion of “blood” and “blackness.”

I would like to note, here, that European and U.S. notions of Native American “race” were the product of another crucible.  Unlike blacks, who were defined as valuable property (or potential property, if free), after a number of failures to successfully enslave Native Americans, they were defined as “non-people” — neither valuable property nor potential American citizens, but members of a vestigial group whose eradication was either celebrated or lamented, on the path to extinction. I cannot follow this trajectory in this diary, but there are very fine Native American bloggers whose work documents the genocidal policy of the U.SOjibwa comes immediately to mind.

The problem with the “African blood” demarcation is that, sufficiently diffused, African genetic heritage is invisible. And plenty of African blood was diffuse, due to generations of sexual slavery and rape. Property that can talk and walk just like free people needs to be distinguished in some fashion, and if you can’t see a distinction, you need to invent one. Because African heritage was often invisible after several generations, it became crucial to define the category of people who didn’t possess it: thus “whiteness” was invented. Continue Reading…

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Selling Stupid Men: Advertising and the Myth of the Incompetent Male

January 26, 2013 / no comments

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This is a revised version of a diary I originally posted to DailyKos.

“But advertising exploits men, too!  Look how stupid they are in so many commercials! That’s as bad as objectifying women!”  Yes, it’s equally bad.  But for the women. Not for the men.  And here’s why….

In an earlier post, I explained objectification for those unfamiliar with the term, and discussed the objectification of women in advertising.  This next post  discusses advertising aimed at women that portrays men as stupid or incompetent.

Contemporary advertising does often denigrate male ability to successfully accomplish certain tasks.  Take a short detour over to Stupid Man Commercials, where many of these ads have been collected by the son of man who is insulted every time they are aired.  I’m sure you can also think of plenty of examples on your own.

I’m commenting on these particular commercials because they were posted by an offended guy as particularly good (bad!) examples of their type. I didn’t want to let my own biases get in the way.

Fiber One:  A wife uses her wisdom to trick a stupid man into eating healthy food.

Windows 7/To The Cloud:  Dad and kids keep fidgeting and moving and mess up family photos. Mom goes online to swap in better headshots to create the image of the perfect family.

Verizon: I’m not sure why the the viewer would think the man is stupid here. He’s the one who finds the cheaper phone plan.  And it’s the wife who is the butt of the joke, since she’s earning minimum wage walking around in a taco costume. (And is her “first job” being a mom? Somehow I doubt she’s an attorney.) Continue Reading…

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What’s the Matter with Sexy Ads?

January 26, 2013 / no comments

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This post was originally written in response to Patriot Daily’s diary, “Objectifying Women Not A Progressive Value.” She has a whole gallery of graphic ads and commentary, and I recommend a visit.  My original post is still up at DailyKos, but this is the expanded, updated version.  As you’ll notice, I’m not posting images, because I think this would defeat the purpose of the essay, but you can see a good set of examples in Business Insider’s list of “The Sexiest Ads of 2012.”

Half-naked women in bikinis! Olympic athletes montaged into soft porn! Ads that promise the girl along with the car!  What’s the problem with objectification, anyway?

What is objectification, anyway?

Objectification is all about how one person relates to another.  There’s a subject (let’s call that “you”).  You’re complicated: you have an eye, a heart, and a brain, and you use them all when you look at an object.  You can look, for example, at inanimate objects:  the table, the door, the keyboard. When you look they seem, from your perspective, attractive, or useful, or ugly, or boring, etc. In short, you attribute traits to them based on their value to you, as well as on their objective characteristics (short, tall, big, red, etc.).   In theory, we call this look “the gaze.”  Subjects gaze: they look at other things from their own perspective.

That was pretty straightforward, so let’s complicate.  You (the subject) are looking at another person (the object).  But that person is also her own subject, and is looking at you.  In her eyes, you are the object.  Every person is a subject, looking at objects.  We can’t ever be another person; we always gaze out of our own eyes.

But we can recognize that other people are subjects, too, even if we can’t climb into their heads.  We can understand that they are somehow different from chairs or doors or keyboards.  This is called recognizing subjectivity, and as you might guess it’s an important part of empathy — feeling what you think other people might feel. (Neuropsychologists and evolutionary biologists are now discussing whether our capacity to emphasize is a product of mirror neurons in our brains.)

So, if we’re all subjects, and we’re all objects to other people, how is “objectification” in advertising (or other media) a bad thing?

Let’s go back to the empathy part.  Part of being able to recognize another subject is being able to imagine ourselves in their position.  We can look at them looking at us, and realize that we are both doing the same thing.  Most of us like it when other people recognize us as subjects.  It doesn’t feel good when they don’t recognize us, because we feel like we’re not important, or we don’t matter as people.  (Think of the last time you were at a party or a meeting, and you didn’t know anyone, and felt ignored because no one came to talk to you, or asked your opinion.) Continue Reading…

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