Tuesday, October 7, 2014

"Racism" as a term

Earlier I mentioned the possibility of a new series, where I look at "privilege", "normativity", and "-ism" terms, as they are used in a social justice context, and try to seriously evaluate the language we use.  I think this series will not happen, because I was not immediately inspired to right more.  However, I'd like to share some thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of "racism".

"Racism" is a term with deeply negative connotations, and conjures of images of slavery, lynchings, segregated schools and buses, the illegalization of intermarriage, and so on.  That's basically the kind of racism I learned about in grade school.  We learned about MLK Jr., Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, etc. every year in February.  The message appeared to be, racism is really really bad, glad we're past that.  This did not prepare us for the current generation of racism, to put it lightly.

Today's racism looks different.  Maybe a lot of that is perception, because we view the past and present through different lenses.  But today, many people will express "colorblind racism".  They say they don't see race, apparently ignorant of the evidence showing ubiquitous implicit biases.  "Colorblind racism" also spawns "ironic racism", where people joke about having racist attitudes because they find it so unimaginable that any ordinary person could actually be racist.  In the meantime, there are all these de facto inequalities between Black and White people, and instead of actively addressing the problem, colorblind racism appears to advocate ignoring the problem until it goes away.  Or alternatively, it puts the blame on "Black culture" (via The Barefoot Bum).

This is troubling not just for US ethnic minorities, but for any other marginalized group currently fighting for rights.  It paints a bleak picture of the future.  In the future, will people believe that the fight for LGBT rights are over, despite continuing implicit prejudice and de facto inequalities?  I hope not, I hope something about it is different.

But I meant to discuss the word "racism".  In some ways, today's racism is a consequence of the very word "racism", and the mythos it has acquired. "Racism" is a victim of its own success.  Everyone in polite society has been convinced it's bad; it's so bad, in fact, that it doesn't look like anything here in the realm of mere mortals.  For some people, not even someone who shoots a Black man unprovoked lives up to the cartoon villain we visualize when we picture a racist.

Part of the problem is that "racism" (the system) and "racist" (a person) are so closely associated.  If something is racism, that must mean there is a racist somewhere.  Thus, we must be imputing great moral responsibility on this unlucky individual.  They are to be cast out of polite society, put among the ranks of Hitler.  As humans we have a lot of strong emotions regarding moral judgment of people.  When someone is beyond the pale, it colors everything that person does.  When someone is alleged to be beyond the pale, people really freak out because they're afraid of the power of that moral judgment.

Strategically, we have basically two choices: we can play up the personal moral responsibility, or play it down.  The first strategy is advantageous because it provokes strong emotions and gets people to care.  But the disadvantage is that it often provokes strong negative reactions, because people have trouble accepting the idea that anyone should be morally responsible for something so terrible.

In fact, there are a few cases we actually don't want to hold anyone personally responsible, at least not to such a great degree.  Often, when we talk about racism, it's not the individual statements or actions we care about, but all the institutional forces behind it.  Other times, we want to talk about implicit racial biases, which are thought to be very widespread.  In these cases, we as a society have responsibility, but the responsibility is diffuse, not belonging to single individual.  I don't think anyone is trying to say that most of polite society should be cast out from polite society.  And yet, when we call it racism, that's the message implied, just because of the connotations of "racism".

"Racism" is a fine word in many cases, but it sure would help if we had some alternative.  Another word with clout, one which does not impute as much moral responsibility.  Alas, I know of no such word.