Sunday, May 04, 2008

Thoughts about being an ally

This is my contribution to The Carnival of Alllies challenge by Angry Black Woman.

Let's face the facts. The odds are that at some point in each white person's life, we are going to say or do something racist.

The system has been deliberately skewed in that direction. If we realize this and understand the way the system is set up, then we should be pretty damn amazed that we aren't all racist asshats engaging in despicable behavior every single day. Everything in our system has been set up for hundreds of years to get us to believe those lies.

Sure, we've had a couple of decades in which anti-racist ideas have gained popularity. We had the benefit of our parents and grandparents taking to the streets to change the world and suggest a new way is possible. But how can that compare to 500 years of violence against Native Americans and 400 years of slavery for blacks and Asians?

This is something a lot of us white people do not truly understand. We've only come baby steps in the process of creating a world where all races are acknowledged and respected. It's feels like a huge step for us because we've had to give up a bit of privilege to get this far. But it's not enough. Our training in racism and in discounting people of color is that good, that ingrained, that "normal.'

One document that made this training crystal clear to me is Joan Olsson's Detour-Spotting for White Anti-Racists (PDF link). Olsson did us a huge favor by pointing out the behaviors we white people have been taught to use when we talk about race. She says:

Our generous child wisdom told us racism was wrong, but there was no escaping the daily racist
catechism. We resisted the lies, the deceit and the injustice of racism, but we did not have the skills to
counter the poisonous messages.

We've been filled with poison and we need to take steps to root it out. Olsson describes 18 behaviors that are typical responses from white people when they encounter accusations of racism. That was in 1997 and it is a wonderful list. But I think we've grown beyond that list a bit and we've learned new ways to detour the discussions we need to have in order to make this world a less racist place. I'm suggesting additions to Olsson's list based on recent events in the blogosphere.

Detour 19: Pay attention only to the most outrageous complaint and pretend it represents the entire argument..

Let's say I talk about the mortgage crisis and I post a cartoon showing an evil banker. He's wearing a yarmulke and has a long, hooked nose and his name is Cohen. I start getting comments about it:

Comment A: "I'm not sure you are aware of this, but images of predatory bankers with long, hooked noses is a common stereotype against the Jewish people."

Comment B: "Yeah, that image is disturbing. Could you replace it with something less racially charged?"

Now here's where the detour comes in. I say nothing to these comments. I sit back and wait. And then finally, my patience is rewarded: Comment P: "You are a fucking Nazi!" Now comes my chance to step in, and I post: "I've been accused of being a Nazi. Until that accusation is removed, there is nothing more to be discuss."

This is the tactic Amanda Marcotte chose in recent discussions of appropriation. She claims someone accused her of plagiarism and that's all she wanted to discuss. If it's true that one person accused her of plagiarism, then why didn't she take it up with that one person? Why did she not link to that person's blog post and demand a response from that person? Instead, she and her backers pretended that the accusation of plagiarism was the one vital issue and that nothing else mattered. They claimed that every other complaint was based on the one, easily dismissable accusation, and therefore should not be allowed into evidence, as they seem to say every 25 minutes into the show "Law and Order".

It's a detour and it was effective for many of Amanda's supporters. It was also dishonest and allowed her to pretend to address the subject while ignoring the argument altogether.

Detour 20: "I'm too powerless to be a racist."

Let's say I write a post about the bookstore where I volunteer and I claim that we don't carry books by Arab feminists because they are all silenced by Muslim fundamentalists. I start getting responses: Comment A: "Nawal al-Sadawi's novels are easily available from most major distributors." Comment B: "I found Etel Adnan's novels at my local Barnes & Noble."

My response: "Hey, I'm not Wal-mart. Quit picking on me. I work 20 hours a day in an industry I love and I'm doing the best I can. Go after the big box booksellers if you want to complain."

This was the choice that Seal Press made when they interrupted a discussion on Black Amazon's blog. But it's also a comment I see on a lot of radical feminist sites. A group of radical feminists decide to gang up on someone who doesn't meet their standards of feminism and when people complain about their behavior they say, "Hey, I'm powerless. I can't make you do anything at all. The patriarchy has all the power."

In both cases, the behavior is wrong and continues the dominant paradigm, but we white people who aren't rich and male think we should be excused for these behaviors because we don't have the power to enforce our demands.

Detour 21: "I can't be racist because I have saved the lives of 753 women of color personally." This is pretty self-explanatory. I post something racist on my blog and when called on it I claim that I have personally engaged in some enormous number of anti-racist behaviors. For anyone who took elementary logic, this falls apart completely when examined. Doing a bunch of good things does not make it impossible for me to engage in one bad thing.

This point is very important. It is what makes racism so powerful. I can decide not to use it for several years, but it's always there just in case I decide one day to take it back up again and use it to my benefit. I know that. People of color know that.

Detour 22: "Let me interrupt this discussion by objecting to your anger at all white people."

I may need help in better describing this remark. It is prompted by a post by a white female blogger to a woman of color who said "When it comes down to it, you white chicks, ya’ll really aren’t to be trusted."

I believe Tobes is in error for highlighting that particular logic at this particular time. It would be like attending the funeral of a woman who died of lung cancer after smoking for 20 years and saying, "Smoking is bad! Don't you get it? You smoke, you die!"

Yes, of course, smoking is bad, but is this the appropriate time and place to bring this up? By concentrating on the "smoking is bad" argument, you are side-tracking the fact that a valued an important friend has died a miserable death.

Yes, judging a person entirely by her race is not particularly logical or fair. But if women of color are constantly assaulted by racist behavior on the part of white feminists, then they have the right and the duty to point it out, especially to each other.


In closing, I want to point out that Ilyka Damen said many of the same things in a different format at her blog, Off Our Pedestals, whose hiatus, I hope, will be momentary rather than permanent.


Trinity said...

Awesome, awesome post.