Sunday, February 05, 2006

Racism and objectivity

Lately, due to a combination of factors, including some race relations issues at my university and the general issue of nationalist attitudes in scholarship (I study an unstable region of the world - this is relevant, at least within said narrow circle of people), I've been led to think about these issues in general.

I'm always struck by one thing: we do a good job at teaching people that certain things are unfashionable or inappropriate, but we don't do a very good job at teaching people why.

For lack of a better phrase, kids who want to be part of the cool/educated/intellectual/enlightened circles of society have done an excellent job learning that any display of racist attitudes will not be accepted by the groups of people to whom they want to belong, but the problem is that this constraint is essentially behavioralistic, and doesn't do a very good job discriminating between thought and action. Note - I'm not saying that the solution should be to introduce a "thought police" type approach, but rather just trying to say that a conception of things based on action alone is shallow and leads to a deep confusion between thought and action.

There are extreme examples. I've known a surprising amount of people for whom racist jokes are almost chic - but only among close friends, where telling racist jokes can signify that they feel sufficiently close to these people to not have to worry about general societal norms. Also, there's the whole fetishization of being a bad person thing going on. In general it's an interesting dynamic, and one that I wouldn't mind thinking about in more detail, but I don't think now is the time for me to work out my thoughts on the issue. I've also seen people get into nationalistic debates pertaining to countries they have no tie to, often with a surprising degree of viciousness.

But I think this general confusion manifests itself in more subtle ways, also, such as the reaction to an incident this fall at my university involving, should I say, a party that was both in poor taste and also in deep resonance with many racial/cultural stereotypes that are prevalent in the media. I do ultimately think that a lot of this controversy stemmed from people not being able to figure out what was acceptable and what wasn't, rather than from out and out racism itself. That said, the debate tends to involve mostly the following themes:

  • The question of what the university should do to combat racism.
  • The question of what the university should do to promote the status of minorities in general (close to the above point but not quite the same).
  • The question of "raising awareness" about what is and is not appropriate.
  • The question of "raising awareness" about race issues in general.
A lot could be said about all of these points, and to be honest I personally just tend to see all the ambiguities here, which makes it tough for me to have any one clear-cut opinion. However, a few unifying traits in this discussion come to mind. For one, there's the general assumption that the solution to racism is education. I'm skeptical of this. The reason why racism is wrong is because it's wrong to reduce people to the sum of their origins. To do so dehumanizes people, makes them into objects. Plain and simple. However, I don't see how it is that any degree of learning about "structural racism" or American history or whatever else you want to introduce actually ameliorates this problem - the way I see it, it's a problem of the heart and not the intellect. But we confuse thought and action. It is probably true, for a variety of reasons, that increased education on these issues leads to a greatly decreased incidence of racially insensitive remarks and actions. Therefore, we think, if there are fewer racially insensitive acts, there's less racism. I'm not convinced that it works.

Sometimes the most natural inferences to draw are wrong, and I think that's the case here. Mostly because of the huge amount of people I've seen in my generation who understand perfectly that racist attitudes are not acceptable in public, but feel free to have conversations consisting mostly of ethnic slurs among themselves. Sure, sometimes a joke can be a joke, but I think it fairly often goes beyond that. Plus, certain habits of thought can be addictive for people.

One might object: well, sure, racism isn't necessarily about specific acts as much as it is about the thoughts and assumptions underlying those acts, but we, as a society, can do something about actions whereas we can't do much directly about what people think (and nor should we). So, basically, we have to do what we can.

In a way, I agree with this, but I think it misses out on some important issues. First, obviously, we cannot control people's thoughts and shouldn't even if we could. Nonetheless, public discourse does help shape people's thoughts, and I don't see any reason a priori why it wouldn't be possible to place more of an emphasis on these questions of right and wrong. Second, the ultimate point I'm trying to make is that only focusing on whether or not certain actions are socially acceptable is dangerous. It is dangerous to replace the dichotomy between right and wrong with a dichotomy between appropriate and inappropriate, because fashions change. What I mentioned before about how, for many kids my age, racist jokes and ethnic slurs are chic is a good example of that. (I think this happens because these jokes and slurs are identified as politically incorrect which is identified with some idea of authenticity). If people are unable to reason about right and wrong, then all we have left is essentially fashion. I don't think that this is something that we, as a society, should want. The dangers should be clear to anyone who knows a little bit of history.

23 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

For some reason, we, as a society, cannot seem to get people to understand and approach other people as other human beings. With empathy. Too often, we view other people as competitors for our grade, our social status, hell, our lunch.
The only way to change this systematically, I think, is to find a way to force everyone to walk a mile in someone else's shoes. How can we do that?

