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Aug 27 2012

The eye of the beholder

One common claim that comes up in discussions of social justice issues is the following, predominantly uttered by a member of the majority group:

I am against all kinds of discrimination. In fact, I am never hesitant to call others on their own prejudiced behaviours!

What usually follows is the word ‘but’, and then some explanation of how ze is the real victim of discrimination because people keep telling hir to check hir privilege, often with accusations of being bigoted* or something of that nature. The reasoning, I imagine, goes something like this:

I believe myself to be opposed to discrimination
I behave in a way that is consistent with someone who is opposed to discrimination
Therefore your accusations of my prejudice are misplaced

I can certainly appreciate how much it sucks to have someone call you a bigot when all you’re trying to do is express reasonable skepticism about something. This is especially true when you are a passionate defender of the very people making the accusation. From an outsider’s perspective, it can certainly seem as though the name-calling is completely offside – they should recognize that you are an ally and you are doing your best.

Maybe the following expansion of the above syllogism can help flesh out why this attitude is problematic and will lead you into more trouble:

I believe myself to be opposed to discrimination as I define it
I behave in a way that is consistent with someone who is opposed to discrimination as I define it
Therefore your accusations of my prejudice as I define it are misplaced

The problem is not whether your past behaviour qualifies you as ‘one of the good ones’, nor is it whether or not you personally support or abhor discrimination (which is itself a whole other issue to untangle) – the problem is that you have appointed yourself the arbiter of what does and doesn’t qualify as ‘real discrimination’.

Let’s get specific to illustrate the point. Imagine if you will someone who identifies as both a liberal and a birther (a term used to describe a political belief that President Obama’s birth certificate is a fake, and that he is therefore inelligible to be President). This person has marched in opposition to employment discrimination, hir best friend is black, ze takes every opportunity to repudiate the racist sentiments of even hir fellow birthers. That being said, ze simply does not accept the ‘official’ story, and is hurt and offended that you would call hir ‘a racist’.

If I were feeling particularly generous with my time and energy, I would gently correct hir interpretation of my statements and point out that I was calling birtherism racist. The birther mythology has its ideological roots in a long history of denying the possibility of black citizenship, based on a long-held belief that to be ‘American’ is to be white, and that everyone else is some hyphenated version thereof (‘African-American’, ‘Asian-American’, ‘Hispanic-American’ – very seldom ‘Euro-American’**). While the days where such ideas were spoken openly and unashamedly are perhaps largely passed, it does not follow that the germ of the idea does not still inhabit the national mythology. It is no accident, therefore, that a President who has been suspected of being pretty much everything – an Arab, a terrorist sympathizer, deeply unAmerican, a Manchurian sleeper agent, a nascent Communist – is also suspicious for not being a “real American” and must be subjected to the scrutineering of all manner of amateur document forensics.

And so, I would say to our birther friend, when you espouse your ideology, as benign as your intent may be, you are still building your house on a foundation running rife with racist assumptions and built on destructive and deeply misguided antecedents.

So how do we make sense of this? I’ve spoken before about how privilege can operate like goggles or like a one-way mirror - the relevant thread linking those two similes is that our own experiences (or lack thereof) can give us selective vision when it comes to fully understanding the perspective of others by robbing us of crucially-important information. Our hypothetical liberal birther (assuming ze’s white – if ze’s black that opens up a whole other discussion) likely does not have to deal with the myriad of subvocalized racial aggressions that partially define what it is to live in our “post-racial” society. As a result, ze might lack the kind of acute awareness of racial code-words that allows, for example, me to immediately connect the dots between “I doubt the authenticity of the President’s birth certificate” and “black people aren’t full citizens”. This isn’t because I am a paranoid conspiracy theorist leftie lunatic who sees racism everywhere – it is because I know what this argument looks like in 4 or 5 other forms.

Here’s the button of this issue: despite how beneficent your stated intentions and conscious feelings may be in the fight to remove discrimination from our society, good intentions do not safeguard you from adopting some ideas that are, in fact, discriminatory. Everyone makes mistakes, and the Platonic form of a “non-racist” or “non-misogynist” or “non-homophobe” is simply mythological. One bit of certainly you probably can rely on, however, is that people who regularly find themselves on the receiving end of discriminatory beliefs (overt or otherwise) are probably pretty good at picking up on them. At least, one can safely conclude, better (on average) than those who have never had to face those kinds of things head-on. If they’re calling you out for something you said, maybe the best approach is to listen harder and see if you can’t understand how it’s possible that someone who’s as amazing as you might have slipped up.

Or to put a finer point on it, those who don’t experience discrimination don’t get to tell those who do what it is, or how it works.

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*This may or may not get its own post, but calling someone ‘a bigot’ or ‘a misogynist’ or ‘a _____-phobe’ is certainly parsimonious, but misleading. I recommend avoiding it in the same way that I recommend avoiding calling someone ‘a racist’.

**There are and are not parallels in the Canadian experience. We do talk about French-Canadians and English Canada. Hyphenation does exist in our vernacular, but our divergent histories and policies about multiculturalism complicate things a bit. That said, it wouldn’t be wrong to operate on the assumption that the situation here is more similar than it is different to the American one.

65 comments

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  1. 1
    br0kenmech

    Or to put a finer point on it, those who don’t experience discrimination don’t get to tell those who do what it is, or how it works.

