Thursday, September 10, 2009

An Open-Letter of

Intent to Race Debaters

As ya'll are well aware of, I have often posted topics on this blog dealing with race, racial issues, the conversation, evolution of race in America, and most prominently, my reactions to the experiences I have had talking about it with various people from different backgrounds - Chinese man to Black woman to Jewish boy to Armenian girl to Latino guy to Filipino friends and so on.

Things I have noticed when talking about race:

1. Generalizations.

This one is pretty bad, because people don't realize the generalizations they make are as bad as the stereotypes they resent. In fact, generalizations and stereotypes are close enough to be synonyms, because the only difference between them is that a generalization is group-neutral (in that it targets a specific variable, that can cross different groups) whereas a stereotype is group-specific (in that it is possessed ONLY by that group).

For example. I am often told I "talk like white people" or partake in "white privilege" and have "white luxury".

What do white people talk like? Do they talk inherently different from every other racial group? Does this generalization still hold true when changed to, "you talk like black people"? (Any race or group is usable in this case actually.)

Also, it is worth stressing the importance that groups are not homogeneous, and even twins have different finger-prints. One white person is not analogous to another, and to talk about broad racial benefits ignores the many individuals who compose a group in all their variety. That is to say, not all white people are rich, and not all white people are powerful. (Also, personally, I would even stress that most white people are none of those things. This is a classic case of the [converse accident fallacy]

The concepts "white privilege" and "white luxury" are hasty generalizations that need to be admittedly refuted because they are simply not true anymore like they used to be. Instead, every race/group has its own benefits to membership, just as it has its own price too... and these are not equally distributed amongst the people. They exist in unequal amounts that complicate the issue of "minority/majority privilege."

As a Jew, my benefits were a bar'mitzvah, birthright trip to Israel, Hebrew school, and a close community of strangers that I can call upon in emergencies, simply because we are both Jewish. Can you think of other groups that might have similar privileges? What are instances of "black privilege" or "red luxury"? American Indians have casinos, and blacks have affirmative action (and before you bite my head off, I know it also benefits women and other groups, though apparently not in equal numbers). Yet, not all of these groups benefit from these luxuries and/or privileges, just as it is for whites. Not all American Indians have casinos, or get casino-money. Not all black people get their job because of affirmative action - some get it just because they're damn good at what they do. I use them as an example to show the difficulty of generalizing a racial group's benefits without taking into account similar benefits received by other groups, and the inequalities that exist in how those benefits are distributed.

2. Taking comments out of context/stressing their importance to distort the argument.

This one is really subversive, because they use words I've actually said, but without any of the surrounding language to frame it. Instead, they create their own frame to prove the point they're making, as opposed to actually debate my arguments. They may also stress examples I give or criticisms I make like a red herring to deflect my original point.

For instance, I used linguistic privilege as an example. Most people have the right to say their group's racial/ethnic slur. Like, I can say "kike" and nobody gets upset. But if I say "nigger", then that's a big deal. This is an example of linguistic privilege, because certain words are only permissible for use by certain groups. However, when I brought up this point, instead of refuting that linguistic privilege exists because there are many in the black community who frown on the use of the word even by themselves, they instead set-up a straw-man by assuming that I wanted to say the word and felt upset at not being able to. This is a classic, because it totally ignores the argument in favor of the person who will now have to defend themself instead of continuing the conversation.

3. [Ad hominem]. In fact, most of my experience can be summed-up as variations of ad hominem. Personal attacks like, "little fucker", "asshole", "ignorant white boy", and "shit-starter" are thrown around quite a bit when I join most discussions about race outside of my own group. (Jews, friends, family, etc.)

As I noted above on number 1, my race is often invoked in ad hominem, and tends to be used as a super-reason for my ignorance. "White people don't want to have an honest conversation about race", "white people don't understand what it's like to be black" (starting to sound like teenagers at this point, aren't they? "You don't understand me" is something I'm almost positive every sixteen year-old has said at some point) "white people are racist but can't admit it." The interesting thing is that many of these comments can be applied equally to the group/person making them; however, instead of doing a variation of, "you too!" let me further explore and explain.

