Looking at it sideways

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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  1. smrnda says

    These situations are instructive in a lot of ways. I once knew someone who couldn’t believe how one person belonging to a minority group could say something racist since they ought to know how bad it is to be subjected to slurs and negative stereotypes. I think it was because she viewed racism through the idea that white people (and perhaps certain types of white people) having privilege over other people.

    But it seems that people can be prejudiced against other minority groups or be incredibly hostile, and in that case it’s less about ‘who has the power’ to ‘it’s us against them.’ Perhaps it’s also a kind of way of appealing to the dominant culture – show them that, though you are a minority, you dislike the same minorities they do, and perhaps you can gain status? (I’m reminded of US politicians like Ron Paul who state that “only 5% of Black people have sensible political beliefs” – meaning beliefs that benefit white people.) American conservatives love to find minority conservatives eager to talk about how fair white people and how unjustified all the “Black resentment” is (think Herman Cain) or how great colonialism is (Dinesh D’Souza.)

  2. Crip Dyke, MQ, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    I think you’re looking for the term “Horizontal Hostility”.

    And the lenses used to analyze this stuff most productively tend to focus on

    …1. Does the behavior, in context, amplify or undermine racial (or another that would be relevant in a given example) prejudice?
    …2. Does the actor have any potential gain from the amplification of the particular prejudice in question (Chinese v. Black railroad workers in the interior of the US west during the Gilded Age)?
    …3. Does the actor have the potential to be harmed by the amplification of the particular prejudice in question (Tiger Woods is seen as Black by most in the US, but if ID’d as Asian could be harmed by the expansion of the use of that slur…which puts a different spin on his use of it, if he had been the speaker)?
    …4. Does the actor possess coercive social power (e.g. runs a plant that provides half a small town’s jobs or is a legislator)?
    …5. Can the action be understood as backlash against unjust abuse of power?

    I’m sure I’m missing something, but those provide a good foundation for looking at this kind of thing deeply and productively.

    Also, I think it’s just a form of typo, but you said:
    “there must be some kind of consequence to racism for it to qualify.”

    If it must be racism for it to qualify as racism, the definition isn’t very productive.

    I think what you were saying is that there has to be a consequence to racial prejudice for it to qualify (as racism).

    Hope that’s helpful. Gotta go back to law.

    On the other hand, “procrastination’s something if you give it away, you end up having more…”

  3. Brownian says

    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.

    I don’t see how such racism wouldn’t have similar consequences coming from a member of another minority group. I think you touched on it when you wrote this: “unless you chop it up as ‘Chinese Canadians’ vs. ‘Non-Chinese Canadians’, and then there’s a whole other dynamic”. To my 100-level understanding, that’s the structure and the consequence: that some groups, such as Chinese Canadians or Chinese people in general, are targets for racism, with a history and a context that gives slurs like the one Mr. Mitchell used their power. One doesn’t have to be straight, white, male, Christian and rich to tap into that.

    Further, the kind of racism I recall most vividly from my youth was of this type. As the product of first and second-generation immigrants, growing up and going to school with mostly first-generation Canadians, most of the racism I saw* was of the sideways kind: various groups jockeying for position within the context of a white, WASP-y (well, Catholic in the case of the separate schools here in Edmonton) power structure.

    I know you understand all of this, so I recognise that I may simply be displaying a naïve, 100-level (or lower) understanding, but I don’t see why a different epistemology is required to understand cases like this.

    *I have an Eastern European† last name, but I don’t speak with any sort of non-local accent, so I didn’t face the same sort of discrimination that my Italian, Portuguese, and Polish classmates got from some of the older teachers. And most assuredly they didn’t face the same sort of stigmatisation that the few non-white students did, and nobody got it as bad as the First Nations students.

    I share this for context and to clarify that my perspective has always been as an observer, not a target. So again, my understanding may be woefully simplistic.

    †At the same time, it wasn’t until I got much older and moved to a different part of town that I began to see myself as ‘white’: white people had names like Smith, Livingston, or Bowers; the kind that people didn’t have to ask with a raised eyebrow how to pronounce, and I used to fantasize that my name was one of those. Common. Invisible. White.

  4. 742 says

    even if his group doesnt have the power to enforce dickishness it insulates those who do, in the same way your friendly neighborhood christian insulates the republican base, even if they dont use the ‘look, a brown person hates those damn dirty [whoever theyre screaming about at the moment] too! its okay!’ effect.

  5. Rabidtreeweasel says

    I could see this kind of sideways hostility being used by people who are in a majority group to say, “Psh, Privilege? Please. Racism isn’t about privilege. Look at Minority Group A and Minority Group B. THEY can’t even get along, which just goes to show racism doesn’t really exist because everyone says mean things to each other.” So whether or not he was in a position of privilege over the group he was disparaging, he’s still reinforcing the existing system. Anyone can say something -ist, but that doesn’t mean they are an -ist in all situations and for all time.

  6. ThoughtfulOne says

    You’re right racism = power + prejudice but I think what you’re grappling with here is that “power” does not always equate to “privilege” in a neat one-to-one relationship, and you may also be conflating racism with classism. Individual members of non-privileged groups can indeed sometimes have great power to affect other members of non-privileged groups, whether the same group as themselves or different ones. That’s because these individuals are not unprivileged in all axes. They have class privilege. IOW, poor white making dickish statement about blacks/Chinese/etc. is racism. Rich black making same dickish statement is classism. Rich white is both racism and classism. Does this make sense?

