Prejudice, Lies and Memory Tapes: How to Stop Trusting Yourself and Learn to Be a Good Ally

August 25, 2013 / no comments

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This is an essay directed at allies–all allies, in all struggles for justice and equity.  My presumption is that you want to be good allies, and that you earnestly believe in the causes for which you struggle. You don’t want to be a racist, and you don’t want to be a sexist, or an able-ist, or a classist, or any other sort of enforcer of systematic oppressions. Instead, you want to liberate others and yourself from the chains of institutionalized oppression.  Today I want to talk about why our own brains make that a difficult thing to do, how we cannot trust our own memories and perceptions. I also want to discuss the importance of basic principles in guiding behavior, the need for us to struggle for coherence, and to fight our tendencies to ignore, rationalize and excuse oppressive behavior.

Last week’s diary by shanikka, With friends like these, can we really ever all hear each other? Feminism vs. Women of Color Voice, described Hugo Schwyzer’s plunge from the Mt. Olympus of mainstream (white) feminism. I’m not going to recapitulate the specifics of the story, because shanikka did that brilliantly, and if you missed it, you should read it.  Instead, I want to talk about the underlying perceptions and belief systems that encourage the more powerful to ignore the less powerful, even when the members of the more powerful group claim they’re dedicated to the liberation of the less powerful group.  I want to talk about why the more powerful often cover up their mistakes by attacking those who expose them, instead of thanking them for the exposure and rectifying their errors.  Power, in this essay, is described as relative, rather than absolute, and I’m talking about situations in which liberation struggles (for example, women’s rights movements) contain power divisions among members (for example, white feminists vs. feminist women of color (WoC); straight feminists vs. queer feminists; middle- and upper-class feminists vs. working class and poor feminists; etc.).

Shanikka powerfully described an instance in which a number of  WoC had seen and analyzed a situation well in advance of their white peers,. Despite offering warning after warning, these WoC were, at best, ignored and, at worst, derided and attacked by white feminists.  When the WoC who gave those warnings were proven incontrovertibly correct, and publicly said, “I told you so,” the  reaction of most vocal white feminists was less than pretty. The Twitter conversation that ensued between WoC provoked defensive anger among white feminists rather than contrition. White feminists tried to change the topic: they didn’t talk about the mistakes they’d made; instead, they attacked WoC for their comportment.  Though an egregious example, the same pattern is in evidence every day: I’m sure you can come up with your own examples, both personal and professional,  (and I’d love to hear about them in the comments). The most notable feature of these situations is the way that the folks who made the mistake often double down on their criticism of those who were indisputably right.

Why do we do that?  Well, it turns out that we’re built that way.  In Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me, psychologists Carol Tavris and Eliot Aronson review dozens of studies that examine the connection between evidence, memory, rationalizations, and lies. What they found was that, “People become more certain they are right about something they just did if they can’t undo it.”  In other words, when you’ve committed yourself to a path of action, then you become instantly more sure that your action was correct.  We also give more credit to people we view as “us,” and less credit to people we view as “them,” even when performance statistics are equal. And when people are under stress (for example, when they’ve been proven wrong in an embarrassing fashion), they’re more likely to express their prejudices, and then to justify them.

For example, in one typical experiment, white students were told they would be inflicting electric shock on another student, the “learner,” whom they knew was white or African American, as part of an apparent study on biofeedback. The students initially gave a lower intensity of shock to black learners than to white ones–reflecting a desire, perhaps, to show they were not prejudiced. Then the students overheard the learner making derogatory comments about them, which, naturally, made them angry. Now, given another opportunity to inflict electric shock, the students who were working with a black learner administered higher levels of shock than did students who were working with a white learner. The same result appears in studies of how English-speaking Canadians behave toward French-speaking Canadians, straights toward homosexuals, non-Jewish students toward Jews, and men toward women.

