Stop Telling Jessica Williams What To Do

In a Daily Dot piece, I wrote about why people (looking at you especially, white feminists) need to stop telling Jessica Williams what to do and diagnosing her with things.

For many fans of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, disappointment at the news that Jon Stewart will soon be stepping down as host was overshadowed almost immediately by excitement at the idea that 25-year-old Jessica Williams, the show’s youngest-ever correspondent, might take over. A Change.org petition asking Comedy Central to hire her as hostquickly gathered over 14,000 signatures.

Williams responded graciously, thanking her fans for their support but letting them know that she will not be hosting the program:

At that point, everyone collectively said “Aw, too bad, can’t wait to see more of your work!” and left Williams alone. I’m joking, obviously. That’s not what happened, because if there’s anything we love to do in our society, it’s telling women—especially women of color—what to do. Bonus points if we demand that they perform for us the way we want them to. Instead, Ester Bloom wrote a piece for the Billfold in which she armchair-diagnosed Williams with “impostor syndrome,” what Bloom describes as “a well-documented phenomenon in which men look at their abilities vs the requirements of a job posting and round up, whereas women do the same and round down, calling themselves ‘unqualified.'” Bloom argued that Williams was displaying “clear symptoms” of the syndrome and that she should get to “the best Lean In group of all time.” Williams responded on Twitter:

To her credit, Bloom then apologized, adding to her post:

I wanted to state officially and for the record, as I have on Twitter, that I was wrong. I was offensive and presumptuous; I messed up, and I’m sorry. Williams should not have had to deal with this shit: my calling her a “victim” of anything, my acting like I know better and could diagnose her with anything, all of it.

So what happened here? How did Bloom go so self-admittedly wrong?

Read the rest here.

The Context of the Thing

[Content note: sexual harassment/assault, victim blaming, racism, police brutality, homophobia, fat shaming]

Many debates in the realm of social justice and politics are debates about context. In what context are certain things said, and can those things ever be divorced from that context? Should they ever be?

Take this Facebook post, made by a New York coffee shop I had heretofore found entirely satisfactory:

A Facebook post by The Bean, including a photo of a NYPD police car and a caption, "Thank you NYPD for protecting our great city."

Image description: a Facebook post by The Bean, including a photo of a NYPD police car and a caption, “Thank you NYPD for protecting our great city.”

 

What is so irritating about this post is the plausible deniability. Surely, a Manhattan coffee shop could just post this image apropos of nothing, perhaps in the holiday spirit, to express gratitude towards the city’s police force. It could just be a matter of city pride; certainly we all like it when there is as little crime as possible. And so on and so forth.

But why post this image now? Why would a coffee shop that has posted nothing but photos, comics, and articles about coffee, store news, six posts about local events, and one cutesy article about Mother’s Day for the entirety of the year 2014 suddenly give a shout-out to the city police department?

I think I know why. But, of course, I can only speculate.

So it is with a lot of other statements that rankle, hurt, or even trigger. “What were you wearing?” Oh, sure, you could just be curious. After all, maybe it was my outfit and not my perceived gender that drew my harasser’s attention that night. Of course, you are very worried about me and just want to make sure that I’m being “smart.” You’re not thinking about the fact that that’s often the first question authorities ask us, and that fashion advice is the only kind of prevention they seem to be able to offer us. You’re not thinking about what happens to women whose outfits were deemed insufficiently preventative. Who helps those women? “Oh, I’m not saying it’s your fault,” you say. “I think anyone who does such a thing is wrong and bad and if it were up to me I would bring them to justice.” Would you? Okay, I’ll grant you that. But historically, that’s not what’s happened, is it?

“What about black-on-black crime?” Certainly it is a tragedy that so many young Black people die at each other’s hands, presumably because of gangs or drugs or one of those other scary things, and really, if a given group wants to stop dying, maybe they should stop killing each other. Never mind that the same ignorance that causes people to ask this question is the ignorance that keeps them from seeing everything that’s already being done, by Black people, to address this issue. Never mind that most white murder victims are killed by other white people, too, because people tend to be killed by those who are near to them and/or have some sort of relationship with them, and our neighborhoods and relationships are still very segregated. Never mind that “black-on-black crime” is a derailment from what is in my opinion a much more preventable issue–the fact that police around the country are killing Black people with virtually no consequences.

Yes, violent crime happens, especially in disadvantaged areas, and that is awful. But that the people tasked with “protecting” us, according to my local coffee shop, are murdering people, especially in a systematically racist way, deserves immediate attention and resolution, because a police officer who murders innocent people is an even greater threat to our society than an ordinary citizen who murders innocent people. Why? That should be obvious: cops have power, weapons, skills, and immunity that ordinary citizens do not. Law enforcement officials can do things like plant meth in the car of a woman who accused them of sexual harassment and then have her arrested on this country’s ridiculous drug laws.

“I don’t see anything wrong with gay people, I just don’t see why they have to be in my face about it.” No, you’re right. Perhaps you are a person who believes that sex, love, and relationships should be an entirely private matter. Maybe you’re uncomfortable when your coworker tells everyone about the vacation she’s planning for her and her husband’s anniversary. Maybe it turns your stomach to see free condoms handed out on your campus. Maybe you change the channel every time a guy and a girl kiss in a TV show and you don’t feel that it’s appropriate for children to see a man and a woman holding hands in public. But you don’t mention that because…maybe people would ridicule you for it, whereas publicly stating that gay couples gross you out is still socially acceptable. I don’t know.

Or maybe you have double standards for queer people versus straight people, and you believe that the things straight people get to do–hold hands and kiss in public, chat at work about their anniversary plans, see relationships like theirs on television, access the healthcare that they need–are not things that queer people get to do. Sometimes queer people are loud and in-your-face about being queer because they are fighting against the idea that they should have to be silent when straight people don’t have to be. Your casual remarks about “I just wish they’d keep it to themselves” are telling us to get back in the closet so you don’t have to be uncomfortable.

“Of course it’s wrong to hate people just because they’re fat, but they really need to lose some weight or else they’ll be unhealthy.” You may think that what you’re saying here is commendable. After all, you must really care about this person and have great concern for their wellbeing. Maybe you even have some helpful weight loss advice that totally worked for you. Really, they should be grateful that you’re trying to help them.

Okay, but the idea that “they really need to lose some weight or else they’ll be unhealthy” is the idea that causes people to hate them in the first place. If weight is perfectly correlated to health, and if losing weight is a possibility for everyone, then only those who do not care about their health would allow themselves to be fat, and only an irresponsible person who lacks self-control would refuse to care about their health. Such a person would not make a suitable employee, doctoral student, or partner, for instance. Such a person would be a bad influence for your children. And the idea that fatness is responsible for poor health 100% of the time keeps fat people from getting the medical care they need, because doctors assume that the problem must be their weight.