What is an honest conversation about race? Does it allow for white criticisms and preconceptions to be debated without reprisal from ANY group? And if I am being made the representation of the generalization that white people don't want to have an honest conversation about race, then why am I here trying to talk about it?

If white people have no idea what it's like to be black, then the converse should be true that black people have no idea what it's like to be white. This defeats the purpose of that statement altogether, proving it more helpful to the conversation to stress our shared humanity as a commonality for understanding.

To label an entire group of people racist is in itself a racist act. When talking about race, it is often the case that people will call one another racist in attempts to deflect/derail the argument when it is not going their way. This happens quite a lot to me, because white criticism can easily be mislabeled as racism. (Being called white at all is a misrepresentation of me though, since I identify as Jewish, not white.)

4. Black-on-white slander. (Note: it should properly be called subdominant-on-dominant slander, but my experience with it has been localized to conversations with black people, thus the name.) This phenomenon needs its own category, even though it probably belongs in ad hominem. Often when talking about race, people will call you racist, ignorant, etc, and yet when asked to provide reasoning for their argument, they cannot come up with anything other than that you disagree with them. When pushed further, this disagreement is said to be because "you are white."



This is the part I find hilarious and borderline offensive. I am ignorant and racist for no better reason than my skin-color? Participants in a discussion about race, who want racial equality, are committing an act of racism by dismissing anything I say due to the fact that I am white.

Are white people incapable of rational thought? Is there some special gene that white people didn't get? Does my pale pigmentation reduce blood and oxygen flow to the "race-button" part of my brain, thus rendering me racially retarded?

I honestly have no logical explanation for this phenomenon. Obviously not all minority groups think white people are ignorant, but when talking about race it is interesting to see this play out in the conversation. If racism is subtle, then this is a prime example.

5. Last, but not least, is [Non Sequitur].

This logical fallacy is hugely important when talking about racism, because examples of racist acts will often be used that are due to other causes. The distinction between class privilege and race privilege is one such example, in that the upper-class are primarily white, thus only white people are upper-class. This is simplistic and omits other variables to affect class, like group dynamics. In group dynamics, class trumps race. Just as many blacks who make it to the upper-class are likely to "forget where they came from", so too do whites (and Hispanics and Asians) often ignore the lower-class members of their racial/ethnic group, due in part to apathy (they just don't care) and also in part to the overwhelming multitude (too many people to help which causes many to "just give up"). This means that while whites do occupy a majority of the upper-class, they are a minority of whites as a whole, and often do not participate with the rest of the racial group. (Indeed, most racial groups are far more complex than a single bloc. There are myriad factions rivaling for control, changing dynamics, shifting power-balances, etc, that make describing one group in ANY form problematic due to its ignoring the problem of prevalent exceptions.) However, the example below will show that when class is not a factor, then race DOES become a factor.

Supposing two equally qualified candidates were applying for a job. One Latino, one Japanese. Racial equality means they both have an equal chance of getting the job. But what do statistics tell us? Well, they tell us that the Japanese guy is the getting hired more often. Why? Is the Latino not as equally qualified? Why don't statistics reflect his skills? Obviously there must be racism going on.

Complications. We must take into account other factors, such as whether the recruiter was Japanese, Latino, or maybe just white. A Japanese recruiter would be likely to hire another Japanese due to group solidarity among class equivalents. That is, when two people of similar backgrounds - including economic-status in society - are put together, they will likely help each other preferentially compared to others.

But what if the recruiter was white? Ahh, then we come to stereotypes. There is definitely a preconception that all Asians are "good with computers." Thus, the white recruiter is letting so-called "positive" racism affect his hiring practices. Or, if he feels that the Latino is less skilled with the English-language (another popular misconception) then he might not hire him based on that. In either case, all other factors being equal, race does come into play.

