There’s been a lot of talk this week between pundits/bloggers about “political correctness.” I’m not going to delve into the back and forth of that conversation, but I’d like to share some of my own thoughts and experiences.
As a white person, I learned a lot about what racism looks like in this country today by hanging around small blogs written by people of color about eight years ago. They have mostly all gone inactive, but back then it was fascinating to simply listen to people talking in forums that had never been available prior to the internet.
One story from a blogger named Donna was a particular turning point for me. It starts off with her explaining that she was once part of a group for Native American women. They were open about who joined – as long as the reasons had integrity. One of the women who joined the group had Native American ancestors way back in her heritage and wanted to learn what she could about them. I’ll let Donna pick up the story from there.
It was like any friend or neighbor who thinks you are interesting and you think she is interesting and you get along great. I don’t know what got up her nose this one day, but we were sitting around discussing current problems on our reservations and things like unemployment came up. She gets a little huffy and chimes in, “Well why don’t you just go get a job?” Now the others in the group just stopped talking to her, they knew they got slapped down, but I didn’t. I tried to explain that it wasn’t that easy and that alot of our reservations are out in the middle of nowhere and you need a car to go into town or maybe even get on a bus and completely leave your home. She didn’t hear any of it. She said of course it’s easy, you fill out applications and get a job! I tried one more time telling her that cars and gas cost money, that bus fare costs money, that clothes for an interview cost money, the extreme poverty means there is no money, and because of the distance to the nearest city you might be abandoning everything and everyone you know to go somewhere you know is hostile to you. And she dismissed it saying I was just making excuses. She really thought we were either too stupid to think of her simplistic answers ourselves, or too lazy to go and do it. I lost it and gave her hell over it, but her answer to that was that white people don’t have to be our friends and listen to anything we say, and yet she did it all this time, and now I was being so rude and ungrateful when she was just trying to help…
I got quiet. I didn’t know what to say. I had to stop and ask myself, am I really equal? Am I even human? At that moment in time, I didn’t know anymore. Now these kinds of things have happened to me at other times but this one was especially painful because I had been friends with this woman for 2+ years. I didn’t see it coming.
The woman’s questions sprang from her own ignorance and were therefore initially understandable. Donna didn’t see what was coming though. As her responses were increasingly met with defensiveness and – ultimately – the statement about how this woman was doing them some kind of favor by listening, the white supremacy came through…painfully.
While there is no excuse for ignorance, it is a fact of life in our culture. All white people are occasionally going to say “politically incorrect” things. The true test is how we respond when someone calls us on it. We have the choice of either getting defensive or doing a little soul-searching. The latter doesn’t mean we will eventually agree. What it does mean is that we take a moment to consider someone’s view point that springs from things we haven’t experienced.
Another blogger named Kai wrote a powerful post on this titled: The White Liberal Conundrum. Brace yourself. If you really absorb what he’s saying, its likely to trigger that choice between defensiveness and soul-searching.
As I’ve often noted, many white liberals remain oblivious to the depth and breadth of anti-racist work, opting to hide behind the delusion that anyone who votes for Democrats and doesn’t have a pointy hood in the closet is “a good guy” in the movement toward greater social justice…Some might be surprised to learn that when people of color talk about racism amongst ourselves, white liberals often receive a far harsher skewering than white conservatives or overt racists. Many of my POC friends would actually prefer to hang out with an Archie Bunker-type who spits flagrantly offensive opinions, rather than a colorblind liberal whose insidious paternalism, dehumanizing tokenism, and cognitive indoctrination ooze out between superficially progressive words. At least the former gives you something to work with, something above-board to engage and argue against; the latter tacitly insists on imposing and maintaining an illusion of non-racist moral purity which provides little to no room for genuine self-examination or racial dialogue.
Countless blogospheric discussions on racism amply demonstrate the manner in which many white liberals start acting victimized and angry if anyone attempts to burst their racism-free bubble, oftentimes inexplicably bringing up non-white friends, lovers, adopted children, relatives, ancestors; dismissing, belittling, or obtusely misreading substantive historically-informed analysis of white supremacism as either “divisive rhetoric” or “flaming”; downplaying racism as an interpersonal social stigma and bad PR, rather than an overarching system of power under which we all live and which has socialized us all; and threatening to walk away from discussion if persons of color do not comform to a narrow white-centered comfort zone. Such people aren’t necessarily racists in the hate-crime sense of the word, but they are usually acting out social dynamics created by racism and replicating the racist social relationships they were conditioned since birth to replicate.
Both Donna and Kai wrote those posts after a discussion was sparked at Nezua’s blog The Unapologetic Mexican. He was responding to this statement from Glenn Greenwald.
…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.
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 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.
That last sentence exemplifies why we tend to be more comfortable talking about speech rules and/or political correctness. In doing so, we avoid changing ourselves.