The Silence of Our Friends

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

How to discuss race, my take on it

Recently at many blogs there have been a spate of threads concerning race in the blogosphere, for this I am grateful. The downward spiral of the discussions is disappointing but not entirely unexpected. As Pam noted:

What I have blogged about here many times before is that race is a third rail topic for white folks and POC, particularly in the progressive sphere. Whites are paranoid about discussing it for fear of getting their heads bitten off, POC are defensive because it can get tiring having to point out the obvious -- and then they shut down. The end result is the groups go into their corners and fail to communicate effectively.

I do agree that it is a third rail topic, but I think Pam is too generous in her characterization about what motivates each side. A substantial subset of the white liberal audience simply does not want to listen to or deal with POC. And most POC are fed up and exasperated with getting the same old run around every single time, and have come to expect it. What this means is that we (POC) may not be coming to the discussion with an open mind, which is inexcusable if you get caught in that cross-fire, but hopefully you will have a better understanding of where that anger is coming from. Understanding and context are important in discussions of racism, as well as many other discussions.

For example, you arrive at your friend's home and the first thing he does is bite your head off for no apparent reason. What's your response? What if your friend just got home from the hospital, is wearing a cast on his broken leg, and is medicated to the gills but still in alot of pain, do you have a different response? Your response is probably different even though in both cases you did nothing wrong and did not deserve his anger.

Let's see if we can find some understanding and context.

My advice for white people who wish to engage in conversations with POC is that you must understand that you absolutely do have white privilege, and probably express that in racist ways on occasion. You are blind to it because it is built in to American society, this is what we mean by institutional racism. When many white people are told this, their first and sometimes last reaction is to scream, "I AM NOT RACIST! I AM NOT RACIST! I AM NOT RACIST!" They assume we are speaking about individual acts based on hate, but what we really mean is that while they understand that POC are disadvantaged in our society; they do not acknowledge that they have advantages that they take forgranted. I believe that some are willfully blind to white privilege, because the way to fight institutional racism means that whites must give up some of their advantages, affirmative action is one of these, hiring more minorities means there are less openings for whites. They do not want to give up their advantage, and so they deny the problem or derail the conversation. It's not enough to sadly exclaim that racism is bad, you must be willing to take action, lip service doesn't cut it.

One example is when discussing racially divisive issues a white person will pipe up that we should leave behind identity politics and concentrate our efforts on the greater good. But the greater good generally means that white people determine what issues are important and in our collective best interests, and this may be of very little service to POC. We think that the collective good should be working towards ALL of our interests, not just yours. You can not find out what we believe is in our interest if you aren't even willing to listen to us, and instead dismiss us. This does not mean that we expect to only work on our issues, we expect to discuss and compromise; it is the white person who expects to only work on what they choose as important while we are expected to be quiet and go along to get along.

One other thing, when white people do recognize institutional racism many times they do not speak out. They think it's not their problem and look the other way. This is why there was so much anger expressed over the Clinton blogger lunch by POC. Our allies abandon us when we need them. The bloggers there did not make it a priority to find out why diverse voices weren't included and explain to their readers. And the blogosphere in general either did not see a problem, or were afraid of the reaction of their peers if they sided with POC, for instance by delinking or banning them.

The one thing I have to say to POC is to beware of assuming that a white person who questions you isn't serious about understanding your stance. Because we are dismissed, demeaned, ignored, maligned, lied to, and lied about on a fairly regular basis it is easy to jump to that conclusion; but so much better to give clear and honest answers with as little sarcasm and animosity until you are certain what the other person's motives are. First because we need as many allies as we can find, if someone has an open mind give him/her a chance. Second because it will appear to be like the person in my example who snarls at his friend for no apparent reason, without people knowing about the broken leg. In other words, if you are dealing with a racist idiot, lead him into the discussion to reveal that before you kick his ass; or you will look like you are unreasonable, hysterical, and lashing out unprovoked to others who were willing to listen and learn...we need as many allies as we can find.

14 comment(s):

Hey Donna, just wanted to say glad to see you've started a blog. And way to go jumping out of the gate. These are great posts.

If you've had other blogs, I didn't know about them, but I've always appreciated your comments on other folks blogs.