Plausible deniability is how all of these statements function. We are expected to take them entirely out of context, as isolated thoughts or ideas or feelings or beliefs that have nothing to do with what came before or what will come after, and nothing to do with the horrors that have been committed in their name. You asking me what I was wearing has nothing to do with the systematic refusal to believe and help people who have been harassed and assaulted. You innocently wondering about black-on-black crime has nothing to do with centuries of white-on-black crime, and with the casual dismissal of this crime, and with the fact that it has historically not been defined as a crime at all. You wishing that queer people wouldn’t shove their sexuality in your face has nothing to do with our erasure, metaphoric and sometimes literal. You patronizingly advising bigger people to get smaller has nothing to do with their mistreatment in all sorts of social contexts, including medical ones. Nothing at all!

But that’s not how communication works. If a celebrity becomes the center of a huge controversy and I post about my love for their films or music, that can and should be taken as a statement of support for that celebrity. If a business comes under fire for its practices or policies and I post about how I’m going to proudly patronize that business today, that can and should be taken as a statement of support for that business. (In fact, I once ended a friendship with someone who did this on the day the Chick-Fil-A homophobia thing went viral, and I do not regret it.) There is of course a chance that I had simply not heard of the controversy, but in that case, I should reconsider my support for this person or business once a friend helpfully comments and lets me know about what’s going on. And in most cases people do not do this.

So if you post about your gratitude to the NYPD right after one of its officers has once again gone unpunished for the cruel killing of a Black man, and as protests march right down the block where your coffee shop stands, that has a context, too.

I suppose it can feel like this is all a huge burden. Why shouldn’t you be able to just say what you think and feel without being held responsible for decades or centuries of terrible things done in the service of the beliefs that you are expressing? It’s true that what happened is not your responsibility, and every terrible thing done by people who believe the same things you believe is not your fault.

But that is why what you say hurts people, and that is why they warn you where your beliefs may logically lead. If what women wear has any relevance to their sexual violation, if black-on-black crime is more important and urgent than white-on-black racism, if queer people being open about themselves and their loves is so unpleasant for you, if fat people should lose weight before they are taken seriously–then that has implications for how we treat people and issues. If you take the time to listen to the voices of those most affected by these issues, you might see that these implications are just as horrifying to you as they are to us.

Why “Hipster Sexism” Fails

[Content note: sexual harassment & domestic violence]

My new post at the Daily Dot is about “hipster sexism/racism” in fashion.

It doesn’t surprise me at all when CEOs of major clothing retailers or famous celebrity photographers turn out to be harassing, intimidating, assaulting, or abusing women, because the same thing happens everywhere else: politicstech companies, sports, evenscience journalism. It happens everywhere a few select people are given excessive power and social capital, and those people are usually (but not always) men.

What the fashion industry does have, however, is a trend of “hipster sexism,” which can be defined roughly as people who hold nominally liberal views on things “pretending” to be sexist “ironically,” because sexism is totally over and so now it’s funny. The New Republic‘s Eleanor Margolis writes of Charney and Richardson:

The two men are emblematic of a hipster veneer that’s so often used to cover up the mistreatment of women… With their 1970s porn star aesthetic seems to come this notion that they’re only subjugating women ironically: we’ll carry on buying clothes from people who look like the result of Ron Jeremy humping a copy of Vice. Misogyny is OK, as long as it pastiches a bygone era of kitsch female subjugation; as long as it’s retro. These bizarre double standards are only serving to blur the lines…between sexism and chicness.

Margolis doesn’t note the fact that the hipster sexism in fashion also has a racist corollary, which Racialicious Thea Kim discusses at length. If you’ve stepped inside an Urban Outfitters or attended a music festival lately, you’re probably familiar with the trappings of hipster racism—that unmistakable “look at me I’m so over racism” chic that affluent young white folks are presumably going for when they wear blackface to a Halloween party or don a Native headdress to a concert.

Why do “ironic”/”hipster” sexism and racism hold such appeal for slightly left-leaning, “fashionable” young people? There’s an optimistic possibility and a cynical one. The optimistic one is that it allows people to perpetuate the comforting idea that inequality is now so passe that pretending at it is hilariously ludicrous. The cynical one is that it allows people to safely express the actual sexist and racist beliefs that they still hold while maintaining plausible deniability: ”No, you don’t understand, I was wearing that blackface ironically!”

Regardless, sexism and racism aren’t over; it’s only some of their most visible and iconic components that have mostly disappeared from our society. When a dude jokes “ironically” about hitting women, he might think that nowadays domestic violence is Very Rare and taken Very Seriously and the police will immediately come and arrest the offending man (perhaps even on a false accusation, which are now “common”). I, on the other hand, might think that many of my female friends are survivors of domestic violence, psychological abuse, or sexual assault, and few of them were taken very seriously at all when they tried to do something about it. So I won’t see anything “ironically” sexist about the joke. To me, it’ll just be plain ol’ boring sexism.

Much of hipster bigotry rests on the assumption that the person wearing the shirt or making the joke is a Really Good Person who would never actually believe such horrible things, so isn’t it hilarious that they’d pretend they do, ha-ha? But making this assumption requires knowing the person quite well, and given how pervasive sexism and racism still are, assuming that a random dude (or a random CEO of a fashion company, per se) is Totally Not Sexist Or Racist isn’t really a reasonable assumption to make.

Read the rest here.

If Public Breastfeeding Offends You, Don’t Look

My newest post at the Daily Dot is about public breastfeeding and the controversy surrounding Karlesha Thurman.

Like pretty much everything surrounding mothers and childrearing, breastfeeding is a politically charged topic. In some ways, mothers are encouraged, even demanded, to breastfeed their babies because of the potential health benefits that breastfeeding provides.

In New York City, a municipal program called Latch On NYC required hospitals to stop giving out formula to new mothers unless specifically requested, in which case a nurse has to record a medical justification for providing the formula. Mothers who are unable or unwilling to breastfeed for whatever reason face stigma—what sort of mom wouldn’t want to do absolutely everything she can to ensure her baby’s health? So the reasoning goes.

At the same time, women are also shamed for breastfeeding in public, even though it’s legal throughout the United States. Public breastfeeding, we are told, is “indecent” and “disgusting,” and mothers should “think of the children” before “whipping it out” in public. (Presumably, they should think about children besides their own, who are hungry and need to be fed.)

Instead, they should find a private place such as a restroom (unhygienic, and most don’t have comfortable seating for a mother to breastfeed), bring formula (not as good for the baby as breast milk), or pump their milk beforehand (and carry it around in a cooler in the summer heat, presumably). Breast pumps and formula aren’t even affordable for all women, and some babies refuse to drink formula.

All this has recently come up in online discussion once again after Karlesha Thurman, a mother and recent college graduate, posted a photo of herself breastfeeding at her graduation from California State University Long Beach. The photo went viral and spawned all of the usual blowback, except this time with an extra side of “She’s ruining the sanctity of the college graduation ceremony!” and probably a generous helping of racism. (Thurman is Black, andseveral commentators pointed out that the harsh response she is now facing ties into a long history of analyzing, judging, and regulating Black women’s bodies and what they do with them.)