    So the victim gets to determine what is and is not a crime as well as the guilt or innocence of the accused? That sounds like a terrible idea. Thank god our criminal justice system doesn’t work like that.

  2. 2
    Crommunist

    Reading blogs must be MUCH easier when you just skip to the last sentence and ignore all of the troublesome stuff that comes before it. No wonder yours is the first comment!

    Also, please show me where I said anything about “guilt”, “innocence”, or “crime”. Thanks.

  3. 3
    jon

    There’s a pretty big difference between pointing out the subjectivity of experience and arguing for a radically subjective legal code. Willfully ignoring such significant distinctions doesn’t help your arguments.

  4. 4
    mythbri

    It means that if you’re part of a privileged group, you don’t get to define, re-define, or minimize the experiences of people in less-privileged groups. It means no head-patting and saying “Well, you’re really looking at this the wrong way” or “I think you’re over-reacting” or “I wouldn’t be bothered if that happened to me.”

    Pretty simple, actually. It’s a shame you put all that straw to waste.

  5. 5
    br0kenmech

    So not everyone gets to have a say in these things then? Those deemed to be privileged should remain silent.

    So if a person (not privileged) feels they are being discriminated against… then it is a fact? The group (privileged) accused of doing the discriminating have no right to mount a defence? To argue that no discrimination occurred. They should just accept that they are condemned by their privilege to be discriminators?

  6. 6
    Brandon

    Not being allowed to say, “Well, you’re really looking at this the wrong way”, is more or less the same as just being bluntly told to STFU. I don’t think dialogue enders are particularly useful, no matter who they’re coming from.

  7. 7
    mynameischeese

    @br0kenmech,

    Sometimes a person puts out an unsupported statement with such confidence that other people take it for granted and don’t question it. An unsupported statement like, *the definition of patriarchy is too vague and abstract to be workable* or *the social sciences are soft sciences, not real sciences.* That kind of thing.

    I’ve been following the discussion on the last post and I’m glad that readers like Jon and Jadehawk (and others) had the patience to draw out your argument. Because it became clear pretty quickly that you don’t have an actual argument, just a load of assertions.

    And there were things that I’ve heard before in conversation that are so cliche that I just let them go by unnoticed (like the idea that social sciences are soft sciences) and after reading the comments there, I won’t let that one slip by me again.

    So thanks, crommunist readers!

  8. 8
    mynameischeese

    Yet another straw man. AMAZINGLY, no one told you to STFU. They did tell you to read some peer-reviewed journals, which is fair enough because it’s obvious that you’re new to this stuff, but that’s a far cry from telling you to STFU.

    Here’s another observation from life: Sometimes a person IDs a skeptic or “rational thinker” or whatever and they assume that they can just rational think their way through topics that they’re not aquainted with and use the magic super power of rational thinking to power their way through. Not the case. That’s not what being a [good] skeptic is about. To be a good skeptic, you must actually look at the data, follow the scientific method, all that jazz. Skepticism is not a shortcut.

  9. 9
    Crommunist

    Those deemed to be privileged should remain silent talk less and do a better job of listening to see if they can find out where their lack of relevant experience is leading their reasoning to a faulty conclusion.

    I realize that it’s the fashionable thing to distort and otherwise misrepresent the positions of blogs that tell you that you should try modifying your behaviour (rather than demanding that everyone comply with your assumed objectivity), but it’s tedious and irritating to have to repeatedly correct your intentional misdirection. Please find some way to conduct yourself like a mature person.

  10. 10
    Crommunist

    I don’t think dialogue enders are particularly useful, no matter who they’re coming from.

    That is a tiresome false equivocation. If you don’t know something, or you lack relevant education/experience in something, then no it is in fact not a good idea to wade in and “explain” to people who know more than you why they are wrong. And if saying “please listen to what is being said before talking” is the same as being told “STFU”, then I guess you need to STFU.

  11. 11
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    I would like to offer two tips for well-intentioned people in privileged groups.
    1) Accept that you’re -ist/phobe. Mind you, not A (rac/misogyn)ist. We all have those idea engrained into our brains (that’s true for members of the marginalized group as well)

    2) If the people on whose side you consider yourself to be react angrily to what you’re saying, stop and think. Most likely, the problem is you. Intent isn’t magic and we all fuck up. Don’t double down.

  12. 12
    Brandon

    That is a tiresome false equivocation. If you don’t know something, or you lack relevant education/experience in something, then no it is in fact not a good idea to wade in and “explain” to people who know more than you why they are wrong. And if saying “please listen to what is being said before talking” is the same as being told “STFU”, then I guess you need to STFU.

    My comment was intended as a reply to the poster I replied, not as a general comment on the blog post. It seems, on the face of it, to be absurd to tell someone that they can’t (or shouldn’t say), “I think you’re looking at this the wrong way”. If that particular phrasing is an unacceptable reply to someone that one disagrees with, what does qualify as an acceptable response?

  13. 13
    br0kenmech

    (rather than demanding that everyone comply with your assumed objectivity)

    That is pretty much at the heart of it though. Assumed objectivity is the default for any rational discussion, and it is exactly the premise you and others are not willing to grant. You want the presumption of privilege to be the default premise for any discussion. You are assuming your own objectivity, while denying that assumption to those who disagree with you.