By Blogger Thin Black Duke, at 10/03/2006 5:17 PM  

There is a lot of conversation these days about this. It's really amazing, because it seems so many trajectories come together in such an unplanned way. It feels like something weaving unseen. I like times like that.

(I found you through Dark Sun, who linked to me in a post roundup which is how I found her.)

By Anonymous Nezua Limón Xolagrafik-Jonez, at 10/03/2006 11:36 PM  

I'm glad you both found your way over here. I do have another blog but there isn't anything on it, I wasn't sure if I wanted to blog. But there were a few people, including my husband, who kept pushing me to do it. So here I am!

I'm not so sure I feel good about having these conversations only because it seems like now racism is becoming fashionable. I can believe so many people are so resistant to listening or rethinking their prejudices and privileges. It's not just that they are blind and deaf themselves, but it's like they are determined to drown out POC voices so that no one else can read or hear either.

I don't know why, but I expected liberals and progressives to have more courage of their convictions and now I'm wondering, what convictions? What principles? Has it all been an illusion and most whites are 'conservative', as in conserving the status quo?

By Blogger Donna, at 10/04/2006 1:44 AM  

I guess I should use preview. LOL I meant to say that I CAN'T believe so many people are so resistant...

By Blogger Donna, at 10/04/2006 1:46 AM  

Well, I think that most people just don't see what's going on. It can be hard. It's an insidious thread. The collective attention span is very short.

As far as blogging, well. Conversations, and such. I guess if you have a personal reason that drives you to speak, then do it! That's my way of thinking about it.

By Anonymous Nezua Limón Xolagrafik-Jonez, at 10/05/2006 12:22 AM  


Allow me to join others in saying Welcome! I'm glad you've decided to blog.

I've already written quite a bit on this topic, but there's still much to say.

While I see what you and Pam mean when you say that race is a "third rail" (i.e. people don't want to touch it), I'd add a dimension: if race is a third rail in America, then white folks have the attachment that allows them to power their train with it, while everyone just gets electrocuted.

Okay, maybe that's a bit glib, but my point is that race is hard to talk about precisely because it's a differentiator that runs right through the equations of power and privilege we experience in our lives.

I do appreciate that both white folks and people of color must approach dialogue in good faith and with open minds. But since many white folks enjoy the privilege that comes with white supremacy, the reality is many white folks will simply resist efforts to dismantle white supremacy and will sabotage dialogue whose objective is plainly to do just that. I don't think this is unfair suspicion on my part; I think it's the structural reality. Those who benefit from the status quo will be less likely to want to change it; and they will accuse people who are trying to change the status quo of being hysterical and angry.

Perhaps the bottom line is that the problem with this dialogue is that there's a fundamental asymmetry of power between the two sides. And it's structurally difficult, if not impossible, for two sides to come together in good-faith dialogue when they are standing on contested terrain that one side controls.

No time to write more now, but I'll be around often to chime in with my comments, Donna.


By Anonymous Kai, at 10/05/2006 3:58 PM  

nezua, the difficulty is that POC internalize racism, including myself. Before the Clinton lunch fiasco, I mostly went to the big "white" democratic blogs and rarely commented. When I did comment, for the most part I was ignored. I'm seeing things differently than the "white" people, but didn't quite understand that it might be the reason I am getting the brush off. They don't want to see things from a new perspective so they ignore it. I just assumed I had nothing worthwhile to say. That's why I didn't blog before.

I see now that everyone has something worthwhile to say, and you have to keep on saying it until it breaks through. I feel so much better now that I am going to "blogs of color". It isn't because people agree with me, because they don't always, it's because they are willing to hear me out in the first place. I'm not ignored, dismissed, and condescended to by other people of color.

Kai, what I have said goes to your post too. There was most definitely a power imbalance at those other blogs as there is out there in the real world. For the time being we need white people to be our allies, we need them to listen, but it is all too easy for them to turn and walk away.

By Blogger Donna, at 10/05/2006 10:59 PM  

Donna, the answer is yes.

One of the things which helped drive me out of the conservative movement/Republican party is that I realized (along with the sexism) that the people around me really *were* racists, even if they denied it vociferously and even believed their own denials.

