Tuesday, July 28, 2009

"Racism isn't 'stupid'".

Abstract: An overly broad construal of racist actions leads to the belief that stupidity plays no role in racist behavior. While I concur that some, if not most, racists are so simply by virtue of malicious hatred or immorality, there also exist some unwilling racists. For the latter group, education and knowledge actually serves as an efficacious (if not perfectly so) corrective.

Harry Allen (the original "Media Assassin" and affiliate of one of the greatest hip-hop crews of all time) recently made an intriguing point on his blog. In a recent post discussing President Obama's quasi-but-not-really-an-apologetic public statement regarding the recent Skip Gates incident in Cambridge (if you haven't already heard of it, which I'm sure most of you have by now, take a look first), Allen makes the statement,

"[this is] one of the most frequently stated falsehoods about race: That people who commit racist acts are stupid."

Allen makes the point - and it is a valid one - that discussions of racism are often couched in the language of ignorance, the specious implication being that racists are not bad people, they are merely mis- or uninformed.

Allen is right, but he is also wrong: it all depends on the specific definition of racism under which one is operating. In the same way that it is wrong to talk about oppressed or minority populations as monolithic, it is inaccurate to describe all racists as similarly motivated. Racism can - and often does - arise from blatant spite or dislike of the Other. However, to entirely rule out ignorance as a contributing factor is to oversimplify the discussion (which already bears the potential for further complication by simply pointing out that actions can stem from multiple motivations).

"Why would people believe that the race system... works through “ignorance”?"

Professor Jerry Kang, in his 1993 Harvard Law Review publication, Racial Violence against Asian Americans, makes the point that there are two kinds of construals of Others that result in racially-motivated violence against them: one is an instrumental conception, and one is a moral conception. Instrumentally speaking, violence against minorities works because minorities are less likely to have in their power the means to strike back against an oppressive majority (or, heck, as in the case of Apartheid South Africa, occupied China, modern-day North Korea, an oppressed majority against an oppressive minority).

In such cases, the reasons for racist actions are simple: oppressed people are easy to exploit. This is precisely the cases that Allen is presenting to his reader: cases in which, even despite the realization of the victim's humanity, it is simply easier to continue victimizing the subjugated. I fully acknowledge and promote the need for us to realize that these sorts of cases - where a willing, oppressive, majority turns a blind eye to the suffering of a fellow human - are unconscionable and deserve to be ferreted out, pointed out, and prosecuted with the greatest dispatch and vigor.

But there is the alternative case: in which a moral conception is the cause of racism. For example, in the late 1800s, Americans and Europeans would, despite living in China for years, never adopt native garb, the reason being that Asian culture was seen as a corrupting, insidious influence. In this case, the Othering of China by Westerners (or rather, the volitional acceptance of Outsider status by Whites in China) was not solely due to malicious intent (though, I admit, the cocktail of causes and effects is impossible to unmix). Rather, there was, I believe, a genuine misconception that Chinese culture was immoral and deleterious to the health of contemporary American "Protestant" faith-cum-state-values.

In such an environment of ignorance actually leading to distancing and Othering, increased knowledge - decreased ignorance and "stupidity" - can actually have a corrective, curative effect. In the example of China, I point to cases such as that of Hudson Taylor, the British Protestant missionary who, upon arriving in China, "was known for his sensitivity to Chinese culture... . He adopted wearing native Chinese clothing even though this was rare among missionaries of that time...." Not only did he adopt the external signifiers of decreased ignorance, but Taylor also adopted the best interests of Chinese people over the financial interests of his land of origin: "Primarily because of the CIM's campaign against the Opium trade, Taylor has been referred to as one of the most significant Europeans to visit China in the 19th Century." (source [yeah, I used Wikipedia as a source. Take away my diploma.])

Breakthroughs such as Taylor's revelation among British Protestant circles are rare, but effective in counteracting this latter form of racism: racism based not on actual racial dislike, but based on misconceptions of a race. In the same way that the televised dehumanization of the Civil Rights marchers of the 1960s drove the point of universal claims to equal humanity before a nation as never it had been before (and, perhaps, never has since, save for the Rodney King tapes and other such incidents), the insistence upon promoting knowledge as a curative for racism is not incorrect; it simply must be insisted-upon as part of a solution for racism, rather than part and parcel. It must also be realized that it is only a highly specific kind of knowledge that is efficacious in bringing about this revelation.

In Lee Mun Wah's The Color of Fear, a seminal early-90s film documenting a racial discourse among eight men of varying backgrounds, a breakthrough moment comes when a White man, who has been angrily defending the veracity of his point of view to his Black, Hispanic, and Asian counterparts, sits back in astonishment when he realizes the discrepancy between their shared humanity and the basic inequality of their treatment in society. In that moment, unwilling racism has begun to be dismantled (I emphasize: the process merely began at that step) by the revelation of a certain kind of knowledge: the knowledge of shared humanity.

It is this kind of knowledge that counters the second type of racism: Racism that says, as a fact, we are distinctly, morally, better than they. No, this knowledge will not conquer the first sort of racism, racism born of exploitative malice or willing ignorance and complicitousness. For such brands of perniciousness, no amount of human knowledge will do. But in the case of "unconscious racists," who view other races as subhuman simply because they have never been opened to the possibility of the world being otherwise, such knowledge can actually make a difference.

Allen claims: "No one says this about rude people. No one says, “Rude people are just stupid.” No one would believe such a thing as an explanation for the history of rudeness."
-This quote illustrates precisely Allen's monolithicizing of racist behavior: there is no extant "history of rudeness," for exactly the reason that rudeness is not so easily generalized. Some people are rude, yes, because they are simply ill-humored or apathetic towards the well-being of others.
-But some people are rude for the simple fact of being unaware or unknowledgeable: the White American who doesn't remove his shoes when he enters a Chinese-American house; the inexperienced busboy who accidentally rushes into the wrong side of the restaurant doors; the illiterate American who doesn't realize he is sitting on the Senior-Citizens-Only seat on the Korean subway (i.e., me). In such cases, yes. Rudeness is, in fact, caused by stupidity.


Noah said...

good post

Inspector Clouseau said...

The reason that society is incapable of addressing the racial issue is because we view it from the wrong perspective. We talk all around the fundamental, underlying reasons for racism, and make it an emotional issue. How does one expect to cure the cancer without focusing on the cancerous cells? Focusing on the symptoms is an ineffective mechanism to employ. Consider this.