Thursday, March 7, 2013

Repost: The Good, Racist People

Last month Forest Whitaker was falsely accused of shoplifting and frisked in a New York deli down the street from Columbia University. Ta-Nehisi Coates from The Atlantic has weighed in on the event by identifying the larger problem behind it in his fantastic piece, "The Good, Racist People." I don't want to summarize it for you, it's a concise, powerful piece that you should go read now. That said, I do want to highlight this particular passage for elegantly identifying (one of) the issue(s) at play here:
In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist ... The idea that racism lives in the heart of particularly evil individuals, as opposed to the heart of a democratic society, is reinforcing to anyone who might, from time to time, find their tongue sprinting ahead of their discretion.
As Coates points out, this distinction between being racist and being a good person makes racism forgivable. Good people can't be racist, and so when these people do racist things they are forgiven in some other way (they were just doing their job, they were just trying to protect their family, they were reacting poorly to a crowd, etc.) because, again, they're good people and so they can't be racist. The net outcome of this type of doublethink is that society refuses to examine how racism continues to exist today. Where "good people" are guilty of it they are forgiven/excused because their goodness negates the possibility of them being either evil or racist. When people can't be forgiven for it, well, anyone heard from Kramer lately?

I'm reminded of the fantastic ill doctrine video on "How to Tell People They Sound Racist" (below), which provided a handy guide for telling people how to examine when they sounded racist. That video drew the distinction between the "what they did" conversation and the "what they are" conversation. As an informational guide, the video gave advice for how to have a conversation with people about their statements and beliefs without making them feel accused of being racist (which tends to end a discussion on bad terms). The point was to provide a methodology for having productive discussions of race (and racism) while being mindful of the possibility that people involved in such discussions might say things inspired by underlying prejudices without them being aware of it.

Coates point is similar in how he wants to have a conversation about racism in contemporary society that doesn't end the moment someone gets called out for their prejudices. The tension underpinning both their arguments is precisely this linking of racism and evil that works to cease productive discussion and forgive transgressions. We freeze the moment someone drops a 'hard R' and immediately turn to the defensive, "Well I'm a good person and therefore not a racist and therefore right" mentality. At best this isn't helping and at worst it's ignoring the problem in such a way as to allow it to continue and proliferate in an act of, you guessed it, racism. Coates goes on to allude to how this attitude towards racism in society "haunts black people with a kind of invisible violence." There's a real and measurable cost of this notion that racism exists only in the worst people of the world or in times gone by, and until we can do away with that idea and confront the continued prejudices alive in society today we will continue to live in an unequal and hostile community.

(Coates piece via @JAWalker, ill doctrine video via a good friend a long time ago)
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'Reposts' are inspired by other articles or blog posts around the Internet. They are used here with accreditation as the basis for short bursts of Max's interests.

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