But all other factors are not always equal. In fact, most of the time they are not, and determining equally qualified candidates is itself tricky, because they may be equally qualified but in different areas. They may both be impressive, but with different things. Also, statistical studies fail to take into account unmeasureable factors such as affability, personality, and charm. Some people test better, some people are great with interviews. There are so many factors to influence a hiring decision, like whether they look you in the eye or if they're physically attractive, or if they sight up straight instead of slouching, that to isolate any factor will create a distorted picture of the situation.

Thus, the complexity of hiring practices can indicate that different racial groups are still being under-represented because of racism, when in fact this may be due to other influences entirely. The subtlety makes it hard to determine.

One final example of non sequitur is in education. Many black students have trouble testing well, and this is said to be due to most tests being compiled for students from a standard background (a white background). A great example is the SAT, which was horribly biased towards those from an upper-middle-class white background.

However, tests have since been changed to account for the differing backgrounds of students, and yet black students are still having trouble. Furthermore, in university education, most remedial classes are filled with black students (at least in San Francisco). Many point this out as an example of institutional racism, that education is still segregated and too biased against minority groups.

Yet they then fail to into account the success of many Asian peoples in progressing through education. (If you ever go to UCI in Orange County, you can see my point exactly). Obviously race is not a factor for them. Is it cultural? Are Asians just so motivated to do good in school by their family and friends and background that it transcends institutional racism? Or is this an example of positive stereotypes?

This raises the question. What other factors influence education, and the ability for students to succeed? Culture, obviously. But what about friends? Peer pressure exerts a strong influence on motivating people to succeed. And what about family? A stable home helps a student focus on their education.

Are these things that black students do not have? Is it racist to suggest so? Or is it merely corroborative detail? I do not know, but when looking at education, there are other factors to take into account besides the educational system itself when determining whether it is disadvantageous to different racial groups.

That is the whole point of non sequitur, to avoid forming false causal relationships and to examine all of the possible causes for every possible effect. Racism is a broad issue that pervades American society in numerous ways, some subtle, some obvious, and talking about it requires many academic disciplines that may seem unrelated, and many different points of view that can cause controversy.

Anyways, those are the main points I wished to address in this post. Hopefully by using them I can avoid causing a shit-storm like what [happened on my blog recently].

11 footnotes:

FunkyStarkitty50 said...

While I applaud your desire to discuss this topic and learn, I'm afraid that there are some people who cannot discuss this subject without being emotional about it. It's just too loaded a topic and it never ends well. As a Black woman, I've tried to discuss this subject with other Black people and it turns into a shouting match or my opinions are simply dismissed because I choose to be romantically involved with "them" and "they" have brainwashed me into "their" way of thinking. When in actuality, I can see it from both sides. However, perception is reality and unfortunately, if a "White appearing" person wants to debate about racism, they are in for a huge argument. You can try and have a civilized discussion about this with some people, but not all people. I have known angry Hispanic, angry Asian and angry Indian people and I have heard their stories of racist experiences, but I in no way am going to say that my pain is greater than theirs because they are not Black. But I try to at least empathize with them and see that we have a common bond as human beings trying to make it in this world against some people who have ignorant, outdated beliefs. Unfortunately, for you, some people already have their minds made up about you and are not even open to hearing your opinion on this subject, which already puts you at a disadvantage. Still, don't give up trying.

Zek J Evets said...

@funky: yes, unfortunately indeed. but i definitely won't stop trying, because otherwise there will NEVER be any change. (not because of me, but because people won't try to make it happen.)

thanks for the advice and support!

abagond said...

Part of the trouble is the word "racist". Whites take it way too personally, which makes it hard to call them on their racism.

Jasmin said...

This is a good post--very though-provoking.

My biggest disagreement with you is the relative importance of White privelege. I touched on this on Abagond's blog, and research proves that White privelege does exist. The error in your thinking, I believe, is that you are looking for individual examples (which you can find, but you probably won't find them to the extent that you will see White privelege as pervasive). White privelege is about the aggregate power of all "White" people. The sum of race-biased hiring practices, college admissions, etc. adds up to disproportional privelege for "White" people, and the insidious thing about it is that it's nearly impossible to put a "White privelege" stamp on anything. I can't prove X White person got into this university because he or she is White, rather than on merit (that applies to other races/ethnicities as well, which puts a hole in the general affirmative action argument). Even if there was a clear-cut, black-and-white example of White privelege (for example, if someone hired you just because you are "White") you would never know because no one is going to tell you his racist motivations. I personally am not one of those "apologist" people who feels all White people should get on their knees and repent for their White privelege, but I do think they should be aware of it (especially if they are quick to call non-White people "affirmative action cases" or the like).

