White America Needs to Clean House

by Akim Reinhardt

10 Ways to Get Rid of Your Old Junk | LoadUpWhite Americans get a lot of things wrong about race. And not just the relatively small number of blatant white supremacists, or the many millions (mostly over 50, conservative, and/or Republican) bitter about the supposedly undue attention, sympathy, and “breaks” that minorities receive; who insist actual racism was a problem only in the past, because Civil Rights “fixed” it; who believe anyone complaining about racism is just looking for an unfair edge in America’s level, color-blind playing field; who decry so-called “reverse racism”; who actually believe it is harder to be white in America than to be black or brown; or who simply minimize and downplay the existence racism.

Not just them. Even the small majority of whites who recognize that race remains a big problem in America often get it wrong. For example, many (most?) of them think that race is primarily about black and brown people. It’s not. Racism is primarily about white people.

Minorities suffer the effects of racism, and we must acknowledge and work to end that; however, you cannot cure an infection by simply placing a band-aid over the sore. You must clean out the wound thoroughly, surgically if need be, disinfect it, and then attack the infection at its root with antibiotics. In the old days it might have meant cutting off an appendage or limb. Similarly, racism won’t end or even be substantially reduced by strictly focusing on the suffering of its victims and making amends. Those are important and necessary first steps, but they don’t get at the core of the problem. Minority suffering is racism’s result, but racism is caused by what white people think and do.

White people empathizing with black and brown people is important, and it is vitally important that whites listen to minority voices. However, ending or substantially reducing racism will not come about until white people talk to each other and sort themselves out. Because racism is a white problem. Read more »

Pressure Points

by Joan Harvey

In my first column for 3 Quarks Daily I wrote that we are still fighting both the Civil War and WWII. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. puts it: “two hideous demons slumber under the floorboards of Western culture: anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism.” We have learned that any steps forward will be met with enormous resistance and backwards pressure. Gates quotes Ernst Cassirer: “every developmental step [of modern societies] can be reversed.” We saw this clearly post-Reconstruction, when everything possible was done to limit the lives of Black[i] people, and again following the two terms of the first Black president, when Americans chose an openly racist birther backed by the Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazis. A leap backwards was true as well for European Jews, who before the Second World War believed they had successfully assimilated into secular society.

Any reader of history cannot escape the echoes, back and forth, of racism, white nationalism, German and American ideas of purity. For example, jazz was reviled by the Nazis, and listening to it was a crime. Americans loved jazz, but as late as the 1950s Lena Horne couldn’t go into the dining room in the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. Black musicians had to reach and leave the stage through a separate enclosed corridor. Artie Shaw, who by all accounts was not at all racist and performed early on with Billie Holiday when most musical groups were segregated, at the same time hid the fact that he was Jewish. Ava Gardner reports that he sat silent at a table of bigwigs making antisemitic[ii] comments and even joined in rather than speak up and give himself away[iii].

Pressure Point, a film made in 1962 and directed by Hubert Cornfield, is a mostly unknown but quite brilliant dissection of both race and Nazism in America. Sidney Poitier portrays a psychiatrist who (in a flashback) has been given a job in 1942 in a federal penitentiary. He has purposely been assigned a patient who is openly a white supremacist, played vividly by Bobby Darin. (Neither character is named in the film so I will refer to the roles by the names of the actors.) Read more »

The problem of stereotypes

by Emrys Westacott

ImagesThe word “stereotype” has decidedly negative connotations. Indeed, it is often used as shorthand for “negative stereotype,” “false stereotype,” or “prejudiced stereotype.” Some dictionaries even define it as an unfair or oversimplified generalization about a particular group of people. Yet stereotypes can be positive. Asians have been stereotyped as hardworking; Brits as unflappable in a crisis; and Toyotas as reliable. And stereotypes can also be neutral, as when we assume Brazilians as more interested in soccer than Alaskans, or presuppose that middle-aged white men from Tennessee will probably prefer country music to hip hop.

Stereotyping was originally a process used in printing. A “stereotype” was a metal plate made from a plaster-of-paris mould and used to print an entire page of text. Printing this way replaced printing from individual letters held together in lines, and made it much easier to reprint a successful book. Real stereotypes made of metal have, of course, been thrown into the dustbin of history by advances in technology. All we have now is the concept, a metaphorical extension of the term's original meaning. We use a stereotype in our thinking whenever we assume that qualities often associated with a certain class of people or things will be found in some particular instance that we encounter. And this is something we all do all the time. I select a cantaloupe at the grocery store by presuming that if it looks healthy on the outside it won't be rotten on the inside. I see a converted railway carriage with a red neon sign over the door that reads “Joe's Cafe”, and I assume this is a place where I can probably buy a BLT sandwich but will not find sweet potato gaufrettes with duck confit on the menu.

In any such instance, we could, of course be wrong. The cantaloupe may be rotten. Joe's Cafe may be a gourmet French restaurant sporting a humble exterior as a humorous, postmodern gesture. But we can't stop using stereotypes in our thinking. For one thing, it's a process that has been ingrained in us by evolution. Early humanoids who didn't stereotype sabretoothed tigers as dangerous got selected out. For another thing, it's just too useful. The fact that we are sometimes mistaken in our assumptions does not disprove this. To be useful, and reasonable, an inference only needs to be probable; it doesn't need to be certain.

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How not to accuse someone of prejudice

by Emrys Westacott

Ob_fdeef4_capture-d-ecran-2013-04-15-a-12-45-1A colleague recently responded to a memo I circulated by telling me they considered it unintentionally heterosexist. I didn't agree. After a brief exchange of e-mails that served only to sandpaper each other's sore spots, my colleague called my attention to the following passage in Allen Johnson's book Privilege, Power, and Difference:

If someone confronts you with your own behavior that supports privilege, step off the path of least resistance that encourages you to defend and deny. Don't tell them they're too sensitive or need a better sense of humor . . . Listen to what's being said. Take it seriously. Assume for the time being it's true, because given the power of paths of least resistance, it probably is.[1]

The passage is well-intended and, up to a point, reasonable. But it should also be read with caution, since I believe it can easily encourage fallacious thinking and thereby harm the very cause it hopes to advance—a cause with which I fully sympathize. Of course, the tenor of the passage is to encourage a self-critical attitude, and we're all in favor of that. But the same kind of reasoning could also be used to fend off the advice being given. After all, one can easily rewrite the passage to put the boot on the other foot:

If someone tells you you're being hypersensitive or unreasonable, step off the path of least resistance that encourages you to defend and deny. Don't tell them their behavior supports privilege. Listen to what's being said. Take it seriously. Assume for the time being it's true, because given the power of the paths of least resistance, it probably is.

As my colleague and I found, navigating these shoals in our everyday interactions, achieving the proper admixture of knowledge, understanding, self-awareness, sensitivity, and reason, can be difficult. Still, I believe that in our attempts to manage this, it is important that we recognize and respect basic logical parameters. If we fail to do this, we do our cause a disservice.

In discussions of sexism, racism, heterosexism, heteronormativism, and other forms of prejudice, I have sometimes encountered two particular forms of specious reasoning. I will label these the appeal to subjective response and the accusation of privilege. My purpose here is simply to explain what these are and what is wrong with them.

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