  14. 14
    br0kenmech

    the social sciences are soft sciences

    lol. Who doesn’t think the social sciences are soft science?

  15. 15
    Crommunist

    The comment was not about which words you are and are not “allowed” to use. It was illustrative of an attitude that assumes that it is the victims of discrimination that need to make the adjustment because their experience does not conform to the expectations of an uninvolved group. That particular phrase is highly evocative of that kind of attitude.

    To move it back to the example in the post, it would probably a bad idea for the liberal birther to tell hir black friend that the problem was that she was just looking at the racist ideology “the wrong way”. The problem is that there is no way to look at it and not see the racial implications unless you are ignorant of a lot of relevant history and parallel argument.

    I’d imagine saying something like “I don’t see it that way” is much preferable – it doesn’t presume that your way of interpreting things is ‘the right way’, it just acknowledges a disconnect between perspectives. It’s worth noting that there is a recurrent meme in racial discussions of blackness making people ‘irrational’ or ‘biased’ – as though white folks were the objective and disinterested third party in black/white racial dynamics.

  16. 16
    jon

    Except that you’re precisely wrong here. What people who understand privilege are assuming is subjectivity. That no one perspective will encompass all interpretations of events. That it is impossible from a position of privilege to understand the subjective experience of discrimination. That’s why you don’t get to tell someone they weren’t discriminated against; just because you didn’t see it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, even if you were the one who was being discriminatory.

    You’re the one assuming objectivity here, and that’s why you’re failing to understand what people are trying to tell you. Objectivity doesn’t work in this particular context, at least not always. You can, without any ill intent or malice, cause people real harm that you are not in a position to see or understand. That’s part of life. It’s your belief that because you can’t or won’t see those harms that they objectively speaking don’t exist that is what makes privilege so insidious.

  17. 17
    jon

    People who actually understand what those words all mean.

  18. 18
    mythbri

    @Brandon

    Why do you think that it’s absurd to advise members of a privileged group not to say “I think you’re looking at this the wrong way” when speaking to members of a less-privileged group?

    I like to go jogging. My neighborhood is pretty safe, so I have the luxury of being able to jog around where I live. I have guys honk their car horns at me as they drive by, or roll down their windows and cat-call at me, or even just slow down and follow me for a bit, saying nothing.

    When I tell other guys about this, they say “You’re looking at it in the wrong way – you should take it as a compliment.”

    They are telling me how to feel about actions that annoy me or make me feel unsafe. How is that appropriate?

    This is the context in which privileged group members don’t get to say “You’re looking at this in the wrong way.”

  19. 19
    mynameischeese

    LOL, you’re like a cherry-picking king the way you left off “not real sciences” from the quote.

  20. 20
    Crommunist

    Assumed objectivity is the default for any rational discussion…

    Uh… what? You might need to rephrase that, because it sounds like you are saying that it is rational to simply assume that your own experience is universal and that your own biases don’t operate on your judgment. I don’t think terribly much of your beliefs or your style of argument, but I can’t imagine that you meant something this absurd.

    You want the presumption of privilege to be the default premise for any discussion

    Well not exactly, no. It is my position that the case for the existence of privilege has been made, repeatedly and robustly. And just like we don’t accept the results of non-blinded trials because of the possibility that observer bias may explain the results of things like acupuncture and homeopathy trials, we don’t extend some misguided benefit of the doubt to those making arguments that are grounded in privileged antecedents. Yes, it is a good idea for me to assume that women know more about misogyny than I do. It is a good idea to assume that trans people know more about transphobia than I do. I recognize that my experiences as a cis man leave me a pretty poor judge of what is and isn’t relevant and discriminatory. I may seek better understanding, but it would be foolish to assume that I, with my inexperience, have an objective perspective.

    You are assuming your own objectivity

    This is incorrect. I am assuming that those who have experienced discrimination are better judges of it than those who haven’t.

  21. 21
    Steve Schuler

    When you say, “… those who don’t experience discrimination don’t get to tell those who do what it is, or how it works.”, I am left wondering if that would limit your ability to tell me much, if anything, about discrimination and how it works?

    Having grown up ‘poor white trash’ and having been the recipient of racially motivated black/browm on white violence and racial harassment over extended periods of my life, and also considering what the socioeconomic and cultural conditions of your life experience have apparently been, might lead me to conclude that all you are really fit for is to ‘listen’ to me.

    By the way, I consider myself to be anti-racist, although I make no claim to being racially color blind.

    Your thoughts?

  22. 22
    jon

    Not to drag things back to the argument from the previous thread, but this is where things like the social sciences are useful. No one gets to question your experiences, but we can also look at the data and see the kinds and types of people who are most likely to face discrimination and use that to help evaluate situations.

    In your example, growing up economically disprivileged and suffering childhood violence (same here, btw, on both counts – no fun) are real problems. The thing is, however, that racially motivated violence is, regardless of direction, is part of a broader structure that has contours that we can study. And, yes, the structures of white supremacy do lead to situations in which white people suffer violence at the hands of nonwhite people, just like rape culture sometimes leads to men being raped. But as far as race issues go, despite being in a shitty situation, you’re not disprivileged. So, no, I would say that it would not be appropriate for someone in your situation to tell a black person that they can’t comment on racial privilege and violence and they need to listen to you.