  7. says

    I was going to say something quite similar. I hear racist remarks from all manner of people, and it seems to be just a matter of different appearances and culture. Indigenous v white, for example, is about lack of power, but having such a mixed culture here, I have heard racist remarks between minority friends against other minorities forever.

    Perhaps in this case of the Lion football player, and much I have heard in and around BC, it is more about a disruption to the status-quo. While blacks may make up 2%, and I myself would also think, like Crommunist, that this football player would be sensitive to racism. He never the less might be going along, in a larger part, with a sort of general attitude in and around Vancouver. Rightly or wrongly, there seems to be a general sentiment to an influx of Asian investors and Asian immigration in general. I have heard as much racial insensitivity from native Americans and west Asians as almost as many white people, including east European groups, express.

    There is much more going on here than a power dynamic, it seems to me, especially at the grass roots level I inhabit. I always thought racism was a component of every group, ethnic, financial, gender, etc., being a natural consequence of visible differences and or social stereotypes – which is more of a power thing, of course.

    So, I would imagine that our defensive line grunt here (for effect) is more a product of a general racially insensitive society (U.S.), and less of a power dynamic, excepting the disruption to status quo. It is about differences; financial, social standing, tribalism(for lack of a better word at the moment), and genderism, and even a perceived acceptance of these attitudes.

    Plus, since when did supposed intelligence and education stop racist attitudes? It cut’s across every segment of society, I think. And even though it is less intense or openly expressed here in Canada, some MacLean’s survey a couple of years ago showed that 5 out of six Torontonians admitted to holding prejudiced attitudes.

    Sure power is part of it, but that id just another difference that fuels these behaviours.

  8. says

    “To my 100-level understanding, that’s the structure and the consequence: that some groups, such as Chinese Canadians or Chinese people in general, are targets for racism, with a history and a context that gives slurs like the one Mr. Mitchell used their power. One doesn’t have to be straight, white, male, Christian and rich to tap into that.”

    This was basically my take. Racist systems have been set up by those with lots of power over their victims, and sometimes other victims can still pull the trigger. This post from the other day by Natalie Reed gets at some of these things (though the oppression she’s talking about is within-group rather than horizontally between different oppressed groups): http://freethoughtblogs.com/nataliereed/2012/10/27/trans-on-trans-oppression-is-still-a-cis-problem/

  9. karmakin says

    You actually have to take that a step further and acknowledge that that “-ist” attitudes and actions are often in place within various groups as well, and are not just a matter of inter-group conflict.

    I actually see it akin to Economics 101 (and 102). I come from a political background and progressive, so I’m used to seeing people who are using Econ 101 arguments as generally being entirely wrong. The assumptions that it makes simply don’t work all that well in the real world, so the theory doesn’t translate well at all into reality.

    Social Justice 101 isn’t JUST the acceptance of power differentials. It’s about group privilege theory. The overly simplistic model that in-power groups actively use privilege to increase their own standing and to lower the standing of other groups. That’s not to say this is never the case…religious privilege is a good example of a place where group privilege provides a good explanation, but in terms of race and gender, often not so much.

    200 is what I said above, which is understanding that sometimes these group conflicts are due to much larger tropes, memes and patterns that are prevalent through all of society, which people act upon, often without thinking about how bad they are. Common==good after all.

    300 is intersectionality, looking at these group conflicts.

    Unfortunately most of the discussion about these things these days are stuck at a purely 101 level. Which I think is next to useless in terms of both communication and policy seeking.

    For example, I’m a supporter of affirmative action. The reason for this is because putting underrepresented groups in positions provides positive examples which helps change tropes memes and patterns.

  10. says

    Yeah, but then there was the tension betweeen some urban American blacks and Koreans especially back in the 80s and 90s (I think it may have dissapated a bit) I don’t think either group was making an appeal, conscious or not, to majority whites. Plus that was more of a turf issue from what I remember. I think there is a way to unravel this. I have some ideas to share later.

  11. says

    I don’t see how it’s so difficult to account for what you’ve termed sideways racism. It’d be weirder, given internalized racism, if minority groups weren’t racist to each other, while they still spread racist messages about themselves (Although certainly with less glee than white people have about it).

    Maybe it’s just easier for me because white women dominate feminism, and white dudes dominate LGBT politics, though.

  12. alwaysanswerb says

    I’m definitely no more expert on racial matters than you are, and almost certainly less expert, but my feeling on this is regardless of the oppressive potential of Chinese Canadians against Black Canadians, the anti-Chinese slur in question most likely came into being via oppression by whites. So even if Mr. Mitchell lacks the political “power” to supplement his prejudice, his use of the slur still calls to mind oppression by those with the political cache to make it stick.

  13. says

    The issue is easily resolved. The Canadian response should be… “Fucking American! Yeesh!

    Problem solved.

    But seriously, I wonder how much of the press on this will frame it as an “Ugly American” issue. Even though there are many parallels between the U.S. and Canada per race, there are still some important differences. I guess I’m asking, ‘To what degree is racism importable.’ Using the same slur in different places has different effects and consequences.

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