Monday, December 31, 2007

Reflections on Anti-Racism

Pay attention, queer people: there's a lesson about the possibility of ending homophobia and why many blacks don't sympathize with the fight against homophobia/for gay rights in here for you, as well, though not specifically referenced.

Undoubtedly, anyone who does quite a bit of reading about race online has run into pieces by "Tamara Nopper" or Kil Ja Kim. I think she is a brilliant person in terms of her ideas and the fact that she's not black but is right on about a lot of black issues. Like me, she doesn't always express herself in the prettiest/most eloquent and composed way. She let's anger come through. Some would call her--and me--bitter, which I don't understand why people mean that as an insult when it's something that, given one's life circumstances, really should be more expected and understood than it is sometimes. Because of her straightforward manner and the anger/bitterness, I've seen several times on the internet that she has rubbed many white people the wrong way, including ones who claim to be anti-racist.

One of my close white friends read Kim's piece on "white anti-racist" being an oxymoron and agreed with Kim but also agreed with me that the piece sort of deteriorated halfway through when she showed her anger. However, my white friend is the seemingly rare sort who doesn't mind that and doesn't feel offended or defensive by pieces like Kim's, probably because she is likely the kind of person who doesn't automatically equate blanketed negative statements about white people with herself and is very objective.

I know that writing the way that she does sometimes defeats the purpose of what she says, at least somewhat, because, although I believe that the majority of whites and Asians would shut down regardless of how one puts many of the comments she and I make, there are many people who only turn off their minds when ideas are expressed in a hostile manner. Personally, neither are the kinds of people I'm necessarily trying to reach--Kim might feel the same. I think some of the things I'll write later in this post will explain more why I feel that way, other than the fact that I'm not into babying people and I express myself a certain way because watering down or PC-ness defeats what I'm trying to do, i.e. say things a lot of people think the way they think it but don't say it or don't say it the way they think it.

So for starters, it's always surprising to me when I find non-black people who examine race as it relates to black people in a way that is not stereotypical and/or negative, especially if it resembles an effort to align themselves with/defend blacks. Kim and Rachel Sullivan are examples of that, as well as Tim Wise, Frank Wu and my white & Asian friends. As I've written several times, I'm a lot like I imagine most people to be, i.e. as a black person, I don't tend to care about issues that affect non-black people, or don't care to the extent to defend them as much as I defend blacks nor become equally invested. I don't understand people who do, i.e. how they got to that point (even if they provide stories that explain how they got there) or what drives those interests, nor do I understand people who expect such a thing. Still, I like to read these people's works, and that's why I did an internet search on Kim, to find more of her pieces.

In the process, I found this. I'm familiar with Carmen Van Kerckhove, particularly the Racialicious site...there's really no particular reason I haven't linked to it on the right side of my blog, except that usually when I read something on any of the blogs she's affiliated with I've found it by accident or through a link from some other site I'm reading. Quite a few people in the comments in the link provided (i.e. white anti-racist parents) comment on Kim's thoughts, some saying they are offended (and, to me, demonstrate that they miss Kim's point). The topic and the comments really made me think about my perception of anti-racists, particularly white ones. Frankly, my knee-jerk reaction was that the concept of "anti-racism" is silly, and that, once again (without having re-read Kim's piece...I read it earlier this year), I agree with Kim, or, at least, think I see where she's coming from.

To flesh out some of the thoughts I was of my first thoughts was that "anti-racism" is such a typical white thing to come up with. It's funny--it's as if there's nothing white people think they can't do. I had to remind myself that it's not just white people who consider themselves anti-racist or do anti-racist work or agree with the concept. So I concluded that "anti-racism" is really for people who are naive. In actuality, it's probably just a difference of opinion about so many things, i.e. where racism comes from and whether or not it can be eliminated from society. It just so happens that I believe people who think racism can end are naive. My understanding of anti-racism is that one of the goals/desires is to engage in work/dialogue that will end racism. The reason I considered it a typical white thing, then, is that my initial thought is always that white people are the only ones who don't "get it," the only ones to have any positive thoughts about the outcome of a history of racism, because they don't experience ongoing [social] racism (just spots of it, usually). However, the truth is that nowadays, many minorities also don't experience much ongoing non-systemic racism or do but fail to recognize it, like my friend Nikki does when racist events happen to her. My belief is these are usually the minorities who agree with an anti-racist mindset--the ones who don't, in my mind, "get it."