As the authors note, “Prejudice justifies the ill treatment we want to inflict on others, and we want to inflict ill treatment on others because we don’t like them.” (Note: members of minority or oppressed groups don’t seem to share the same disciplinary inclination to punish members of the more privileged group.)  Finally, we revise our memories to suit our current beliefs about reality. We do this on an ongoing basis, so “memory becomes our personal, live-in, self-justifying historian…. If mistakes were made, memory helps us remember that they were made by someone else. If we were there, we were just innocent bystanders.” In fact, we remember our own small lies and fabricated details a lot better than we remember facts that controvert our point of view.

So we can expect that when we’re caught in a mistake and then publicly accused of prejudice, we’ll be more likely to express and justify those prejudices, more likely to attack those who accuse us of prejudice,  more likely to rationalize our accusations, and more likely to remember what suits us (including our own “white lies”) than what actually happened.  In The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves, Dan Ariely explains:

[O]nce something or someone irritates us, it becomes easier for us to justify our immoral behavior. Our dishonesty becomes retribution, a compensatory act against whatever got our goat in the first place. We tell ourselves that we’re not doing anything wrong, we are only getting even. We might even take this rationalization a step further and tell ourselves that we are simply restoring karma and balance to the world. Good for us, we’re crusading for justice!

Which is exactly what a number of white feminists did, when WoC called them out on Hugh Schwyzer, doubling down after their mistake was publicly exposed.

So what can we learn from this, if we want to be genuine allies and not people who reinforce prejudice?  The first thing is to allow yourself to doubt your own instinctive reactions, your own arguments, and your own memories.  Yeah, I know this is hard.  It feels like surrendering control (you are) and it’s always a risk to take another person’s word above your own conviction.  I can’t tell you how you should manage this difficult task, but I can tell you how I do it.

The first thing I do is to go back to first principles.  My own first principles include the following:

1. I believe that all people, regardless of identity group (race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability or country of origin, etc) have an equal right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, individually, and in community, as long as those rights don’t infringe on the rights of others to do the same.

2. I believe that people have the right to speak for themselves and their own experiences, and that while aggregated experiences do not “prove” the correctness of a communally-held belief,  those beliefs deserve to be heard and considered along with other existing claims and evidence.

3. I believe in hard evidence, in which category I include statistical evidence derived from well-conducted studies. If the preponderance of evidence is that one group is consistently disadvantaged in relation to another, based on principle #1 above, I assume that the disparity is caused by something other than innate, essential differences between the groups, unless or until that belief is contradicted by clear evidence to the contrary (a situation I have not yet encountered).

4. I believe that people who suffer disadvantages have a much greater vested interest in revealing those disadvantages than do people who are privileged and, especially, those who benefit from disadvantaging others either purposely or inadvertently.

Because, in the heat of the moment, I’m as likely as anyone else to engage in the psychological responsibility-dodging  and prejudiced behavior I described above, I try to keep an eye out for situations that could cause that sort of defensiveness, and prepare myself in advance to not act like a dick.  In my opinion, an important part of being an effective ally is to understand our own tendency to act badly, especially under pressure.  What makes me an ally is not that I’m exempt from such behavior, but that I anticipate it, and try to head it off at the pass, before it does damage to the very people I’m claiming to want to liberate. And when I’m criticized by members of oppressed groups, I force myself (even when I don’t want to, or even when I feel humiliated) to listen to the people who are telling me I screwed up, and to take their criticisms seriously.  This doesn’t mean I think every individual member of an oppressed group who tells me I screwed up is always right.  What it does mean is that I take the very good odds that they are right into account before formulating my response.  I understand that in such situations I am highly likely to be in the wrong.

