The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Just This White Guy

As Patrick McLean has pointed out, race is weird.

Conversations about race, and even private thoughts about race, are often disturbing or upsetting because it's so often the elephant in the room. It's the thing that everybody wants to talk about and think about, but nobody wants to mention or ponder too deeply. And race doesn't exist in a vacuum, as its own independent thing, but rather is a factor that influences every part of our lives, and so it creates a situation where nearly everything can be discussed racially, and yet most of us choose not to.

What brought this to my mind most recently is something that happened this afternoon. During my lunch break, I visited a friend in the hospital. As I was in the room, another friend of hers entered. This friend was an African-American woman, and she was not someone who I had met before.

As I left the room, I gave my usual goofy farewell, which was to give one of the many political slogans that I had heard shouted about when I was a college student, in this case "fight the power and damn the man!"

As I walked down to my car, I found myself wondering about the origins of this set of slogans. I had always heard them used by rather affluent children of affluent parents who would attend a rally to show their opposition to global capitalism before driving off in the BMW that their parents had given them to scarf down lattes at the local cafe. I had never heard these slogans from anyone who was actually well informed - they tended to engage in a wide variety of political activities and didn't just limit themselves to rallies - nor from anyone who had actually experienced any form of oppression. I had only ever heard them shouted by those who benefited from and engaged in the sort of activity that they claimed to be fighting against, and as such their context within my mind was a fairly silly one and I have found the slogans to be jokes as a result.

But, as I walked to my car, I began to think about the slogans, and I believe that they, or their immediate ancestors, were in use within the civil rights movement, where they had a definite and clear meaning and purpose before they were abducted and mutilated by the goateed coffee-house sorts during the 80s and 90s. And then I found myself wondering if my use of them would have been offensive to my friend's other friend. Had I inadvertently said something racist while trying to crack a joke to amuse my friend?

I then considered that, consistent with a running gag between this friend and I, I had cracked a "yo' mama" joke as I left. And then I considered that these jokes come from common perceptions of inner-city "black speak" and could be considered racist, even though the context in which I learned them was the "people sitting around cracking weird jokes" context.

And then I went into white-guy apoplexy. I didn't feel that I could ask if my comments were offensive or viewed as racist because to do so would be to draw attention to them and possibly point them out if they had been missed before. To ask would also reveal me for the racially insensitive Caucasian guy that I probably am (whether my jokes reveal it or not). At the same time, I couldn't ignore the possibility that they were, and couldn't stop worrying that I had inadvertently offended a stranger and, just as bad, found some racist core within myself.

So, of course, instead of asking, I wrote a blog post. Which, really, just reinforces some of the stereotypes about middle-class white people.

Did the other visitor even notice my comments, or give them any thought? I don't know. Is my worry about them a sign that I am making the ironically racist assumption that someone of African American ancestry would be concerned about me saying these types of things without acknowledging their historic context? Yeah, probably. Am I painting with a broad brush in thinking that every African-American is going to be sensitive to these sorts of jokes? Definitely. Would it be folly of me to not be aware that at least some African-Americans aren't going to think about such jokes? Yeah, probably.

As I got into my car and turned on the radio, a program on "conversations on race and a post-racial America" was on. The discussion panel and many of the callers were echoing my own thoughts - that it is currently impossible to determine what is and what is not truly racist because we don't have any clear idea of what racism actually is, and because race doesn't exist in a vacuum, but rather touches on so many other aspects of our lives.

When someone is denied a job because the hiring manager believes that someone of the applicant's ethnicity is clearly unqualified, that is clearly racism. When someone distrusts someone because of their ancestry rather than their actions, that is clearly racism. When someone cracks jokes that could strike a chord because of the history of racism, but to the mind of the joke teller are actually reflections on the silliness of other people regardless of ethnicity? Well, it's hard, if not impossible, to say if that is racism, because there is no clear definition of what racism is.

Clearly, there was no racist intent. In my mind, race never even entered the equation when I cracked the jokes. But, again, the vernacular of the jokes is rooted in the previous generation's struggle with issues of race, and in that sense there was a racial component whether it was intended or not. Is it going to cause offense? Well, that depends on who hears it and whether or not they care. And whether or not the hearer cares is not entirely dependent on their own ethnicity, but also takes into account many other factors from their upbringing and their current life.

