Friday, February 5, 2010

Alternative Racism

I was talking with my girlfriend about the intricacies of Race in America, and she mentioned that now she can ask me if all the stereotypes black people have about white people are true.

"What? Black people hold stereotypes about white people? Like what?"
"Well, we think white people are dirty. First they smell like baloney, and then they smell like dogs when they get wet."
"Oh, wow..."
"Y'know, I get so mad when white people always think of me like the 'exception', as if I'm just a dark-skinned white person."
"Yeah. I can feel you on that. I hate being considered the 'exception' among Jews."
"And they always try to act 'gangstah' whenever they're around black people, trying to drop names to make them look like a 'friend to black people' or something."
"Yeah, that's true. I probably do that too, sometimes."
"No, baby. You're different."

Stop. Wait, what? Weren't we talking about how offensive it is to be considered an "exception" to a "rule"? Me and my girlfriend don't really have any problems relating despite our obvious racial-differences, but I do wonder if people think that about me when I talk or write about race.

Are racially-conscious white people considered an exception to a rule? Is it racist to suggest that white people as a group are racially retarded? (This is a question I've asked countless times.) Furthermore, do I, as a "white man" have the right to be offended for being considered an exception to a rule that basically denigrates the intelligence of my race?

I mean, just as much as any black -- or hispanic, or asian, or indian -- person has the right to get offended for being praised because they don't fit a preconceived stereotype (that is usually negative in connotation) do white people not have that same right? Or is it different because we are/were the majority? Can a dominant group be discriminated against? Does it count?

Personally, I'm used to being considered an "exception" among people. As a Jew, as a white, as a male, I've often been considered to be "different" than the norm (though always in a positive sense of different) no matter how much I tell people I'm just a regular guy. (Or white, or a Jew.) I never felt that I differed significantly from the standard when it comes to social consciousness with regards to class, race, and other issues.

However, should I start getting offended about this? Should I take it negatively that the groups I'm seen as belonging to are held in such low esteem that being "different" is a good thing? Should I get mad if my girlfriend says, "you're different"? (Not that I would. She's such a sweety -- and she reads my blog!) Should I stand-up for the stereotypes people hold about whites that contradict reality?

Or is it just none of my business?

Seriously, I feel that as much as white people cannot understand what it's like to be black, neither can black people understand what it's like to be white. To be perceived as inherently racist, oppressive, rich, privileged, ignorant -- or even smelly! -- can be just as offensive as assuming that when a black person employs slanguage they are somehow automatically "ghetto" and acting "how they really are".

Even more interesting is how often the misconceptions about races come from other minorities! For instance while growing up, many of the stereotypes I heard (and sometimes believed) about black people were promulgated by latinos and asians! When another minority says them they're often considered "ignorant", but when a white person says them they're called "a racist". It was -- and is -- a very confusing system of interracial relations.

Also, as I was reading SWPD (though gawd knows why, what with the idiocy prevalent on that blog) I found this gem of a post. [Interracial Relationship]

It describes an interesting dynamic between an asian woman, and her white boyfriend. Throughout the story, she talks about the humiliation and embarrassment that she underwent during the experience in the post. She was treated in a derogatory manner by a ticket agent who tried speaking to her in a myriad of languages except English, because (as she assumes) he assumed she didn't speak it. And when she did not reply, he turned to her boyfriend to ask what language she spoke. It was only when she obliged in speaking a few quick lines of Chinese that he stopped trying to engage her in conversation. Afterwards, the boyfriend remarks on how nice the guy seemed, while she shakes her head, unbelieving at how offensive he was.

Now, while many might see this as essentially a racist asshole bothering an asian woman while her white boyfriend has his thumb up his ass, I disagree. The problem for me -- and for many white people that I know personally -- is that it seems like there's never an interaction that is caused by misunderstanding. Saying someone's being oversensitive can often get you punched in the face by most minorities. (And justifiably so, since disregarding someone else's feelings or personal experience is terrible.) But when I ask probing questions to see if maybe the person was just ignorant -- as opposed to racist -- or maybe they were trying to be friendly and it backfired, or maybe they were trying to show-off how "cultured" they are and ended up looking like an ass... Anything, except racism, I get metaphorically slapped in the face. I get told that white people always do this, and that's why we'll never understand.

Why do we do this? Is it because we, as white people, never have to go through similar experiences? I know as a Jew that I have often dealt with antisemitism, yet still never jump to conclusions when people make questionable comments. I don't have an assumption that people are just waiting to say something offensive.

I wouldn't call it oversensitivity, but I would call it hyper-awareness. In fact, I might even call it a hair-trigger! Sometimes it feels that way when other groups misconstrue my comments on race as being racist.