MD

5:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is an easy statement to put out, but hard to live up to in practice. There is a situation known as reverse discrimination that tends to discourage even the diehard anti-racialist minds from straying too far from the folds of their own ethnic background. While there have been a vast number of iniquities that have occurred in the past, people tend to forget the whole history involved, seeing only the points that they see as politically relevant to furthering their cause, whether they be racists of the white, black, hispanic, or whatever persuasion. All have committed atrocities in the name of race, all are to some degree guilty. For example, while it is easy to point out in my country the slavery and discrimination practiced by white on black, as well as the disenfranchisement of the native cultures of the Americas from their lands, it is important to note that, first of all, just a little south of the white opportunists in North America, Spanish Conquistadors did the same thing to the indigenous tribes of South and Central America. Furthermore, while slavery occurred in the beginnings of American History, this slavery was modeled after the same practice on the African continent, a practice that still exists today in countries such as Sudan and others, but is not a politically viable subject for our corrupt politicians to discuss a solution that aids these people. Furthermore, it was common practice in early Europe for white people to be sold into slavery in North Africa, with the fair white skin being considered the mark of a good slave in the eyes of their African purchasers. These facts tend to be forgotten quickly in an environment of accusation and entitlement in which the idea of Darwinism, which the last commentor obviously believes should be circumvented, has obviously been shortcircuited by a socialist system in the U.S. that gives people encouragement to NOT improve their lot in life, and to expect handouts, and basically be happy with contributing nothing to their own society.

Meanwhile the point is missed. If you want people to stop dividing each other into racial classes, stop creating categories on public forms that allow more latitude for the description of one race, and no latitude for others. I'm sure a lot of people who are from various parts of the caucasian world would love to be able to use a more descriptive word than "White" when they fill out a government form, but in truth, we are pretty much the only people, who, while stretching from one side of the globe to the other, Alaska to Siberia going in opposite directions, and coming from so many different cultural backgrounds and languages, can be summed up with a single word description...White. I prefer the term Euromutt, myself, knowing that we all, regardless of race, creed and color, came from one place anyway, but paying some tribute to the most recent culture that I departed from.

BTW, my ancestors, as far as I know, never owned slaves, were often treated worse than slaves in the build-up of the infrastructure of this country during the industrial revolution, were forced to learn English from their various languages, which included Flemish, German, French, and Sioux in order to adapt to the national language of this country, had NO public aid, for which reason some starved to death, died of disease during the Spanish Influenza (My great grandfather was an orphan, German father, Sioux mother) and were generally spat upon by society as being "white trash immigrant vermin" to quote a letter by my first American ancestor (notably the only race that is insulted with a derogatory word that has a directly derogatory meaning, and not just an implied one).

It is interesting to note that despite all of these hardships, despite having no aid from governmental sources before 1933 when we were all sold off on the stupidest idea to hit mankind in history, my ancestors still found a way to survive in this country, without help, and while we retain little of our original culture, we survive the only way we can, by trying to get along with those around us.

1:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Society will, and in most cases, already is breaking down on this point. People are no longer seeing white and black, but instead are only looking at green. Race and discrimination are now political agendas, issues that take an inconsequential difference between human beings and foment it into a reason to garner support for whatever cause happens to be on the agenda. The worst thing society could have done was to bring about programs such as affirmative action and equal opportunity, and I agree that socialism is the most heinous assault upon the advancement of society. Philanthropy should never be forced, and at the same time, it should be indiscriminate, especially in terms of race with regards to scholarships and any public aid that is currently so wrongfully being dispersed from the hard-working taxpayers of a society. To give a man incentive to do nothing is detrimental to the goals of a successful civilization, and weighs heavily upon the loyalty and effectiveness of the person paying for the free ride involved. Those interested in socialism are blinded to the iniquities that it creates, and don't realize that it is part of the reason why the rift between the races has not been more effectively sealed.

1:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

BTW, I am sorry if my statement before(That is an easy statement...) sounded a little off-color. I have had a trying week in which I was told that I "look like a bubba but don't sound like one" (i.e a redneck, or white racist...although I had never heard the word bubba used in such a way. In fact I had to have it explained to me) by a person who knew nothing about me, other than the fact that I was "the only white dude" in a Math Engineering and Science club at my college. I was also asked why I was there...after all,they said "you must be rich, you're white".

It would be nice if the entire world were blind, and couldn't see each other. But when it comes down to it, those of us born in the wrong political color will always end up standing when the music stops, right? When people stop talking about socialism and started handing out accolades and salaries based upon merit and not skin color, life would be much more fair for all involved.

Currently, all I see is a lot of backlash for long past events for which I claim no responsibility, having not been alive at the time, and I see current events in the world only creating a new horde of people who can't stand me because of what my government does, matters in which I have absolutely no say, and no voice in a lobbyist run government. Where does it end? I don't know, but I for one am very frustrated. It's difficult to live in a society as a neutral and have to be stuck in the middle between racists of all colors. Sitting on the fence tends to get you shot at by both sides, but I'd rather live in crossfire than lose what little objectivity I have about this world. It's probably the only thing that keeps me sane half the time...

2:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have done a great job of wasting my time and saying nothing. You over generlized everything and used no evidence other than your personal experience to back up anything you said.

Also you're lack of ability to come to terms with your actual racism is pretty insulting.

I don't think you understand what racism is if you're so worried about snide little jokes.

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