But then they bought into the "welfare queens" and "urban scum" myths and loved the Bell Curve...and I realized that the denials of racism, like their denials of sexism, didn't actually mean anything.

And I bought out of the movement, slowly and painfully, but I'd *believed* that racism was wrong, and that wasn't just lip service, genuflecting at the idol of Lincoln, and required things of one, not just backpatting how enlightened we were that we didn't have separate drinking fountains these days, and so what if that made us feel uncomfortable? Where was all the "strong moral values, hard moral choices, sacrifice" rhetoric of movement conservatives now?

So I'm not at all surprised to find both racism and sexism, and the indignant denials of the same, on the "Sensible Left" no less than on the side of the memoryholed-support-for-apartheid Right.

I *do* think that the only cure for it is letting them stick their feet in their mouths and then pointing and jeering instead of making excuses and brushing it off. All too many liberal bloggers have no clue that there are minority bloggers and commenters out here, any more than they realize that some of us are yes, poor, and really hate it when they talk about us like we're not present...

By Anonymous bellatrys, at 10/06/2006 11:31 AM  

As I've said elsewhere, I think the problem, or part of it, is that for way too many white people the understanding of "racism" begins and ends with something like this:


1) Racists are terrible awful people who do not have blood running through their veins like you and I, but a sticky black ichor...

2) I am a Good Person

3) Therefore, I cannot be a racist.

4) Lather, rinse, repeat.



1) There is no distinction between "that there statement/action was racist" and "the author of said statement/whatever IS racist"

2) Once tarred with the epithet "racist," one is forever Doomed To Badness

3) This includes "hey, when you say such and so, that has racist connotations, did you know? (see #1)

4) See A: Lather, rinse, repeat.


How one convinces people otherwise is of course another question. It seems like careful and clear explanations in Earthspeak don't make much of a dent, although of course it is sometimes hard to tell when dealing with large GROUPS of people as in these blog discussions (hence added frustration).

>I believe that some are willfully blind to white privilege, because the way to fight institutional racism means that whites must give up some of their advantages, affirmative action is one of these, hiring more minorities means there are less openings for whites.>

Ironically, as a side note, a lot of the same (white) women who make very similar sounding statements wrt defensive men (i.e. you just don't want to give up male privilege) just don't see this at all when it comes to the possibility of THEMSELVES being in the "oppressive majority" seat.

I have a slightly different take on the whole thing, although I certainly don't rule out the possibility of what you're saying wrt being reluctant to give up privilege. of course, if this is true, then it suggests a certain...consciousness of what one is saying and doing; i.e. deliberate disingenuousness. as i see it. just saying. again: in some cases it may well be true.

but: here's another possibility. (consider this "in addition to," not "instead of:")

When you say:

>A substantial subset of the white liberal audience simply does not want to listen to or deal with POC.>

...actually, I think an overwhelming majority of liberal folks--hell, people in general--don't want to hear anything they don't already know. Particularly if it means having to rearrange comfortable thought patterns. It may be as concrete as "fuck, then I might not get as good a job," but it doesn't have to be. And in fact, as I'm observing it, a lot of the most stridently defensive white liberals are probably FOR affirmative action (for example) (i would have to really do a more thorough study to confirm that hypothesis, i admit). But: there's no question that a lot of folks are terribly terribly anxious to not be -thought- racist. When it comes to high-profile political climbers like Hamsher, I think it's probably safe to say that at least some of this supposed desire to be friendly toward "minorities" is pretty cynically calculated: yesyes, make the gestures toward "tolerance" and then get back to what's important, i.e. Winning as much goodie for Our Team as possible. and while Our Team might be able to make way for the occasional representative of color, frankly there just are only so many slots available, and, well, "we' need the rest of them. iow: not a terrifically democratic impulse, this, at best.

But for Joe Schmo on the Internets, well, yeah, there's a lot of confused defensiveness as the newfound liberal "thou shalt nots" struggle for dominance over long-ingrained habits of culturally & parentally ingested racism (among other things); but probably the reason Joe S. turned to liberalism in the first place was that Joe S. wanted to be "good." Did NOT want to be part of the greedy power-grabbing motherfuckers; count me out. Thus: diversity, tolerance, yadda: it may be a shallow understanding, but in many cases i do believe it's not just calculated lip service: it's just all they understand.

