Sunday, August 07, 2005

Standpoint Theory, The "Voice of Color," and "Uncle Toms": Positioning Conservative Minorities

This post began as an update to "We Are (Are We?) Better Than This", condemning sexist attacks on conservative minority Michelle Malkin. Because of the length of the post and the wide subject matter, I have decided to expand it into its own post. For an overview of the background controversy, see David Bernstein as well as the post under fire itself.

I can't tell what Protein Wisdom thinks of my brief explanation of how one could make a reasonable case linking Malkin's popularity to her ethnicity and sex. To review, the argument runs as follows:
[For example,] a woman who speaks against "feminism" is presumed to be speaking against her "own interests" and thus receives additional weight ("enhanced standing"). Under this view, Malkin's popularity is partially premised on her position as someone conservatives can point to and say: "Look! We're not racist--some minorities agree with us!"--a status that is interwoven with her status as a woman and minority. And one could then extrapolate that if Malkin didn't provide that particular service to conservatives (IE, being a conservative minority woman), she'd be a non-entity.

I gather he isn't a fan of this particular argument, but I can't tell if he thinks I like it.

Again, reserving judgment on whether/how this applies to Ms. Malkin, I'm sympathetic to this sort of argument because I do believe in standpoint theory. That is, I think the position of an actor has relevance to their comments on a particular issue. Minorities have a different perspective on racism than do whites--it is facile to say that we can gather a comprehensive perspective on racial issues only from talking to white folk (which is why I support diversity in academia and elsewhere). Critics of this view claim that we are rejecting "merit" in favor of "identity politics." I don't see how this is so--if merit (with regard to speech, anyway) is defined as "an opinion which breaks new ground, gives us a more nuanced perspective on a existing issue, or otherwise causes the listener to think and analyze in a new or novel way," then the benefit of the "voice of color" (or other minority) is perfectly meritorious. As Lawrence Blum notes in his superb book "I'm Not a Racist, But..." there are plenty of perfectly reasonable cases where race affects one's merit for a position. For example, if a school created a group dedicated to fostering interracial dialogue and understanding, and 19 of its first 20 members were Latino, it would make perfect sense for the school to try and recruit white and black students to join the club, even if they were less qualified in "other" respects. The reasoning is clear--you can't have interracial dialogue without different races. The goal of the club--the measuring rod by which merit stacks up--is completely intertwined with race. No less of a conservative authority than Judge Richard Posner has acknowledged this. In Wittmer v. Peters, 87 F.3d 916 (7th Cir. 1996), dealing with affirmative action for underrepresented blacks being hired for "Lieutenant" jobs at a boot camp that seeks to rehabilitate convicts, he wrote the following:
The black lieutenant is needed because the black inmates are believed unlikely to play the correctional game of brutal drill sergeant and brutalized recruit unless there are some blacks in authority at the camp. This is not just speculation, but is backed up by expert evidence that the plaintiffs did not rebut....[The experts] opined that the boot camp in Greene County would not succeed in its mission of pacification and reformation with as white a staff as it would have had if a black male had not been appointed to one of the lieutenant slots. For then a security staff less than 6 percent black (4 out of 71), with no male black supervisor, would be administering a program for a prison population almost 70 percent black....

Judge Posner then upheld the preference given to a black candidate for the lieutenant job as constitutional.

Hence, I do believe that the standpoint of a speaker (including, in areas related to racism and racial issues, their race) is relevant to how we evaluate the speech. However, I am disconcerted at the tendency of some on the left to only trumpet certain stories while deriding others--namely, the opinions of minority conservatives.

Malkin's "story," so to speak, is one of minority conservatism. This is a minority story--especially given intersectionality theory. This posits--correctly in my view--that the experience of a double minority is different than the sum of the two minority groups she belongs. For example, the status of a Black Woman is not merely Woman + Black. Similarly, the status of a female minority conservative is not just Female + Minority + Conservative. The simplest reason why this is so is because whereas becoming a conservative by itself means joining a relatively popular and broad group, becoming a minority conservative means being subjected to endless taunts of being an "Uncle Tom" or traitor, accusations (and occasionally, true moments) of being "used" by majority peers, and other hardships. In other words, while my (White) life would not be significantly changed by switching my political affiliation, for a minority, this switch comes with a lot of baggage. Because the tropes associated with "conservative" are contingent upon one's other identities, one can't simply atomize conservatism (or any other identity) and examine independently of the rest. Hence, Malkin's conservatism has to be examined within the context of her being a minority--it can't just be placed under the generic rubric of "conservatism" and thus be easily dismissed.