I'm not an anti-racist. I don't believe that racism can end. I think the US is so dependent on systemic racism in order to operate that even people who experience the ongoing racism wouldn't like it if it ended since that would mean our society would change drastically. The idea of racism ending scares me simply because I can't imagine my life and the world without it--I have no idea what to expect. I think that scares white people, too, especially since they have more to lose. Part of me finds value in the racist experiences I've had. Another part of me just doesn't like the idea of everyone truly being equal, not that ending racism would mean other forms of inequality wouldn't exist. But first and foremost, this is life as I know it, and it is NORMAL to me. I'm not surprised when people act racist; I'm surprised when they DON'T.

Many of my black friends and I have talked about it, and I think this is one of the reasons black people are not activists anymore like they used to be. To us, racism is not a matter of right or wrong, equal or unequal, fair or unfair. It's life. And this is why I consider white anti-racists naive, because I don't think they have any way of understanding this "complacency" some black people feel--many don't really know such complacency exists. But to some of us, racism is something that just is. You either learn how to deal with it, or you let it destroy you, like I feel a lot of black men allow it to. You certainly don't take time out to fight it, because that gets in the way of daily survival, especially in the modern day when people view efforts to fight racism as completely unwarranted. Especially those of us who can rattle off story after story of being discriminated against--check for a few things among us.

First of all, we're rather emotionless when we do it. It's like it's no big thing, just another news story, just another day. We're not shocked. We're not surprised. We're not hurt. We're not really even angry. We're just telling it like it is. Second, we're emotionless when we hear about racism against blacks. Some of my black friends and I say, "Well, what else is new?" We think the black people who react are crazy. We've learned how to live with racism; why haven't they? Why haven't they learned that each new story of racism really is the same story over and over and over again? Why don't they understand these events aren't isolated or exceptions, but the rule? Why beg for empowerment from without instead of finding it within, i.e. why try to make people stop making you feel worthless by trying to eradicate "nigger" rather than teach yourself to believe that someone calling you a "nigger," regardless of the history, is itself worthless because you know that's not who you are and you cannot be made to feel worthless by that or any other form of racism?

Third, you'll rarely ever hear us say anything like "racism is wrong." For some of us, racism is unavoidable, real life--and that usually doesn't include white people. And for some of us, having these experiences puts us in an exclusive club, a "better" club that means we're not hopelessly spoiled, overprivileged, unaware and devilishly powerful whether or not we want to be seen as exceptions, anti-racists, "good white people" or what have you. And I think this was, at least, part of Kim's point. Whites can have the best of intentions, but they cannot escape their privilege. Even attempts to help blacks and do anti-racist work demonstrate an exploitation of privilege. Therefore, whites cannot engage in anti-racist work without, daily, undoing the work that they do because they cannot help but participate in and benefit from the oppressive system. She's not saying whites can't not be racist; she's saying whites can't not be privileged. White anti-racists, I'm sure, have no idea how much they'd have to give up or say "no" to if they tried, nor how little a difference a few white people doing so would make.

Anti-racists, as well as minority leaders, also seem to believe that they should be able to set out a few "solutions" and they can convince everyone to follow them or enough people to follow them to make a difference. Learn a thing or two about human nature. You'll notice that I point out a lot of problems but don't offer solutions. My blog and discussions with my friends are my solutions for myself. Whether or not anyone else decides that the solution to work on their prejudices is to admit them and discuss them with others and to work on checking themselves when they are being prejudiced is their personal decisions. Many people ultimately will not do it.

The point is we're all different and we do exactly what we want to do, so we're not all going to conform to one ideal. This is precisely why racism isn't going anywhere and precisely why group coalitions aren't possible. Some people are proud of being racist. Some people are racist but won't admit it. Some people are racist but don't know it. Some people are racist but do what I do. Some people are racist but use another tactic for addressing it. Your best bet for changing anybody's mindset in terms of racism is grabbing the people who are racist but don't know it. I'm in law school, and I believe that attempting to change people's minds about anything is generally a waste of time. I know that sounds odd since people think of lawyers as people who argue their side in order to sway people. But one thing I've learned in law school is that the only people who are swayed by arguments and opinions are people who are open to changing their minds and people who don't completely have their minds made up in the first place.