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: being critical is not the same as criticizing. Questioning is not disbelieving. And a difference of opinion is not the same as ignorance or racism. (Okay, so that was a few things, actually.)

In summation: don't hate white people, and don't assume everyone's trying to be a racist prick to you.

Those are my general conclusions.

15 footnotes:

~Kalos said...

I often hear these misconceptions around me and i agreee with you. I think often times--especially the contemporary times-- people often base thier aversions towards other races off of what others have said. I have often wondered how whites felt about this(seeing that its becoming/is a crutch and motivational wrench for seemingly oppressed races in advance in society). I agree with you...I think most times these aversions and radical perspectives are based off ignorance and not insults.

Jasmin said...

I think my view of "White people who are different" means White people who are more concerned with not being racist than not appearing racist (see racism, aversive), though I don't think anything about White people makes them inherently racist, just social factors. So, just as (I believe) you would get similar results if you compared a White person growing up in "the ghetto/culture of poverty" to a Black person in the same circumstance (controlling for other factors), I think a Black person raised to be (subconsciously) racist would act no differently than a White person raised to be racist (again, controlling for other factors).

Color me confused, but what's up with the title? "Alternative racism" sounds like a synonym for "reverse racism" to me, and I'm sure you can guess what I think about that. Lol, based on this post, you're not that "different".

I'm not sure whether the "my girlfriend reads my blog" part is supposed to be a good thing, like, "Yay! She actually reads it" or a bad thing, like, "I better not say anything bad--she bites!" (which is true). :-P

Mira said...

You addressed way to many issues in this post, so my comment must be a longish one.

Stereotypes about white people

I'd really like to know what are these stereotypes. It's interesting to see how other groups see your group. I think "they're racist" might be one of the stereotype. And about being smelly- I was under the impression that all people smell bad, unless they shower. Some white people shower regularly. Others don't.

However, when you are in majority, it's always possible to say what I wrote above. Your majority group will give you benefit of the doubt and judge your body odour based on whether you actually smell bad or not- not your race. Minorities are often heavily stereotyped, and if one stereotype about their race is "they're dirty & smelly", many of them would try their best to kill this stereotype and often become more aware of personal hygiene than majority group. That's why you have all those adorably messy white people (rock musicians, for example), while black people often try to be as clean as possible. Because you must be super clean before majority will you accept as "passable".

Exeption to the rule

While I do understand why people get mad when others tell them "they're not like other ____", I do see it more as a sign of someone's inner prejudice, not necessarily evil intentions. Yes, people did tell me "I am not like other Serbs" (people who never, ever met a Serb in their life), and yes, it did piss me off. But then again, I don't think those people were mean: they just showed their prejudice. And unlike many people, I don't tend to hate people for their prejudice; I am aware we all have them. Having prejudice isn't horrible- refusing to unlearn them is. More about this later.

Is it unfair to be offensive towards white people

Eh. There isn't an easy answer here. I tend to take offensive behaviour as personal trait, so yes, only a person can be offensive to somebody else- and it's never a good thing.

On the other hand, society as a whole is often offensive to minorities (even if "minority" means female), so I do think those people have right to be pissed. We don't know what is like to be black, Zek, but I bet their constant awareness of race is understandable.

How to end racism

Well, if you don't want to kill all the people- it's a difficult task. People must learn to communicate. I know it's sounds naive, but it's the only way (it's not easy, however). While it's impossible to understand what is like to be a person of a different race, or majority/minority, one must try to get as close to the answer as possible.

To conclude
(If you were patient enough to read this far)

People have prejudice. All people. It's not something you should hide, or pretend it isn't there. One of the prevailing prejudice in today's world is racism. Racism is not an illness, it's not something so horrible only the worst people on earth share. We are all racists. All of us. Our racism, however, is not of the same kind or intensity. So you should never judge someone's racism before you really meet the person. The best news is: just like with any other prejudice, it's possible to unlearn racism. Perhaps not completely, but it is possible to make it less and less intense, and transform it into less harmful kind.

Zek J Evets said...

@kalos: exactly! and while that doesn't excuse them, it does mean that we can make things better through mutual understanding... or something like that.

