Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Parable for White Nonsmokers

With apologies to smokers of all races.

You know that they're going to smoke. You know because it always happens, and that's why you don't want to go to these things. Sometimes it doesn't happen for a while, and you actually find yourself having a good time. Tonight, you overhear some others talking about the same movie you saw last weekend, so you join them and wish you could talk about that movie all evening. Before long, it's time for everyone to sit down to dinner. During a lull, the host pulls out a cigarette and lights up. His wife says, "I thought we said that we were going to have a nice dinner and not smoke tonight." The man shoots a glance at her--he's had a few aperitifs already--and says, "What?" like he's not looking for an answer. The cigarette jiggles up and down between his lips. He nudges the pack toward his brother, pointing at it with his chin. Finally, a cousin asks if he can have one of those. And soon enough, a bunch of people at the table are smoking. The room quickly fills with smoke, sending your heart racing. Some of the younger people have chosen not to partake, however. They're rolling their eyes at the smokers or coughing loudly, dramatically waving their hands in front of their faces. But they don't say that they can't breathe or anything like that.

That's when you start to worry about your daughter, who, even from the kiddie table, must be inhaling all this secondhand smoke. "What can we do?" your husband says. These people are his relatives and their friends. "It's his house. If he wants to smoke, he's gonna smoke." This might be happening, you realize, because smoking is more and more a kind of social taboo, and the only safe place to smoke anymore is in your own home. Nonsmokers go off on complete strangers who smoke in public, sometimes just for smelling like smoke. Smokers haven't been able to light up in the office for years and now conspire with each other outside, bonding in the cold. They stop talking and appear a little ashamed when you pass them on the way into work. Tobacco companies aren't allowed to advertise in magazines or on TV anymore, but mass media still makes smoking seem normal. It's not unusual to see popular A-list Hollywood stars taking a short drag now and then, either on screen or in real life. Even the President smokes. Your friends watch Mad Men and laugh at the characters lighting up all day long at their office. They love the glamour of that age. "That's just the way things were back then," you've heard older people say. "That's just what you did." But you know that there were a lot of people who didn't smoke even back then. You just never hear about them.

By now, you're glad that it's almost time to go. Some people you don't know are watching a football game, so you hope to kill a few minutes with them. On the TV, a wide receiver scores a touchdown on a long pass and celebrates in the end zone with some extended dance moves. Before you know it, a guy on the couch makes a face and starts loudly smacking a pack of cigarettes on the heel of his palm. He's the only one smoking, but the woman next to him motions for a drag off it. Almost anything can get people to start smoking around here, you begin to understand, as long as they think that no one minds. Finally, you decide to say something. "Would you please put that out," you say. "The smoke and smell really bother me." It's clear that he didn't expect you to say anything and looks at you like you're crazy. He sulks, making it seem as though his smoking isn't the problem but that your talking about his smoking is the problem. Nobody around the TV says anything, so you assume that they're annoyed at you too for bringing up smoking during a football game. "Why are you making such a big deal about this?" the guy adds. It's then that you realize that these people are used to having the choice of when and where they will talk about smoking.

On the drive home, your daughter has fallen asleep in the back seat. Your husband must sense that you're on edge, because he plays with your hair. You tell him to stop, that you don't feel well. All that smoke will make you feel sick for days. "I'm worried about them too," he says. "They don't listen to us about what cigarettes will do to them. They think they're invincible. They keep saying how they're not like our grandfather, who smoked a pack a day." This is his way of telling you that he's not like them. "Anyway, I'm sorry that this seems to happen so much. I hate it too. Look on the bright side--we don't have to think about these people for another year." But you find yourself thinking about smoking all the time, even on Christmas Day. It's been this way for years. You wonder if the rude grocery store cashier has nicotine-stained teeth, whether your daughter's teachers sneak smoke breaks. Young people smoking deeply saddens you. Even your daughter will smoke when she is older, you know, no matter what you say or do, because she is a part of this world. For that reason and so many more, you don't want to stop thinking about smoking. You have to keep thinking about it, you think about it all the time. You couldn't stop thinking about smoking if you tried.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Why I Don't Go to the Movies


I was a teenager in the 1980s, and like most teenagers growing up in predominantly-white suburbs at that time, I watched a lot of John Hughes movies. The one that had the greatest impact on me was Sixteen Candles, which cast Gedde Watanabe as an Asian foreign exchange student named Long Duk Dong. If you don't know the movie, Long Duk Dong was basically a yellow Sambo, yukking it up for mostly white teenage audiences with his FOB highwaters, malapropisms, and pathetic lust for white women. He was the nadir of high school loserdom against whom Samantha (Molly Ringwald's character) measured her self-worth. In Jeff Adachi's excellent documentary on Asian male roles in Hollywood, The Slanted Screen, Korean American comedian Bobby Lee speaks the sad truth about the character:
"My nickname was 'Long Duk Dong' in high school because of that character, and I think every Asian guy that ever went to an American school's nickname was Long Duk Dong because of that character. That means that you're not going to get any girls."
But this story of Long Duk Dong is not going to be about his impact upon Asian American men of my generation; instead, it has me assessing the lasting impact of his character and characters like him upon generations of our white friends.