In addition to that, though I believe "Black privelege" ("Latino privelege", "Asian privelege", etc.) exists, it doesn't, in fact, it can't, have the same pervasiveness as White privelege. If you are White and every non-White potential employer refuses to hire you, you still have a gazillion options. If you are Black (or whatever) and no White employer will give you a job, you are likely screwed. You can use Black (etc.) privelege on the small scale, but it's not going to break down any huge barriers for you because the power structure behind most of those barriers is likely majority White.

You should do some reading on the achievement gap; it falls in line with a lot of your post and then you will see that there are varying degrees of support for some of the "hidden" factors you mention.

Side note: I agree with Abagond--"racist" is to some White people what the N-word is to some Black people. Just as you talk about some people dissolving into slinging the word "racist" around instead of actually focusing on the issue at hand, some people are so indignant at being called racist (even if the label is justified) that they don't even stop to examine their words or actions.

General disclaimer: I know you aren't White...I put White in quotation marks to signify both people who are White and people who are considered "White" (which you probably are by most people who don't know you, whether you like it or not, sorry) because White privelege can benefit the latter until they deliberately "out" themselves.

myperspective08 said...

one thing that irks me is when someone compares blacks and asians in america.

each minority group is different. the only thing all minority groups have in common is that they were oppressed by white people in america, at some point in time, in some way or form.

you really cant compare different racial groups, when you want to look at why one group does good, and the other not so good.

you have to look at the whole situation from the black point of view to understand why blacks do so badly in school. what other races went through is highly irrelevent to the whole thing.

i disagree with this entire post, but i have to much stuff to do right now, to list all my objections to this post. so i am just leaving my comment here.

i wont be back either.

Cherlyn Brethouwer said...

ok so i just want to say i agree with funkystarkitty. it was really cool of you to want to intelligently/respectfully talk about your views on a touchy subject that some refuse to talk about and avoid alotogether...also just to throw this out there I am black.
i think its very obvious for anyone who has ever attended a public school, that blacks test and do statistically lower. which really makes me dissapointed.
in times when there was really obvious and severe racism (and i come from the south, houston btw. but no longer live there) the older generations fought really hard for us to be able to go to schools which offered a better education, which many black have not taken advantage of. i think this is partially due to a lack of academically driven role models in the 'black community'....ugh but i hate to use that term. but really it irks me that everyone still just wants to play ball or be a rapper. they also worked for us (blacks) to be able to go to school with people of other races. and yet in these large schools, the racial divide is more obvious than fire. what was the point of desegregation if people hardly ever talk to 'the others' anyways. of course this is not always true i will not say that there is a feeling of racism around but especially in schools i would say there is a 'racial awkwardness' if you will or something like that.
i think this is one of the causes of a lot of racial misunderstandings like zek here has experienced
keep up your blog, its way cool. im like really interested in it now because im in my 2nd yr at u of Vermont getting my bachelors in sociology and you've been bringing up a lot stuff were studying

Cherlyn Brethouwer said...

also just to add.. something kinda interesting i read on a blog
racism & women (i guess?)

"In discussions of beauty – particularly those on women centered blogs – white women can understand being held up to an unrealistic standard of beauty. To be impossibly thin, impossibly blonde, impossibly clear skinned, with a body that defies the law of physics is presented as something that is attainable if you try hard enough and buy the right products, though many women find these efforts to be futile. What most of these conversations do not understand is that when black women pick up these kinds of magazines, or watch advertisements on TV, or popular television shows with popular white actresses, we do not get the message “try harder.”

The message we receive is never.