Anybody who is steadfast in their beliefs and takes nothing short of transformative experiences to change the way they think. Even judges often go into the courtroom with their minds made up as the two lawyers essentially waste time arguing their case. As we've been shown, experiencing discrimination yourself is not usually enough of a transformative experience...otherwise, blacks, gays, Asians and Latinos could work together on the whole rather than as a relative few from each group who happen to see eye to eye. If anything, I would say discrimination breeds discrimination. And going off on everyone who makes a racist comment does not help (I actually view this as harmful). All that does is alerts them that they should not say such things around you. This contributes to the "if we don't see it, it doesn't exist" phenomenon. Understand that just because someone is not saying racist things in your presence doesn't mean they don't think them, and that you and your words are likely not magical enough to make them change their minds from something they've probably believed the majority of their lives. Problem is not solved.

Another thing I've learned in law school, courtesy of Critical Race Theory and Tim Wise, is that most people who don't view racism as their problem or who don't see any benefits for them in eliminating racism only act if they are convinced something is in it for them. Thus, many pivotal "advances" in history in terms of race have not come from convincing people of the wrongness of racism, nor from activism (at least not directly) or people truly changing their minds. The US has long been, and continues to be, considered a racist nation from the outside. During the 60s, the reputation as a racist nation was actually threatening to hurt our status as a Superpower. In addition, blacks were rioting across the nation, and powerful whites such as JFK were afraid that they would physically destroy the nation. Are you starting to see now? In other words, unless you're offering someone a reason why they should be personally invested in anti-racism, they will not become so. But realize that many people will still not be convinced. When I was reading the explanations Tim Wise offers whites in his book "White Like Me," I was not convinced.

But another clear difference in thought between anti-racists and me--and between society in general and me--appears to be the belief that racism is passed down to others and, thus, anti-racism can be passed down to others. I believe that all forms of discrimination, from small to large, are human nature and that one does not have to be "taught" to be racist in order to be racist. And if it is taught, how do you explain where such ideas even originated in the first place? In fact, I would make an imperfect analogy between racism and sex--we feel/are sent messages that it's wrong, but we feel compelled to do it and we do do it while feeling some level of guilt about it, denying that it is part of us and natural because it doesn't quite make sense for something like that to be natural.

But if you think about it, it is in our nature to think something's wrong with anything/anyone that is different, i.e. not the majority. This is why even minorities internalize racism towards self and others. Early on (but not until we've developed such critical thinking skills), we look around, see we don't look like most people and wonder why/what's wrong with us/why can't we look or be like most people. Early on, whites realize most people look like them, see some people who don't, feel that they are normal because of that and others are abnormal because of that, and wonder why they look like that/what's wrong with them/why they can't look or be like everyone else. Race, sex, sexual orientation, class and the most obvious differences get the most attention and are the easiest ways to discriminate against people because they are the most obvious differences. But we do this is so many different ways. At the end of the day, who didn't get picked on in school for being different in some way? Who has ever gone through life without feeling alienated for being different in some way at some point? And who goes through life without ever being the alienator? All ways are not equally as bad or hurtful, but they all illustrate the same thing about how people interact with others.

This is also why racism isn't going anywhere. To me, we're fighting and criticizing human nature without understanding that it is such. If anti-racism is worth the fight, it takes knowing exactly what you're fighting before you know what to do about it. If I'm right and you're raising a kid, constantly telling him or her that it is wrong to think this or that but the kid can't help but think it...without knowing it, you're making the kid feel bad about himself or herself. I think this is partially why so many people are in denial about racism in the world and in themselves--because messages from society that something is wrong with having racist thoughts and the constant "I'm not like that, and no one else is supposed to be like that, either"s make people feel bad about themselves. People deny masturbating, except people who have gotten over the uncomfortableness of the idea of doing it or admitting it and realize it's human. This is not to say nothing's wrong with having racist thoughts. I would just advocate a different approach than the one most of us take when dealing with racism and trying to teach kids about it--or, rather, not teach them about it but dodge it by telling them only some people are racist or a flat "it's wrong" or "don't think this about people".

Even though I acknowledge other groups of people who can claim anti-racists, I still believe that the majority of the people who call themselves this are white. So I still believe there is a naivete among the bunch simply because there are things many of them just could not reasonably understand and/or admit. Among the comments to the anti-racist white parents post to which I linked, I saw many that demonstrated that many of them don't "get" some things that I feel are very important for anyone who thinks they're anti-racist to know/understand. One woman makes a comment that I have discussed here before, i.e. that she feels uncomfortable because she worries that blacks assume she's a racist. I've also read Tim Wise's book similar concerns from whites, i.e. worries about how they will be perceived/treated by blacks if they get involved in anti-racism work.