And it’s important to talk about the cost of being wrong.  When you become an ally (a real ally, who aligns with members of the oppressed group, against the structure that protects your own privilege), you’ve pretty much ensured that you’re going to take an enormous amount of crap from your own, since you’re trying to dismantle the system of privilege that protects them/you.  And if you’re a real ally, it’s awfully hard to maintain deep connections and friendships with people who you think are acting like oppressive jerks.  So you turn for support and friendship to your peers and  to the people to whose cause you’ve committed.  In most cases they very generously give it to you.  In this situation, there’s a high cost to fucking up, because if you piss your peers and allies off,  it’s quite likely that you’ll be left with no one — no community, no support — and that’s a terrifying prospect. In my experience, the only way to keep that terror in perspective is to remember that, however deep my fear of losing my community, it’s not the same thing as being oppressed. Someone who is wrong can, and usually is, forgiven if they mend their ways and don’t make the same mistake again.  In the larger scheme of things, saying you’re (I’m) sorry, and learning to be a better ally by addressing your (my) prejudices is not a punishment. It’s a growth opportunity, and growth is often painful.

When we’re criticized we remember what we don’t like about our critics, rather than what we do. This makes it easier for us to dismiss what they have to say, even when we’ve praised them previously for critiquing exactly the behavior in others that they are now criticizing in us. In the case of white feminists, this often takes the form of cherry picking the words of WoC, using the words we like to support our arguments, and dismissing the critiques that make us uncomfortable. And critiques of their own racism make white feminists uncomfortable. As shanikka noted, what WoC had pointed out about Schwyzer was his racism, and they used examples of his racism as well as his sexism, to question his redemption narrative and his bona fides long before his recent mainstream exposure as a fraud.  The majority of white feminists had not, apparently, noticed that they were blanket-dismissing the concerns of women of color, or that they had sidelined critiques about Schwyzer’s racism as emanating from a “special interest group” within feminism, just as white feminists, throughout the history of white feminism, have always had difficulty seeing and hearing women of color when they speak and write. But you can bet that most of the white feminists who dismissed these WoC would claim to be allies of WoC and to be antiracist. How can white feminists contain this contradiction? And, more important, how can we avoid replicating it?

First, as I mentioned above, we have to be ready to be wrong, and to understand that being wrong is not the end of the world, but an opportunity to become a more effective ally, activist, teacher, learner and organizer.

Second, we need to learn to see those who aren’t there.   As a white feminist, I have access to all kinds of documentation of the voices, opinions, ideas, intellectual history, feminist history, etc., of women of color, of women with different abilities, of women from different classes, of transwomen, of queer women, etc. The responsibility is on me to open up feminism, not on the women who are being excluded. Being a feminist means elevating all women to the same level of importance, and that means doing the freaking footwork to make sure that feminism is inclusive rather than exclusive. It means not assuming that women “like me” (white women, professional class women, etc.) are “women” and that women who don’t belong to those categories represent “special interests” who can be invited on board after the important decisions are made.  And it means being willing to admit I am wrong again, and again, and again, each time I’m called for acting on my prejudices, until inclusiveness becomes so integrated into my world view that I can’t look around the room without seeing the faces that aren’t there at the table.

Third, we need to consult the full range of our allies and potential allies, and understand that any table that is not built by all the members of a movement does not represent the movement.  I’ve written before about the difficulties of integrating existing white feminist organizations, and the importance of creating representational organizations from the ground up.  This isn’t just true for feminism.  If you believe that There’s No War But the Class War, and you notice the absence of black and brown faces in your ranks of organizers,  you might want to stop dismissing the concerns of non-white workers as “special interests” and “identity politics”, and start understanding that the movement you’ve created is and will continue to be a White Worker’s Movement, unless you admit your mistakes and make some changes.

Though I speak from the perspective of a feminist and antiracist activist, I think these principles apply across movements. Being an ally and creating inclusive movements isn’t easy or painless: if it was, everyone would do it.  On the other hand, it’s the only way to make lasting changes in the long term, and to avoid the divide-and-conquer tactics that the right successfully uses to inhibit our effectiveness.  The first step in being more inclusive is to face the prejudices that prevent us from seeing those with whom we should be making common cause.  I hope this was helpful, and I know for sure that I don’t have all the answers, so I’d very much like to hear your ideas on the topic.