The recent controversy over Sony Pictures Entertainment's scuttling of the release of The Interview got me thinking about Long Duk Dong again. I wondered if the collective outrage against SPE from Hollywood personalities, most of them white men--Judd Apatow, Rob Lowe, George Clooney, Aaron Sorkin, Steve Carrell--had anything to do with Long Duk Dong. No kidding. What are the chances that these guys, all teenagers at one point in the 1980s, watched Sixteen Candles? (Pretty good, I'd say. Rogen and Hughes co-wrote the screenplay for Drillbit Taylor, produced by Apatow.) Did they laugh at Long Duk Dong? Did they watch the movie with any Asian American friends? What might be the connection between Long Duk Dong and their indifference to Russell Park-as-Kim Jong-un's exploding face in the climax to The Interview?

I actually don't remember any of my close friends comparing me to Long Duk Dong, but neither did it occur to them to talk about how he ruined the movie or how the movie would have been better without him. That would have been something. To be honest, if they did associate me with him, it was probably upon my goading. Maybe I did an impression of him ("What's happenin', hot stuff?"), but I really can't remember. It was certainly possible. But here's what I had in my pocket going into the theater: my white friends regularly told me that they didn't see me as Chinese. It was a shiny talisman. Again, this isn't really a story about my internalized racism but what it means that they could say something like that to me. This is a story about what can happen when white people and people of color become friends and do friend things like go to the movies together--in 1984 or thirty years later.

When white people tell people of color that they don't see them as people of color, individuality is not happening. White supremacy is happening. What's really being said, albeit on an unconscious level most of the time, is "You make me comfortable despite your race." Or, "You are like a white person to me." Now, I know that some white people will say this only to front a kind of colorblindness, but I also believe that race does become a bit less salient for white friends and family when they spend a lot of time with you, and you help the situation by not calling attention to racism or any culture other than white culture. Several years ago, one of my colleagues from a different department, then a full professor nearing retirement, said to me, "David, I don't see you as a Chinese American." And I have to think he said this partly because I made him feel comfortable (by small talking about the Packers or the snow) and partly because he was trying to make me feel comfortable by not seeming to racially profile me. In the same way, a generation earlier, while I was busy being burdened by race watching Long Duk Dong geek out on the big screen, my white friends may not have been associating the two of us at all--because of their comfort level with me. But that turns out to be a big problem too.

The problem is that my friends were still able to distinguish between Long Duk Dong as an Asian-not-like-me and me. Yes, I was one of them and not Long Duk Dong (however much I was in my own mind or to strangers in woodshop.) But they were still laughing at the Asian-not-like-me. So, among friends, there can still exist a binary of the "good" Asian and the "bad" Asian. The good Asian is pretty much like a white person (you can substitute any lighter-skinned non-white race here for Asian). If you spoke with an accent, wore knockoff clothes, immigrated, walked or ran funny, skipped prom, you name it--you were the bad Asian. What really made you a bad Asian was if you were an unassimilated foreigner. What close friendship with white people bestowed upon me, the good Asian, was a probationary white identity. Quasi-individuality. And as a teenager, that was the identity I occupied with my white friends most of the time (unless I wanted to do something crazy like date one of them or invite them to hang out with my parents). In case you were wondering, this is why it is racist when white people defend themselves against charges of racism by saying they have friends of color. They've decided that their friends are the good ones.

The people behind The Interview believe in the idea of the bad Asian. Their idea of the bad Asian protects them from charges of racism because they have made the bad Asian something unto himself, nothing at all like other Asians or Asian Americans. Rogen has stated that staging Kim's assassination is
"not an edgy position to take. It’s not like, 'Well, politically, you’ve got to look at both sides.' He is bad. It’s controversial to him. But to everyone else, it’s fine."
But it's easy for Rogen to speak for "everyone else," and he knows it. Because who would risk standing up for Kim Jong-un, and what decent person would compare an Asian American friend to him? Just as important, what Asian American would squander cultural capital by identifying with Kim in the slightest? For Rogen to think that Kim is some kind of raceless, sui generis entity whose meaning stops at the boundary of his own skin is for him to impose honorary white status onto "everyone else," to make them like himself. "You do see Kim only as the one-off, fanatical leader of an oppressive state regime, and not as an Asian person, don't you?" he seems to inveigh. But does this mean that Bobby Lee was imagining things? Or can the social meaning of bodies escape the fourth wall, enough to break a Korean American kid into a sweat during a movie's climax? The sick thing about The Interview and all other Yellow Peril movies is that it forces its audience--of all races--to believe in the racist idea of the bad Asian too. The ideas of good and bad people of color are nothing but sustaining fantasies of white supremacy.

The Interview controversy has stolen focus from vital stories of our time: police killing black people with impunity and the CIA torturing Muslims with impunity. White Hollywood, so silent on #BlackLivesMatter and "I Can't Breathe," cannot contain its outrage and indignation over not being allowed to make fun of whomever it wants to. This after Chris Rock called out Hollywood for its racism as a Mexican "slave state." As for The Interview and the "free speech" argument, how much does censorship matter if the story is an ancient lie about people of color that we don't need to hear again? Here, I'll save you ten bucks by telling you the same story: Rudy Giuliani makes bad black people the responsibility of good black people, #illridewithyou rewards good Muslims with buspools, and Marco Rubio reminds us that the bad Cubans are still oppressing the good Cubans. But let's not forget that good Asians aren't always set against bad Asians. The model minority story has always been about white people using good Asians to shame bad black people, first in Harlem and Watts, then everywhere else. People aren't talking much about how the purchase of Columbia Pictures Entertainment by Sony was regarded with classic Yellow Peril hysteria in 1989, part of the era of the "bad" Japanese businessman buying up American corporate icons. Now, Sony Pictures Entertainment is the "good" Asian, a reasonable facsimile of apple pie. And Hollywood and Washington are already making the hack about the violation of post-racial state sovereignty and not about the divisive abuses of white supremacy.