Thurman originally posted the photo to the Facebook page of a group called Black Women Do Breastfeed, which aims to encourage and support Black mothers who are breastfeeding and who feel that their experiences are not well-represented in narratives of motherhood.

Thurman has since removed the photo from the group, explaining in interviews that the reactions she received personally, including from the other graduates, had all been supportive, but that people elsewhere online were being “very harsh.” She added, “I did it to show it’s natural, it’s normal, there’s nothing wrong with it. I didn’t even know there was a big controversy about breast-feeding in public until all of this happened.”

Read the rest here.

Disagreeing Without Delegitimizing: On That Racist Colbert Tweet and Reactions Thereto

[Content note: racist language, sexual harassment]

It has all the makings of a social media firestorm: at some point last week, Stephen Colbert made a joke on his show in which he implicitly criticized Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder for refusing to change the team’s racist name. The @ColbertReport Twitter account tweeted part of the joke out-of-context. Now-deleted, the tweet read, “I’m willing to show the #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”

Screenshot via Suey Park

Screenshot via Suey Park

Folks thought Colbert had tweeted it and didn’t realize that it was part of a larger satirical bit that was actually criticizing racism against Native Americans, because nothing in the way the tweet was made suggested that it was a quote from the show. And even knowing the context, many would argue (and have argued) that that context doesn’t excuse racist language against another group, and that said language is still harmful.

Some Twitter users, including Suey Park, criticized the tweet using the hashtag #CancelColbert. Although the hashtag’s mostly a useless mess now, Suey’s Twitter account is currently a great collection of her thoughts and retweets of others’ opinions about the situation. For the record, I don’t personally think Colbert Report should be canceled over this, but that doesn’t mean I can’t agree with the criticisms being made. And also, I’m not even sure that everyone tweeting in support of the hashtag also literally wants the show canceled; it’s an alliterative and snappy hashtag that gets attention, and in a medium like Twitter, sometimes that’s what you need. But maybe they do. I respect that view despite disagreeing with it, and it’s unfortunate that in many settings this has become a conversation about whether or not they should cancel the show, and not about what’s wrong with this whole situation.

So naturally, there was a swift counter-response, including many of Colbert’s liberal fans, who claimed that the critics were “too sensitive” and “don’t get satire” (because there’s no way someone could possibly disagree with you unless they just “don’t get” the topic at hand). There was smug condescension about stupid Twitter social justice warriors who “took the tweet out of context” and “didn’t bother researching the actual facts.” There was, in other words, all the usual smarm and dog doodoo.

First of all, to understand what happened, let’s go back to an amazing recent article by author Kameron Hurley called “Rage Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum, or: Understanding the Complex Continuum of Internet Butt-Hurt.” There’s a long parable here, but bear with it, because it’s instructive.

I once stood at a bus stop in Durban while two young, drunk men murmured sexually explicit threats and promises to a young woman standing next to me. It was just the four of us – the woman being threatened, me, and the two perpetrators.

South Africa is not the world’s safest place, though with how often folks pull out guns to solve disagreements in the US – legally! – now, I’d argue it’s not so safe here, either. In any event, I kept my mouth shut. After all, they weren’t threatening her with an actual weapon. They were just talking about all the sexual things they wanted to do to her.

It didn’t concern me.

I didn’t want to get knifed, or attacked, or threatened in kind. Who wants that?

But after a few minutes, when they didn’t seem to tire of their threats, but instead kept at it, I finally lost my shit.

It was a fantastic losing-of-the-shit, because I’d spent the last six months hurrying back to my flat before dark, being told by every well-meaning person I knew that there were evil men waiting to rape, mutilate and murder me – maybe not even in that order! – even in broad daylight. I had one guy in a car slow down once on a sunny Sunday afternoon on the hill just outside the university where I was walking alone, who told me I best not walk alone, and best get inside, because people were likely to jump out of the woods and haul me off to the terrible fate all young white girls traveling abroad are assumed to inhabit, eventually.

I’d spent some time getting cat-called, yelled at, and solicited, though most folks in Durban were in fact quite lovely. In truth, I was to receive far more direct threats and harassment as a young woman living in Chicago than I did in Durban.

But that’s a post for another time.

To an outsider seeing my screaming meltdown at these two men, in which I raved and shouted and told them how they were utter assholes for harassing us, and they should fuck off, and who the fuck did they think they were, this might have seemed like the raving of some unhinged person. After all, from afar, all you see is two guys at a bus stop talking to a woman who seems deeply uncomfortable. But my rage, my “sudden” outburst was actually the result of the venting of six full months of increasing dread and terror inflicted on me not even so much by actual bad people, but people ostensibly concerned for my safety, whose admonitions that I “stay inside” and watch my back, and be careful, and who would then go on to talk about who’d been raped, shot, stabbed or mugged that week, had really started to get to me. It was a rage at the entire situation, at being expected to shut the fuck up and go inside all the time because I was a young woman. It was rage at the idea that the threat of violence so clearly worked to keep people in line.

After I raged for a few minutes, the guys milled about for a bit, confused, and finally wandered off. When they did, the young woman next to me breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Thank you so much. I was afraid to say something, because I was afraid they’d knife me or something.”

When the internet loses its shit over what, to many, looks like a single, insignificant incident unrelated to anything else, it’s easy to say they’re fucking nuts. They’re raging over some perceived slight that’s been blown waaaaay out of proportion. That, in truth, is the easier narrative.

[…] Internet rage is almost never a one-off. It happens in a continuum. It’s seen as one more event in a long line of connected events.

Colbert is funny. I like him. But he has a history of using humor in bigoted ways. I don’t have room here to discuss them all at length, but here’s an example. And no, it doesn’t matter if it’s “ironic.” People’s anger and hurt over the tweet has to be viewed in context, and that context is 1) lifetimes of racist abuse and 2) lots of racism from Colbert and his writers in particular.

It is extremely ironic that Colbert’s defenders demand that the tweet be viewed “in context” while refusing to view anger over the tweet in context.

As it turned out, Colbert didn’t write the tweet and neither did anybody on his staff. The Twitter account is run by Comedy Central and Colbert does not know who made the tweet. However, you would be forgiven for believing that a verified Twitter account named after a TV show is run by someone involved with that actual TV show, and I don’t understand why people are treating those who thought this was Colbert’s tweet as though they just believed one of those emails from a Nigerian prince offering you $10,000,000. Comedy Central should not be running an account that’s dedicated to a particular one of their shows, and they especially shouldn’t be tweeting jokes out of context that look really really bad when presented out of context. That’s basic fucking PR. And as for Twitter’s role in this, the entire point of verified accounts is that they’re supposed to be run by the person or group named in them. (Of course, that person might have staff tweeting for them, but at least it’s someone employed by the celebrity.) I don’t know how or why Twitter verified an account called “Colbert Report” that is not run by anyone associated with the Colbert Report, but that’s on them, not on Twitter users.