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22 August 2013, PTSD & Trauma News Roundup

August 22, 2013 / no comments

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We know it’s bad… when it happens to a white woman

CNN featured the story of Michele Cross, a University of Chicago student who was diagnosed with PTSD after she returned from her studies in India.  CNN and other news outlets who discussed the story never failed to mention that Cross was a “fair-skinned, red haired” woman, as opposed, one assumed, to all thosee dark-skinned, dark-haired Indian women who inhabit the continent.   The story Cross originally told in a CNN iReport under the screen name of RoseChasm” rack[ed] up more than 800,000 page views” within 3 days of publication. Could it be because Cross herself emphasized her whiteness, her hair color, her blue eyes in a short piece of dramatic prose, full of florid passages like the following:

There was no way to prepare for the eyes, the eyes that every day stared with such entitlement at my body, with no change of expression whether I met their gaze or not. Walking to the fruit seller’s or the tailer’s I got stares so sharp that they sliced away bits of me piece by piece. I was prepared for my actions to be taken as sex signals; I was not prepared to understand that there were no sex signals, only women’s bodies to be taken, or hidden away.

I covered up, but I did not hide. And so I was taken, by eye after eye, picture after picture. Who knows how many photos there are of me in India, or on the internet: photos of me walking, cursing, flipping people off. Who knows how many strangers have used my image as pornography, and those of my friends. I deleted my fair share, but it was a drop in the ocean– I had no chance of taking back everything they took.

If everything Ms. Cross says is true, she endured a level of harassment that was awful. And of course no woman should have to put up with that.  But I find it incredible that in all her description, she did not find it in her heart, even once, to mention what daily life must be like for Indian women, who have been in the streets  protesting a campaign of murder and rape waged against them by their countrymen.  A “South Asian Studies” scholar, Cross did not for a moment contextualize her own suffering — nope, this was all about her.  And the public ate it up—this story of a white woman pawed by native men.  Though Cross claims she is not the only UC student who experienced this harassment, at least one  other woman on the trip attempted to counter the tone of Cross’s narrative.  Katherine Stewart, a black UC student, confirms that there were attacks on women in the program, but takes issue with—what she tactfully does not say outright—the racism evident in Cross’s response. Stewart wrote:

RoseChasm does not address the fact that there are warm and honest men in India. When we do not make the distinction that only some men of a population commit a crime, we develop a stereotype for an entire population. And when we develop a negative stereotype for a population, what arises? Racism….

I understand RoseChasm’s pain, and I too had a hard time readjusting to life in America after my experience in India. I truly hope for her to be well again, but I will not sit back and allow the image of India’s men to be tarnished by an article that does not articulate other sides to India. I experienced love, excitement, and awe in India. And while I did experience unacceptable harassment, I know that my ability to not generalize a population will allow people to see that we must find another way to deal with this issue.

You can bet Stewart didn’t get 800,000 hits in three days.

You’re all whiners… or maybe not

Psychologist Michael J. Hurd (Ph.D., LCSW) rants on delmarvaNow!com about the lack of definition of “trauma.”  This pretty much sums it up: “Our government and educated intellectuals (psychiatrists included) have frankly turned many of us into a bunch of babies.”  His “argument” seems to be that if psychiatrists didn’t go around inventing ridiculous diseases, we wouldn’t have them.  Just makes you want to jump up and run to his office for therapy, doesn’t it?

On the other side of the spectrum is Michael Pond, a therapist who works with First Nations patients in British Columbia. He thinks it’s a good thing that the diagnosis is now “pervasive”:

And before anyone rolls their eyes derisively, according to the updated criteria for the illness in the new DSM 5, the bible of psychiatry, it’s very likely the diagnosis is correct.

I treat a lot of First Nations people for addictions, depression, anxiety and aggression. But the more they reveal the extent of the horror they experienced in residential schools, the more obvious it is to me that my clients actually suffer from PTSD, and all the other problems are symptoms of it.

The pervasiveness of the condition, Pond argues, will help us take the victims of violence more seriously.