This blindness amongst leftists to the ways in which they create the very hostile environments they deplore is what lends a germ of truth to statements like this:
Woe be to the average person who dares say a single word that can be construed as racist or sexist. That's now the sole purview of leftist elites to be employed by them as punishment against women and minorities who dare to think for themselves.

Conservatives find themselves frustrated at the seeming double standard of the Critical "Voice of Color" thesis: where minority speech is privileged and exalted--unless it is by conservative minorities. Liberal minority speech is deemed authentic, conservative minority speech is the result of an "impaired consciousness." Who's being the paternalist now?

To sum it up, I believe two things here. 1) It is probably true that some of the value of some conservative minority views comes from the fact that they are minorities and 2) this is perfectly fine--we need to hear the perspectives of conservative minorities as much as we do any other group. Because I believe the voice of minorities is important, I believe the voice of minority conservatives is important. It's that simple.

10 comments:

protein wisdom said...

That is, I think the position of an actor has relevance to their comments on a particular issue. Minorities have a different perspective on racism than do whites--it is facile to say that we can gather a comprehensive perspective on racial issues only from talking to white folk (which is why I support diversity in academia and elsewhere).

...Assuming, of course, minorities speak with some unified voice representative of their particular identity group -- or that "racial issues" is an area of study we wish to perpetuate, given the dubious hard science behind "race" designations, as they are routinely understood.

And support for diversity in academia is fine so long as it what it is after is not some cosmetic accomplishment fulfilled once a school's yearbook looks like a crayon box. Diversity of ideas is what is important, and from my perspective, so-called standpoint theory is only valuable when the "standpoint" in question isn't simply assumed based on pigmentation.

In fact, I'll go so far as to disagree even with your most seemingly innocuous assertion -- that "it is facile to say that we can gather a comprehensive perspective on racial issues only from talking to white folk." Theoretically, at least, there is no reason to assume that a roomful of white race scholars couldn't represent every conceivable contemprary academic viewpoint on racial issues -- or that a group of mixed-race scholars couldn't all agree on a single racial perspective.

protein wisdom said...

Having said all that, I recognize that what we're arguing over here is certainly legitimate ground for debate; and though I disagree with your position -- for instance, I don't think that a voice of color, by virtue of it's "color", necessarily provides "an opinion which breaks new ground, gives us a more nuanced perspective on a existing issue, or otherwise causes the listener to think and analyze in a new or novel way," and so is de facto meritorious -- that argument nevertheless differs in tone and intent from what Mithras wrote originally.

David Schraub said...

All members of the "Standpoint" theory school admit that it stands in tension with anti-essentialism (IE, how can we say there is a unified "voice of color" when everyone thinks differently).

I think, though, that the upshot of this observation is the reverse of what you think it is. You think that "Theoretically, at least, there is no reason to assume that a roomful of white race scholars couldn't represent every conceivable contemprary academic viewpoint on racial issues." In other words, since no view is universal to any race, everyone potentially can hold any view. And thus, if you just find the "right" whites, you'll get perfect diversity.

I think the reverse, that since everybody thinks differently it would be impossible to ever "represent every conceivable contemporary academic viewpoint" on matters of race--no matter how large of a community we drew from. There will always be a missing perspective. What's critical for our purposes is that the "missing perspectives" aren't randomly situated--they are clumped overwhelmingly amongst the poor, persons of color, women, minority religions, etc..

How does this link back to Voice of Color theories? I agree that the voice of color isn't monolithic (witness the difference between a Jesse Jackson and a Ward Connolly). However, minorities all share the experience of being a minority. A White in America never will experience being called a "n*****", or told to "go back to Africa, boy", or know that the reason he lives in his country is because his ancestors came here in chains. Of course, there are blacks who will never experience any of these either (though I'd forward that it is the rare Black who never encounters ANY racism). But the point is that without hearing from persons of color, these perspectives are completely absent from the discussion.

But even if you don't buy that, I think it IS uncontroversial to assert that opinion is formed by experience. The underlying assumption you make is that opinions are distributed randomly across racial divides--so if we take a random sampling of whites, the racial perspectives we'll get will be proportionally identical to what we'd get if we took a random sample of blacks or latinos. But empirically, this isn't the case--minorities and whites have drastically different views on race relations in America, the latter (among other things) being far more optimistic than the former. Of course, you'll find exceptions--the pessimistic white, the optimistic black--but on the whole, it is empirically true that drawing only from one race is likely to give a very skewed perception of racial issues. So even if in abstract one could construct a racial seminar that only included whites and was perfectly comprehensive, it would be practically impossible.