Here's the problem, though. Because of a number of factors which are probably too complex to really explore here (and i confess i really don't have the answers myself, although i think about this shit a lot lately), the way forward, the "consciousness raising," if you will, is largely understood to be a process of guilt-tripping, pretty much. That is, what is perhaps an inevitable byproduct ("oh, fuck, i belong to such and such a demographic; look what 'we've' done; goddam, we suck, and me too by extension") becomes elevated to the only possible way to go about...whatever it is, being a "good liberal," being an "ally," being whatever.

Trouble with that is, as much as people will tell themselves and each other that in fact a generous helping of guilt is GOOD for you, just suck it up, this is the way forward; truth is, nobody -really- likes feeling guilty/shamed. And the people who are the most strident proponents of "feel bad! this is the way forward!" are, ime, people who are, perhaps not consciously, of the opinion that in fact their work is pretty much finished. Iow: yeah, the consciousness raising was unpleasant, but thank God, it's over. Now my job is to help enlighten the rest of you unconscious folks.

So of course when someone comes along and goes, "um, actually? Not so fast there, bucko: you've never even considered THIS, have you?" then of COURSE they're gonna get hyper-defensive: fuck, i have to go through all that unpleasantness AGAIN?? i'm STILL a bad person instead of a bad person who made some amends? fuck that noise. no, the problem is YOU, clearly!

also of course: ego blow. "What do you MEAN there's shit I didn't already know or even consider? I am the very model of a well-enlightened liberal!"

particularly if it's coming from a source that isn't already trusted: many such folks will consider criticism of this sort more carefully if it comes from someone they already know don't think they're Bad People.

unfortunately, such people are likely to be the ones in their inner circle; the folks in their inner circle are quite likely to NOT be (for example) people of color, in large part because of the very structural/unconscious racism we are talking about (Bird of a Feather Flock Together); therefore, the criticism which comes from the POC "outsider" is gonna be treated as an ATTACK ATTACK ATTACK.

Later, rinse, repeat.

The way out of this, I maintain, is to maybe just let the fuck go of some of the endless self-flagellation, fun as it is for the whole family; and just cultivate more basic curiousity.

Because imo that is the OTHER root of the problem here: not nearly enough people are terribly -interested- in the people whose rights they supposedly want to protect. They may not wish them any ill; they may MEAN well; but, well, again: a lot of people don't want to know what they don't already know.

Because that is sort of existentially uncomfortable-making.

It's one thing to give up one's (concrete) privileges; some may be more defensive about that than others, sure. But it's yet something else to be willing to rearrange one's whole worldview; that experience is, well, profoundly unsettling, and most people don't care for it. and the people, as I've said, who are pretty well convinced that they've ALREADY DONE THAT (and particularly with the extra-unpleasant experience of "fuck, i just suck, then" added on), are probably gonna be even -less- likely to want to do this.

But, well, that's what has to be done, as a continual process; or nothing's gonna really change.

'Fraid so.

and the good news is, it -doesn't have to be so upsetting.-

It can actually be, well, kind of fun and exciting. Look! Something I had no idea about! Wow! New people! New ideas! New ways of doing shit! Oh, wow!

And while that basic -curiousity- is probably not enough in and of itself, it is, i would say, necessary, if not sufficient for genuine empathy; which in turn is necessary (if not sufficient) for genuine coalition-building, ally work, what you will; which in -its- turn is necessary-if-not-sufficient for, in Kevin of Slant Truth's works, "transformative politics."

-That,- to me, would be -real- "consciousness raising."

And is ultimately the goal of not just genuinely "progressive," (liberal, what you will) politics, but of, well, life. Frankly.

By Blogger belledame222, at 10/06/2006 7:09 PM  

Because imo that is the OTHER root of the problem here: not nearly enough people are terribly -interested- in the people whose rights they supposedly want to protect. They may not wish them any ill; they may MEAN well; but, well, again: a lot of people don't want to know what they don't already know.