Making money off of war… (don’t let the “org” fool you — it’s a commercial endeavor) was founded by Chris Great, an advertising executive who speicalizes brand development, marketing and entrepreneurship.  His company markets commemorative bracelets to soldiers and their families for prices ranging from $14 to $134.50, says it donates $2/bracelet to “military support organizations.”  One of these organizations is the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund (where do they get these names?), to which they recently donated $150,000 in bracelet money (which means they sold at lest 75,000 bracelets, at, say, an average price of $25, which totals to something around $7.5 million earned from soldiers and veterans and families.  IFHF raised money to build a treatment center for Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) on the Navy Campus of Bethesday, as well as other centers for treatment and study of TBI.  We’re talking big, big bucks here — these centers can cost upwards of $50 million, so’s $150,000 is a drop in the bucket.  But Herobracelets has certainly used this as a PR opportunity, marketing its bracelets as a way to “support our military”: gives them an opportunity to spread awareness by wearing their bracelet, and it allows them to make a financial contribution to a charity of their choice.” said Christopher and Loree Greta, founders of “$2 per bracelet may not seem like much, but it has certainly added up – and $150,000 later, it’s allowed us and our customers to make a difference for the thousands of service members and their families who rely on Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund and the NICoE Centers for treatment of their invisible wounds.

$2/bracelet.  Doesn’t seem like much to do for our veterans, does it.  Especially when it’s them and their families forking over the money in the first place.


It’s rare that clinical studies include PTSD with comorbid disorders, so it was nice to see this August 7 randomized clinical trial on Naltrexone and Prolonged Exposure Therapy in patients with both PTSD and alcohol dependence. It’s tough to do a double-blind study for psychological interventions, since therapists need to be trained in the methods they use. Thus, this was a single-blind study, meaning the patients did not know whether whether they were receiving the medication or a sugar pill, and did not know if they were receiving Exposure Therapy (ET) or supportive counseling (SC). As usual, symptom severity was the measure of success, along with the Alcohol Craving scale: were symptoms and drinking days reduced more by the naltroxene or the Exposure Therapy or by both in combination? The group they studied was mostly between 36-43 years old, about 66% male, and the majority of subjects were black.  (An odd note here — blacks made up 70-75% of those given ET+Naltrexone and ET+Placebo, but only 50-60% of those given SC+Naltrexone and SC+Placebo.)  Also unusual is the fact that combat vets made up only about 15% of the study group. The predominant traumas were sexual assault and physical assault.  Like many other surveys, this one found that there was no significant difference between the effectiveness of Exposure Therapy and supportive counseling, and PTSD symptoms did not decrease significantly in any of the combinations. The study found that the patients prescribed naltrexone drank less often.   The best they could say about Exposure Therapy is that it “was not associated with an exacerbation of alcohol use disorder.”  That’s a good thing to know about one of the most frequently prescribed talk therapies for PTSD: at least it doesn’t make it worse.

Fund Raising

Veteran Doug Setter, and his colleagues Linh Lai and Dave Iten are doing a “four-mile open water relay swim across Bellingham Bay [WA] in honour of American and Canadian servicemen that lost their lives to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” Along with other military stressors, Setter blames “the public’s [negative] perception of soldiers” for some of the stress veterans feel when they return home. It’s not clear what the swim is designed to do except “honour soldiers who killed themselves because of PTSD” and “shine a light on the challenges soldiers face with their duty is done.”  The swim is named after a local veteran who committed suicide after a tour in Iraq.

War on Film

Steven Grayhm of Astoria Film Co.(Los Angeles) is trying to raise $750,000 on Kickstarter to fund Thunder Road, a film based on a story told to him by Iraq war veteran Nick Carbonell, who witnessed the death of his best friend on a nighttime operation in Iraq. From the Kickstarter site:

Thunder Road is the story of returning U.S. soldier SGT. CALVIN COLE (played by Steven) whom we meet in present day Detroit as a troubled veteran who suffers from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and tbi (Traumatic Brain Injury) from multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Initially resistant to the VA system COLE must find a way to assimilate back into civilian life before he ends up dead or in prison.

