Seeing Racism

Inside Higher Ed has linked to a blogpost today on how to evaluate racism. This is only a slight mischaracterization. Here’s the section that interests me. GMP, “Tenured female prof at a large public research university,” writes,

I don’t have the right to comment on whether something is racist or not, but I do have the right to comment on whether something is sexist or not.

And writes again,

because I am not a racial minority, I completely allow that I am not qualified to talk about whether something is racially insensitive or not.

I call bullshit. In fact, I call massive, massive bullshit.

Here’s Audre Lorde from a much-cited essay:

[A]s Adrienne Rich pointed out in a recent talk, white feminists have educated themselves about such an enormous amount . . . how come you haven’t also educated yourselves about Black women and the differences between us – white and Black – when it is key to our survival as a movement?

Women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns. Now we hear that it is the task of women of Color to educate white women – in the face of tremendous resistance – as to our existence, our differences, our relative roles in our joint survival. This is a diversion of energies and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought. (“The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”)

The claim that someone who is not a racial minority cannot evaluate racism is a too-convenient alibi that makes the detection of racism into a minority affair. To ask a racial minority to examine whether or not something is racist, to refuse, in fact, to put yourself on the line for calling out something as racist, is massively, massively unfair. Because it is to return those minoritized through race to the experience of that minoritization: to ask them to risk hurt in the name of some experience-based empiricism.

I’ve written this before, but it’s worth repeating: to describe something as racist, to describe an experience as racist, is to name, inadequately, a deep, persistent hurting, to try to capture, inadequately, how it feels to be deemed less than. It is to risk ridicule, disavowal, and the ever-condescending “maybe it’s all in your head.” It is to risk something.

But racist acts are not nebulous. They are not fantasies. They are not beyond the reach and grasp of education. You don’t need to be a racial minority to “get” when racism has happened. You need to be educated, as Lorde writes. You need to learn how to apply that education. I am distressed that an educator would ever claim the most banal, experience-based disavowal possible: I’m not a racial minority so I cannot speak about racism.

I call bullshit.

That’s unacceptable.

Because being anti-racist ain’t got nothing to do with the color of your skin.

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9 thoughts on “Seeing Racism

  1. I personally see it as that I as a white person have a heightened responsibilty to identify and call out racism (due to the structural advantages a racist culture has and continues to provide me). Those advantages weren’t my choice, but I choose wether to work to dismantle them or to perpetuate them.

    It does seem true however that as a white person I should always pay close attention (although not accept blindly) to people of color’s voices when they critique my understanding of what is or is not racist, because my own privilege may have led me astray.

  2. I’m stunned to read this professor’s copping out. What on earth must this woman’s field be? Maybe not humanities? It’s hard for me to imagine what her classroom must feel like. (Aloof, disingenuous, or at best timid?)

    I definitely find my students only benefit from having the person standing at the front of the room becoming vulnerable by calling out injustice of all kinds. (Regardless of its color or class or sex or gender or sexuality.) Of course, I leave room for their dissenting opinions, but when I speak freely about what is hidden, hurtful, or unspoken, it encourages them to take risks and speak out in ways that actually matter. And they see it that way–so they’ve told me. Truly, what could be more important for students than seeing all the people with the power (whatever small power mine may be) speaking unanimously against injustice?

    It is important to wield the power (to call out oppression) for good. And what do I risk by being bold in this way? I get the fear is that we steal off with someone’s reality, but to say we shouldn’t acknowledge those realities–in which we are all complicit–puts everyone on lonely islands of shoulder shrugs and sidelong glances. Dangerous business.

  3. If this professor is not even willing to comment on whether something is racist or not, then how will she ever act to oppose racism. I really like what Patrick says about responsibility of the privileged, yet sensitivity to people of color.

