Combating Dystopia.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Proving It.- Talking Race and all the other Isms

A casual glance around the interweb over the past few days has evidinced a staggering ammount of oblivious privlidge regarding race, gender, sexual orientation and all the lovely ways people who happen to have the outsider status (or "less desirable" status) are told these statuses REALLY matter in that society is structured to treat you differently based on it. Except when it makes the dominant culture feel or look bad... then the onus of responsibilty for all them "differences"? They're all a fabrication of reality you'll have to provide evidence for.

In making this case, First I just have to speak on the terribly impressive Dr. Melissa Herris Parry's article the Epistemology of Race, which savages the (often ill considered) fallacies involved with the duality of race and the dominant culture. Herris-Perry indicates that there tends to be three strategies employed yo discourage or merely deflect genuine conversations about race in our society, the first of which I find I've had to do for a perplexing portion of my adult life, "Proving it".

When it comes to race, and racism those with the luxury of being able to simply not "see" other perspectives or experiences that lie outside of your position in the social strata very simply do not have to, and therefore rarely do see race as a genuine system of inequality. I'm reminded of the infamous Dr. Laura Slessinger story that acts as a perfect explanation of how "proving it" works as a defense/derail of conversation on race.

"Some people are hypersensitive- so give me an example of racist comments." (warning- clicking the link will direct you to one of the most annoyingly condescending diatribes you'll ever hear) Here, Dr. Laura puts the woman who is black and asking what she felt was a genuine question about etiquette on the defensive. Surely she was mistaken, being "hyper-sensitive" about these things that clearly are untrue about most good people. So instead of having a meaningful conversation about the topic, the caller was made to justify her position that something could in fact be bothersome or offensive about her husband's friends bringing up "what black people do" to her continually.

It speaks to the often referenced article by feminist Peggy McIntosh "White Privilege-Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack", which you can read in its entirety here. There are dozens if not hundreds of ways my position as a male in a patriarchal society grants me rights and privileges I may in fact be unaware of. I seldom have to guard my drinks at a house party, or be concerned about going places by myself, or be explicitly judged by strangers for my physical attractiveness alone.

This perspective ties succinctly into other types of inequality, be it race or sexual orientation, and it typically serves as a unique reminder that often one can be wholly oblivious to the ways a particular status they hold can enable them and disable others. Jim crow, for instance was a cultural and legal system so powerful that it reinforced racial biases and division in numerous ways. It follows that many of those cultural assumptions and unexplored perspectives still carry over today, where we still here comments that echo that the entrenched differences that buffered separate but equal cultures in our country based on race a generation ago are all but evaporated since the codified structures that have held them in check are mostly gone.

This does not hold primarily because of cultural lag. Many of the ideas that power and justify the codification of segregation and differences are not likely to dissipate a generation and a half after the fact. People still harbor biases regardless of whether or not a policy is enacted. Hence, the way culture can use both subtle and direct sanctions to reinforce the status quo. We can orient our world around justifications, both moral and religious about any number of differences and shape our worlds to imply that its always been so, for who could think of doing anything differently?

One of the largest problems with the "proving it" argument, is that its both intellectually lazy, and patently disinterested in moving beyond the dialog of race. This is problematic in part because this argument comes from some that claim to be "color blind". It may be easier and more honest a descriptor to claim to be "blandly uninterested in race as it doesn't effect me"... but I suspect it doesn't have quite the same ability to deflect the conversation on intellectual grounds.

The onus of responsibility about defining race, and gender, and sexuality are seldom on the less powerful group- as they very rarely construct the categories and concepts that come to represent them. In truth, that power is only something that comes of being of the dominant culture.

To name a thing, to define the terms in which business is done, is to put it in a controllable, quantifiable box. Those genuinely interested in dialogues about inequality should never approach these topics as though they know each and every complexity that might frame the ways one group is privileged and another disadvantaged. To have an exchange, a true teachable moment involves first listening and understanding that your perspective is merely one of many that might not have the fullness you assume. If we're to be serious about doing the work of equality, it requires open ears and open minds. It is a difficult, but not impossible thing to see the layers within layers that comprise complex society. Cultures and subcultures and countercultures and movements all working with in tandem and contrast. To understand is to see behind the curtain, and there's something of a loss of power involved in suggesting racism isn't a fabrication in and of itself...but then that may be one of the other tricks the Devil allegedly pulled.

In the meantime, there's logic, there's feeling, and there're genuine attempts to breach the gulf that divides us all. Important work, if the majority of us are up for it.

And now, Jill Scott- "Hate on Me"

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