Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Teach Me

Over at Alas, a Blog, there is a post up by Tekanji assailing the argumentative tactic of making the "oppressors into the oppressed". This can happen in a variety of contexts, but it's generally when a White complains of racism perpetuated against him by a Black, or a man complaining of sexism by a women, or something of the like.

This comes back to the age-old question of whether minorities can be racist, which I've addressed in several previous posts, both as an intersectionality issue and on the far more controversial question of whether minorities can be racist against the majority. At the outset and as a matter, I reiterate my agreement with Critical Race Theorist Frank H. Wu: "[A]n approach that categorically denies the possibility that in some instances a white male plaintiff may have a valid claim is rightly repudiated as unfair," and "It is unclear that anything would be gained, or that the result would be especially principled, if white ethnic minority individuals were denied the ability to sue for straightforward discrimination by an institutional actor (i.e., the case was not a collateral challenge to affirmative action.)." That being said, I will agree that many claims of minority-on-majority oppression are wildly exaggerated, to say the least, and are usually less serious and less pervasive than like discrimination faced by minorities.

Tekanji makes three points. The first is on when justified rage crosses over into undeserved viciousness. There isn't much I have to add to this, other than my two part view of the role of "civility" in racial discussions (both recognizing that civility is, generally, a good thing, while remembering that calls for civility are often disguised demands for silence).

The second and third demand stricter scrutiny, however. The second point deals with Nubian (aka Blac(k)academic) complaining about White feminists who view her as a "teacher" and write to tell her how much they've learned (the quote is in the comments, so I can't evaluate in context. So to be clear, I'm only evaluating the spin Tekanji is placing on it, not the particularized event Nubian was referring to). Nubian finds these comments degrading, wishing to respond "I'm not here to teach you!" This is a contextual issue, because I agree that it would get tiring to constantly have to be in "teacher" mode, always expected to serve as the "minority view" and to hand-hold the privileged as they crawl toward awareness. But at the same time, teaching is important, and White people are constantly (and correctly) told by their Black peers to seek out Black stories and learn from Black experiences as a tool in discovering the reality of the American racial schema. I would not be writing this today had I not read the works of scholars of color like Delgado & Stefancic, Lawrence, Matsuda, Bell, Williams, and others. So I can personally vouch for how important and revealing such stories can be. It honestly would never occur to me to be wary of telling one of those professors (or any of the scholars or bloggers of color who have written insightful, eye-opening posts) that I found their argument useful and informative and that I learned a lot from it (ironically enough, AAB is also hosting a discussion on whether Whites have a difficulty discussing racial topics with racial minorities). And that is somewhat key--these are statements written on a blog (or magazine, or journal, or book). We should be so lucky if White people read them and learn from them. That, I think, is qualitatively different from walking up to Josephine-random-Black-woman and saying "teach me all there is to know about the Black experience." Censoring the impulse to learn from the written, expressed experiences of Black intellectuals, such a frail instinct to start with, strikes me as counter-productive and orthogonal to the goal of increased racial awareness amongst Whites.

Which brings me to the final point Tekanji makes, which is a general dismissal of the oppressor-as-oppressed argument. I've already explained why I don't think that argument can be made categorically, but in the context of this post it comes off as a cruel joke. One theme I constantly hear when talking to my White friends about race issues and anti-racism is this depressed, crushed hopelessness about their ability to do anything in the face of the critique. It isn't anger. It's sadness. They read these discussions and hear these arguments and find a huge list of things they can't do, but nothing they can do. They're told to "lose their privilege." But they are given virtually no indicator of how to do it, and are given mixed signals (at best) as to the propriety of asking how to do it. So they don't. It's a sense of hopelessness which breeds political quiescence, which in turn feeds into minority anger that the majority doesn't care about setting things right, and it creates a vicious cycle.