  4. It depends on the context, right? White people (privileged people in general) have, as stated above, a heightened responsibility to call out racism (sexism, homophobia), since they benefit passively from its institutionalization. And injustice isn’t that hard to identify, especially if you belong to another group which suffers from it in a different form. So in the copping out sense, yeah, it’s utter bullshit.

    On the other hand, if I identify something as NOT racist, because hey, I just don’t see it…. and the person standing next to me, who happens belong to the racial minority impacted, says Hells Yes It IS, then it falls upon me to shut up and let them explain what they saw that I didn’t. Because I am privilege blinded.

    One can also imagine the reverse situation, in which I call something racist, when someone else considers it reclaiming an epithet, etc. Or perhaps they just doesn’t want to make a big deal out of something that will fall on their head, not mine… there are situations in which a privileged person can call out racism and be told they are wrong. Barring the person doing the correction isn’t a very obvious tool of white supremacy, it is also my job as a privileged individual to step back and give them the benefit of the doubt. At the very least, I need to doublecheck my math very carefully before proceeding.

    …none of which really alters the weight of the copping out/heightened responsibility point.

  5. The reason I turn to Audre Lorde and education: “isms” are not idiosyncratic things that exist in some arbitrary “my feelings were hurt” place. As long as we believe they are, we miss the basic fact of their structural nature and manifestation. We miss their social nature and that they operate at the level of that “we” and because of that “we,” not despite it. So, no, context does not matter. No one should have to bear the disproportionate burden of naming something structural and social. Now, our knowledge increases, as it must. We now know more about how cigarettes work than we did 50 years ago, and because of that no reasonable person would trumpet the health benefits of cigarettes at this present time. Who knows what we might discover in 50 years? The analogy is not far-fetched. There are probably isms and phobias we have yet to take seriously, yet to discover, but our collective knowledge increases, and, as it does, we learn how to respond.

    Because of the vast archive of knowledge about race and racism, produced from at least the mid-nineteenth century, if not before, and spread across the arts, politics, institutional policy documents, web spaces and archives, incorporated as part of ongoing training in the workplace (or should be), it makes absolutely no sense to claim it cannot be seen or named by anyone who inhabits a shared social. The claim that only those who are minoritized in whatever way have “the right” to name that minoritization is damaging, for it names as “right” what is more properly an ideological, affective, and material burden.

    I went to a public research institution and I teach at one, so this hits home because I see how the politics of race and tokenism work in very palpable ways.

  6. Catherine, I get the comment about field. But that really doesn’t matter. It’s not as though isms and phobias discriminate by field or subject, as so many studies of sexism across multiple fields keep demonstrating. One’s field may tackle isms and phobias more directly in terms of research and teaching, but structural conditions are shared. I would hope any educator, regardless of field, would be able to create a welcoming community for all students. That, after all, is our obligation and responsibility.

  7. You’re right. Of course, I guess I was thinking pragmatically about my own teaching and how it revolves so much around the issues she claims she can’t know. Without attempting to call out racism, sexism, etc., my classroom would be a very different (non-existent) place. I just mean maybe her teaching doesn’t tackle those issues as directly, and she feels–irresponsibly perhaps–she can back off of them (in a math course, for example).

    I guess I felt she must not be a person who makes her life out of seeing, reading, challenging, and contesting isms. I disagree that anyone can divorce themselves from seeing “isms and phobias,” but I meant she must not be in the humanities if she feels she can disengage from them. Because, maybe I’m naive, but I think we in humanities actually can’t ethically separate from isms in our daily work and studies of the human condition–whether she can separate from them and create a strong classroom community is a different question.

    But you’re certainly right that the responsibility to students (and her institution) is no more mine than hers, regardless of our fields.
    ———-

    And, also, I really like the point about increasingly (and implicitly changing) collective knowledge. As our knowledge grows, we form more numerous, overlapping discourse communities, and without engaging on and sharing the responsibility of calling out structural and institutional isms, we remain isolated. And, as you say, “burdened” in lonely, damaging ways.

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