Progressives and Racism

Back when I was first invited to take this spot on Sunday mornings it was because I had started a weekly series titled Blog Voices This Week wherein I tried to summarize interesting information I had found in the diversosphere. I eventually wandered into other territory on Sunday mornings, but this week I’m going to go back to those roots and pull some long quotes from a couple of the people who have alot to say about progressives and racism.

The two people I’ll be quoting are Donna from The Silence of our Friends (that blog title is powerful and tells you alot about what Donna has to say) and Nezua at The Unapologetic Mexican.

First, a little background. The diaries I’m going to quote were posted in February/March 2007. They were sparked initially by some things Glenn Greenwald said in Awkward Discussions of Race and Obama.

It is always preferable to have views and sentiments — even ugly ones — aired out in the open rather than forcing them into hiding through suppression. And part of the reason people intently run away from discussions of race…is because it is too easy to unwittingly run afoul of various unwritten speech rules, thereby triggering accusations of bigotry. That practice has the effect of keeping people silent, which in turn has the effect of reinforcing the appearance that nobody thinks about race (which is why nobody discusses it), which in turn prevents a constructive discussion of hidden and unwarranted premises.

Nezua wrote a response to this titled Speech Rules or Beliefs and Attitudes.

In this analysis (or this part of his post at least) the problem is the various unwritten speech rules. But guess what? There really aren’t any. There are just poor attitudes we keep about people who look different. Or who we’ve been taught to think of differently. And there is a “White” attitude of deciding for everyone else how they should live, be, self-identify, and do many other things. There are old slurs and old tropes that hurt people. These are the things that are flushed out when people speak: attitudes, thoughts, beliefs, manners of speaking that hint at lurking attitudes.

People avoid talking about race because they are scared of exposing their thoughts and views on race. They are afraid they are A RACIST. They are not afraid of “unwritten speech rules.” They are afraid that what they really think and feel will cause them to be ridiculed or ostracized in public, or that they may see a part of themselves they have to feel bad about. So they keep the potential to themselves.

But if we keep the focus on Speech Rules, we miss the opportunity to change ourselves.

The whole diary Nezua wrote is interesting, but even more so the thread of comments. Glenn Greenwald showed up to comment and most of the people of color involved felt they were dissed by him. I’ll let you go read it if you’re interested to see for yourself. But the exchange started a whole series of discussions all over the diversosphere about progressives and racism. It’s fascinating stuff and any of the articles I’m linking to here will take you to much of it.

Donna had a lot to say about it all and its hard to pick just one quote, but here’s something that I think might summarize it best from her post titled Bewildered Part III (scroll down for this post on March 6th).

Dammit! This is so fundamental and it makes me want to scream when those friendly to us don’t get it! You can’t give someone a pass to hold racist ideas because you like them, you can’t give them a pass because they are nominally liberal and on your side, you can’t give them a pass because they’re unaware celebrities. You can’t give anyone a pass even if they do not INTEND to be racist. You are asking too much of us; you are asking us to spot clean when this blight is ingrained in the entire fabric of our existence. To be honest, I could more easily live with the spots, which are the declared haters like the Klan, if I could get you and all the nice people like you to let go of your grain of racist ignorance. For every visible spot there is a ton of invisible dirt, crumbs, dust, mold, and mildew.

That’s why you hurt us more than the declared haters. You don’t intend it but you do it anyway and when you are called on it, you minimize the damage you do. It doesn’t affect you negatively, so what’s the big deal?

And here’s just a bit from a long post by Nezua titled The Skin of My Soul. If you’d like to read just one thing on the diversosphere that will give you a clue about what white progressives need to hear from people of color…this is it. I’d suggest reading the whole thing, but here’s just a bit.

If people are Progressive, why do they not make progress on this term?

Because RACIST paints the picture of a person none of us feel we have to identify with. And it’s far too easy to talk about non-things than to dig down, or wrap your hands and heart right around that grain of harm that we all fear to touch. So let’s make some progress. Let’s kick this shit all vulgar-like and common. Hell, let’s even forget the word entirely. (Pow! How ya like me now?) Maybe it’s not even useful. Maybe it’s a word we only apply to others, while at the same time others never accept it. See a problem here? See an eternal word war? See a divide that we not only try to recognize with a word but then exacerbate by warring over a word? See a Symbol being mistaken for Essence?

So what are we talking about when we use the symbol “Racist,” anyway? What is the Essence we intend to describe? During my recent conversations on the subject (and I know you have a feel for how many of these conversations I have) it occurred to me that the problem is not the dreaded Racist tribe that lives somewhere yon, it is attitudes in everyday people who think they know more about what is Right than others; who think they are superior to others; who are just plain ignorant on matters of history; who are afraid of people who live differently or look differently; who want to be better than others with no real grounds.

Mi novia says that it really frustrates White people that no matter how much they know or want to know, there may be an area of experience or knowledge that they cannot access. Bingo, Gringo.

This is another way of saying White Privilege.

How dare the world harbor some sort of Thing that I cannot experience! How dare you insinuate that you possess knowledge I may have to ask you about in humility! How impertinent of you to even imagine that I cannot, with study and great wisdom and effort, also know what it is like to grow up Brown™ in America! The voice of privilege thinks no seat is unavailable, no land unconquerable, no food untasteable, no right deniable, no experience out of reach. It is a slap in the face to this line of thought that there exists an area that cannot be known, even to a WHITE person. Gasp.


Skip to comment form

  1. fiction in the space between.

  2. … in the diversosphere I could actually feel myself wanting to just take it all, take everything I was discovering and make it mine, mine, mine.  It was palpable, the desire to make someone else’s experience my own.


    How dare the world harbor some sort of Thing that I cannot experience!

    … is exactly what I felt.  Lord have mercy.