@jasmin: i agree that excluding social factors, nobody would be any more or any less racist than another. racism is taught.

however, while maybe the great majority of white people in this country are how you described (racist due to social factors) i don't think this means that they don't also experience racism because they are white.

they can be little things like, "white boys can't dance" or they can be deeper psychological things such as, "white people are racist". the point is that while racism in this country is overwhelmingly directed at minorities, there are still examples - growing in number - that indicate racism against whites which becomes institutionalized, and even normative across our culture. (take, for instance, the lack of diversity programs for white people who are not White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant.)

for the record, my title "alternative racism" is NOT about reverse racism (which is just racism to me) but about a part of racism that is rarely discussed or talked about, yet has been a frequent part of my life-experience. that is, racism against white people.

the "alternative" is in connection with the greater theme of my blog, the alternative world of saboteur academia. alternative culture is a huge part of my self-identity, and i use it often when discussing social issues. here's a link to get you started if you want to know more about "alternative":

oh, and also! i'm equal-parts happy that my girlfriend reads my blog (i assume because she likes my writing) and scared (because what if i write something she doesn't like?).

@mira: i, too, get similar comments to what you described (although as a jewish white boy, not a serbian) and i never think that a person is racist or even prejudiced -- just ignorant, maybe silly, maybe stupid, but mostly harmless. i don't let misconceptions about jews, whites, or men affect how i treat the greater part of humanity.

growing up, people would often make comments like, "don't be such a jew" or, "don't white me out, homes" and, "you're such a guy". most people wouldn't take these comments with a second glance -- YET -- when made against a minority group, they become racist/sexist/whateverist.

my post asks the question: should i actually be getting mad like everyone else?

and while i personally probably won't, it does seem fair to. it seems that we don't talk about emerging forms of discrimination against dominant/so-called dominant groups. we talk about the obama cartoons depicting him like an ape, yet neglect comedy sketches that lambaste white people. we condemn or criticize costumes of blackface, but in japan they dress up like "gaijin" -- aka white people, with big noses, furry eyebrows, bushy wigs, speaking in bad english -- and nobody is sure whether that's offensive or not. (if i dressed up in a caricature of an asian-man, you can bet i'd be called a racist.) the problem is that we don't talk about these things, and that is something i want to change.

a good article to read on the subject can be found at this link:

Jasmin said...

I don't think you should be scared of writing something your girlfriend doesn't like--if she's a good one she won't love you any less. :-)

PS. I will check out Alternative culture.

MKL said...

I traveled a lot around Asia and there were all kinds of stereotypes I had to fight against. At least when people got to know me, were pleasantly surprised and realized that not all Westerners are rich, ignorant and look for cheap sex. I don't wanna be responsible for the good or bad members of my race have done and are doing. I am who I am. I just happen to be born white.
I guess we don't have such discussions in Europe, race relations in USA are much more complicated because of the different history. I'm not saying we're any better (or worse) here, just different. Out of 4 women I seriously dated, 3 weren't white, so I had my share of contemplating on this issue. But for now, I'm just at peace with this. I can only change few minds of few people. That's enough :)
Great article, though. Good luck.

Mira said...

I think there might be two levels of racism. On a personal level, everybody can be (and usually are) racist. On a more powerful level, society as whole can be racist (you may replace "racist" with homophobia, sexism, antisemitism, xenophobia...) On that "bigger" level, only majority can be the oppressor. On that level, it simply isn't the same when you put on a blackface and when a black man does an impersonation of a white man. It simply isn't, because he's a minority, you are not. The society as a whole is treating your group better than his group.

However, on a personal level, different rules apply. Yes, a black person can be racist.

Should you be offended? It depends on you. What I'm saying: you should behave the way you feel you should, not the way the society, or your group demands you.

Plus, any insult depends on situation and context. Like Jasmin said, it often looks like it's done because of wrong intentions: to be seen as anti-racist, not to actually be an anti-racist. What is offensive and what is not depends on a situation. Now, I am not sure there could be a situation where a white person could use a n-word and not be offensive, but so many other things do depend on a situation. If nothing else, it's possible to never say any race slur and to be a racist.

Some questions. Is it racist/ generally offensive when:
1. Denzel Washington refuses to kiss Julia Roberts on film?
2. Robert Downey Jr. do a blackface in "Tropic Thunder"?
3. Bush portrayed as a monkey?
4. Any random evil Russian/foreigner in an American movie?
5. Black people say "the n word"?

To be honest, being an European, many things that Americans find offensive- especially concerning sexuality on film and political correctness- seem almost harmless to me.

White people might be the majority but they can also be victims of prejudice and racism, on a personal level.

PS-Two anecdotes on Jews and antisemitism (or not?)

1. My grandmother was part Austrian. Her sister had an usual Germanic name, but when she got married to an Orthodox Christian, she got a Serbian name. Nobody called her by that name, except for her two Jewish friends. Those women refused to address her by her "real" name, because it sounded German. My grandma's sister understood their feelings- but were they offensive? If she refused to call them by their Jewish names, would that be offensive?
2. My sister in law is dating a Jew. My father in law opposes, not because the guy is Jewish, or of a different religion- but because he is "too dark, like a Gypsy" (his words). (In Eastern Europe, Gypsies (Roma people) are heavily discriminated against). So, is it antisemitism? Or prejudice against Gypsies?