But anyway, I don’t actually want to argue about whether or not the tweet was racist or offensive or in bad taste or whatever. The meat of my point is this:

  • If you defend Colbert’s attempt to attack racism by condescendingly sneering that his detractors just “don’t get” satire, calling them “idiots,” and generally acting like there is no conceivable reason anybody in their right mind could’ve disliked this tweet, you are part of the problem and I don’t think you care about racism as much as you claim to care about racism. I think you care about Stephen Colbert.
  • Relatedly, if you accuse people of “derailing” the conversation about the Washington Redskins to discuss what they perceive as Colbert’s anti-Asian racism, something tells me you’re not actually that concerned about racism. Because you can be racist against one group while trying to fight racism against another, or you can just try to be anti-racist and do something perceived by some as racist. You can also care both about the racism of the Redskins’ name and the racism of Colbert’s joke. You can care equally about these two things. Shit gets complicated.
  • It’s insulting and inaccurate to assume that anyone who feels differently than you do about an issue just “doesn’t understand” it. Perhaps they simply have a different understanding. As Crommunist tweeted, “It is emphatically the case that PoC have more familiarity with satire than white people do with racism.”
  • You can disagree that the tweet was hurtful without disagreeing that people have a good reason to be hurt by it. Actually, I fall into that category. I don’t think it’s hurtful. But, I’m not Asian or Asian American. So of course I’m not hurt. If you are white, it’s not your place to say that the tweet is categorically Not Hurtful.
  • The existence of people of color (and, in fact, of Asians or Asian Americans) who have no problem with the tweet does not invalidate the claims of those people who do have a problem with the tweet. Analogously, the fact that some women don’t “mind” catcalling doesn’t invalidate those of us who do mind it.
  • Blaming people for not realizing the tweet had a context to it is asinine. There were no quotation marks around the quote. Many comedians use Twitter to write one-liners that have no context. Even if someone suspects that it came from the show, nobody has the time to watch every single recent Colbert episode to try to find the bit. Even if you know the context, you may still find the racial language hurtful and jarring, and you may still think the entire original joke was pointless and fell flat.
  • You can lecture people about not getting upset about “out-of-context tweets,” or you can lecture comedians and others about using Twitter effectively. Which group you choose to lecture says something about your priorities.

These are risks you take with humor, especially satire. I’m tired of seeing people blame those who don’t find a particular joke funny for “not getting satire” or “not being able to take a joke” or “being too sensitive.” Look, some people will laugh at a joke and others won’t. Some will think the joke’s great and others will find that it hits way too close to home. Some people like to consume their comedy with nothing but laughs, and others like to point out how humor can be used to promote faulty and harmful thinking.

And it’s quite possible to love and understand satire but still feel that a particular joke goes too far. Many people felt this way about The Onion‘s tweet calling 9-year-old Black actor Quvenzhané Wallis a cunt, many people who were otherwise huge fans of the satire site. In fact, The Onion, which presumably is a fan of itself and also “gets” satire, eventually agreed with them and published a heartfelt apology that would serve as a great model to Stephen Colbert or whoever the hell wrote that tweet.

You can disagree that the joke was hurtful or bad or unfunny without being an asshole to the people who think it was hurtful or bad or unfunny.

Just like I can say, “I love New York but I can see why you don’t like it.” Or “I like Colbert’s style of humor but it’s not everyone’s thing.”