You will never look like this. Not if you straighten your hair, or lose weight, or work out every single day, or have the perfect body and the perfect wardrobe to match. Even if you fit all those requirements, you’re still “pretty for a black girl.” And if, for some reason, you do not fit these requirements, if your hair is frizzy or curly or kinky, if your thighs and ass will always keep your size in the double digits, if your features are not keen, if your skin tone is too deep, then there are many people who will never consider you beautiful.

They will never see who you are.

I remember reading an online conversation where a commenter had said “Well, every where I go, I hear Black is Beautiful!”

And I thought to myself yes, because that has to be stated – over and over again – for people to begin to believe it. The idea that white is beautiful is so common, so throughly saturated in our society, that is does not need mentioning.

It is just fact."

so yeah, i guess especially among women there is this feeling of maybe not living up to this standard of 'white beauty' or something etc.
which is like giving to the idea that there is much racism amongst media and whats considered beautiful
though i have never felt that way personally

Zek J Evets said...

@abagond: i think we're going to have to define racism at some point, because what i'm think of is far worse than how you seem interpret the word. to me, racism is treating one group of people different from another based on ONLY their skin color. the dictionary (.com) goes further to say, "hatred or intolerance of another race or other races."

so, maybe we should discuss the semantics of the word before basing our arguments on it.

@jasmin: i disagree with your opinion of how much "minority privilege" affects non-white groups. there is a diversity council on every college campus. plenty of scholarships for blacks, latinos, asians, but none specifically for whites. there are quota systems that say, all other factors being equal, minority gets admission. there are even quota systems for jobs, where they need to maintain percentages of white to yellow/brown/black/red (though notably, NOT for each group, but all of them together) there are groups for hyphenated-americans in every city as support. there are literally dozens of people/groups/institutions trying to do right by every race... except white.

most important in your comment is your admission that we cannot tell what is an example of white privilege or not! just the same as i cannot confirm that such privilege exists for other groups, white people are no more proven to benefit from this vague concept that comes from corroborative, observational, and anecdotal evidence rather than proven, intentional discrimination. we simply can't tell if someone is racist unless we ask them, or we catch them.

however, i do realize that many white people have an easier start due to inherited assets, but feel that as time goes on these diminish. and especially in today's world, i again stress that privilege of any racial group is hard to prove when whites are soon to be no longer the majority (i think the projection is five years?), the power structure is headed by a black man, and the different opportunities that have since opened up for the many peoples of our country, in education, in government, and the private sector.

the arguments of civil rights era racism and reaganomics are simply not that true anymore. they have literally dissolved in the melting pot.

@myperspective: well, thanks for the constructive criticism... i'm glad you were able to have a self-righteous rant and get it all out of your system. not selfish or random at all.

i mean, the fact that you can't actually articulate your argument shouldn't stop you from being right, should it? of course the obvious conclusions i reached are false, due to some superior wisdom you hold... but can't be bothered to type out at the moment.

oh, but why can't we compare other groups to each other? shouldn't that be how we determine who's unequal to who? if i compared blacks only to other blacks, i'm likely to miss a lot of the picture aren't i? is it wrong to draw comparisons across racial boundaries? are you saying that the techniques of modern anthropology, sociology, psychology, and other people-oriented studies are wrong? yes, how dare we compare and contrast people to other people, because god forbid that we don't look ONLY from the black perspective... because only blacks know what it's really like. maybe you should go trivialize the struggles of people in other countries too? hell, go spit on caesar chavez's grave, and snort at the japanese internment camps. go to the museum of intolerance and only be offended at the black racial slurs, because the other ones aren't as bad...

sorry, that was too much sarcasm, even for me, but since you won't be back, i felt free to indulge.

Zek J Evets said...

