A ten-percent solution, a ten-percent problem »« Skepticism and Social Justice

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.