    On the other hand, if some rich asshole is trying to explain to you why being poor is your (or your parents’) fault or something similar, telling them to shut the fuck up and listen to you would be totally ok.

  23. 23
    karmakin

    That’s actually good advice for everybody.

  24. 24
    Steve Schuler

    I am not going you respond to the whole of your comment, but I will say this:

    You said, “But as far as race issues go, despite being in a shitty situation, you’re not disprivileged.”

    I just wish you’d been around to share that bit of wisdom with a scrawny ass 12 year old white boy back in 1969 getting knocked upside of the head and forced to get to the back of the bus, wishing that somehow he could change the color of his skin to bring an end to the violence.

    I’m sure it would have made him feel a whole lot better.

  25. 25
    jon

    I’m truly sorry if it sounded like I was trying to downplay or minimize your experiences. I honestly wasn’t. I was also once a skinny white kid who got the shit beat out of him on multiple occasions by a group of much larger (black, as it happened) kids at my elementary school. I understand how awful it is.

    My point was that issues like privilege are broader than a single event or even a single person’s experience. White people in the United States and Europe are racially privileged. As I alluded to above, that’s not always a guarantee of safety from the broader problems caused by the deeply entrenched system of racism. It doesn’t make the violence you suffered any less violent or any less serious. But it does make that violence not the result of being disprivileged.

  26. 26
    Crommunist

    This is an excellent question, Steve, and one that has many moving parts.

    In a discussion about the way that class and race intersect and how racism can affect whites, then it would absolutely be shockingly hypocritical and callous of me to try and ‘teach’ you about your own experience. I would indeed do better to listen than to talk. When talking about class period I’d have to be very mindful of the way my privilege enters into my thinking.

    The farther we get away from that specific conversation, the more complex things become. I would imagine, however, that someone with your experience would have a greater appreciation for the more violent and egregious ways in which racism manifests itself. Probably even more than me. Insofar as the discussion is about systemic advantages of whiteness at a much less individualized (or more depersonalized) level, we again enter different territory in which your experience is not quite so relevant.

    I would be interested to hear more about your story, if you’re willing to share.

  27. 27
    Steve Schuler

    The violence and harrasment I experienced were the result of being white, not because I was dispriveleged.

    I never said I feel or felt ‘disprivileged’. I wasn’t familiar with the concept as a youngster, and currently I think that the concepts of privelege/disprivelege as used in the language of identity political theory but have very limited applicabilty with regards to actual real individual experience as opposed to abstract theoretical groups, but that’s a whole other conversation. Also, I think that I have spent enough time in third world countries to have probably developed a somewhat different sense of what constitutes ‘privilege’ than many North Americans and Europeans.

    Social theories are all fine and well, but where the rubber meets the road, or where the fist meets the nose (as the case may be) they tend to lose some of their meaning, if you know what I mean.

  28. 28
    Steve Schuler

    Thanks for your response, Crommie.

    To tell you the truth, I almost regret having pitched in here at all because it has got me to thinking about things that were really painful in my life and that I’d really rather let that past be buried.

    In short, I think that real life is far too complex for simple theories to adequately describe. It’s a big mistake too confuse a model with the reality it is attempting to describe and define. Reality, as you know, is infinitely more complex and much more difficult to get a handle on.

    No, I do not think that you have no right or business in discussing matters of race and associated social considerations and I am confident that you are doing the best that you can within the limits of your knowledge and, perhaps no less important, your experience.

  29. 29
    Pen

    The problem with your birther analogy is that everyone here agrees that the birther position is ridiculous. It would be more interesting to debate this one out in a situation where we all might understand the conflict of interest.

    What about the claims sometimes made by minority sub-cultures that criticism of their attitudes towards women is racist? Or what about a hypothetical situation in which a whistle-blower says Obama has done something bad (a la Nixon/Watergate) in office and we have to offset the truth value of that claim against the inevitable racist motivations of some, and the knock on effects it would have?

  30. 30
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    I think a better framing is “accept that you retain some prejudices,” since we’ve fairly successfully turned “racist,” etc. into shameful epithets.

  31. 31
    eigenperson

    It’s not like accusing someone of having privilege is an automatic way to win an argument. It’s just a claim that the person is missing some important information.

    Let’s take the example of a whistleblower in the Obama administration. Let’s say I’m a white dude and I’m airing my position on this, which is that a special prosecutor should be appointed to investigate the accusation. Now, here you might tell me to check my privilege. What this boils down to is that because of my privilege I don’t understand that historically, false accusations of malfeasance have been a pillar of systems of racist oppression in the USA [note: I have no idea if this is true or not -- I'm just making it up for the purposes of this argument]. If I understood that, I would be less likely to think that appointing a special prosecutor is appropriate.

    Now, we could debate whether or not the special prosecutor should be appointed, given the extra information that I didn’t grasp because of my privilege. But if I don’t have that information, we can’t even start to have the debate, because I’m misinformed. In fact, it’s kinda awful that I’ve been so vociferous in airing my position when it turns out I don’t understand the situation very well.

  32. 32
    SallyStrange

    An example I saw on Twitter today, courtesy of Baratunde Thurston:

    Black people are far more sympathetic than white people are to the (false) claim that the AIDS virus was deliberately released by the government in predominantly black communities as a genocidal germ warfare project.