    • Robyn on June 29, 2008 at 5:43 pm

    Good job.  đź™‚

  3. often caught in the workplace wilderness because race is a frequent sub text in work related communication and conflict.

    A majority of the RNs I supervise are white. Most of the health care assistants, unit secretaries, maintenance and cleaning staff are black/African American. My peers (supervisors) are about evenly divided. So. You have the added dimension of artificially created power relationships.

    I have been told by some colleagues who are white that I am “too sensitive” about race and by some black colleagues that they hesitate to trust my ability to be fair because I don’t understand the subtleties attached to the daily interactions that are obviously racist for them. Which let’s face is is a fair observation. The one “ace” I have and I play it frequently is that I am not from the “south”.

    Generally I just say,” If you aren’t comfortable discussing this with me because you’ve got concerns about my ability to be fair then I still think you should raise this with an individual you do perceive to be fair.” Sometimes that opens the dialog, sometimes not. I try not to go looking for “rewards” ie Oh look it is the “nice” white chick which I have had to put a significant effort into dropping only because I think white people think if they are “nice” they are going to get instant trust and make all the problems go away.

    What has really worked for me is just trying to get to know people building relationships. People who have worked with me a long time know that I will apologize when I fuck up and openly admit it. There isn’t a formula, I make plenty of errors.

    • Viet71 on June 29, 2008 at 6:17 pm

    and thank you for a another thoughtful post.

    A few random thoughts and opinions, for what they’re worth.

    First, I don’t think labels are helpful except when they convey (both to sender and to receiver and to mere observers) a single idea.

    For example, to say I’m a Democrat is to use a party label that misses a whole lot of what I believe (and with which others may strongly agree or disagree).

    On the other hand, to say I voted Democratic in the last election is simply a statement of fact (from which one may draw conclusions at his or her own peril).

    FWIW, I almost always prefer statements of facts (or even opinions), even if lengthy or elaborate, to labels.  For this reason, I don’t like the term “progressive”, and while I’m not per se opposed to the term “racist” (inasmuch as it can have a single, simple meaning), when the label “racist” is attached to someone, I’ll often want to know exactly why.

    Sometimes, I’ve learned, attaching a label to a person is just shorthand for, “I don’t like you.”

    Second, I believe whether a word or phrase carries “baggage”  depends on the context and situation in which it’s used.

    For example, using a swastika in a purely scholarly article on political symbols can hardly offend.  Spray painting a swastika on an opponent’s campaign brochure or flying a nazi flag are sure to inflame.

    Third, my preference in this (and other) political blogs is for robust, open, messy, debate.

    A free marketplace of ideas ultimately separates good ideas from bad ideas.  IMO, no free marketplace of ideas can exist when the premise is that the place must be kept antiseptically clean and spotless.

  4. of “local” sub text….. that filters through. Atlanta is considered far more sophisticated than Memphis. Probably because it is. Most Memphians have relatives in Detroit and Chicago so they can see how racism plays differently in the north and south.

    I don’t think that there is necessarily “more” racism in the south, let me correct. I do not know because I have never lived in a large northern city. However. There are older people in Memphis who have vivid memories of segregation and it all gets passed down in oral  history at family gatherings.

    MLK got killed here and that shadow still looms over Memphis, anybody who doesn’t think it plays in local culture is naive.

    On the plus side, the music scene had plenty of “integration” long long before the populace was exposed to it. So. Memphis might have some particular factors that mediate race and dialog about it.

  5. Photobucket

    That would be me on the right.

    • Robyn on June 29, 2008 at 7:26 pm

    …to publish is that my the time I do, everyone is sick of the subject and I fear few will read what I say.

    But the subtitle to Café Discovery today at 2 eastern is Power.

    • scribe on June 29, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    I don’t blog much anymore, but still read a lot of blogs and stumbled back in here just yesterday. Needless to say I got totally caught up in reading about all of the recent “activity” over here (hows that for coming up with a non controversial term, huh?!)  Wow. The incredible amount of energy being put out, by so many, to try to unravel these tangled threads is awesome to behold. Hats off to you all.

    I see people writing from all sorts of different perspectives and stages of self awareness about the power of words themselves and what “should be done about them,”  and I see the vast currents of the much deeper issues of racism and white privilege flowing strongly underneath all of that. I see writings from people who have made it their business to delve deeply into their own hearts to see what hidden beliefs and prejudice has be hiding just under consciousness, and from those who seem to have not yet done very much of that, and are responding more from head levels.

    I see places where all the larger issues got submerged under the clamor of hurt personal feelings and frustrations at feeling hurt, angry, dismissed or misunderstood.

    What I didn’t see was too many people say “Oh TO HELL WITH THIS, I’m OUTA HERE!”  Just a few.

    And there in lies the hope for us all.

    When we can experience all of this painful stuff around these centuries old, deep seated, loaded societal issues…and still stick around and keep on trying.

    I know NL personally. I have to say that I have never known another white person in my life who has worked any harder than she has to LEARN and to educate herself about racism, directly from those who have lived from within it for whole lifetimes. Or who has ever spent any more time and effort than she has, to dig deep within herself, to search for any and all roots of her own racism..and I doubt she will ever feel really finished doing that, either. None of that makes her infallible. All of it makes her well worth listening to, with open ears and hearts. If only this country had MORE CEO’s  like her, as devoted to personal and societal healing and growth, as NL is. What a different land this would be.

    There is so much passion many good people discussing things that so badly, desperately NEED TO BE DISCUSSED, no matter how hard it is, or how much chaos is causes.  This is hard. Damned hard work. And I sure as hell hope you all stay put and keep at it.  

    • RiaD on June 29, 2008 at 10:52 pm

    thank you!

Comments have been disabled.