Or, you know, I haven’t spent my entire life dealing with the effects of structural racism, whereas you have, so our perspectives are going to be different.

~~~

Out of respect to the important issue originally raised by Colbert, I’ll close with some links to more about the Redskins controversy and why the team should be renamed. I also welcome a discussion about this in the comments even though it wasn’t the focus of this piece.

Against Role Models

Whenever a famous person does something of which the general public disapproves, much is often made of that person’s status as a “role model” and how it influences the public’s judgment of their behavior, and whether or not it is time to revoke that status.

It seems that celebrities cannot escape being seen as “role models” no matter what made them famous. We expect an athlete or a singer or an actor to be good at not just sports or singing or acting, but at upstanding, ethical behavior, too. The assumption is that children should look up to these figures not just because they represent talent and achievement that (supposedly) comes from lots of hard work and sacrifice, but because their behavior in the rest of their lives is something to emulate, too.

This makes sense to an extent. We know that children learn by modeling the behavior of adults, and we want them to have adults whose behavior they can model. While a parent is normally the one expected to serve that function, most parents hope for their children to achieve more than they (the parents) have been able to in their own lives. Choosing and fixating upon a random successful but unknown doctor or lawyer or scientist or writer seems odd, but famous people already serve the role of entertaining the public simply by existing. So, perhaps some parents hope that celebrities can be good role models for their children and inspire them to both professional and personal success.

In fact, there is absolutely no reason why someone’s success at sports or music should be taken to mean that that person’s treatment of others is just as admirable. There’s no reason why being a great actor means you keep your promises to your partners and respect the law. There’s no reason why being in a famous band means you are very careful about your health and avoid dangerous drugs. Expecting celebrities to be able to model these types of “good behavior” makes no sense.

And even when we try to see someone as a role model in a specific domain only, it never seems to quite work. We fall victim to black-and-white thinking–people are either “good” or “bad,” and if a talented, successful athlete cheats on his wife, he goes from “good” to “bad” very quickly. Even though many people cheat, and even though occasional bad behavior doesn’t necessarily mean someone is a “bad person.”

The expectation of being a role model places undue pressures on celebrities, especially women. Tracy Moore writes:

Critiquing famous (or any) women’s behavior in terms of whether what they do is good for the girls or not is a sticky trap. It prevents them from being complicated, actual people working themselves out — you know, individuals? The thing we want women to be seen as? It keeps us in an endless loop of chasing after this One Correct Way for Women to Conduct Themselves. It’s exhausting, and I refuse to buy into it, and I don’t want to help christen it.

I also think it insults girls, who are more individual, and already far more developed as people than we give them credit for by treating them like blank slates who will copy and absorb every thing they ever see on command. That may be true for fashion, and I’m not disputing that teens copy famous people’s behavior too (and yes I’m staring down a princess phase with a toddler), but that doesn’t mean they instantly absorb the values and ideology of everyone they admire.

What I want is for women to be seen as human, which means, flawed, misguided, shitty, awesome, talented, cool, all of the above. In order to be treated like equal people, we have to have the latitude to have the same range of profound greatness and disturbing awfulness as men. We have to be ordinary, boring, fascinating, idiotic and brilliant.

Moore notes that female celebrities seem to bear a greater burden for Making Sure Our Children Turn Out Okay than male ones do, and male celebrities do seem to have an easier time recovering from Scandals with their popularity mostly intact (see: Bill Clinton, Charlie Sheen, Chris Brown, R. Kelly).

And what about non-celebrities? What happens when they’re expected to be role models?

I don’t know how this plays out in other professions or contexts, but within social work and mental healthcare, there is an immense amount of pressure put on professionals to be role models. We’ve talked about this in my social work classes.

People look to social workers and mental health professionals for more than just “help me fix my brain bugs.” They also look to them as examples of how to live well, and they often expect them to be wearing the same professional “face” even if they encounter them randomly outside of the office.

Our professors ask us what we would do if we encountered a client, say, at a bar or on public transit or even at a party. How would we manage their expectations of us with our desire to behave as we usually would at a bar or on the subway or at a party? Would it harm our relationships with our clients if they saw us acting like, well, normal people?

It’s true that if our clients think that we’re always the way we are in a session–calm, empathic, curious, mature, “wise”–it might disturb them to see us drinking at a bar or kissing a significant other in public or dancing at a party. They might wonder if we’re “faking” when we’re in a session with them. They might wonder who we “really” are.

For some professionals, this seems to be enough of a reason to significantly alter their behavior if they see a client out in public, or leave a bar or party where a client happens to be. They might even consider whether or not doing things like going to bars and parties after hours is even compatible with who they are as professionals.

When we discussed this in class, I was glad that most of my classmates reacted with minor indignation. Why should we be expected to be professional 24/7? Why does everyone else get to take off their work persona when they leave the office, but we don’t? Why is it our fault if our clients judge us as immature or irresponsible just because we go to bars on the weekends?

I think there are two reasons why expecting therapists to act like therapists 24/7 is harmful. One is that, on the individual level, it’s stressful and takes a toll on one’s mental health and freedom to live life the way they want to. Deciding to be a therapist should not be a life sentence to never behave like a normal person outside of work again. That’s too much of a burden for someone whose work is already very stressful and difficult.

Second, part of our role as mental health professionals is encouraging clients to think rationally, accurately, and adaptively about other people and their relationships with them. “This person is drinking at a bar therefore they are immature and I can’t trust them as my therapist” is not a rational, accurate, or adaptive thought. (Well, it could be accurate, but you’d need more evidence to come to that conclusion.) Neither is, “This person is behaving differently after hours than they are at work, and therefore the way they behave at work is totally fake and they’re just lying to me.”

But speaking as someone who’s been on both sides of that relationship, I have to say that we are really, really patronizing our clients if we think that they are incapable of realizing that we have selves outside of the office. We are treating them like children if we presume that they need to be carefully prevented from seeing any part of our non-therapist persona, including kissing a partner in public or getting tipsy at a bar.

But it’s possible that some clients might be confused or bothered by seeing a therapist acting non-therapisty out in public. I think that the best course of action then is to discuss that in therapy, not laboriously alter one’s public behavior so that such an issue never comes up to begin with.

Because our classes are mostly discussion-based and there’s little in the social work code of ethics about situations like this (dual relationships, though, are a different matter), my professor never gave a definitive answer on whether or not we should endeavor to be role models to our clients no matter where we encounter them. His intent, I think, was mostly to spark discussion and let us know that this is something to consider.

The examples of celebrities and mental health professionals are two very different examples, but my conclusion is largely the same for each: being expected to be a “role model” in every context, at work and outside of it, in one’s chosen domain (be it sports or entertaining or counseling) and in every other domain in which it’s possible to judge a person’s behavior, is too much.

A final reason holding people up as “role models” is harmful: the criteria by which we judge them are largely based on social norms, which can be a very poor barometer for determining how ethical an action is. That’s why, when Miley Cyrus was vilified for her performance at the VMAs and reprimanded by many commentators for not being a good enough “role model,” the focus of most of the criticism was not the racism inherent in her performance, but the fact that she dressed revealingly and shook her ass. And she shook it…at a married man! How dare she. The married man, by the way, made a clear show of enjoying it, and he’s the one who’s married. And the one who sings a song about “blurred lines.”

It’s also why, when Kristen Stewart cheated on Robert Pattinson (to whom she was not married) with Rupert Sanders (who is married), it was Stewart on whom the majority of the public opprobrium fell, and who was finally compelled to publicly apologize. (A hopefully unnecessary disclaimer: I think breaking a promise to a partner is wrong, but I also wish people didn’t make promises they couldn’t keep in the first place, and I don’t think cheating is the worst thing a person could do and I don’t think a person who cheats owes an apology to anyone but the person they cheated on.)

And women of color in particular are held to impossibly high standards as “role models,” as public reactions to Beyonce and Rihanna attest.

Sometimes the intersections between the expectation of role model behavior and various types of prejudice affect people’s livelihoods in really crappy ways. To return to the example of therapists, I’ve been reading this blog by a woman who is studying to be a therapist and also works as a stripper. The faculty of her program are pressuring her to either quit sex work or leave the program, because doing both is necessarily an ethical violation. They also told her that being a stripper “contributes to further injustice in the world,”  and is therefore incompatible with her other role as a therapist.

That’s a slightly different type of role model that she’s being expected to perform, but that demand that therapists be perfect in every aspect of their lives is still there. The role of therapist is supposed to take precedence over everything else she may want to do in her life, including making enough money to get by and finish her education. And in this case, these expectations are intersecting with stigma and prejudice against sex workers.

So, whether you’re a celebrity or just a regular person trying to make the world better, it’s rarely a neutral expectation that one be a “role model.” Like all social expectations do, it comes along with lots of baggage. And it’s incredible how often, for women, being a “role model” means having no sexuality.

Children may need adults to look up to and clients may need therapists to learn from, but that’s not a good enough reason, in my opinion, to expect or demand perfection from people.

I think a more realistic view is that almost everyone can teach us something, and almost everyone has done things we probably shouldn’t emulate*.

~~~

*And to be clear, wearing revealing clothing and/or being a sex worker are not the sorts of things I’m particularly desperate to discourage.

[guest post] Japan’s Not Doing Sex! An Intersection of Racism and Sexism

Here’s a guest post from my friend Mike about the recent news stories on Japanese sexuality.

I remember as a kid laughing at the clownish stereotypes of characters like Long Duk Dong in “Sixteen Candles” and Toshiro Takashi in “Revenge of the Nerds”. What I didn’t realize at the time was how I, as a Korean-American boy, was internalizing a host of images desexualizing men of East Asian descent. Add to that, the hypersexualized imagery of Kim in “Miss Saigon” and Ling Woo in “Ally McBeal”, it came as no surprise to me last week when a story about “Why have young people in Japan stopped having sex?” became such a viral hit on the Internet and mainstream media. Shall we say, I had even expected it at least over a year ago.

Everyone from the Guardian to Bill Maher had their say about those nerdy Japanese men and apparently dissatisfied women. After the story spread for quite some time, there came the derisive counters to this obviously poorly conceived and factually dubious headline. Since the story was predicated on the declining birth rate in Japan (a reasonable story to look into) the critics of sensationalist media noted how quick those propagating this shoddy journalism were to jump to conclusions. Mostly lost in the backlash to this story was how much of what was happening fit not only a narrative of cultural insensitivity and racial stereotyping, but how that stereotyping fit a long historical narrative of desexualizing Asian men and hypersexualizing Asian women for the benefit of the white heterosexist image of power.