    You see, black people tend to remember that the Tuskegee experiments happened, and not all that long ago, while white people don’t.

  33. 33
    Axxyaan

    Or to put a finer point on it, those who don’t experience discrimination don’t get to tell those who do what it is, or how it works.

    This doesn’t help when it is in dispute whether the one complaining is indeed experiencing discrimination. To give an example. The dress code of an applicant’s religion is in conflict with the dress code the employer enforces on the workfloor. So the applicant is turned down. Yes I define this as not being discrimination. I think a religious person expecting his religion to trump workfloor regulations is expecting privilege and is not being discriminated against.

    But of course those who do see this as a form of discrimination can tell me that I don’t get to tell those who experience discrimination, what it is or how it works.

  34. 34
    jws1

    This sounds a lot like the bullshit Jesus proferred: “I can judge others as I see they deserve to be judged, but noone can judge me unless they hold the same lofty judgment of myself that I have.”

  35. 35
    dianne

    Apologies if this is a derail, but a question occurred to me: Why does everyone care so much about Obama’s place of birth?

    Supposing the birthers were right. Would it matter? Obama’s still been a reasonably decent president*. He’s still definitely a citizen. If he really weren’t born in the US, wouldn’t that be a sign that maybe this restriction is kind of dumb and ought to be removed? Not too long ago, Republicans were talking about a Schwartzenegger presidency and how quickly they could get the Constitution amended to allow it. Why would that be ok, but a supposedly Kenyan born US citizen something to panic over?

    In short, even if the birthers were right, they’d still be racist.

    *Yeah, yeah, I know, but I’m grading on a curve. Compare Obama to the Bushes, Reagan, Hoover, etc. Looks pretty decent, doesn’t he?

  36. 36
    Crommunist

    You know what? It does sound like that… as long as you take out a bunch of the words, substitute in some different words, and then dunk your head in a vat of LSD.

  37. 37
    Crommunist

    Oh I’m sorry… were you expecting to see some logical consistency among birthers?

  38. 38
    jws1

    Ahh, but that judgment is just from your eye. Mine is so different – and must be taken as default, since how I see myself is allegedly integral to how others should see me.

  39. 39
    Crommunist

    You should stop tripping out in about 8 or 9 hours. Let me know how that goes for you.

  40. 40
    jws1

    Can’t understand why some folks have such a terrible time selling their ideas….maybe they don’t know they’re in sales to begin with.

  41. 41
    Crommunist

    It seems incredible to me that people will spend so much money on carnival games to win giant stuffed animals, when just buying them would be so much cheaper.

  42. 42
    Crommunist

    If you want to jump right in to conversations that are at a graduate level of intersectionality, then by all means have at it. I used birtherism specifically BECAUSE it’s so clear-cut.

  43. 43
    dianne

    Well…yeah. I have my delusional moments too.

  44. 44
    Crommunist

    This doesn’t help when it is in dispute whether the one complaining is indeed experiencing discrimination

    Yes, it specifically does. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. If you have no experience with how discrimination operates, then you’ve got a slimmer chance of getting it right. How you define what “counts” as discrimination is likely to have some massive holes in it. You might not agree that it’s discrimination, but that’s a separate issue.

    I think a religious person expecting his religion to trump workfloor regulations is expecting privilege and is not being discriminated against.

    It can be, but it is not necessarily so. The questions that arise is the purpose of the regulations – some regulations are based on health and safety (i.e., things that can get caught or tangled in a press), others are based on employer preference (i.e., I don’t want those rag-heads in my shop). One is not an example of discrimination, the other is. The general guiding principle is that it is not reasonable or legal to demand a restriction on religious expression except insofar as it interferes with the ability to perform a job (the famous example of the Amish Bus Driver comes to mind). Canada recently had a major to-do over just this issue when it came to Sikh RCMP officers and the police uniform. Ultimately, it was decided that the RCMP had to make a reasonable modification to their uniform and allow uniform-issue turbans. Amazingly, the country survived.

    I should also point out that the Sikh example dovetails quite a bit with racist attitudes about South Asians and the crazy intersections between culture and ethnicity and religious expression. Failure to appreciate any of these is going to lead you to make some pretty lousy decisions in this realm.

  45. 45
    David

    Another stupid question: what is the best way to handle a situation where the person has legitimately not been discriminated against? Not by any subjective opinion, I mean claiming discrimination over things that are physically impossible. I don’t think that running out of a particular food or having to limit selection should be seen as a major conspiracy against anyone regardless of their background or appearance, yet having spent a few high school summers working food services I was assured that my lack of Pepsi product was racist on more than one occasion. Was I right in just ignoring these particular few people as crazy? Or is there a depth I’m not paying attention to that needs to be investigated, that there may be legitimate reasons for their paranoia that someone would refuse a sale because of who they are? How does someone in privilege investigate complaints without legitimizing those that are just “playing the race card”? Is it even something I should be worrying about, just accept that in the course of investigating complaints some “race cards” will come up and they aren’t to be dismissed until they’ve had their fair run through the system?