Actually this is what I meant by a substantial subset who don't want listen to or deal with POC. They do mean well, but don't want the hassle of getting into the nuts and bolts of our problems and solutions to those problems. They assume everyone is the same and wants the same things so they don't need to search out other POVs. This is why when we bring it up they brush it off with the "identity politics" label. What they don't want to understand is that while we may want the same things as they do, how we get there is going to be different. For instance economic development is going to be different in the suburbs than it will be in the cities or rural areas. Or job creation isn't going to be enough on a reservation if you don't also get some good child care in there, or get the people educational opportunities to compete for those jobs, it just means we will have to bring white people on the reservation to take the jobs that were created for us! That certainly won't help.

All too many liberal bloggers have no clue that there are minority bloggers and commenters out here, any more than they realize that some of us are yes, poor, and really hate it when they talk about us like we're not present...

That right there is one of the manifestations of white privilege, talking about us like we're not present, or when we actually are not present. They think that they can figure out our problems and solutions for us, without any input from us. When they do this they end up with very simplistic answers without considering all the implications. I remember telling this one white woman that there is about 70% unemployment on my reservation, and she said, "Why don't you just leave and look for a job somewhere else." Like were too dumb to think of that. She doesn't consider we are in the boonies, so how about some transportation? We're poor so how are we going to get the clothes for the interview, nevermind for every day of the job. Not to mention leaving everything and everyone you have ever known, and to top it off, when we have left to find better opportunities, they steal our land! This is true, one of our reservations wasn't growing enough or had enough of our people on it, so they took the land for the growing white population in the surrounding area.

By Blogger Donna, at 10/06/2006 11:50 PM  

>That right there is one of the manifestations of white privilege, talking about us like we're not present, or when we actually are not present. They think that they can figure out our problems and solutions for us, without any input from us..

Yes, that is HUGE.

i have been really boggled by this one especially, i gotta say, as i keep seeing it from people i have generally respected, who seem smart and genuinely anxious to make "progress" and capable of "getting it" in other contexts.

and also, i gotta say, this "speaking for" crops up in other contexts as well. the class thing, as mentioned; and, not to derail, but feel the need to mention this: the prostitution "debates" that have been happening in feminist bloglandia. i.e. it was very interesting, if infuriating, to see what happened when some actual self-identified prostitutes showed up and tried to join the discussion. and not just from the people one would expect, either.

By Blogger belledame222, at 10/07/2006 8:48 AM  

>because it seems like now racism is becoming fashionable.

Not to be Mary sunshine here, but i'm not sure it's that exactly; more like, "things hidden (but always there) now breaking the surface."

there's been a lot of that about lately. i mean, across the boards, it feels like, sometimes (not to shift into quasi-mystical mode, but sometimes i wonder: is there some kind of astrological hooha going on? Saturn return or some shit like that? chickens coming home to roost, that sort of thing)

and frankly it's often rather unpleasant when it does happen,

but i suspect it's the only way forward.

By Blogger belledame222, at 10/07/2006 8:52 AM  

This is my new official favorite blog.

I'm so glad you've got your own space, Donna. I love reading what you write and finally you've got a place where people can't delete the always insightful and helpful words you take your time to write.

Wishing you all the very best.



By Anonymous Hanna, at 10/07/2006 3:37 PM  

I don't know what is going on either belle, it's like we all decided it needs to come out now. Like we all got fed up at once. I really didn't get all that worked up over the Clinton lunch at first. That wasn't a big deal in my world. What was a big deal is the attitudes of the whites about it, telling us what we should or shouldn't feel, that we have more important things to worry about. That always gets my dander up, these fools have no idea what should be my top priority. Then the racism over at FDL towards Liza put me right over the top! I don't know Liza, but dammit, I know right from wrong and that was WRONG! I thought for sure that all our white allies would be all over that shouting him down, and instead we got a few friends, like Elayne who stood up, but the A-listers? Barely a whimper and mostly the brush off. Out of all of them the only one I know who had any sort of conversation was Jessica, it wasn't especially useful but she didn't shut it down, she just didn't really get it.

Hanna! It's good to see you. Where have you been? I saw you commenting here and there early in this mess but then you disappeared. I hope all is well and you just had other things to get done in your life, or maybe I'm just not looking in the right places. Anyway, you had alot of good things to say and I'm glad to see you're around.

By Blogger Donna, at 10/08/2006 12:36 AM  

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