The white friend I mentioned before who read Kim's piece...I am pretty sure she would never call herself an anti-racist. For one thing, I'm sure she would read this post and agree with me completely, i.e. racism is innate, racism cannot be eliminated, political correctness and confronting racists are not necessarily the way to go, and we cannot get most--or even 1/4th of--people in the US to agree on how to view or attack racism when you can't even get people of the same racial group to view it the same or agree on methods of attack. Aside from that, though, she essentially is similar to whites who are really bothered by racism against non-whites, except I think she has a much more keen understanding that most well-intentioned whites lack.

Not only does she understand black people's suspicions of her as a white person, she expects it. It doesn't make her back away from black people, and she doesn't talk about black people's reactions to her as if they are wrong or "racist." She knows some black people, particularly black women, have a guard up and are defensive with white people. She wouldn't expect blacks to be treated like they are by white people and still approach every white individual with an open mind; it's unrealistic. She knows she has to make the effort, and she doesn't have a problem with that or think it's wrong--it is to her what racism is to me, i.e. life. Similarly, she doesn't throw her interest in race out in conversations with blacks when it's uncalled for. Not that she's perfect--she doesn't understand never to compare the difficulty of managing white hair with the difficulty of managing black hair, nor does she want to believe that she can look like crap and still have white/Asian/Latino men approach her all because she's a blonde with blue eyes (though I think she knows that black men will approach any white woman, regardless of what she looks like).

Another thing I noticed on that site is a lot of white women. That's not surprising. As little faith as I have in whites on the whole, I have almost no faith in the human decency of white males as opposed to believing that there are many white women out there who sincerely are interested in racism. Given that, I couldn't help but notice that white women were commenting on the site but claimed that their white husbands had the same interests they do in fighting racism or exposing their white kids to diversity. Well...where are their husbands? Why are they all the ones visiting and posting to anti-racism sites?

If ever I were to offer a solution, it would be that we should do the opposite of what we do now. In other words, the "if we ignore it, maybe it'll go away" (and, in the case of slurs and racist comments, "if we stop saying it, maybe those thoughts will go away") and walking on eggshells mindsets need to stop. After all, ask yourself in how many other areas of life does ignoring problems or walking on eggshells work?

Minorities should become more willing to "teach" other races & ethnicities, explain their experiences and viewpoints and things that they associate with their culture, as well as things they associate with other people's cultures. And whites should be more willing to say what they really think, regardless of how it's perceived, and stop denying that non-whites are really different from them or insisting that they don't think non-whites are different from them. However, these things should be said to each other, not about each other--and not just when we're angry or trying to be negative. Both have to listen and learn how to control their emotions so that they can focus on what the comments mean rather than how they make them feel. It has to be a free discussion rather than one where people jump down each other's throats for "offensive" and politically incorrect ideas. Both have to resist the urge to tell other people how they are rather than disregarding what the people who would know best have to say about who they are. And we have to stop focusing so much on how things should be--we should pay attention and admit to how things actually are.

My friends and I aren't close because we act like our racial differences don't matter; we're close because we acknowledge that our racial differences do matter. I know I can say how I feel and what I think about whites without my white friends taking it personally or getting offended, and they know they can do the same. I know I can ask them questions, and they know they can ask me. They know they can joke, and I know I can joke. I can inform them of something about blacks and they won't argue with me about it, and they can do the same for whites. Notice I said my white friends--in general, my Asian friends and I don't necessarily have this kind of relationship (and here, I'm including my part-white, part-Asian friend Angel). When I was in high school and had an Asian best friend, we talked about race but it wasn't as open as it is with my white friends and I. My discussions with my white friends would offend most people--we both would offend most people; in fact, we have offended some people.

I almost think the word "offensive" should be retired just as much as some people think the word "nigger" should be. But I accept that we can't make people stop saying words--and I think that's another thing we should work on. We have to recognize the battles that are necessary to fight and the ones that can actually be won. Even if we could make people stop using slurs, there are bigger battles out there that are ignored by the public. Blacks nowadays act as if rap music and slurs are our biggest problems, but they're not. In fact, most of the problems that existed in the 60s still exist today--education and crime are at the top of my list, and rappers are not solely, or even mostly, responsible for those problems. I also mentioned self-empowerment needing to come from within rather than from how others treat you. We can address and repair these self-esteem issues without fighting pointless battles just like we can put a dent in racism without coalitions with people who don't care about our problems--if many of us just worked on ourselves, that would be a big help not only to dealing with racism against us but also dealing with our discrimination towards everyone else.

Cont'd on Jan. 24th or so starting here