    I owned and operated a hot dog cart outside of a Canadian Tire for 3 years in high school and the only complaints I ever got were of the impossible (or at least questionably sane) variety. The one that stands out most is the old woman who complained that I shouldn’t be using sausages from a local farmer and should use nothing but name brand factory meat, accusing me of… I don’t even know what, hippyism or something? Anywho, long winded question aside I’m growing concerned that my judgments are cloudy as a result of previous experience. On the one hand I want to learn to address legitimate concerns but at the same time I want to be able to just shut someone down for trying to get freebies. Can I do that? My head is now swimming with scenarios where someone issues a crazy complaint that could seem legitimate in their world thanks to subtle racism.

    Another concern I have just come up with is that just because all the complaints I did receive were crazy doesn’t mean that others wouldn’t have had legitimate complaints and simply chose to get their lunch elsewhere instead of letting me know what I was doing wrong.

  46. 46
    smrnda

    David, I found your post kind of interesting in that it made me think back to when I was growing up on the south side of Chicago. I’m white/Jewish and I lived in a mostly Black neighborhood. I noted that, among racist white people, your consumer choices were one way they decided if any particular white person was adequately ‘on the white team’ or not.

    Example – in grade school some white kids once made fun of me for drinking grape soda. Apparently, grape soda was considered ‘Black’ and these white kids were giving me shit over something which I had no idea would be viewed as an issue of racial preference.

    On that type of racism, I think it’s that in a situation like that, where white people are around people who aren’t white all the time, is that racist white people direct their aggression against white people who they see as ‘race traitors’ either for being too close with minorities or for failing to live up to standards of authentic whiteness (like drinking grape soda I guess.)

    I recall that some white boys who would make friends with Black kids would get bullied by other white boys, with the idea of ‘proving’ that their Black friends weren’t going to stand up for them. Most of that was just racism on the part of teachers – a white kid could shove someone around without fear of reprisal, but a Black kid would have been in trouble. So the white bully could push around a white kid and get away with it, and if a Black kid tried to break up an obvious fight he would be taken to the principal’s office.

    Thinking back, I think a reason for an upsurge in racism under Obama is that many white people know inside of them that there are white people who voted for a Black presidential candidate. they can’t count on a clear ‘us against them’ mentality.

  47. 47
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    Well, I’d say, use a kind of Lemon test: Is there a good secular reason for a regulation? Like health and safety? Then it’s your problem.
    If not I’d look very closely at the regulations because it’s easy to design rules that sneakily exclude marginalized people.

  48. 48
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    This reply made my day :3

  49. 49
    Crommunist

    Any question that starts with “what is the best way to handle a situation where…” is usually one I’m going to have a lot of trouble answering. The best I can do is respond with what I personally would do in “a situation where…”, and hope for the best.

    Things have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and you’d do best to look for opportunities to find reasonable accommodation. That of course presumes that there exists a reasonable compromise (the demand for Pepsi on racial grounds is more than a little absurd). There’s no harm in asking for clarification on how something is discriminatory, and if you make the effort to understand where the person is coming from, most people are willing to forgive a little ignorance (in the case of a legitimate misunderstanding). I’ve heard people express fear of phony “race card” complaints, but I can’t say I’ve personally ever come across one so it’s hard for me to know the scope of the problem and how much you really need to worry about it.

    That being said, there’s no foolproof way to handle any situation. There will always be conflicts, and not all of them can be resolved amicably. You can only do your best. Here in Canada we have Human Rights Tribunals to resolve disputes of this type, and even they can make mistakes.

  50. 50
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    I would assume that listening is a good starter.
    Sure, some people are just natural complainers.
    But sometimes we just lack the information due to our privileged position.
    And sometimes it might just be the case that you’re just a victim of confirmation bias.
    Say there is a product X that caters for a certain marginalized group. Now a lot of caterers simply don’t do it because they are actually hateful-against-this-group-ist. As a result, dining out and tehrefore participating in social life has become hard for members of that group.
    You’re not one of those assholes, you do product X. Only you’ve run out of it. Now a member of said group asks for product X and you say “sorry, it’s out”.
    Only you’re the 9th person to tell that. Looks like you’re just another one of those assholes.
    And although this is surely hurtful and annoying for you, think about how it must be for the other one.

  51. 51
    Crommunist

    I had apparently missed the memo where it became time to hurl non-sequiturs at each other until I had already missed two or three turns.

  52. 52
    Onamission5

    I was coming here after reading to ask advice on how to deal with people who, when speaking from a point of privilege, expect their perspective that privilege doesn’t exist (or exists but is just fine) to take precedence over the experiences of the non-privileged person who’s on the recieving end of the shit and would rather like not to be. Then when one tries to point that out, the PP basically says that NPP should stop acting like victims. This is something I keep encountering over and over in discussions about whether A+ should exist or not, and it really boggles my mind when it’s aimed in my direction, so I don’t know how to answer the PP’s without garbled swear-speak.

  53. 53
    Pen

    Eigenperson & Sally: You’re quite right. I think I had tended to gravitate to that view, but I hadn’t thought of how to express it, so thanks.

    Crom: The clash between minority cultures and women’s rights is one I have no choice but to get into, because it’s happening in my bit of real space. I was trying to argue on Ophelia’s blog that out of 10 ways of approaching that debate there are about 9 that are racist and maybe 1 that’s OK or at least does minimum damage. Very few people seem to home in on that one. I wasn’t actually arguing very successfully or very well, so yeah, I’m interested in the graduate level.

