Thursday, July 2, 2009

From Erica: A racism rant

This isn't going to be my last post on this topic, but I'm angry, so this limited post is going to be the start.

My partner's father, a White, diehard Rush Limbaugh conservative, sent me an email today that very calmly discussed the implications of the SCOTUS's overturning of prior decisions in the New Haven firefighter case. As part of this, he referred to Latino/as as "spics" (although he misspelled it). I called him on it, pointing out that that's a really offensive and derogatory term, and he fired back a reply that demanded to know why Judge Sotomayor can be racist against "old white males" and he can't be racist back.

First of all, in the most basic sense, two wrongs don't make a right. Even if you believe that Sotomayor's comments were racist, a matter I'll consider in a moment, it's completely unreasonable to argue that someone else's hateful or ignorant behaviour gives you the right to behave the same way. In White Judeo-Christian culture, at least in the United States, the philosophy is that you should always strive to be the better person; the phrase my parents used to describe it was "to turn the other cheek." This is a man who would argue that, if a bully punched his kids at school and his kids punched back, his kids deserve whatever punishment the school metes out for them because, regardless of circumstances, they committed a wrong. I know that racism can be really difficult for White folk to acknowledge and understand, even when they're being as deliberately malicious as this man is, but it's difficult not to ask myself how on Earth he can justify his actions to himself.

The second matter, which comes directly from that, is that I'm absolutely fed up with hearing people talk about "reverse discrimination" and "reverse racism" and think they're being meaningful. The reverse of discrimination is no discrimination, and the reverse of racism is no racism. Discrimination isn't solely the property of White folk. There are plenty of people in this country and around the world who are incredibly racially discriminatory and who aren't White.

Racism, in my understanding, is a specific form of discrimination. Having never been the victim of it myself, as a White person, it's entirely possible that I've got this somewhat confused. However, what I've gathered over the years from bell hooks and Audre Lourde and Patricia Hill Collins and Andrea Dworkin and Chandra T. Mohanty and a whole host of anti-oppression theorists is that racism is discrimination backed by power. Racism is when discrimination can be enforced, either overtly or covertly, through the legal, social, and political systems. What this means in practice is that an African-American woman can make all kinds of race-based judgements about me and I about her, but my judgements are the ones that are validated by our respective housing options, educational opportunities, and interactions with the police, welfare systems, and other authority or assistance figures. THAT is what racism means.

I think the most frustrating thing about this situation is that this is an email conversation that's already happened many times, albeit without the slur. We've talked about racism before, but he's absolutely not interested in even considering the possibility that there are things he could learn or even discuss. He's completely absorbed in the ideology that says that nothing's wrong, everything's fine as it is, and his privileges as a White man are completely incidental.

And I'm tired of telling him the same thing over and over again, with my arguments falling on ears that refuse to listen. My email back to him simply stated, in no uncertain terms, that his language was inappropriate and he is never to use it again. Unfortunately, the bigger issue remains unresolved, and it's something that anti-racist theorists have been grappling with for their entire careers and their entire lives. When someone refuses to listen, how do you turn them around? If turning them around is next to impossible, how do you know when to focus your energies on the people who will listen? Is it ever okay to give up hope on someone's ability to broaden their perspectives, even temporarily?

These questions are so huge, and I know there are multiple answers to all three of them (as well as to many I haven't asked here). The only bright spot I see in this is that I'm still angry, which means I'm still motivated to keep fighting.


1 comment:

  1. Another important question is when do we have a right to tell someone they should change? What's a racial slur to one person may be language, pure and simple, to someone else. I'm opposed to using even obscure slurs like "jimmies" (in reference to chocolate sprinkles) and "gypped," but there does come a point where you can't avoid offending everyone. Some people find the term "black" insulting, while others hate the term "African American," and the same is true for any ethnicity or race. Furthermore, where does language surpass arbitrary sounds and become something we should censor and edit? I know that line exists, but I don't know where to draw it.