Thursday, June 29, 2006

'Up Is Down', And Other Inflammatory Statements

Not so long ago I wrote a post considering whether a particular statement was "White supremacist" in nature. A side question which was raised during this discussion was whether a particular belief/act/statement can be labeled as "racist" if, though it is not intrinsically racist, it has the effect of perpetuating existing racist attitudes. Rumination on the question leads me to believe that the answer is "yes, but that definition is not terribly useful". Proof, by counter-example:
  1. Assume that the assertion "that which perpetuates racist attitudes is racist" is true.
  2. As a result, the following statements are also necessarily true:
    1. Tiger Woods is a racist: Though he describes himself as "Cablinasian" he does not correct popular media portrayals of himself as "Black", nor does he disavow efforts by the Black community to "claim" him as one of their own. This behavior perpetuates the idea of hypodescent, and thus is racist.
    2. Morgan Freeman is a racist: He has repeatedly allowed himself to be typecast as the "wise old Black man" advising a White protagonist in a number of movies. This perpetuates the stereotype of White agency vs. Black non-agency, and thus is racist.
    3. Holocaust remembrance is racist: Such remembrances typically treat the Holocaust as a unique event centered around the experience of the Jewish people, minimizing the suffering of other Holocaust victims and ignoring other instances of modern genocide. This perpetuates the notion of Jewish exceptionalism, and thus is racist.
Now, the above is deliberately inflammatory, and most people would probably disagree with these conclusions. And yet, accepting the stipulated assertion, these statements are also true. So what does this mean? My working hypothesis right now is that there is an unrecognized divergence in the definition of racism; when an academic says "racism" and a non-academic says "racism" they mean very different things. Critical racial theory, in its drive to expose previously unexamined assumptions about race, may have established an impossibly high standard of ideological purity. As I noted in my previous post it would seem that, using this expanded definition of "racism", it is possible to label a particular belief as "White supremacist" on little more than casual association". Which leads me to question its utility, since there seems to be no systematic separation of what is "incidentally racist" from what is "intrinsically racist". This is a broad generalization, I know, but bear with me since I'm going somewhere with it? academia would be more useful if it could focus on truly detrimental instances of racism. The general public, on the other hand, could probably benefit from an expanded definition. This suggests a convergence of the academic/non-academic definitions, but around what criteria? My suggestion is that acts/ideas/etc. be evaluated in terms of their effective impact to society, which leads to some interesting conclusions. For instance, it suggests that it might be OK to pick on Tiger Woods after all. The attitudes which he promotes reach a tremendous number of individuals, making their effective impact high. Contrast this with some no-exposure fruitcake spouting vaguely questionable ideas to his groupies, an act which has comparatively little impact. If your rubric is "making society less racist" then doesn't it make sense to attack the former, rather than the latter, behavior. Think about it... a public service announcement featuring Tiger Woods saying "I'm not Black"... that would make some waves and possibly change the way that the public thinks about race. Excoriating Monsieur Fruitcake pales by comparison. So what's the takeaway message? Many behaviors may be labeled as "racist", but in many cases the classification is, literally as well as figuratively, academic. Similarly, behaviors which aren't typically regarded as racist should be confronted as such, especially when such confrontation has the potential for substantively improving discourse on race.


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