Why can't we come to some sort of agreement on which "fringe" (for complete lack of a better word) behaviors are racist and which are not? Because race and racism are complicated matters.

We frequently hear about "what black/white/Latino/Jewish/Native American people think about race" as if any of these groups is a monolithic whole, which they are not. Martin Luther King and Malcom X both had different ideas of race, and while they had some similar experiences, they also had many that were different. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both southern whites, also had different ideas and experiences of race. No matter what racial group you are speaking of, it is guaranteed that you will find a diversity of opinions and experiences, even if certain types of experiences and opinions are more common than others. When we speak about the experience of any particular group, what we are really doing is speaking of statistical groupings - people in Group X are more likely to have had experiences A and B, and hold opinions C and D, but not everyone within the group is going to have those experiences or hold those opinions.

There's not even a real definition of what race is. When biologists and physical anthropologists talk about race, they are talking about common ancestries producing statistical clusters of genetic traits - but these traits are always in flux and no race is "set", they are simply the current clustering of traits, and genetic drift is always happening*.

When most people talk about race, what they are usually referring to is a mix of physical traits (largely, but not solely, due to genetics) and cultural traits that come from upbringing and general environment. The cultural and biological component are two different things, and the genetic component is again a statistical clustering - people in group X are statistically more likely to have genetic trait Y, but they are not the only group with any genetic trait, nor or members of this group guaranteed to have the genetic trait**. Also, no one group has lived in isolation, and genes have flowed from everywhere to everywhere throughout humanity's history, so the notion of set racial categories based on genetics is laughable.

The cultural traits that we think of when we talk about race are equally problematic. Modes of speech, family structure, musical preferences, etc. that we tend to use to mark race within western culture are all highly fluid and changing even faster than the fast-changing genetic clusters.

If you study anthropology, you'll often hear that race is a social construct. While there are biological aspects to our concept of race, the racial labels that we use were never good for labelling ever-changing phenomenon of either culture or race, and it is these very flawed labels that we tend to use. So, while elements of race may have ties in the physical world, the groupings that fall under our racial labels are basically arbitrary but loosely based both on geographic origin and history.

So, race is a difficult term to define, even loosely. Racism should at least be clear-cut...but of course, it isn't.

If one uses a term that has an origin in some racist aspect of our past, but which is not thought of by the person using the term as having any racial meaning, has that person said something racist? Many people would say that they have not, as the person wasn't thinking of race and had no racist intention when saying whatever they said. Other people would say that yes, it is racist - regardless of the intention of the speaker, the use of a racist term from the past perpetuates the feelings of that time even if only by causing upset to the hearer. Who is correct? Well, it probably depends on the people involved, the term used, and the nature of the conversation. But, at its core, you're looking at a question of whether the intention of the speaker or the experience of the listener should take precedence, and I don't know how that can be resolved.

Is it racist to point to objective facts that are the result of racism past? For example, is it racist to point to the higher levels of poverty in inner-city African-American communities? Well, it depends. If you are noting it as a result of historic racism, it'd be hard to label the observation racist. If you are citing it in an argument for the inferiority of an ethnic group, well, that's pretty definitely racist. If you are noting it as a reality and discussing it as a factor in politics? Well, then it's really going to depend on your exact point, and what assumptions are going into it.

But none of this helps me. Did I say something stupid and racist today? I don't know. Would it be appropriate for me to ask the person (who I don't know)? I haven't a clue. Should I let it bother me? I really have no idea.

I have no idea as to what the answer to most of these questions is. The simple fact of the matter is that, as a caller into the show I was listening to pointed out, we don't have a conversation on race. Some people try to talk about it, but they tend to be drowned out on all sides by people making proclamations based on their own experiences and assumptions without regard to the experience of others.

And in the end, I'm not just an oblivious white guy trying to figure these things out. I'm only this oblivious white guy trying to figure things out, and all I can do is get off of my ass and start trying to be more aware of what's going on around me.

* Consider that there are many racial groups noted in Roman and Greek histories that no longer exist because they have been absorbed into, or through physical isolation given rise to, other racial groups.

** When I was in graduate school, I routinely came across photos taken by ethnographers of people from Australia and sub-Saharan African who had traits such as blond hair and blues eyes. These traits were rare among those populations, but not non-existent. It was information such as this that caused most anthropologists to become suspicious of race as strong biological categories.

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