Race: February 2004 Archives


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I've finished going over the elements of more liberal views on race that I think are correct, particularly focusing on Patricia Williams' views and arguments in Seeing a Color-Blind Future, not her most scholarly work but perhaps the best readable introduction to her views (see this post for links to other posts in this series and for more information on my long-term project). The problems she identifies are largely on the side of those traditionally associated with and descended from the oppressors, particularly with the white majority in the U.S. case of black-whites relations (though I think it's no longer the case that whites are a majority and are simply a plurality).

In the next series of posts on race I'd like to look at three problems that John McWhorter sees within the black community (that are specific examples of traits that can be found in any group with even the perception of being made victims, though McWhorter thinks the African-American community, his own community, is more addicted to this tendency than any other group in the history of the planet). The basic idea is pretty straightforward, and I think anyone who denies that it exists is just ignoring the evidence. He's not talking about legitimate complaints about serious offences. He's talking about calling attention to any perceived slight or indignity, sometimes when it barely exists if at all (though I think sometimes just exaggerating how serious it is) not to proceed forward toward a solution "but to foster and nurture an unfocused brand of resentment and a sense of alienation from the mainstream" (Losing the Race, p.2).

McWhorter gives example after example to demonstrate that this is second nature for many African-Americans today. He even gives one time when he did this and (I believe) another when he was tempted to do it. Al Sharpton and most other black comedians are good examples of this phenomenon. Watch the BET live comics show (I don't remember the name, but Sam has it on now and then). Probably half the jokes are talking about "the Man" deliberately having it out for black people, as an explanation for the kind of troubles everyone has regardless of race.

Any rude insult is racism. The fact that two law students who were acquaintances of McWhorter's when he was working on his Ph.D. didn't get jobs was due to racism, never mind the fact that they were visibly uncomfortable around white people in his presence, later giving him the explanation that they didn't trust white people simply because they were white. Yet somehow it's racism that prevented them from getting the job and not whatever negative vibes they most definitely would have sent to the interviewers, which would probably lead them to consider other candidates as more favoable, regardless of race. Martin Lawrence's character in National Security was a great example of the victimology mindset, though he, as usual, took it a little over the top.

I've talked about three main kinds of racism (broadly defined to include unintentional and institutional tendencies that have negative racial effects): normative whiteness, white voyeurism, and racial narratives. My main interlocutor for this discussion has been Patricia Williams' highly readable Seeing a Color-Blind Future. Identifying problems doesn't really give any sense of how to address them, however. Williams does have something to say about how she wishes things were, which gives some indication of what her goals are, so now I'd like to look in that direction.

It's amazing how many of my students could read her book and think education was the solution she offered. I just don't see that. In fact, she contradicts that in one place by saying education isn't enough. I remember hearing over and over again during my freshman orientation at Brown that education was the solution to all racial problems. They didn't come out and put it so clearly, but they almost did. It was certainly the primary tactic modeled and suggested by everyone running the activities during that week. Williams comes out very strongly against this as the only method. Why? Education doesn't accomplish what she most wants to see, and once it's clear what that is it's easy to see why she doesn't think education is what we most need.

Williams wants to be recognized but not as something to be avoided or scared of, something kept at distance. She wants to be appreciated for who she is, not for some sort of exoticness that's an illusion pasted on the surface of who she is. She wants people to experience her, to enjoy her. She wants people to be able to see from her perspective. (In one sense that's impossible, as I'm sure she knows, but attempts can be made to try to understand not just how the other looks from my perspective but to think about how things you never considered will affect their experience.) Most important of all, she wants each person to invest of herself or himself in the other, perhaps even investment of oneself as that other. This is a kind of two-way interaction that many people do have. It's just not as common between people on different sides of racial lines.

Racial Narratives

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This will be the third of four (content) posts in my series on liberal views on race. As I mentioned in my explanatory post, I'm talking about the kinds of (white) racism I see as alive and active in the American context right now, at least the most significant ones. What's noticeably absent are the ones I think are pretty much gone or kept bottled up and relegated to parts of the Internet few travel. These are real problems, and any progress in race relations will have to deal with them. Conservatives too often ignore them and focus on other legitimate problems, but this stuff needs to be on the table first.

My first two posts talked about normative whiteness (whiteness as the norm because of significant elements that remain of white dominance in society, which often makes non-whiteness seem abnormal and makes whiteness seem as if no race is involved). My second was on white voyeurism (the tendency of white people to appreciate the exoticness of other races without seeing the people for who they are and without coming to invest themselves in the other people with a two-way interaction; unfortunately I failed to develop the media profit aspects of this, but I think a look through the post and its comments one can make those connections).

Now I want to talk about what critical race theorists would likely call racial narratives. These are the stories (or myths in the classic sense, which doesn't mean falsehoods) that give meanings to the everyday things in our lives. These stories guide how we see people, what we expect of people, how we understand ourselves, what we appreciate and long for, etc. They're not literal stories that anyone tells, but they're more of a whole way of thinking about the world, often unconscious. Some examples will help clarify what I mean.

Blackface incident

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Syracuse University just sent me an email about sorority member breaking into a rival sorority house to steal stuff in response to the other sorority's having stolen stuff from her house. As a good burglar wanting to avoid being seen, she had black face paint on. She's being investigated by the Team Against Bias for a bias-related incident, and they're calling it a blackface incident (the third in a few years).