Where does this narrative come from?

Throughout Western contact with Asian cultures, there has been this need to assume the sexual proclivities of the inhabitants of these “mysterious” lands, establishing a moral superiority. For Asian men, it was the dichotomy of dangerous predator and effeminate asexual, and for Asian women, the Dragon Lady and the Lotus Flower.

In the 19th century, Chinese immigration became something to fear and despise to the mostly white settlers in the West of the United States. The addition of such cheap labor brought out the very worst of the insecurities in Americans, especially when faced with the emerging hype surrounding opium use. Diana L. Ahmad’s article “Opium Smoking, Anti-Chinese Attitudes, and the American Medical Community, 1850-1890” describes the belief that opium produced the “feminine” characteristics of “introspection, indifference, defeatism, and silence.” Yet, despite coupling opium use with the grotesque patriarchal notions of femininity, the moral panic around the drug and the scarcity of Chinese women in the early immigrant waves contributed to the ultimate of fears: interracial coupling! This ties in very nicely with Victorian religiously motivated sexual policing and temperance. Ahmad continues:

It was difficult enough for the elite classes to consider the idea of women having extra-marital relations or experiment with sex with Anglo-American men; however, Anglo-American women having intimate relations with unknown Chinese laborers and members of the underworld might have been considered unthinkable.

Despite this being specific to certain members of the Chinese diaspora, keep in mind that we live in a society where I’m routinely asked if I’m Chinese, Japanese or Korean (that last one only seems to have appeared on the list after the ’90s). In the U.S., Asian as an ethnicity basically includes a hugely diverse grouping from the Indian subcontinent to the Pacific islands. While lumping all of us together has its uses, it also means dealing with grossly pernicious generalizations.

As time marched on, Hollywood films depicted the outlandishly dressed, inscrutable male villains (usually white actors in yellow face) and the either deceitful social climbers or virginal damsels in the distress to the mostly white audiences in the cinema. Television shows, comic books, and now the news media seem intent on preserving at least some of these shameful notions even to this day. For every Glenn from “The Walking Dead” or Sun from “Lost”, both characters that address and escape from some of these sexist and racist tropes, there are a ton more of a Raj Koothrapali, a character who LITERALLY couldn’t speak around women for six seasons unless drinking and consistently made the butt of gay jokes, on “The Big Bang Theory”, or a Veronica, an Asian girlfriend cajoled into wearing a schoolgirl outfit to “impress” an Asian businessman, on “Dads”.

What is the harm?

In terms of sexuality, there’s a term that covers the problem for both Asian men and women: “yellow fever”, or Asian fetish. The colloquialism is exclusionary to some South Asian, Central Asian and Pacific Islander ethnicities, but it’s an unfortunately popular bit of shorthand (a complicated issue when dealing with such a sweeping term as “Asian”). The concept regards non-Asian men fetishizing Asian women, and why this subject is so problematic has to do with the aforementioned history of racial stereotyping. While I certainly take no issue with aesthetic sexual preferences, this form of fetish takes on a dimension of sexism and racism that certainly sets off alarm bells, as Audrey Zao of Xojane states:

The definition of sexual fetishes tend to relate to situations or objects causing a person arousal. When an entire race of women have become fetishes, it’s an extreme case of objectification.

Basically, a good example of this is that horrific, so-called music video “Asian Girlz”. This form of white privilege also assumes, automatically, that Asian men aren’t in the picture at all when it comes to heterosexual partnering. It’s not a leap to suggest that the litany of stereotyping in media informs this type of objectification, as the fetish in turn reinforces the media’s desire to sensationalize it, making an interesting story about the political, economic and social realities of a declining birthrate into a ridiculing and lurid story about asexual “otaku” and women uninterested in their only partnering option (implying a lack of alternatives such as same-sex relationships or, I guess, no white guys being around).

Additionally, such stereotyping prevents people from actually addressing the damaging nature of patriarchy in both the West and the East. The story of Asian sexual activity is reduced to heteronormative relationships within the gender binary and based within the narrow definitions of monogamy and procreation (not enough babies!), while simultaneously ignoring the economic and social realities such relationships face in a country like Japan.

It demonizes asexuality itself by equating it to being abnormal and a symptom of prolonged pre-adolescence (see: Otaku).

It demonizes other women, particularly white women, for having the gall to take advantage of feminist advances, well described by Jonathan Guarana of Thought Catalog:

The impact of the crumbling hyper-masculine identity from a white man’s perspective is disheartening. Therefore, where can he turn to regain this hegemonic masculine identity of power, control, and dominance? First, by hating white women and then specifically transitioning to ethnic groups where women are seen to still be submissive, passive, and obedient to men: Asian women.

It internalizes racism in its victims to such an extent that some Asian women parrot the same damaging messages that promote bigotry, and some Asian men begin to believe the rhetoric within themselves. Worse than that, some Asian men become resentful, resorting to using this as an excuse to indulge in their own misogyny and racism.

It excuses the patriarchal norms in many Asian societies with the implicit support from some white men in their preference for “submissive” women, and when the privileged white West is called to the carpet about its own issues with misogyny, it’s all too easy for apologists to turn around and use Asian cultures as a comparative prop to deflect from their own pervasively misogynistic cultures as Jenny Lee at Hyphen Magazine writes regarding her own experience with a rape apologist’s reading of the UN’s eye-opening report about sexual assault in Asian countries:

So it’s contemptible and oh-so-hypocritical when some Americans misuse news like the UN report in order to blame “Other” men — lately, Asian men — to feel better about themselves while willfully refusing to take a long, hard look at our own backyard

And finally, the tropes also negatively affect interracial partners who pursue caring, mutually respectful relationships. Christine Tam at Diaspora @chinaSmack reveals:

When I started feeling attracted to the man who is now my boyfriend, I hesitated for a long time before acting on my feelings. He was a wonderful man who respected me and made me laugh, but I had reservations about joining the interracial relationship cliché. Another white guy with an Asian girl, I thought. No!

When the culture is so heavily saturated with this form of sexual/racial politics, it may be confusing to assess how many of your choices are really your own. Guilt and outside pressure, such as being labeled as someone who has “white fever”, makes dealing with it on a personal level a terrific mess. Or for the less acutely self-aware, it can lead to lashing out against critics of the current paradigm.

It would do well for those who call themselves journalists to take a beat or two and ACTUALLY THINK about the story they intend on posting when it comes to drawing wild conclusions about different cultures, especially in the implications of what it means historically. It’s also important for those of us saturated in an institutionally racist society to be self-aware when consuming media, to combat as many of these damage-dealing tropes and stereotypes as possible. As much as it’s fun to entertain the notion, K-Pop likely won’t fix the problem on its own.

