A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Hey white people, listen up! This is what conversations about "racism" are about

So, after spending a long time in conversations about racism --- some time talking, but mostly listening --- I pressed those involved about on the "now what?" question. In response, I have been informed that it is my duty to go out and educate other white people. Seems odd, but there it is, and I'm gonna give it a try.



Most of what I have learned in these conversations is that the conversations have a different purpose than they appear to have on the surface, and that there are a few key terms being used in odd ways. Also, I have learned that if "white people" understood this, they could better avoid punching the tar baby and getting trapped. (Yes, I know what I did right there.) 

So, let's say you walked into a conversation about white privileged, or racism, or something like that, maybe in person, maybe online... here are some things you might want to know:

Purpose of the conversation:
While it seems on the surface like the purpose of this conversation is to discuss issues of racism, it probably isn't. The primary purpose is probably to create a context for expressing views that other participants feel unable to express in other contexts, because of their race. It is primarily a story telling game, and a venting game, not a let's-have-a-conversation game. It is unlikely anyone will tell you this. Many of the participants are too busy doing the thing they are relieved to be able to do, and many of the rest are too busy trying to protect the space so that those first people can continue to express ideas they find difficult to express. It is likely than no one wants to stop and have the meta-conversation with you. Some of them do not know how to have the meta-conversation, as it is fairly abstract, but more likely they are tired of having the meta-conversation. If you are lucky, a few people will realize that, though they have been at this for a long time, you just arrived, and they will help you navigate. It never hurts to thank those people, because they are being generous in trying to help you. 

Walking into one of these conversations is not like sitting around a bar where people are talking about drinking, it is kind of like accidentally walking into an AA meeting. When someone who has never publicly admitted they were an alcoholic is talking about their drinking, just the fact that they are talking about it is a big deal, and there is not much for the listeners to do besides nod and acknowledge that step. Or, perhaps more aptly, it is like when someone comes forward to talk about having been in an abusive relationship for a long time, but always having been afraid to talk about it, because, despite never having been told to not talk about it, the power dynamic itself kept them quiet.

Also, you should know that many aspects of these conversations are oddly U.S. specific, and they are focused on the more enduring aspects of racism in the U.S., which revolve around skin color. Yes, different immigrant groups have had it rough, often very rough, due to their race. It is quite possible your relatives did have similar experiences when they arrived. But, in this context, that is oddly not relevant. It would be totally relevant, if we were having a broad conversation about racism. But that is not what is happening (see the proceeding two paragraphs). Because it is unlikely that you have ever felt unable to speak about these issues due to continuing power dynamics, this space hasn't been created for you to talk about your ancestors and their struggles. Similar confusions can arise if you are someone who experienced systematic oppression in other countries: If you would be seen as falling into the generic group "white people" in the U.S., you will need to tread softly. Because the major thrust of racism in the U.S. revolves so tightly around skin color, it is difficult for many in these contexts to care that similar problems can be had based on other signs of racial identity (facial structure, habits, accents, etc.).

Key Vocabulary
Several of the key terms in these conversations have particular meanings. I'll give a plausible explanation for the vocabulary shifted below, but as those are guesses on my part, I think it is more important to simply give the usage.

Racism - Racism in this context refers to when a group that is in power systematically and pervasively disadvantages a group with less power. By that criterion, in the U.S. context, "racism" is a things that has hurt certain minority groups, but which by definition has not hurt white people.

Yes, that is not the most natural use of the word. But no one in the conversations you are entering into made it up, and it isn't new. This usage came out of sociology and similar disciplines several decades ago, and is standard use in many academic and social-justice contexts.

You might be wondering how the hell that happened. I don't know, but I have a guess: If I were teaching classes on social justice in the '60s or '70s, I would tell my classes that racism comes in many forms, but the forms we are particularly interested in are forms where a powerful group is systematically oppressing a less powerful group. I could imagine that, as I taught more people, and we became a community with a shared understanding, at some point "racism" would become a short hand for just those types of racism we were particularly interested in talking about.

Racist - Given the above definition, it follows that a "racist" is a person who participates, knowingly or unknowingly, willingly or unwillingly, it perpetuating the system of oppression.

Yes, I know that isn't the casual usage of the term. In casual usage, if your Hispanic neighbor won't let his daughter date some guy because he is a "dirty Pakistani", then we would call your neighbor a racist a$@hole... because he thinks badly of Pakistani's as a group. In this context he is biased, he is discriminating, and he is an a$@hole. However, because he is not thereby propping up the dominant system, he is not "a racist."

My guess is that this also came about as a short hand way of referring to the types of racists who were of particular concern. The standard, casual use of the term would allow us to say that whites in this country have historically been racist against blacks, and that blacks have historically been racist against whites. But, if we were interested in social justice, we might understandably be more interested in stopping the efforts of white racists. Why? Because white racist, historically, and still in much of the country today, have much more power. Thus, in this context, that is what "racist" has come to refer to.

Race - Pet peeve of mine: Race doesn't exist in anything like the way commonly assumed.

Pet peeve of people in these discussions: That people like me think that is in anyway relevant to the discussion.

Remember, this is not a conversation about race or racism in general. This is a bounded context in which people are being encouraged to talk about topics they find difficult to talk about. They are discriminated against because others see them as having a certain race, and that version of "race", the social construct that exists in certain people's minds, and that is enacted by certain elements of our social and political systems, is what is being discussed.

Discussion Rules
Here are some rules these discussions typically follow. The numbers are just to help keep track, they don't indicate priority.

Rule 1 of Standard Conversations
When you think you have a point of connection, explain that point of connection, and watch as the conversation expands to include you.

Rule 1 of Racism Conversations
Because you don't quite understand the terms or the purpose, you are likely to relay an anecdote that makes you seem like part of the problem, and the conversation will turn towards how you probably shouldn't have said that.

Rule 2 of Standard Conversations
You can discuss the terms of the conversation whenever it seems appropriate, and others might adjust to your usage.

Rule 2 of Racism Conversations
This discussion is taking place in a context several decades old, and you are unlikely to find anyone willing to adjust to your usage. Especially if you are online, no matter how much it seems like you are chatting with a particular person, you are walking into a conversation simultaneously happening with millions of people, most of whom agree on the terms already.

Rule 3 of Standard Conversations
Getting meta can be is fun. Why not have a conversation dissecting the conversation you are having? Maybe some people need an extra drink or two before that seems fun, but most people are up for it at some point.

Rule 3 of Racism Conversations
Because it isn't really a conversation, getting meta doesn't work. When you are in an AA meeting, no one wants to talk about how you are a bunch of people sitting in a circle talking. Similarly, the space you are in is there for its purpose, and circling back to talk about the purpose will make it harder for some people to take part. Others will try to protect those some-people against whatever makes them uncomfortable, and that might involve attacking you. The attack isn't necessarily because you are wrong, the attack is because you are perceived to have hindered others from participating. This is rational, because the goal is not to determine an absolute truth, but to make others comfortable enough to come forward with their stories as well. Whether what you said "should" make people uncomfortable is a non-issue.


I'm sure there are lots more rules, but that's all I have at the moment. If this seems valuable to anyone else, I will try to write more. And if it doesn't seem helpful to you, so it goes. It is written with the best intentions.

Image from Sinfest (Sinfest.net June 26th, 2012)

2 comments:

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  2. An excellent post Eric, thank you for a very good read.

    ReplyDelete