I don't go to the movies anymore because I'm thinking too much about the people around me in the theater. I can't concentrate because I'm paying too much attention to how they're responding to black stormtroopers, black Annie, white Moses, or Mark Wahlberg, who brutally attacked two men for being bad Vietnamese before he praised one as a good Vietnamese once he forgave him. When I used to go to the movies, I never knew if Steve Park were going to fail miserably while making a move on Frances McDormand or if Ken Jeong and his junk were going to explode out of a box to become this generation's literal Long Duk Dong. I know why Watanabe, Steve and Randall Park, and Jeong take these roles, and I think I know why their screenwriters and directors create them. They just think they know funny. Rogen is so sure he knows funny that he hazarded some annoyance at Sony chief executive Kazuo Hirai--who rarely intervenes in SPE decision making--when Hirai asked for some decency in editing the snuff shot of Kim. But jokes are always culturally-bound (just try to tell a joke in your second language) and say more about the relationship between teller and listener than about funny (why we laugh at corny jokes). How fitting that Rogen cast himself as the Green Hornet, the only white superhero with an Asian sidekick. (Here's a portrayal of the man who was the original Kato learning about what Hollywood has always been.) I don't go to the movies because you have to watch them like Seth Rogen. You become a Libertarian there in the dark, alone. And there are good reasons and tragic reasons for laughing at unfunny jokes.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

I'll Side With You


This week, I was heartened by the viral #illridewithyou hashtag emerging out of Sydney. In light of the hostage crisis, white Australians took to Twitter to publicize their willingness to accompany perfect strangers--assumed to be Muslims--on public transportation in order to ease any of their feelings of self-consciousness (and fears of hate crime victimization, no doubt). In addition to the hashtag, Tweeters included their locations, schedules, identifying marks, and links to their other social media accounts. At last count, there were almost half a million instances of the hashtag. Media coverage of #illridewithyou has been overwhelmingly positive, praising the effort as a nonviolent response to terrorism and a fitting symbol of Australia's inclusiveness. Almost immediately, #illridewithyou transcended its initial purpose as a blind invitation to buspool and became a sunny PR blast for Australia as well as a way for white Australians to signal their resistance to racist profiling of the Muslim minority. As a result, the dominant meaning of #illridewithyou is that there are lots of good, well-intentioned white people in Australia.

Recently, a friend asked me what I thought about #illridewithyou, whether it was a good thing or another variation of white people recentering themselves in conversations about racism. I've never been to Australia and neither grew up around a significant Muslim population nor live among one now. But the meaning of the hashtag resonated with me, calling to mind a story that I first heard several years ago, at an antiracism training at my university. It is a story about how white supremacy and racism can manifest themselves in ways besides overt racist harassment and violence, the kind that so many Australians feared might happen on a city train or bus. One of the trainers, whom I'll call Susan, told us about a time that she had been invited to share a holiday dinner at the home of her friend, whom I'll call Helen. Susan is white, and Helen is black.

"Susan, I love you and want you to be with my family and me this holiday," Helen said. "So don't take what I'm about to say the wrong way. When you come, don't bring anything with you. Don't bring a turkey, don't bring a ham. No dessert. Don't bring any presents for the kids, and I mean that. Just bring yourself."
Susan was perplexed and probably showed it. She's from North Carolina and likes to joke about how she's had to unlearn so much of what it meant to be a correct Southern white lady. So arriving empty-handed to dinner at a friend's house, a faux pas for many of us, must have been mortifying for Susan because of her sense of propriety.
Helen continued. "The reason is that I don't want my kids to see you as the nice white lady who can provide for them in ways that I can't. They are around nice white ladies all day long at school, and I'm afraid that they are growing up with the idea that white people are nice and good and that black people are not."

This too is a story about the good intentions of white people. In part because of the media coverage of Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, and everywhere else, the notion that most white people do not have good intentions and are closet racists has pressured our national discourse on racism, giving rise to support for efforts such as #illridewithyou. When it comes to the nature of racism, the root problem has never been the intentions of white people toward people of color. The root problem has always been that those intentions have been institutionalized--within the courts, schools, mass media, church, etc.--and therefore have real-world impacts on people of color. So, when lawmakers were actively arguing that black people should be segregated from white people, their bad intentions carried weight only because they could count on police, lawyers, judges, teachers, clergy, and journalists to tell the same story and to enforce it. In 1968, James Baldwin expressed this quite brilliantly in one minute. Racism is not premised on black inferiority; it is premised on white supremacy. And a crucial problem with the dominant conception of white supremacy is its facile association with hatred and prejudice, not its association with goodness and normalcy.