Mike Nam is a writer, and editor from New Jersey, a volunteer with CFI-New York, and the organizer of the Secular Asian Community on Facebook. His biggest professional thrill is still the time he received fan letters for a video game cheats newsletter he wrote a decade-and-a-half ago. While an unabashed nerd, he’s been known to indulge in sports and outdoor activities from time to time. He also occasionally blogs at humanstellstories.wordpress.com.


The opinions in this piece are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of the Center for Inquiry or the Secular Asian Community.

The Oberlin Hate Crimes Are Not “Just Trolling”

This past year, Oberlin College, generally known for being liberal and inclusive, had a series of bias incidents–or, more specifically, hate crimes. Notes with swastikas were left in mailboxes, flyers advertising minority groups were defaced, signs were put up with ethnic slurs on them, and several students were physically assaulted or chased by people making derogatory ethnic comments. It all culminated when someone was seen on campus wearing, I kid you not, a KKK costume.

Recently, it’s come to light that the two students who did it were supposedly quite liberal. One worked on the Obama campaign and was apparently involved with some local anti-racist group. Some conservatives have seized on this as evidence that the bias incidents were just “a hoax.” Angus Johnson writes:

The Daily Caller cites Bleier’s support for Obama and his membership in an anti-racism organization as evidence that the hate crimes were false-flag hoaxes, but the student allegedly told campus police that he was simply trolling — that he performed the acts as “a joke to see the college overreact to it as they have with the other racial postings that have been posted on campus.”

He concludes:

A sustained campaign of bigoted vandalism that has the intent and effect of provoking fear and panic among the members of your community may be a hoax, but it’s also something else.

It’s a bias crime.

Oberlin’s official response to the speculation about the perpetrators’ motives is excellent:

These actions were real. The fear and disruption they caused in our community were real. While Oberlin College takes great pride in its historic and ongoing commitment to diversity, inclusion, and respectful discussion of ideas, we draw the line at threats and harassment of any kind.

We will not tolerate acts of hatred and threats of violence regardless of motivation. We are proud of the way our community came together to respond to these incidents with education, discussion, and reflection. As Oberlin’s people have since our founding in 1833, we will continue striving to make the world better for all through education and discourse based on reason, facts, and respect.

At first, I was a little surprised that people think it matters whether or not the perpetrators were “joking” or “trolling.” The harm was done, right? But then I wasn’t surprised anymore, because I realized something.

These “trolls,” and everyone who complains about “political correctness,” are misunderstanding what we mean when we talk about hate speech. They think we’re trying to tell them that certain words are Just Bad, the way social conservatives think that premarital sex or masturbation are Just Bad. They think we’re operating from a framework of moral absolutism, in which anything that isn’t “politically correct” is Just Bad regardless of its consequences or the intentions behind it.

They think that we believe that shouting the n-word in a forest where nobody hears it as just as bad as shouting the n-word in the lobby of the Black Student Union.

What they’re missing is the fact that there are actual humans who feel hurt, excluded, marginalized, stereotyped, or even afraid for their safety when they encounter hate speech that targets them.

We had a bunch of racist incidents at my undergrad school while I was there. Nothing quite as serious as the Oberlin incidents, but enough to rile the campus up and provoke administrative response. I saw the toll that it took on my classmates who were targeted. I watched them go from feeling like a part of the campus community to feeling like nobody wanted them there. I watched as their peaceful, powerful demonstrations against campus racism were deemed “divisive,” while wearing blackface (yes, that happened) to a Halloween party was apparently not “divisive.”

Hate speech is ethically wrong because it hurts people needlessly and accomplishes no good, not because the words are Bad and you just shouldn’t use them.

Likewise, as funny as you might think it is when university administrations respond strongly to hate speech (and as ineffective as their methods might be, which is a worthwhile aspect to critique), they’re not doing it because they’re Holier Than Thou Liberals; they’re doing it because it’s their job to ensure that they have a campus where everyone feels safe and welcome, and where everyone can devote their attention to learning and enjoying themselves and not to scrubbing racist graffiti off their doors.

That’s why it doesn’t matter why the students who blanketed their campus with hate speech did it. It doesn’t matter whether or not they were trying to make some Brilliant Point About the Human Condition. It doesn’t matter that they seem to have contributed to progressive causes in the past, or that they were trying to make fun of the administration rather than harass their fellow students.

It doesn’t matter, because you don’t know why someone wrote “No N*****s” on your bathroom door. It doesn’t matter, because no matter what the intent was, you and your identity have been used without your consent to make a joke or a statement. You have become a football lobbed by bored white boys at a university administration that they take issue with but can’t be bothered to address in a responsible, mature way.

Your painful history–the enslavement and abuse of your ancestors, or their internment and murder in concentration camps–are just a prop in a skit that you never auditioned to act in. The words that were invented specifically to make people like you seem less than human are now used to make some sort of grand statement about how we “overreact” to things.

When it comes to hate speech, I really don’t care how you feel in your heart of hearts. Maybe you really, really love women and Blacks and gays and Jews but just think it’s soooo funny when everyone gets up in arms about a swastika in a professor’s mailbox.

I’d encourage you, then, to find a way to indulge your idiosyncratic taste for humor in some way that doesn’t involve hurting and terrorizing others.

I Am Not Trayvon Martin

When Trayvon Martin was murdered last year, I remember seeing many people post things like “I am Trayvon Martin” online, sometimes accompanied by photos of themselves in hoodies. At first I thought it was something people of color were doing as a sign of solidarity and as a reminder that they, too, face the same prejudice and danger that Trayvon did, but then I noticed lots of white folks doing it. This sort of bothered me.

Now that the awful verdict has appeared, I’ve been seeing it again, but I’ve also been seeing plenty of thoughtful responses to it. For instance, this Tumblr, simply titled “We Are Not Trayvon Martin.”

The Tumblr is full of posts from people who submit their photos along with a note about why they are not Trayvon–that is, how they benefit from privilege. Here’s one:

I am a young white woman.  Last night, I attended a JusticeforTrayvon rally in East LA.  As I walked up the block toward the main square, I passed a line of (all white) cops.

“Are you going to the rally?” one asked.

“Yes,”  I replied.

“Behave yourself,” he said with a wink.

I gave a short laugh.  “I will”  (I really wanted to say, “You, too.”)

He gave me a big, friendly smile and pointed me toward the square.

I am not Trayvon Martin.

Another one:

I am not Trayvon Martin. I am a white, 30-year-old woman living with my husband and young son in the Midwest. We live two doors down from a black family that includes teenage sons. I have never met them, never introduced myself, never made an effort to show that I am happy we are neighbors, that they are safe in their neighborhood and respected by their neighbors. I do not fear them as black men; it’s more that I’m a shy person, afraid of the awkwardness of reaching out to anyone. But fear of any kind prevents community, breeds suspicion, and can lead to isolation and violence.

Will my white son wonder, one day, why we don’t know these neighbors? I repent of my fear; I promise to start being a true neighbor.