  54. 54
    Annie

    I’m white (so be thee amply warned, it’s entirely possible I’m about to white-terpret the shit out of this) but sort of in defense of black people who “pull the race card”, as I’ve seen mentioned somewhere above: I get the impression often that this phenomenon isn’t so much “seeing racism that isn’t there” as “having trouble communicating why something is racist”. Especially with very, very, young people. Before complaining about a person “pulling the race card” it helps if you’re white to think of it in terms of “this person no doubt is familiar with race issues much more than I am, certainly on an intuitive and experience level, and the assertion they made just now is therefore not necessarily baseless. It is not at all outside of the realm of possibility that they are simply the equivalent of ten Hiroshimas at communicating it”. Not everyone has the same penchant for language Crommunist does and can offer you the same eloquent explanations. That doesn’t, however, necessarily invalidate what they’re saying.

  55. 55
    ischemgeek

    I’d go so far as to say that’s good advice for those in underprivileged groups as well – I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve noticed myself making sexist judgements or assumptions, even though I’m a woman who violates said assumptions and judgements and should therefore know better. Ingrained prejudice: Not just for privileged folks (though, admittedly, privileged folks can do more harm with it on average because they tend to have more social power).

  56. 56
    ischemgeek

    This!

    Some job requirements I’ve seen are prejudiced in one way or the other because in practice it leads to the exclusion of a vulnerable group for no legitimate reason. As an inspired-by-reality example, if I wanted a summer job at a convenience store on nightshift because I’m wierd like that and actually enjoy a nocturnal schedule, and they say, “A requirement of this job is that you have to be able to safely lift 60lbs on your own,” this excludes me on basis of local occupational health and safety law (which requires that someone not be asked to lift more than 30% of their own body weight on their own). Due to sexual dysmorphism, this would exclude most women in my area, but only about a third of men. Now, if there’s a reason why they need me to legally be allowed to lift 60lbs – let’s say, I’ll be accepting deliveries on my own and be required to lift and carry boxes weighting up to 60lbs, the situation passes the smell test. There’s a legitimate reason why they would require that capability.

    If, instead, there is no such job task, the manager says that requirement is ‘just in case its needed’, and the manager makes comments about how it can be dangerous for someone working alone, then given our society and its tendency to protect women whether we want protection or not (so-called ‘benevolent’ sexism), I would be likely to suspect sexism at play. If the manager made a comment on my gender they speak about it being nightshift, or it seems like the manager is trying to warn me off because of my gender, I would almost certainly chalk it up to sexism. Why? Because I’ve not received night shift jobs (yes, plural) that went to people with less experience and poorer references who were male in similar situations more often than can be explained in my mind without invoking cultural sexism.

    Likewise, on the religious front: if a job says “no unapproved headdress” because, say, you’re working in a place with a lot of dangerous machinery on which the headdress could get caught, that’s one thing. If instead you’re working as a shop clerk stocking shelves and your headdress will not pose any hazard, that’s something completely different.

    As well, I can think of a few examples that might be in effect racist: Many of the religious ones may also be racist if they target religions whose adherents tend not to be white. Hair also comes to mind since a fast food place I used to work at would write people up if their hair was too frizzy – even though we used hairnets and there are ways to keep frizzy hair well-kept – so black and native employees tended to have a harder time keeping their jobs and getting good reviews because their hair textures tend to frizz more than those of white people, plus they had to either keep their hair short or invest in outrageously expensive hair care equipment and supplies. And there was no reason for it: it was even applied in the kitchen and maintenance rooms where no customers could see, so you couldn’t even argue it was to please the customers.

  57. 57
    ischemgeek

    ^ I’m not so sure that people who complain about others “pulling the ____* card” are acting in good faith. By which I mean this: Those who make such complaints will use that as an excuse to ignore a complaintant, regardless of how articulate or emotionally mature the complaintant is. They’re ‘just playing the victim’.**

    In practice, it’s not a complaint of “I don’t understand why you’re complaining about this so I will assume its baseless because I don’t think _____ism*** happens anymore,” but rather an assertion of, “I know _____ism doesn’t happen anymore, and nothing you say is going to convince me! Further, anyone who would still complain about a problem we solved fourty years ago obviously just wants a handout and is playing the victim to get it.”

    These are often the same people who will twist themselves into pretzels to try to argue that the wage gaps that exist are only because ______ tend toward not working as much or in as high-paying jobs, not because of _____ism and will act with intellectual dishonesty in citing debunked and flawed studies, ignoring any evidence against their opinion and then claiming that nobody who disagrees has enough evidence.

    *insert appropriate descriptor here
    ** Funny story: I had someone last weekend try to argue that the residential school scandal is blown out of proportion and that Native victims are playing the victim for handouts because a very small minority of scammers were discovered in her province when the settlements were reached and because the school xie went to, as a little white kid in that time period, wasn’t that bad. To which I asked if xie would say the same thing about white kids in the Catholic sex abuse scandals (I am related to this person so I know the answer is ‘no’), while my partner pointed out that xie wasn’t kidnapped from hir home, held against hir will for years, physically and sexually abused, told that hir language and culture and even hir skin and hair were dirty and sinful and evil, and so on and so forth. White kids in the didn’t tend to leave school with PTSD. Native kids, on the other hand…
    ***insert appropriate prejudice here.