White Voyeurism

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Patricia Williams gives what I think are terrible examples of a legitimate idea -- white voyeurism. She starts from the idea that white people tend not to think about race most of the time, as if it's a non-issue, unless you want to get into the bad aspects of those of other races that white people need to avoid or fight against (see Normative Whiteness and below and people's comments on it for some aspects of this). Now I have a much more positive outlook on most white people's attitudes about non-whites than she seems to have, but I do think there are some elements of this. I have definitely seen some evidence that white people enjoy controlled access to the fun cultural aspects of black society, for instance, but don't want to go out of their way for it to be much more than that. It's a spectator sport.

She somehow thinks the O.J. Simpson trial was an example of this, and I'm sure she'd say the same about Michael and Janet Jackson's current scandals, though I don't see how those fit this at all. One example she gives that makes some sense is the tourist attraction to black churches in Harlem. European travelers will show up in droves, invading people's ordinary lives as a fun way to experience the spectator sport of seeing black people in worship. As Williams notes, this isn't an experience of black culture but just a shallow appropriation of it.

I'm unfamiliar with this particular example, but her description of it makes it sound as if Americans don't do this, so I want some better examples, ones my students will be able to see and understand. The idea is that in some ways white Americans tend to desire the diversity and exoticness of other racial groups and cultures but don't tend to go out of their way to understand and appreciate the people involved. There's probably lots of evidence for this in pop culture. I could do better at coming up with them myself if I weren't about to collapse from exhaustion and congestion, so I'll put out a request for other ideas to get things rolling.

The result of these things would be the many things that white people just haven't thought about amidst what seems on the surface to be an appreciation for some of what black (or other non-white) culture has produced. Williams wants to be "seen but not spotlighted, ... humble but not invisible."

Liberal views on race

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As someone who takes relatively conservative views about race, I've noticed that fellow conservatives on this issue often focus only on the points they want to make to challenge more liberal ideas. It's usually best to acknowledge what's right about your opponent's position to avoid misunderstanding and establish common ground. On this issue in particular, I think it's especially important to do this, because in the end both sides want the same thing -- what's best for race relations. To that end, I've been working through some issues often emphasized by the left on race to identify the points I think are correct. The main body of this agreement is about the kinds of racism that occur (though I don't agree with all the examples they will give, I don't agree with the extent or severity of these elements of racism, and I certainly don't think the existence of these features in our society justify most of the attitudes welcomed and affirmed by the left from the black community especially).

For these reasons, I've been trying to identify some of the places I do think common attitudes and practices do have a racist effect, even if it's unintended. Part of all this is so I can present a balanced look at these issues in the classes I'm teaching right now, but it also helps ensure that my conservative views aren't mere conservativism. They're conservative attitudes toward social policy despite a recognition of many of the points leftward-thinking race scholars want so much to emphasize. In terms of ordinary life, I think these are extremely important issues, so I want to spend time on them.

My first post on the topic looked at what's called normative whiteness, the sense created by society that whiteness is ordinary and normal, which often makes those who aren't white feel as if they're not normal. I've been using Patricia Williams' Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race as a guide. I'll be working now on some more steps in this process, and when I'm done I think I'll have a pretty good working model of most of the elements the racial left are right about (no pun intended).

Normative Whiteness

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I'm trying to think of as many cases of a particular concept as I can as an effort to present the strongest case for traditional liberal analyses of racial problems before balancing it out with the recent arguments of black conservatives that problems within the black community are at least as important in explaining the disparities.

Anyway, there's a term I've seen in the writings of Patricia Williams that I think does refer to some genuine social realities (though not to the degree she thinks). Normative whiteness is the social phenomenon of mainstream society, under greater influence of white people than any others, seeing whiteness as the norm (and therefore the sense such assumptions carry is that someone who isn't like that is abnormal in some way. Most of the time people don't really believe that these norms carry any kind of normative oughtness, at least once they see that people these norms are assumed. It's not racist in the sense that it involves racist attitudes. However, these might have negative effects and therefore might be considered unintentional racist practices. Whiteness, as a result, is mundane and common. Blackness (or insert any other groupness) therefore stands out. It's different, but it's not different in a symmetrical way. It's different in that something is added when there wasn't thought to have been anything unusual to begin with.

I'd like to identify some ways this is true. I can think of a few, but I'd like ideas for others, so please give me any ways you can think of that this happens even in very minor ways.

Here are some ideas I had. Think of the average American. Think of a group of ten people, each of whom would be good examples of the description 'the average American'. Is it likely that anyone in the group will be black? This may vary in different parts of the country, but it's not likely that most people in the country, certainly not most white people, will think of a black person when they think about the average American. For most white people, black people aren't representative of America, at least in that way.

Many white people assume they will marry someone who is white. Almost all white parents assume their children will marry someone who is white. When we see a group of people and want to point out one of them, who happens to be the only black one in the group, our first inclination is to say "the black one", though there's now social pressure to try to say something else. Most generic dolls, figurines to be placed on wedding cakes, and pictures of people tor hang on walls turn out to be white. This is assumed to be the default, and someone who wants images that look more like black people will often need to look a little harder.



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