And another:

I am not Trayvon Martin. I am an African American stay at home wife and mother of three sweet girls. I was born in Atlanta, Georgia, and though I am not Trayvon Martin. I know many Trayvons. As a former educator I witnessed a system that allowed some of our most brilliant children to fall through the proverbial cracks. As a college educated, lighter hued, African American woman who has always lived a comfortable middle class existence, I know my privilege. Though I have been racialized, and I know what it is like to be a woman in a society that attenuates women consistently, I will NEVER know what it is like to be a black man in Amerikkka. I do not know what it is to be viewed as a menace to society. I am not Trayvon Martin.

It’s not as palatable a message as the stream of “I am Trayvon Martin” posts and hoodie photos. But it rings much more true.

I understand the importance and the appeal of solidarity, so I can sympathize with the sentiments of these posts. But I feel that they are misguided. We (white folks) are not Trayvon. We will never in our lifetimes be Trayvon, except perhaps by some fluke (which then by definition is not the same, because what happened to Trayvon was not a fluke at all).

And even if that happens, our faces will be all over the media with teary reporters talking about what good students we were and how kind we were to our friends, families, and neighbors. They will talk about how we could’ve gone on to write a bestselling novel or start a business or develop a new vaccine, but our lives were tragically cut short by a Bad Person who will soon face the full force of justice.

Sometimes—often, really—it’s more useful to think about our differences than our similarities. This won’t play well to those who claim that “we are all human” and we must “overcome these artificial divides.” Yes, we are, and we must. But before we do so, we must consider the tremendous impact these divides, however artificial, have had on our lives and societies.

You can’t wish this shit away. The familiar refrain of We Are All Human and We Must Look Beyond Our Differences can’t undo Trayvon’s murder and his murderer’s acquittal, and it won’t make this tragedy stop repeating itself. In fact, I would even argue that the more we sing this refrain, the less likely the tragedies are to ever end, because this overplayed song always plays much louder than the uncomfortable but truer songs: the ones about how everyone “sees race,” cops and judges and jurors included, and how the Supreme Court has institutionalized racism into our criminal justice system and on and on.

Before we can do what it takes to make sure that there will never be any more Trayvons ever again, we have to stop singing this song.

We are not Trayvon because we’ve created a world in which some people are Trayvon and some are not. Wishing really really hard that we hadn’t done so will not undo it.

~~~

If you only read one (other) thing about Trayvon Martin and the Zimmerman verdict, make sure it’s this.

On Useful and Not-So-Useful Definitions of Racism

[Update 10/22/13: If you’ve found this post through a racist hate forum, don’t bother commenting. Your comment’s going straight to the trash and nobody will ever read it. :)]

Richard Dawkins, whose Twitter feed never fails to amuse, has lately been discussing racism–specifically, against white people:

[Here’s the link in case you can’t see this]

 

Dawkins sounds eerily like my high school self here–desperate to stick to his own definitions of things and reject the definitions of others, all while claiming that everyone needs to be using the same definition in order for a discussion to be productive. Dawkins assumes that a dictionary definition is by default more legitimate than a definition provided by people who actually study the subject in question and presumes that what is written in a dictionary is “true” in the same sense as, say, the periodic table or the speed of light. Consider that dictionaries have historically been written by those least likely to understand what racism actually is and how it actually works, because if you’re a white person, racism isn’t something you’re ever forced to give serious thought to.

It is true that if you define racism as “not liking someone based on their race,” then people of color can be just as racist as white people. If you define racism this way, then it is true that the person who dismissed Dawkins’ opinion at the beginning was being racist. If you define racism this way, then it is true that a white person who is treated rudely by a Black person is a victim of racism, and it is true that, strictly speaking, affirmative action is racist.

But the fact is that this isn’t a very useful definition. You might as well make up a word for “not liking someone based on the color of their hair” or “not liking someone based on whether they wear boxers or briefs.” I don’t deny that it’s hurtful when someone doesn’t like you based on something arbitrary like your skin color, but when you’re white, this doesn’t carry any cultural or institutional power. When you’re not white, it does. Because then it’s not just a random asshole who doesn’t like your skin color.

I have had a person of color express prejudice towards me because I’m white exactly once in my life. Once. (And for what it’s worth, it was a stranger on the train who apparently just felt like yelling at people that day.) I have never been denied a job because I’m white. I have never been followed around or stopped and frisked by the police because I’m white. I’ve never been told I’m ugly because I’m white. I have never been told I’m stupid because I’m white, and I’ve never been told that I’m unusually intelligent for a white person.

Disliking someone based on their skin color is not enough for it to be racism. In fact, it’s not even a necessary condition. You can like people of color a lot while still maintaining that they’re just different from white people or that they need protection or that they’re perhaps better suited by nature for servile roles (this was an attitude commonly expressed during slavery). Likewise, you can just loooooove women while still supporting patriarchal laws and cultural norms, which is why I have to laugh when someone’s all like “But how can I be sexist? I LOOOOVE women! ;)”

As a scientist, Dawkins must realize how difficult it is when people take technical terms and use them too generally. For instance, a “chemical” is any substance that has a constant composition and that is characterized by specific properties. Elements are chemicals. Compounds are chemicals. Basically, tons of substances are chemicals, including water. Yet most people use “chemical” to mean “awful scary synthetic substance put into our food/water/hygienic products.” You see products being advertised as “chemical-free,” a laughable concept, and people talking about how “chemicals” are bad for you.

So yes, it’s important to recognize that many people use the word “chemical” in a particular way that conflicts with the definition used by chemists. But that doesn’t suddenly mean that this lay definition becomes the “real” definition and the chemists are suddenly “wrong.” And if you want to rant about the dangers of chemicals with your friends (I’d advise you not to, but whatever), it doesn’t matter if you use the lay definition.

But the way the lay public uses the word “chemical” is essentially meaningless, because they basically use it to mean “substances that may or may not be dangerous but we don’t really know we just know that we can’t pronounce them.” It doesn’t even necessarily refer to synthetic substances, because most people would probably say that cyanide is a chemical, it’s naturally occurring (in fact, it’s produced in certain fruit seeds). So if you want to discuss chemicals with a chemist, you’d better use the actual definition, because the terms used by chemists are more precise and useful.

Of course, when it comes to race it’s not quite as benign as people taking chemistry terms and using them haphazardly. It’s important to remember that white people have a vested interest in ignoring the structural causes and effects of racism–the kind that are best encapsulated in the definition of racism preferred by sociologists and activists. It’s uncomfortable to talk about racism this way. It’s painful and guilt-inducing to acknowledge that you (as a white person) have benefited from unearned privileges at the expense of people of color. It’s awkward to admit that affirmative action is not “bias in favor of people of color”; it’s an attempt to correct for the fact that college admissions and hiring practices are actually prejudiced in favor of whites, and this has been shown by controlled studies over and over again.

What’s significantly more comfortable is claiming that “everyone can be racist” and “Blacks can be racist too” and “some Blacks are even more racist toward whites than whites are toward them.” That is a definition of racism that white folks can deal with. But that doesn’t make it useful for actually talking about the things that matter.