Fair or not, the well-intentioned actions of white people on behalf of people of color can uphold white supremacy by reinforcing the dominant social meaning of white people as good or objective. These actions participate in the same racist system that trades upon images of white Jesus, white movie stars, and white beauty queens. This phenomenon was dramatically captured by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, who pioneered the study of the effect of racism on children through an experiment now referred to as the "doll test." The "doll test" asked young black children a series of questions which they would answer by choosing between a white doll and a black doll ("Show me the pretty doll.") Black children consistently associated the white doll with positive attributes. Later generations of researchers replicated the doll test--including Kiri Davis in "A Girl Like Me" and Margaret Beale Spencer for Anderson Cooper 360--and arrived at the same results. The literature of racism usually calls this phenomenon internalized racism, but I believe that internalized white supremacy is more accurate. The children aren't responding only to negative associations with black people but also to positive associations with white people. Spencer's study is noteworthy because it included white children as well, who demonstrated high levels of internalized white supremacy. Those #illridewithyou Tweeters concerned about the state of the image of white people needn't worry, not as long as social institutions continue to reflect the identity of white people, especially in the case of the five and ten year-old white children in Spencer's study. The state of the image of white people is strong.

What all the media coverage of #illridewithyou doesn't tell us is how many Australian Muslims took up a white stranger's offer to accompany them on public transportation. We have seen and heard from a prominent and grateful few. But I would ask those of us who regard the hashtag as an illustration of empathy at its best to consider how often the experience of empathy happens on the terms of the person from the advantaged group. That is, empathy might initially lead us to try to feel the shame and self-consciousness of wearing a hijab on a city bus. However, let's push ourselves a bit further by feeling what it must be like to be a person of color helped by a white person in this way (not a stretch for many of us). Do we feel what a Muslim woman in Australia feels when she has to ask a white person for help to ride a train in her hometown? I can only imagine, so I'm left with more questions. Is gratitude all she feels when she arrives at her stop, and each party goes her own way? Does she return home and feel optimistic about the future or strangely ambivalent? Did this interaction cause her to feel any kind of shame at all? Is she reluctant to express her dissonance on Twitter or to a white reporter whose story celebrates the success of #illridewithyou? Whatever feelings this woman has about this encounter must be understood as the consequences of good intentions. And no, it's not fair, not in the abstract. But that's exactly the point. Our desire for the good intentions of #illridewithyou to lead to good consequences for those afraid of hate crimes does not reflect the reality of how people of color experience racism. White people understanding this unfairness as "damned if you do, damned if you don't" are caught in what Marilyn Frye has called a double bind, and it is the everyday reality of women, people of color, and members of every other oppressed social group. This does not mean that white people should stop trying to be antiracist; it means that they should be aware of the consequences of their good intentions for people of color before deciding to fight racism in their preferred way.

I never thought that one of my favorite lessons in my antiracist curriculum would come from the now-defunct sketch comedy show, Mad TV. The sketch is called "Nice White Lady," and it parodies Hollywood films such as Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers, parts of the "white (lady) savior" genre about a white woman who manages to motivate a class of poor students of color to succeed in traditionally academic ways. The audience laughs because they know that an institution cannot be transformed by the good intentions of an individual alone. What makes the sketch even funnier--again, this is the Mad TV demographic who gets this--is that the teacher is not fully conscious of the source of her good intentions, white supremacy, which has her asking her students to learn and to express themselves in the ways that had worked for her. ("Write it down.") When white people are not fully conscious of the source of their good intentions, the consequences of acting upon those intentions can replenish that source. To me, the most brilliant part of the sketch comes near the end, when all of the students break out into applause for their teacher. Shedding a tear, the teacher writes the words "You're Welcome" on the board. With colleagues, I sometimes share my suspicion that in education today, the dominant message received by students of color is no longer "You're inferior." It's "You're welcome." It's easy to see how the former originates from and reinforces white supremacy and not so easy to see how the latter does and can too. Had Susan arrived at Helen's house with an armful for presents for the children, how might she have acknowledged their adulation? On a Sydney bus, what might have been the first words spoken by the white woman to the grateful woman in the hijab?

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Racist Euphemisms

At parties, I'm hesitant to tell strangers what I do for a living. Upon learning that I am an English professor, many make a face before admitting to being self-conscious talking to me. But when I was younger, I did my share of correcting people's English to their faces. Looking back, I realize that a big reason for this was my own face, a Chinese one, and every "You mean lie, not lay" was a riposte to every "You speak excellent English" visited upon me in my youth. (It takes a long time to decolonize your mind of internalized racism.) These days, I try to tell people that I don't care about their English, that what I do as an English professor is so much more important to me than lie/lay or else I wouldn't be doing it. What my fellow partygoers probably don't know is that a word like "irregardless" doesn't stop me in my tracks nearly as quickly as "Caucasian." Whenever I hear that word and other racist euphemisms, I want to sit down and have a long conversation about why they shouldn't be using that word.

I don't get invited to a lot of parties.

Here's what I really do as an English professor: I teach and write about how meaning is created, sustained, and changed. This means tracing the textual path between something and its social meaning, including and especially human bodies. In what ways do we, as Americans, arrive at the meanings associated with white bodies and non-white bodies? The relationship between dominant meanings and offensive images and words--such as caricatures and epithets--is pretty evident, but the construction of meaning is more quotidian and insidious than that. Tim Wise spoke of the absence of the word "overprivileged" in our dictionaries and collective consciousness, while "underprivileged" needs no explanation. Which groups are empowered when we aren't able to conceive of people as overprivileged? How else do everyday words and terms empower and disempower groups of people, particularly white people and people of color?