Mira said...

I can write a several stereotypes about Americans (and westerners in general) that exist in my culture. I must admit none of the Americans I met online fit it, though some people did show a few character traits. However, I don't really travel much so my experience is, more or less, only "online" one.

Zek J Evets said...

@jasmin: you think so? i'm glad =)

because even though i can sometimes be a little ignorant, or even a little racist, the intentions are good (which doesn't excuse the behavior) and just trying to figure things out.


@MKL: glad to have a new face commenting! (and i noticed you became a follower, which i appreciate.)

i think your individualistic approach to race and racism is similar to my own, but i don't have your confidence about it yet, i guess.

@mira: you are OFFICIALLY the Queen of Long Comments, haha!

1. when did denzel refuse to kiss julia roberts?
2. robert downey in tropic thunder wasn't racist TO ME because i found it to be a parody of modern forms of blackface/minstrelsy, making fun of white people's own attempts to subvert culture from minority groups.
3. bush as a monkey isn't racist per se, because the american context for that insult is usually found in the eugenics movement where black people were compared to apes. however, i'm offended that the nobody recognizes the difference.
4. portraying russians as always evil communists is more prejudicial nationalism than racism, but i see the point. it's not right, and all i can say is that's american cinema for you! not always that intelligent, but often action-packed.
5. linguistic privilege is a concept i firmly endorse, in that groups have the right to define themselves, whether with slurs or other words. so, as a jew, i can say "kike", but i can't say the "n-word". it's a form of self-expression that allows a group to take back the power of their own identity and subvert it for collective freedom.

as for jews and gypsys... according to my grandmother we don't like each other. historically jews and gypsys competed in the same social niche, like as bankers, money-lenders, traveling traders, craftsmen, merchants, etc. however, i do know that europe has a long history of antisemitism, and that my own family refuses to go back to eastern-europe (especially lithuania, poland, ukraine, and other slavic states) because of the pogroms that occurred.

whew! i think i'll leave my comment off here with a final thought: stereotypes exist, and getting mad at them isn't helpful unless they directly affect you.

feeling bad because someone called you a name is not the same as someone calling you a name because they can deny you a job.

Jasmin said...

Attention everyone! This:

feeling bad because someone called you a name is not the same as someone calling you a name because they can deny you a job.

is definitely my idea, and someone stole it w/o giving me credit! So I'm calling you out. :-P

That is all.

MKL said...

@Jasmin: Wow, he stole that from you and didn't give you any credit? :O

Ok, I'm unfollowing this blog and I will transfer to yours immediately, because you are the brain behind Saboteur Academia and also because of the Sudoku Puzzle :P

Just kidding ;) I'm assuming you guys are a couple, right? :)

Mira said...

Hey, I'm sorry, I'll try to make my comments shorter, I promise! (I have the same problem with my writings- I have to learn how to present my ideas in a bit shorter form).

Just a quick answer:

Denzel refused to kiss Julia in "Pelican Brief". Their characters (both white in the book, I think) were supposed to start a relationship, but he refused. At the time, I must admit, I thought it was racist. Now I am not what to think about it.

I know nothing about linguist privilege, that concept doesn't really exist in my culture. So I must think about it.

Oh, and about my father in law, he doesn't oppose the relationship because the guy is Jewish, but because he "looks like a Gypsy".

Jasmin said...


Glad you recognize the brains of the operation, and yes, we are a couple. :-)

A fellow Sudoku fanatic? High-five!

HawkMom said...

"linguistic privilege is a concept i firmly endorse, in that groups have the right to define themselves, whether with slurs or other words. so, as a jew, i can say "kike", but i can't say the "n-word". it's a form of self-expression that allows a group to take back the power of their own identity and subvert it for collective freedom."

I concur. There's a Jewish hipster magazine called "Heeb". I love it, and I leave it alone.

Zek J Evets said...

@everyone: first of all, i didn't STEAL the idea so much as improved on it's eloquence =P

yes, jasmin was the inspiration (as she is my girlfriend/muse) but the words apply to me as much as anyone else, minority or otherwise.

@mira: no worries! comment as long as you'd like =) all styles are welcome.

@hawkmom: i know the magazine you're talking about! it's waaaaay too hipster for me, so i don't really read it.

there is one part of linguistic privilege that i don't follow however... in my creative writing, i will sometimes employ slurs (and curse-words, etc) to convey the sense of callousness and ignorance of people that i've met who work their way into my stories.