I should add that the whole "lose your privilege" rhetoric itself I find misleading. There was an old adage in the cold war about the difference between communists and capitalists: "The communist, seeing the rich man and his fine home, says: 'No man should have so much.' The capitalist, seeing the same thing, says: 'All men should have so much.'" This is, to say the least, a dumb quote, both because capitalists are not particularly interested in giving every one so much, and because communists are certainly not locked in to demanding nobody have so much. But it gains some saliency here, because the goal shouldn't be for Whites to lose privilege, it should be for persons of color to gain it. I've explained the concept of White privilege to my friends who proclaim "White innocence" through the lens of being shadowed in a department store. You won't get shadowed, your Black friend will. It isn't your fault that you don't get shadowed, and you shouldn't go up and kindly request the store employee to shadow you to "remove the privilege", but that doesn't change the fact that it is a privilege that works to your advantage and to your Black friend's disadvantage, on account of race. The proper response is to that is to work to have everyone gain the privilege though. Feeling guilty about the privilege and quietly wishing that you were as marginalized is both depressing and ineffective. Imprecise rhetoric, again, hurts the cause by reinforcing the hopelessness of sympathetic Whites that they'll ever be able to satisfy the terms of the critique.

Racism is a problem. A very large one, in fact. But that does not mean that Whites never have legitimate concerns, it does not mean that they never are unjustly marginalized, and it does not mean we can simply ignore their requests for help and then blame them from not helping. "It's much easier" to not complicate things this way. But that doesn't make it right, and that doesn't make it likely to work.

UPDATE: Feministe gives some context. I'd note off her specific example that while she's right that a constant stream of "beautiful", even in good-faith, is not a substitute for true equality, I'd still point out that there is very little in the way of suggesting what would be a proper response where generic bromides are caught up in and marked by structures of domination.


nubian said...

thank you for this posting.

i do admit, whites do have to seek out a multitude of experiences (from other whites too) when engaging in the anti-racist struggle. but i think it is discomforting to be seen as the only black lesbian american writer of the feminist blogosphere--that is what upsets me the most. how can people really learn anything when everything they want to know about race is filtered through one lone black's impossible.

anyways, i don't want to ramble.

Disenchanted Dave said...

I recently read all 279 comments from this comment thread at Bitch, Ph.D. and learned a lot about the ways male dominance manifests itself and the effects it has on women (including a few examples of misogyny linked with racism and heterosexism). It was pretty horrifying, but I think I really understand the issues much more clearly than I did a week ago. My reaction was roughly like that of another male reader: it was "a little like being taken on the tour of the gas chambers in your home town, knowing that you didn't actually work in the camp but...". I (would like to) think that most men don't understand the pain that they cause, or if they do, they don't internalize it. I think that short of a sex change, exposure to the narratives of the Other may be the only way to remedy that. I (would like to) think that such understanding would go a long way towards undermining systematic oppression and everyday cruelty.

My impression was that many of the women writing about their stories found reassurance in one another's comments and mutual support and that sharing painful events from their past for a sympathetic audience validated their perspective and gave them a kind of strength. I think that many commenters in the thread wanted to be "teachers" in the sense David and Nubian are talking about--though they weren't in any real danger of becoming the only teachers--and I greatly appreciated what they taught me. Nubian is right, though--I think part of what made the thread so enlightening was seeing so many examples from so many people. If Blac(k)ademic really is the only "black lesbian american writer of the feminist blogosphere," the rest of us really are missing out. The cumulative effect of so many narratives was much more powerful than the same number of anecdotes from a single author would have been.

Disenchanted Dave said...

I just went to Blac(k)ademic and two paragraphs in, I saw this:

(btw, the name of my blog is blac(k)ademic. i am not the blac(k)ademic, or black academic, or bla(c)kademic...or any other vartiation you can think of. please address me as nubian. thanks)

Sorry about using the wrong name above. It's sometimes confusing when blog titles seem like plausible person titles as well (especially since many bloggers like Bitch Ph.D. and the Anonymous Liberal go by their blog's title's name). Now I know.