Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Exploring a Thought on Racism

Simultaneously reading Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria and blogs that deal with racism is, well, trippy. There is a trend that I feel I am noticing more and more among a lot of the, um, less polite blogs on the subject.

People pick out news stories or other blogs in which someone, usually Obama, is painted in a way that jives with traditionally racist overtones. Or Clinton is painted in traditionally sexist overtones. And this is decried as proof that the authors are racist/sexist and usually that by extension everything else they say is invalid.

Political blog noise machine aside, here is my struggle with this: I do not doubt that we live in a society where racism is a structural feature of much of the system. I don't think it takes much argument or convincing to notice that there just aren't a lot of black romantic leads (let alone Asian or latino), or that people of color get stuck more easily in poverty cycles, or that there just aren't a representative number of people of color in positions of authority.

But I do kind of take issue when someone points out a particular story or blog (or movie or book) and says "here! This is an example of racism manifesting in society!" Because the things is, they might be right. It could very well be a manifestation of racism. But even in really compelling cases, it also might not be. The best example I can give is this. If this featured Obama, there would be a huge outcry, and reasonably so. There is a huge amount of racist literature comparing African Americans to monkeys, and it would be really hard to argue that such a comparison was not tapping into that dialogue.

But maybe it wouldn't be. Maybe it would honestly be someone comparing Obama's less photogenic moments and saying, "hey look, this kind of looks monkey-like. That's kind of funny!" And that's the thing: in individual instances we can never really get into another person's mind and say what motivated them. Even if there is an undercurrent of racism that sparks a lot of similar-sounding rhetoric, any individual instance of that might not be motivated by racism (or sexism, or whichever ism). It's essentially looking at a scatterpoint and noticing a trend without necessarily being able to account for any individual dot.

And this, I think, sparks what one of the major difficulties is with racism: it's hard to name. It can be hard to see. And in individual instances it can be hard or impossible to know if it is really happening. I don't think anyone is comfortable with that uncertainty, and some people respond by saying that racism doesn't exist at all and others by pointing out every instance of seeming-racism as absolute incarnations of racism in society. And I think the reality is both a lot less certain and a lot less comfortable for everyone.

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