If the Voice of Color thesis is understood as assuming all blacks think alike, it's wrong and should be critiqued. If racial issues are understood as assuming races are biologically and morally distinct from each other, it's wrong and should be critiqued. But I don't think anybody's arguing these things. What is being argued is that insofar as experience informs and affects opinion, the experiences of the underprivileged should carry weight when the topic of discussion is the underprivileged. They're first hand witnesses, if you will. And insofar as the social effects of "race" continue even after the biology has become obsolete, the topic of "race" still has meaning (if you prefer, we can reframe the question as "why does society discriminate against the persons-formerly-raced-as-black", though that reminds me a bit too much of Prince).

antimedia said...

I find all of this rather ponderous. Why should race or sex matter at all? I don't read Michelle Malkin because she's a woman, nor because she's a minority. Those characteristics don't matter to me at all. What matters is that she writes on subjects that interest me, even if I disagree with her opinions at times, and that she is honest about her facts. She doesn't try to ignore points that refute her position - she deals with them.

The entire idea of having to hire someone simply because they "represent" some mythical group is repulsive to me. How can anyone "represent" a group? Each individual is unique, having experienced things in life that no one else has experienced. To put them into a box that fits any criteria is insulting.

protein wisdom said...

In other words, since no view is universal to any race, everyone potentially can hold any view. And thus, if you just find the "right" whites, you'll get perfect diversity.

I think the reverse, that since everybody thinks differently it would be impossible to ever "represent every conceivable contemporary academic viewpoint" on matters of race--no matter how large of a community we drew from. There will always be a missing perspective. What's critical for our purposes is that the "missing perspectives" aren't randomly situated--they are clumped overwhelmingly amongst the poor, persons of color, women, minority religions, etc..
Well, no. Unless you make the case that the "white" group is somehow more homogenized in its viewpoints, which is just flipping the argument to the inverse.

But be that as it may: The question becomes, how much of what you describe as empirically true is a result of how we continue to treat race in this country?

I've written at length on the kernel assumptions underlying social constructive (or anti-essentialist) theories of race, the upshot of which is that they all rest on essentialist assertions, once they've been distilled.

Once you give up the essential view of race, the question becomes how best to deal with racial questions in this country. I believe it is to re-think the arbitrary distinctions race has traditionally afforded us and to focus on a diversity that comes from ideas, regardless of who is proferring them. To do that, you have to begin (in my opinion) by deconstructing the support mechanisms that suggest that color is a necessary factor in determining experience -- or better, that the experiences determined by color somehow carry more weight.

David Schraub said...

Interesting position. I'm not sure I buy it, but it's certainly more complex than "we've got all the ideas we need!"--which is what some people seem to think is the lesson of liberalism (the philosophical sort).

But I still think that so long as perspectives matter, you're going to have to include racial perspectives, because race still has valence. We can't just fiat away our horrifying racial past (or present racisms, see Jerry Kang, Trojan Horses of Race, 118 HARV. L. REV. 1489 (2005)--it's impossible. It's the Blackmun principle "In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race." I mean, colorblindness has been our nation's motto from 1964 through at least the mid-1980s when CRTers started saying it was a failure. Even in that time, blacks didn't think that race had been transcended.

It may be undecidable if there is a form of experience available ONLY to minorities (perhaps the knowledge you're ancestors were enslaved in America). But I think we can agree that there are many experiences in which it is expoentially more likely that the experiencer is going to be a person of color. To be frank, we can't cut with a fine enough knife to find the very few whites who've had those experiences (I mean honestly, nobody says we shouldn't look to women for perspectives on pregancies just because this kid exists). If the white with the experience of racial discrimination wants to speak, by all means let him. But the pool of white speakers whose racial experience completely overlaps with the average black isn't large enough to continue the discussion.

Regardless of the Utopian ideal where race doesn't, didn't, and won't matter, it isn't the world we live in.

GrantR said...

David, very interesting post.

I posted the following at protein wisdom in response to part:

"But, even if viewpoints can’t be represented by someone that hasn’t been discriminated against, they can still be represented in a MUCH better way than through “diversity.” Through texts.

This is how every other “viewpoint of someone who actually has experienced something that the students have not” is taught. For example, my university teaches a class called the history of baseball, and yet doesn’t have any affirmative action mechanism to make sure that actual baseball players are recruited into the class. Why should racial categories be any different? In fact, one would think that the negative connotations usually associated with racial discrimination would make us hesitate to discrimate to ensure racial proportionality (is that a word?) in classes.

For example, why not have students read Frederick Douglass’s autobiography and other, more modern, texts about discrimination? This is superior to teaching through “diversity” for a few reasons:

1)Texts are more authoritative. They are superior to anecdotes on racial discrimination from 20-year olds. Texts are also (provided you pick the right ones) much more eloquent and can speak to the universal truths involved.