Because rhetorical contexts are not always the same, the euphemisms below will not always be interchangeable with the suggested alternatives, but many times they will be, which shows how power often travels along the path of least resistance.

***

EUPHEMISM: "RACE" / ALTERNATIVE: "RACISM"

These two aren't always interchangeable, but you'd be surprised how often they are. Journalists and public officials have no issues using the word "race." In fact, they go to great lengths to talk about race as something stable, something constant, which is a big problem. The idea of race, as it pertains to the relationship between people's skin color and how much power those people should have in society, was invented in 17th century colonial Virginia. Unfortunately, race morphed from an idea into a thing with great alacrity, so much so that most people came to understand race objectively, as existing on their very bodies and not in their consciousness. As a thing, then, race is much less controversial than the idea from which it sprung, which is white supremacy. Racism is the system of white supremacy. I'm not kidding myself that public figures will flock to use "white supremacy" instead of "race," but even "racism" is too controversial in many cases. In this story, the writers awkwardly go out of their way--multiple times--to substitute "race" for "racism": "The Jones family is African American. The Kaye family is white. The conversations each father has with his son about race are worlds apart." These fathers aren't talking about skin color only; they are talking about a historic relationship among groups of people with different skin colors. "Race" was once the story of that relationship until enough people believed it to be true. "Racism" is the only story of that relationship that we have left.

***

EUPHEMISM: "RACE RELATIONS" / ALTERNATIVE: "RACISM"

Go to Google News or a similar site and search for "race relations." See how many news stories turn up with this euphemism in the headline. The headline to this story says that "Americans remain divided in views on race relations," while this one tells us that "Majority believes race relations worse under Obama." In many cases, you can substitute the word "racism" for the term, and the resulting sentence will be more accurate and more elegant. My problem with the term "race relations" is that it implies that all racial groups in our society have equal responsibility for improving relationships. If this is so, what, may I ask, should black people be responsible for when it comes to improving relationships? Isn't the responsibility on a society and its institutions that legally enslaved, killed, segregated, Jim Crowed, incarcerated, and discriminated against black people for most of its history? "Race relations" as an idea reinforces the belief that we can fix racism without addressing its structural nature. All we need is a change of heart, in other words. Too often black people are expected to change their hearts, which is just another euphemism for "forgive those who dehumanize you." The photograph of the black boy and white officer hugging each other went viral partly because of the hope that a change of heart can end racism. "Race relations" reminds me of that terrible euphemism that became popular in the 1970s because people didn't want to say "sexism" or didn't know how to: "Battle of the Sexes." I'm encouraged that nobody really says that anymore, at least not without a hint of irony. We can only hope that "race relations" shares the same fate.

***

EUPHEMISM: "RACIAL" / ALTERNATIVE: "RACIST"

Racial attitudes. Racial motivations. Racial injustice. These terms and so many more would be improved by substituting "racist" for "racial." The main reason why this doesn't happen is because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of racism. That is, those in the public eye are hesitant to say "racist" because to do so in our dominant culture is tantamount to accusing someone, usually a white person, of being an evil, immoral person who hates people because of the color of the skin. However, understanding racism as a system--and not only as interpersonal conflict--allows us to see that whatever is racist reinforces white supremacy because racism is a white supremacy system. Until we understand this on a grand scale, however, using the word "racist" as an adjective or a noun will always give pause to most of us. In an article for the New Yorker, Jelani Cobb critiques the use of the term "racial profiling": "Nothing better illustrates the slick, manipulative power of euphemism than the fact that our dialogue takes seriously this non-term. There is no such thing as 'racial profiling'—there is simply racism." (For the record, "racist profiling" would fly in my style guide.) But I can see why "racial" is so popular; it seems objective, an established part of the lexicon of science and academia. "Racist" is so, well, literal. Full disclosure: the original title of this post was "On Racial Euphemisms." I guess I thought it sounded more professional. It takes a long time to decolonize your mind.

***

There are so many other euphemisms out there that work to delay or interrupt the antiracist movement, and blogs can say only so much. So, for further thought, here's a word cloud of euphemisms that keep us from confronting the reality of racism in our society. They're not code words like "thug" that allow people to shame black people without using the n-word. Rather, the audience for these words is predominantly white people, and they are often used to disguise or defer the full meaning of their historical relationships with people of color. Don't all euphemisms call our attention to a difference in perspective? So what makes it difficult for us to see the difference in perspective when we encounter terms like "race relations"? Don't get me wrong: some of these words are the right word with the right context, while in other contexts they are just bad euphemisms that give comfort to the powerful.

Tolerance. Tolerant. Intolerant. Intolerance. Equality. Diverse. Diversity. Bias. Biased. Culture. Cultural. Multicultural. Multiculturalism. Bigot. Bigoted. Race Prejudice. Prejudice. Prejudiced. Racialism. Racialist. Nationality. Ethnic. Ethnicity. White Privilege. Privilege. Whiteness. Insensitive. Inclusive. Inclusion. Inclusivity. Norwegian. Irish. English. Polish. Scottish. Italian. French. German. Swiss. Czech. European. Euro-American. American.

