We often use college course abbreviations to describe the various levels of social justice discussion. Someone might refer to a “101-level” conversation when we’re talking about identifying racism as a social construct rather than a biological reality. Trying to access the specific ways in which racial constructs impact the lived experiences of people might qualify for “200-level” status, since it requires us to understand and accept the conclusions from the 100-level stuff before we can move on to the real-world implications. Discussing things like intersectionality and the consequences of multiple identities that intersect race is maybe your “300-level” stuff, which is more or less the level I think I can comfortably converse.
But then there’s other stuff that, quite frankly, baffles and confounds even me:
A B.C. Lion who tweeted a racial slur – a post the B.C. Premier called “stupid” – has been punished by both his team and the Canadian Football League, with the club saying he won’t play Friday and the league issuing a fine.
Khalif Mitchell wrote the tweet Wednesday morning. Mr. Mitchell, an American, said a teammate had asked him who won Tuesday night’s presidential debate – Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. In his tweet, Mr. Mitchell said both men hide their money outside the United States, then used a slur to describe Chinese people.
When his Twitter followers said the tweet was racist, Mr. Mitchell initially denied that was the case. “It’s a fact statement not a derailing of the Chinese,” he wrote. Shortly after, he denied knowing the term was racist, said he meant no harm and apologized. In response to the criticism, he tweeted: “when did we criminalize not knowing and knowing and still punishing. Ppl. Are really unhelpful. Where’s the Love”
He also noted his trainer is Chinese.
Some of this stuff is obvious. The use of an anti-Chinese slur is unequivocally and obviously racist. That’s like… high-school level. Those of us familiar with the 100- and 200-level stuff will recognize how empty and meritless the attempts to excuse himself – that he didn’t mean it, and that he has a Chinese ‘friend’ – are in the face of that kind of clear wrongdoing. The whole “well I didn’t know it was racist” thing sort of beggars belief, as though he thought it (whatever ‘it’ was – I can speculate, but don’t care to in writing) was an official term for ‘Chinese person’. There’s a further discussion we could have about the impact of this kind of language from a person playing sports in Vancouver, a city that is ~20% Chinese, and the sort of existential struggles between a sport that is dominantly white in a city that isn’t quite so. We could even talk about what it means to have a black man in a city that is maybe 2% black say something like this.
These are all conversations I’m good with having. No problem. Let’s chop it up.
The part where I falter, however, is when looking at this with the power dynamics in place. There are definitions of racism that operationalize it in terms of “power times prejudice”, meaning that there must be some kind of consequence to racism for it to qualify. We are perhaps accustomed to seeing racial insensitivity from white people in Canada. We are confronted far less frequently with examples like this, where a member of one minority group is engaged in this kind of insensitive dicketry against another minority group. The individual power status of Mr. Mitchell is relatively high – he’s a prominent sports figure with a huge mouthpiece provided to him by proxy of a multimillion dollar organization. On the other hand, he’s also a member of a tiny minority group going up against a population with broad economic and social power relative to any group to which Mr. Mitchell might claim allegiance, at least as far as the actual city of Vancouver goes. At a national level, the situation is quite a bit different, but the same disparity between the political power of his “group” and the “group” that he’s disparaging remains, unless you chop it up as “Chinese Canadians” vs. “Non-Chinese Canadians”, and then there’s a whole other dynamic. And then there’s the fact that Mr. Mitchell isn’t Canadian to begin with…
There are people who actually have graduate degrees and whatnot in these subjects. I’m just learning them from reading stuff on the internet and listening to those experts talk about it. Some of you, I’m sure, are getting that knowledge primarily through me, which puts you one more step removed from a firm grasp on the issues surrounding this event. We can all agree it’s objectionable, but can we put it in an appropriate context? As the demographic makeup of America changes, it’s likely we’re going to be confronted by these kinds of questions more and more often – what analytic tools can we bring to bear in our understanding? As caught up as our understanding of racism is in a framework of white supremacy, can we adapt to this kind of “sideways” racism – racism between minority groups – or do we need to develop a whole new set of questions and answers?
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