  58. 58
    ischemgeek

    ^By ‘funny’ above, I mean more in the ‘holy crap, people still think that even after all the evidence that’s surfaced?!’ sense – funny in my region can mean “very wierd”, and that’s the sense I meant it in. Poor choice of words – I forgot most people don’t have the same regional slang as I do.

  59. 59
    ischemgeek

    ^ To expand on the ‘not enough information’ issue: Sometimes a policy really does seem harmless to you unless you’re the one on the recieving end: My school had a dress code that required shirts to cover a certain amount of the body. Problem: Nothing in the policy said shirts were mandatory, though “nudity and showing of undergarments” was prohibited. Thus, girls had to wear half-sleeve shirts (because we’d either be showing boobs or bras), while boys just went shirtless when it got too hot. So the girls were required to be far more uncomfortable than the boys were in hot weather.

    Shorts, likewise, were effectively outlawed for girls by requiring them to be a certain length that was impossible to find because short-shorts were in at that point, and outlawing cutoff shorts so we couldn’t make them to our own length. I just bought boys’ shorts and wore them, at which time the administration tried to pass a rule against dressing in clothing made for the opposite gender, and they were thankfully slapped down by the school board.

  60. 60
    David

    “Why is that racist?” seems to be a consistent question that others have mentioned. Things obviously need to be evaluated case-by-case, but if they can at least attempt to explain the situation (even if not successful, also mentioned that not everyone is as eloquent as you) which I don’t understand it can go a ways towards helping to distinguish things. It didn’t happen too often, perhaps once every month or two, but I would get people who accused me of all kinds of “conspiracy” stuff because of things beyond my control (at least not without an oracle). As Giliell says, though, what if just one of those people honestly believed I was holding out on them because it had happened before. What if all of them were and I’d already conditioned myself to assume people making crazy requests are just looking for freebies?
    I’m not in any sort of people services anymore and hope that I never need to return but if I do then having at least a consistent place to start should the situation arise should help me a lot.

  61. 61
    Crommunist

    This is something I hadn’t really thought about but it’s really true and I appreciate you saying so. Oftentimes discrimination comes as a funny feeling in the back of your skull like “something’s not right about this” and it’s quite difficult to verbalize and break down into its constituent pieces. That, in fact, is one of the reasons I started this blog – to help me codify a bunch of this stuff for my own sake and to get feedback. Very helpful indeed.

  62. 62
    smrnda

    members of privileged groups aren’t always good at understanding how less-privileged people see things. sometimes i think it’s just lack of information, but sometimes i think it’s an unwillingness to actually care enough to try to see things from another perspective. both groups can get defensive, but i think for different reasons. people in the first category genuinely don’t want to be prejudiced and probably feel that they take great pains not to be. if you handle situations like this well, you can learn. the second group i tend to think just doesn’t believe that racism or other forms of prejudice are still a factor and that any claim that it still is is false. people like that have made up their minds and are probably immune to facts.

    but yeah, perspective is a big issue. i once talked about how a friend of mine, while living in a rural area, had to walk several miles to work, and that this was a really unpleasant experience. a guy listening to me immediately said “how? i mean, it’s great exercise, you’re outside, it’s a very picturesque area!’ he wasn’t thinking that half the cars are honking and screaming “i want to fuck you bitch!” and going real slow right beside her saying things like that on the way there. i was dealing with a typical white guy – he didn’t want to be sexist, and probably would try not to be, but he lacked the perspective.

  63. 63
    Annie

    Yeah…I recognize that some people are just being crappy when they “call out” race card usage. But a great number of privileged groupers who bring this up only end up feeling race-carded because (on top of the old perspective blind spot) there’s communication that’s not happening as smoothly as might best suit the situation.

  64. 64
    John Horstman

    I would say that both are discrimination, but one is justified (safety) while the other is not (simple preference). “Discrimination” is not bad, it’s necessary for survival, as with discriminating between food and poison. The problem is when our reasons for discriminating in any given case are bad (racist, sexist, heteronormative, cis-normative, classist, etc.) reasons. I find this framing incredibly useful, as the only way to justify whatever-ist discrimination is to prove that some objectionable behavior or characteristic is intrinsic to the group (the null hypothesis is that people are all more similar than different by virtue of being people) and isn’t a function of culture, which is flatly impossible (especially since every bigoted stereotype of which I can think that has even the slightest connection to a measured differential distribution between two groups – say, for example, murders committed by men versus women – is at least in part a function of culture). The framing allows for claiming the skeptical high ground of the null hypothesis and placing the burden of proof on the bigot, with the added bonus of forcing the bigot to critically examine hir own ideas if ze actually does want to try to prove them. Since the ideas don’t actually stand up when critically examined, it can be a way of making one argue against hirself in order to change hir thinking, as with the Socratic Method.

  65. 65
    ik

    “(‘African-American’, ‘Asian-American’, ‘Hispanic-American’ – very seldom ‘Euro-American’**)”

    I’ve taken to calling myself European when the people I am speaking to will understand. Have been in the US for 3 generations, but am of the blood of Western Europe unmingled and not more than baseline cultural influence. I don’t really feel like I fit in with a lot of American culture, in any case.

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