As for Caucasian . . . well, you don't want to say that. Unless you're ready to say Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid too, the terms used to classify and hierarchize the major "races" of man in the heyday of pseudo-scientific natural history. "Caucasian" hearkens back to the time when scientists and laypeople alike understood race as a biological phenomenon, a matter of skull size and forehead angle. Still, like "racial," the word "Caucasian" must strike some as objective and scientific. A little polite, maybe, for those not comfortable with saying "white." But we should say "white" instead, if only to remind ourselves of what has been lost. "White" is not an essential or genetic identity; "white" is what happened to those people who have come to be called it.

The other day, during my office hours, a white student came in to talk to me about her paper on the meaning of her diverse ethnic heritage--Norwegian, German, Irish, etc. "Do you know why," I started, "you have so many different European ethnicities in your ancestry?" She paused, made a face. Indeed, she did know.

English major.

Worrying about bad grammar at a party is a misdirection of our energies. It's time for a different kind of self-consciousness.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

#StealingFocusWhileWhite : A Hashtag for White Allies

It seemed like a good idea. A Twitter hashtag for white people who want to expose the reality of their white privilege vis-a-vis their encounters with law enforcement and the criminal justice system. #CrimingWhileWhite was supposed to do that. En masse, white people began tweeting their pithy confessions to the world, copping to all sorts of illegal behavior ignored or purposefully overlooked by law enforcement (mostly driving fast or holding weed or holding weed after being pulled over for driving fast). It didn't take long for this well-intentioned movement to draw criticism for how it stole focus from the central issue of the court system protecting cops who kill black people. In trying to be a part of the solution, white allies managed to turn the camera back onto themselves for another selfie. Lucky for us, another hashtag began to trend, one in direct response to #CrimingWhileWhite. #AliveWhileBlack described every sort of racism that black people experience every day. I didn't have to read but a few early #CrimingWhileWhite tweets to get the point; these days, the hashtag has been largely appropriated by fun, ironic white people. In an earlier post, I theorized about how we might need a moratorium on white people talking about "white privilege," so this post is part of the praxis. What is so important about #AliveWhileBlack is that it brings the focus back from white privilege to where it should be, white supremacy.

In that spirit and at the risk of sounding hypocritical, I offer a new hashtag to white allies in the fight against white supremacy, #StealingFocusWhileWhite. This hashtag allows white allies to out their internalized white supremacy instead of their institutional white privilege. "Stealing focus" happens when white people derail a discussion or dialogue about racism by changing the subject, usually toward an issue that centers their own experiences and worldview. An egregious public example of stealing focus happened recently on Meet the Press when Rudy Giuliani shifted from the topic of the racial demographics of police forces by arguing that white police would not be in black neighborhoods if black people didn't kill other black people. Michael Eric Dyson rightly called out the "defense mechanism of white supremacy at work" in Giuliani's mind. However, Giuliani was successful in the sense that his stealing focus turned his idea of "black on black" crime into a thing that is now deployed to deflect police brutality discussions taking place on television, online, or face-to-face. But you don't have to bring up "black on black" crime in order to steal focus from the antiracist movement. It happens every day and takes on so many forms that a hashtag is not a bad way to keep track of them. What follows is my attempt to name, organize, and make sense of some of these varieties of internalized white supremacy.

***

1. REFUSING TO FOCUS ON BLACK HUMANITY ONLY


Intentional or not, #AliveWhileBlack also responds to the #AllLivesMatter hashtag. The latter sprung up online and in protest marches as an alternative to #BlackLivesMatter. This appeal to colorblindness is clearly addressing black people as much as it is the institutions that kill them. The people who flip the script in this way (not all of them white, I'm sure) have some kind of problem with white people being excluded from anything, even racist oppression. This article describes what it feels like to have the somber quality of Ferguson protests interrupted and even colonized by white protesters who self-segregate and drown out black protesters' chants of "Black Power" with their own competing chants. Arthur Chu also nails it in his tweet, "Do people who change #BlackLivesMatter to #AllLivesMatter run thru a cancer fundraiser going "THERE ARE OTHER DISEASES TOO." I realize that his is a rhetorical question, but the answer is no, they do not. And here's why: they respect the situation because cancer has probably visited their own lives or the lives of friends and family with a regularity that the reality of black lives has not.

I told a black classmate that the Irish in America were discriminated against at one time too. #StealingFocusWhileWhite

***

2. CHANGING THE SUBJECT TO CLASSISM, SEXISM, HETEROSEXISM, ETC.

This one is closely related to #1 but attempts to dodge the risk of seeming socially disengaged by bringing up poor people, women, and LGBTQ people. The "It's not race, it's class" crowd strike me as the most disingenuous because usually they have no real commitment to dismantling the class structure in our society but are simply angling at avoiding a sustained discussion of racism. White people stealing focus to talk about their oppression as women or gay men may do so to shield themselves from association with the dominant group in the system of racism. Lastly, those who want to change the subject in this way are quick to identify and name the ideologies behind classism (capitalism) and sexism (patriarchy) but are rarely outspoken about the ideology behind the system of racism: white supremacy. When we establish that we will be talking about racism--at lunch, at a workshop, in a classroom--let's commit to doing exactly that, even if that means that not everyone will have something to say.