@cherlyn: thanks! i'm glad you like the stuff i'm writing about. actually, most the questions and comments that i'm raising are things that i've learned in my anthropology classes in college, applying ethnographic methodology to understanding race in america. i'm asking the basic questions any scientist in my discipline would ask when confronted by such strongly held opinions.

i can feel you on how in school, most people segregate themselves. this was especially true for me in orange county and LA. in LA, i stayed for a few months with my aunt and uncle as my mom underwent some surgery. they enrolled me in a predominantly black elementary school. i was the only white kid in my class, and only one of two white kids in the whole school. the rest were latino, and a very few asians. in this setting i had no one to talk with. every time i tried to make friends i was told to "go play with the other white boy." it was kinda sad because i honestly thought the other kids were more fun than him. (he tended to like obscure games that i wasn't in to.)

in high school, same problem, different variation. latinos, who made up the majority of the school were divided up in to their various cliques, but ONLY latinos with latinos. there was very little mixing. the white kids stayed with themselves, and the asians with themselves. there were a few black kids, and the tended to stick with the white kids rather than any other groups.

as for your anecdote about black beauty... i can't really say. there are standards of beauty that people feel pressured to conform to (mine being hairless chests, whereas mine is definitely hairy) but it hasn't affected me so much that i hate myself. it's a topic i'm not familiar with all that much, but i can say that most of the guys i know (including myself) want a women with legs and hips and lips, and all that good stuff. skinny women not their thing. but not just big white women - they'll take any good-looking girl! haha.

the problem of standards of beauty is something that i feel affects all women equally, because they are impossible no matter what you look like. even the women that look like that don't really look like that. that's a manufactured image, made by clothes, cosmetics, starvation, and digital-editing.

anyways, keep up the comments!

Jasmin said...

But Zek, if the priveleges of other groups are in effect, why don't we see any colleges (obviously I don't know the statistics of every school, but we'll limit the discussion to prestigious schools for now) that have breakdowns that match the racial makeup of the country? I'm not saying there isn't a privelege, but obviously it doesn't get you very far (as far as White privelege does).

I don't think most (White) people who benefit from White privelege are racist (in the sense that I sort-of agree with the "we are all prejudiced" mantra, but I recognize, like most people a distinction between the racism today and the beatings and cross burnings of the past--in this case I'm using the word racist to refer to the latter); I think they just benefit from a racist system. Doesn't necessarily make them/you bad, but it should encourage some reflection on why things are the way they are.

On a slightly different note, you give education examples a lot, which are pretty limited, but I'm guessing that's by virtue of you being a student. And I'm guessing you are heavily anti-affirmative action, based on your comments. IMO, affirmative action should deal with class rather than race, but I don't think that if the system changed tomorrow the "face" of affirmative action would change all that much. It's still likely that around 90% of the people receiving "benefits" will be Black or Hispanic. So, when people are opposed to AA I understand and I agree, but if their opposition is a result of latent racism it seems pointless to me because a switch to a class-based system isn't going to suddenly help out a swarm of White people. (And, on a side note, I don't really see the difference between AA and legacy admissions, but that's another story.)

I've read that Whites won't be the majority by 2020, but I'm skeptical about that because there's so much overlap in race determinations, especially with biracial White/Hispanic or White/Asian people. What people write down on a sheet of paper doesn't necessarily correlate to what they "look" like, and in the US what you look like is all (many) people care about. Plus, I don't think on January 1, 2020 there will be a "Down with White people!" call, and even if there were, the majority of people in "power" are White, so even if it gets to the point where they are 30% of the population, it could still be possible for them to control 70% of the benefits. As the racial balance of the nation shifts, I think we'll notice, but I don't predict any significant life changes for any 1 group of individuals.

The overall drawback about racism is that you can never change what people think. You can talk/debate until you are blue in the face, but if someone is adamant that a Black person could never get into Notre Dame (Go Irish!) without Affirmative Action, she will never change her mind. It's the results of those negative expectations/assumptions (to the extent that they inflluence one's job prospects, educational opportunities, etc.) that creates the modern-day problem of racism.

PS. LOL at your hairy chest! :-P

Cherlyn Brethouwer said...

yeah im totaly thinking about writing a blog now
haha you've kinda inspired me but idk what i could begin to write about
i guess my background is kind of interesting...i was adopted by Dutch immigrants
thats cool i guess (?)