Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Are You Calling Me a Racist!?!?!?!

Ta-Nehisi Coates really gets at the heart of the phenomenon:
As an aside, I think there's an essay to be written about why any accusation of a racial offense is so often reduced to "Are you a racist?" It would be as if my wife said, "You forgot to check Samori's homework" and I responded, "I'm not a bad father."

That. Times a thousand.


Rebecca said...

I can hazard a guess as to the mental process.

Person A: I find your use of *stereotype A about African Americans* to be offensive.

Person B, feeling a bit defensive at being criticized: What's wrong with what I said?

Person A: What you said is a racial stereotype and is not accurate.

Person B, thinking to herself - Is it a racial stereotype? But I know Black people who do *A*! I didn't know that was a stereotype! Associated feeling: shame. Further thought: am I a racist? No, I think that all people should be treated fairly regardless of skin color. Associated feeling: feeling of shame lessens, but still can found underneath the feeling of satisfaction at reminder of equality of all people.

Person B: I'm not a racist!

Person A, bewildered: I didn't say you were a racist! I just thought you were using a particular racial stereotype of Black people.

Person B feels confusion and shame.

I wrote this dialogue thinking that I could play the part of Person B quite well! I think that Person B is tripped up by a feeling of shame that short circuits her ability to be curious about Persons A's statement that what she said was part of a racial stereotype. So instead of asking - why do you think so? or some other information-seeking question, Person B retreats.

What do you think?

PG said...

I think the "I'm not a bad father" response actually IS entirely plausible and understandable (albeit of course unproductive) in the context of family relationships where in previous instances Coates has himself or seen other men called bad fathers based on evidence such as failure to check their kids' homework. People carry baggage from past interactions and rarely can come to new ones without having their emotions negatively roused by similarities to those in the past. (E.g., I dated a white gentile guy who had had a Jewish girlfriend whom he wanted to marry, but whose family actively discouraged her from dating him and undermined their relationship. This made him hyper-sensitive to any suggestion that my family would have ideally liked for me to be with someone of the same cultural background as myself.)

The sheer volume of interactions politically-involved people now have, especially with strangers via the internet, means that the average person has probably seen and possibly experienced dozens of instances of people actually being called racist based on their saying or doing something racially questionable. (There's also the misuse of "racist" to describe instances of religious and other bigotry, which seems to be a tendency we're picking up from the British.) So that reaction to being accused of a racial offense isn't wholly irrational nor necessarily deliberately obfuscatory.

But as Coates says, that may be one for a white person to pick apart. While I belong to an ethnic group that's at least as, if not more, economically successful than Caucasians, most battles over race/racism in America are nonetheless ones in which I'm essentially relegated to spectator.