I silenced a black woman criticizing the catcalling video because I wanted to keep talking about the oppression of women in general. #StealingFocusWhileWhite

***

3. COMFORTING OTHER WHITE PEOPLE WHO GET EMOTIONAL

In her article entitled "White Fragility," Robin D'Angelo tells the story of an antiracism training that upset a white woman so much that she walked away from it and, according to witnesses, began to suffer the symptoms of a heart attack. When she returned to the group, all attention had shifted off her offensive remarks and onto concern for her well-being. I've also heard this dynamic called "the crying white woman," and it can happen whether white people are upset at being challenged for their statements or whether they are upset by the reality of racism in general. I'll add that the dynamic can also account for white men, who I don't usually see crying at these trainings. Instead, you have the "sighing white man" or those who raise their voices, emotional outbursts that also compel those around them to cater to their comfort--smirking at them, making light of the situation, etc. We may not be able to control our emotions at times like these, but we can remove ourselves from situations when we become distractions. And we can control how we respond to other people being emotional. We can stay with the task at hand, and doing so does not mean that we are not compassionate but that we don't usually have the luxury of demonstrating it whenever we want to.

I missed what a black man was saying about his daughter because I wanted the woman next to me to know that I was there for her. #StealingFocusWhileWhite

***

4. INTELLECTUALIZING RACISM FOR FUN, WORK, ETC.

With great interest, I've been following a Twitter conversation between Jeet Heer and Ta-Nehisi Coates on the demise of The New Republic. In short, Heer and Coates critique the nostalgia for this magazine as selective in lamenting the passing of liberal, progressive journalism while failing to reckon with its lack of staff diversity and its racist reportage of black people and issues, punctuated with a detached, "academic" attitude. In particular, they focus on how TNR front covered WaPo columnist Richard Cohen's hypothetical situation: "You own a jewelry store in a downtown neighborhood. Because you worry about robberies, admission is by buzzer...Someone arrives at your door. He is young. He is male. He is black. Do you buzz him in? Are you a racist if you don't?" Coates tweeted: "Thing that offends about the way they dealt with race was that it was a thought experiment for them. / It's like, 'Hmm here's an interesting ethical dilemma: Should we discriminate against blacks? / It was never, 'Shit, that could be my son. Or shit, maybe the guy calls the police and my best friend's kid gets shot.' " Heer and Coates identify the huge gap between work and life for the white people at TNR when it comes to the reality of racism. People of color have to talk about the racism in their lives so that white people can kick back and ponder its meaning for a while.

I hijacked an antiracist workshop by lecturing the trainer on how political scientists talk about race. #StealingFocusWhileWhite

***

5. BECOMING THE VICTIM OF RACISM

Another one that is very similar to #1. However, it can easily be distinguished from it because at some time during the discussion of racism, the words "reverse racism" will be spoken. For the past several years, the College of Education at my university has invited me to give a presentation on Affirmative Action to the education students. I always mention this 2011 study, which shows how white students receive more than their share of private scholarship and institutional merit-based grant monies. This year, I got to add this tidbit about the case of Abigail Fisher, who sued my alma mater, the University of Texas, because she believed that she was rejected for being white: 47 students were provisionally admitted to UT that year with lower GPAs and SAT scores than Fisher, and 42 of them were white. What caused Fisher to zero in on those five students of color? Why didn't she question if she had equal access to the experiences and qualifications of the 42 white students? Amazing to me that "reverse racism" makes sense to otherwise smart people. As if the rationale behind diversifying a classroom and lynching black people is the same.

When my Hmong roommate told me about a racist incident, I told her that at least she didn't have to work two jobs to pay for college. #StealingFocusWhileWhite

***

These are only five common ways that white people can steal focus from discussions of racism. There are many more that I could have put in this entry, but that's what the hashtag is for. At the same time, I don't expect this hashtag to go viral. It's a little clunky. (Even so, it's preferable to something like #SuperiorWhileWhite, which is more open to confusion or appropriation). People may end up tweeting photos of Ann Coulter or Bill O'Reilly instead of critiquing their own experiences. But, then again, what if some white people really started to engage with the reality of racism because of it? What if they simply listened and believed what people of color said about racism? "Suppose that everything I just told you about racism were true," I sometimes say to my students. "If you like, you can always go back to believing what you did after this class is over, but just stay with me for now. Tell me, if everything I said were true, how would you have to change your life?"

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

What Happened to White Privilege

About a week ago, at the university where I teach, I was giving a presentation at a student-organized and student-run conference on the meanings of being an ally for social justice. This was the third year in a row that I presented at this conference, which is put on by a student organization dedicated to educating students on "diversity" issues. This year, I was invited to say something about Asian Americans. My presentation was on how stereotypes are really just popular stories, and I concluded it in what I thought was a clever way by saying that there is really only one story of racism: white supremacy. I made the point that attendees shouldn't aspire to be allies on behalf of Asian Americans but that they should be allies in the fight against white supremacy. And that means identifying white supremacy, speaking out against white supremacy, using the words, naming the consciousness that controls our lives as people of color and as white people. I ended the presentation and asked for questions. One of the organizers of the event, a polite young white man, raised his hand. "White privilege is a serious problem, too, right?" he asked.

I want to be clear that I am gladdened by this young man's commitment to talking about racism with his peers, and I mention him here because our exchange led me to give more thought to why white privilege has become such a thing. I've been teaching about white privilege for over a decade, and it has been a thing in academia for much longer than that, but I'm pretty sure that it didn't become a broad cultural thing until Bill O'Reilly and Jon Stewart started arguing about it on TV this fall. It doesn't really matter that O'Reilly doesn't think that it is real, or that the academic literature on it is thirty years old, or that people of color have been talking about it in other ways for hundreds of years; the very fact that white people who aren't college students, recent college graduates, and professors are talking about it has brought it into a new kind of existence. However, when a social institution as influential as mass media gets to shape the meaning of white privilege, then I get more than a little anxious.

