Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The (Ideological) Dupes

I've been thinking a lot lately about what makes a statement racist. Is it the statement that is racist, the individual making the statement or the individual decoding that sentence? From a theoretical perspective, each of these three possibilities is tied to a particular understanding of the world:

  • a statement is racist --> words carry the meaning, people are simple filters through which these words circulate. Who carries the responsibility for being a racist here?
  • the individual making the statement is racist --> the words we use reflect who we are on the inside. The 'racist' is a clear-cut identity inside us that is expressed through these words. In such cases, the individual carries the responsibility of being racist.
  • the individual decoding/ interpreting the sentence is racist --> in this case, the individual interprets everything said through a racist lens. Everything makes sense to h/ir only through the racist perspective s/he espouses. Again, the locus of responsibility is within the individual.

Of course, there are always other options than these three. In fact, the mere fact that I only list three options here betrays a worldview: an understanding of communication as a message that moves from the source to the audience.

During these past few days, I was reminded of how complex the questions of 'what counts as racism' and 'where is racism located' are. Part of me, the politically engaged part, cannot escape the feeling that some of these experiences were clearly tokens of racism. But pinpointing exactly what made them so and how were they racist became increasingly difficult. I know that for some, things are easy to interpret: if it smacks of racism, then it is racism. But I'm a theorist, and nothing is simple for me.

I was reading a long and heated thread on Feministe. The topic - parenting - elicits everyone's opinion. Parents and nonparents alike, we all believe there's an objective 'proper way' to raise kids and integrate them in the pre-existing social setting. During this chaotic online conversation, someone qualified their statement as being true regardless of race, gender or ethnicity. In itself, this may be a reasonable statement: "I believe kids can misbehave, regardless of their or their parents' race, gender or ethnicity". As a performance, this kind of statement seeks to counter any accusation of racism, sexism or nationalism. The speaker seeks to reassure the audience that the statement is not uttered through the racial, gender or ethnic lens.

But the audience rejects this assurance. In fact, the audience is quick to point out that the statement itself is racist. Is anyone so deluded to think that normative statements about behavior can be uttered in a space devoid of race, class, ethnicity or gender? No, the mere fact that such a sentence is uttered only reinforces the audience's belief that it is actually racist, classist, sexist etc. No one who has been subjected to racism or to class-based discrimination would ever believe that such a sentence can be 'neutral' (if I may even use this qualifier) . It is uttered from a particular racial, ethnic, gender, class perspective - meaning, the person who utters it is probably white, middle-class.

By extension, all members of the audience who read that utterance and find it non-racist, non-sexist, etc. are themselves racist, sexist, classist etc. because they fail to recognize that the possibility of uttering such a statement is only opened for their class/ race/ ethnicity/ gender.

The other case is of a quite different nature, but it ends up pretty much in the same place. I see this person on a quite regular basis, without being friends or even acquaintances. We live in the same neighborhood and in time, we started saying "hello" to each other. One day, I saw a person that looked just like her, but yet a bit different. My friend confirmed the similarity. We didn't know if it's her or not; being confused, we focused on identifying her instead of being polite and missed the chance of greeting her - whether she was our neighbor or not.

The next time we ran into our neighbor, we told her the story and offered a variant to "save face": maybe it was her sister or a relative? No, she said. It's probably the fact that "all Asians look the same" she said, and then added: "But even my brother was convinced he ran into me once, and it wasn't me". She had offered us another "save face" variant, but one that didn't sit well with us because of its implications: we were white, and as the stereotype goes, "all Asians look the same" to white people. We protested the implied racial framing in a quite clumsy manner. But were we reading too much into it? Could it be that we were actually hearing what she said from a racial perspective? Could it be that the source of our confusion was a racialized vision in the first place? Did she mean it in a racist way or was she simply trying to be nice by offering a possible explanation? Would she have offered the same explanation if we were not white?

* * *

I do not sit well with the idea that we are always first and foremost making a statement from a racial, gender, ethnic, class position. While that's partly true and needs to be recognized and interrogated, it is not the whole truth. If we can think only "as whites", "as women", "as Americans", then we find ourselves in an impossible world, born into these pre-established categories and unable to truly understand each other. These being said, it is only a few of us that have the privilege (or maybe the burden?) of affording to question these things.

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