2)Texts won’t force people of color to act as spokespeople for their race.

3)And, uh, some other reasons but I don’t have the time to type. Basically all the negative effects that diversity has on individual autonomy, and the underlying cultural relativism can be obviated by teaching from texts instead of relying on students."

David Schraub said...

Also at PW--responding to same comment (at this point, we might as well merge the sites, dontcha think? :) ):

I think there are SOME differences between Race and Baseball, allowing for a sensible allocation of resources that focuses on race but not baseball. I do think that in a world of unlimited resources, it would be best if the school got the Baseball Player (/textbook author) to teach the course, and got the perspective of actual baseball players. Of course, we don’t have unlimited resources, so we substitute texts. It’s not a perfect substitute, but given competing values I think it’s acceptable for a university to spend its money on other things.

Race, on the other hand is a HUGE deal, (with all due respect to our national pastime) far more important than Baseball. And of course, there is far more controversy associated with race, deeper moral implications, etc etc, all which would seem to suggest the university should splurge and get the 1st hand perspective.

Texts have advantages of course, but also plenty of shortcomings. They can be monolithic (even anthologies have selection biases), they rapidly become out of date, they tend to draw from academics (in other words, persons whose experience with some of the hardships they talk about is distant, if present at all), you can’t “dialogue” with a text, the supposed authoritativeness can often intimidate students with contrasting experiences from speaking up, etc.. I’m not saying abandon texts, they’re obviously quite useful for the reasons you suggest. But I think that a more holistic approach is superior than all or nothing, either with regard to only having happy-feely talk sessions or going straight-by-the-book.

Anonymous said...

I just did an informal survey, among some friends of mine (all attorneys ranging from moderate progressive to slightly conservatie to libertarinian/objectivist). All work here in Colorado, drink beers with me occasionally.

I asked each (separately): "Say, do you know and/or like Michelle Malkin?"

Most didn't know her. 9 out of 16 to be exact, had no clue. More liberals knew her than conservatives/libertarians.

Those that did either were vehemently opposed ("she's a racist"), or pretty impress ("good writer").

Then I asked: "What do you know about Michelle Malkin?"

This is where it got uncomfortable, at least for me as a liberal.

The progressive friends, immediatly went into "uncle tom" and, I guess, race conscious "ungrateful," stuff with lots of labeling along the "hypocracy" view. These folks had heard of her from liberal blogs, and there was more than one derogatory comment about her either based on her sex or on her ethnicity. I was actually shocked and surprised at the "friend" (i'm reevaluating this relationship) who called her the "neocon's pocket gook whore." This is a gay man, and given the crap that the GLBT community has to deal with in terms of prejudice, I was literally sitting there with my jaw on my lap. He saw my surprise and said something to the effect of: Listen, she's so 'bad' that nothing is off limits with her.

That offended me and, as I see it on display EVERWHERE in the blogosphere right now, it still offends me as a liberal.

It offends me a lot.

Interestingly, when I asked the more libertarian/conservative guys and gal who knew of Malkin what they knew about her or how they heard of her, all three said they had been forwarded something or read a link sometime back in 2002 or 2003. I asked if they knew she was fillipino, and two of the three said "Malkin?" They didn't know. I should add that none of my friends are as "net" focused for news and commentary as I am, but it did surprise me that two of the "fans" had no idea about that. The other one (the woman) said "yeah, I guess I heard that..."

SO I asked her: "Do you think her writing is really that good, or does she get 'traction' out of being able to say things with a moral authority arising out of her sex and race that other conservates can't." She said she didn't think so, because she knew for sure that she liked Malkin and her writing BEFORE she knew her ancestry. "She writes well," was my friend's overall summary.

Suffice it to say that I'm upset by the results of my little informal poll over the last couple days. To be sure, the plural of "anecdote" is NOT evidence, but my informal inquiries have revealed that only the progressives seem to be viewing everything Malkin does through the lense of her sex and ancestry. The conservaties who even knew who she was liked her writing.

And I do think I know these folks well enough that my take on their comments is accurate (they weren't playing dumb, so to speak).

That the two progressives, including one man I would have expected better from given the bigotry he has HIMSELF had to deal with, somehow found so much loathing for Malkin that even "off limits" issues weren't off limits in terms of her.

And we as progressives need to fix that. We need to fix it really bad, because we don't "own" women or minorities, and if we keep treating them as defacto proxies who will be disowned and denigrated for straying from the "hivemind," we will surely alienate our chances of ever hoping to retain their participation in the progressive sphere.

David Schraub said...

Whoever you are, anonymous, you comment was raised to its own blog post at TMV, as well as here.

Great post.