At the same time, I'm not sure that the social institution in which I participate most directly--education--hasn't also done its part in making white privilege a thing, and I mean in a bad way. In some of my classes, I discuss a process called reification, which is when an idea is turned into a "thing" that has the semblance of real existence. "Race" is a classic example of reification. The idea that skin color is socially meaningful was turned into a thing, an essence--"Negro," "Caucasian," etc.--believed to exist in the real world, even in human bodies. Reification collapses the complex, historical relationships that were part of the idea ("white people are better than black people") into a simple concept or word that hides the relationship and therefore disguises how power works. These days, "race" is as quotidian and matter-of-fact a way to describe human bodies as hair color and height. I fear that the way that institutions now talk about the impact of racism on white people is through white privilege, a reification that has stripped the term of its relationship to white supremacy. For a long time, I was as responsible for this as much as anyone.

Most of us in my generation (and the one that followed, I suppose) were introduced to the concept of white privilege through Peggy McIntosh's iconic essay, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack." McIntosh's metaphor of an "invisible knapsack" conceptualizes white privilege as a possessive phenomenon--it is stuff that white people "have" (that people of color do not "have") that can be pulled out of the knapsack and used as a resource, which no doubt it is. White people have the assurance of not being followed around stores; they have the ability to buy bandages that match their skin color; they have the expectation of seeing other white people in charge; they have the freedom not to be burdened by race. I think that this metaphor is an extremely useful way of thinking about the meaning of being white in our society, and I was and still am tremendously impacted by this essay. But I also think that the possessive dimension of white privilege has become the dominant, institutionalized way of conceiving how racism impacts white people.

Because it is unthreatening, the possessive dimension of white privilege is the reason why white privilege is a popular way for white allies to talk to other white people about racism. The story might sound like this: "We have something that people of color do not. Let's work harder so that they get these things too." Similarly, I suspect that most of my students who self identify as being straight experience little dissonance when advocating for gay marriage. One reason is that their advocacy does nothing to decenter their own experiences as straight people who value marriage. "We have access to something good. Gays, lesbians, and bisexual people should have access to this too." (I wonder if it would be more troubling for these allies to advocate for the end of institutionalized benefits for married people.) As long as white privilege is reified as something apart from white supremacy, white experience remains central to human experience, and racism is the story of some people not having as much stuff as other people.

In a recent interview with New York magazine, Chris Rock explained why he has so much trouble with the term "racial progress":
"When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before. [ . . . ] So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years."
Tim Wise said pretty much the same thing about "white denial," which is that it is a pathological condition. What they're both saying is that a white supremacy consciousness severely damages white people and that white people have a long way to go before they're psychologically healthy.

What I'm adding is that the concept of "white privilege" can be a short circuit that allows white allies to bypass any uncomfortable encounter with white supremacy, in name or in concept. It bypasses the prospect of their being psychologically damaged, of their having internalized superiority, of their being unable to reach their full potential. This is the reason why white allies should advocate against white supremacy: because it destroys their own humanity at the same time it destroys that of people of color, just in different ways and to different degrees. If white privilege comes in an invisible knapsack, then a white supremacy consciousness wrecks you from the inside; it is anti-possessive, something you should want to get rid of as much as you are able and never give to others. It is something far worse than a cancer because it can destroy the lives of people you don't even know.

I understand why white privilege is easier to talk about than white supremacy. For many, it can be hard even to say it; I stuttered the words for a long time, and they are still not a part of the vernacular at home or among my colleagues. Most of my students begin the semester associating the words with hate groups like the KKK and not everyday life. (Patriarchy, white supremacy's analogue in the system of sexism, is a lot easier to say and associate with everyday life, for some reason.) But I understand the move most of all because I taught my students that way for years. It was easy. There was a convenient list of privileges to discuss (the narrative portion of McIntosh's essay is just as important as the list, if not more). We connected them with events from our own lives, which is still a vital and liberating moment. But I always felt a bit unsatisfied after every class, perhaps because the learning seemed too easy. Too comfortable. I get a similar feeling when I'm having a conversation with a white colleague, and he or she, in a slightly performative moment, says something like "But I don't have to deal with (insert microaggression of your choice) because of my whiteness." What has become clear is that my unease in both situations has to do with possessive white privilege standing in for white supremacy.

White privilege is nothing more than applied white supremacy for white people. (Applied white supremacy for people of color is called racism.) Talking about Ferguson though possessive white privilege might look like this: a white kid has the assurance of not getting shot for doing what Mike Brown did. But that's not enough. We need to talk about why Darren Wilson felt that emptying his firearm into Mike Brown was an appropriate response to not having his assumptions and expectations satisfied. We need to talk about the seed of Bob McCulloch's condescension during his press conference. And the wellspring of the St. Louis Police Officers Association's vitriol against five St. Louis Rams for their silent, nonviolent protest. How else do white people respond to people of color when their assumptions and expectations for a situation are not satisfied? Is it a proportionate response? Is it a healthy response? What if the white person is not a police officer but a teacher or social worker? I hope that White allies continue talking about white privilege--but not at the expense of internalized white supremacy. I hope they talk not only about what white people have but what they have lost.