Through his rekindled friendship with his estranged childhood friend PFC. DARRYL SPARKS (played by Matt) who he served on the “buddy system” with and his newly formed relationship with a doctor at the VA Medical Center, COLE finds redemption and salvation through sharing his captivating experience as a combat infantryman. The film also explores the psychological repercussions of war and seeks answers to the growing epidemic of PTSD and tbi in returning soldiers.

A pretty predictable plot trajectory, and certain one right out of the mainstream pop culture representations of PTSD: damaged warrior helped back to health by a wise VA therapist, finds redemption in sharing his story of trauma.  A report on its quality will have to wait until the film is made, but I don’t hold much hope it’ll be groundbreaking. I’m sick of films that imply that the only two choices choices facing a vet with active PTSD are either winding up dead or in prison.  The vast majority of people with PTSD continue on with their lives, dealing as best they can, and commit neither crimes nor suicide.

This notion that sharing a trauma is an end in itself is very popular, despite the fact that thousands of such stories have been shared by traumatized soldiers, and that there’s no evidence that simply sharing these stories actually contributes to improved reintegration or happiness. Trauma survivors who make a practice of telling and retelling their stories, particularly for public consumption, over many years, rarely seem to move beyond the trauma of war.  It cheers the public up to see stories in which an earnest vet, traumatized in war, regains his ability to connect with his emotions and with his significant others, and it’s even better if he then shoulders the burden of dealing with other  vets like himself.  But that’s a rarity — the vast majority of vets who are treated for PTSD by the VA are still under treatment four years later.  If there is “healing,” it’s a slow process and conclusion is far from assured.  And one reason that it’s such a slow path to recovery might be that the public taste for trauma narratives does not seem connected to the public’s interest in ending the circumstances that cause trauma.

And the inevitable PTSD Diagnosis by Media section…

The L.A. Times says that journalist Michael Hastings “may have suffered PTSD from work as a war journalist.” Hastings died in a single-car accident, and in such cases there’s often speculation that the crash was a form of suicide. Despite the claim of journalists Richard Winton and Andrew Blankenstein, the coroner’s report seems to contain no evidence at all that PTSD had anything to do with Hasting’s death. Hastings may well have had PTSD, given his experiences in the war, and he may have said that he used medical marijuana to treat PTSD, but that’s a far cry from PTSD causing a suicide.  Perhaps the L.A. Times journalists confused the coroner’s comment that Hastings had died of “traumatic injuries,” with “post-traumatic stress disorder,” contemporary journalistic standards being what they are.

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PTSD: The Futile Search for the “Quick Fix”

February 26, 2013 / no comments

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My new article on PTSD just appeared as a Guest Blog on Scientific American’s web site.  Please check it out.  Here’s the first paragraph as a teaser:

A few weeks ago an article in the Scientific American Twitter stream caught my eye.  EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) once again debuted as a “promising new treatment” for PTSD.  EMDR, which has been repeatedly called “promising” over the last two decades, works only about as well for PTSD as other psychological treatment modalities with which it competes, primarily cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy.  These so-called trauma focused treatments (TFT) all garner similar results. TFT have large effects in clinical trials, with two important caveats: 1) the enthusiasm of their various advocates bias the study results towards the treatment the researchers prefer; and, 2) they are effective for a significant number of carefully selected PTSD patients. The sad truth, however, is that current short-term treatments are not the solution for most patients with PTSD. Trial criteria often exclude those with comorbid disorders, multiple traumas, complex PTSD, and suicidal ideation, among others.  Even when they are included, comorbid patients drop out of treatment studies at a much higher rate than those with simple PTSD, a problem that has implications for clinical practice….

The heart of the argument is that short term treatments are not effective for the vast majority of those with PTSD, and that violence prevention is the only real cure.

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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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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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