Friday, November 18, 2011

the racialized subject

One thing that I really wish more people understood (to be more direct, what I wish more white people understood) is that for racial minorities, the sense of being racialized is nearly constant, and often uncomfortable even when it isn't direct, explicit, or expressed in behavior.

Here's what I mean.

I think most anyone who has gone through any level of higher education has had a particular day of class when race was discussed in a way that was uncomfortable for at least some in the classroom. A particular form of this discomfort often comes when white students feel that they are being personally indicted by discussions of white racism, whether contemporary or historical. It's a phenomenon I've observed over and over again, and I'm always discouraged by it. For a lot of people, any discussion of race appears to be close to a personal accusation; palpable tension fills the air. The more the conversation turns away from a historical perspective, where the distance of history provides a buffer, and towards contemporary racism, the more charged the atmosphere becomes. And god forbid someone actually say that someone is being racially insensitive. Then things get really unhappy.

I am not insensitive to the feelings of white students in this situation, nor can I claim that I have never felt this way myself. The righteous notion that racial issues are of deep meaning and great consequence naturally makes these issues charged for everyone. And as accusations of racism are something of a nuclear bomb in discourse, being sensitive to them is inevitable. But that discomfort, I think, is also pedagogically invaluable. Being challenged in this way is precisely what higher education should be about. It's also yet another example of why protections like tenure and seniority are so important. As the university plunges along towards a service model, we need to preserve the ability of instructors to challenge their students in ways those students don't like-- often precisely because the students don't like it. Being made to feel like a racialized subject happens to white people very rarely and should be cultivated in college, comfortable or not.

What I would like for more white people to understand is that this feeling that they feel in those moments-- that they have been racialized, made to feel like an avatar for their entire broadly-defined ethnic or racial group-- is a feeling that many non-white people feel all the time.

To be clear, I don't contend that this feeling is always uncomfortable. I'm sure that many wear it with pride. There are of course times when members of racial minority groups seek out this stance, as a matter of pride, community, and the declaration of principles. But it is important to point out that it is often unchosen, and that being racially signified in that way is something that my fellow white people and I can't fully understand.

So imagine that you're the only black person at an otherwise all-white party, a fairly common occurrence, particularly at college. Somebody says something racially insensitive. It doesn't have to be out-and-out racism, and it likely isn't intended to cause offense. It's just stupid, and indicative of quietly ugly attitudes, and the kind of statement that is expressed so banally that it seeks to implicate others in its assumptions. The stupid statement is made and there's a brief window to respond to it or not.

So: what do you do? Maybe you don't know the people you're with very well. Maybe you're not willing to deal with the social consequences of objecting, particularly because those consequences are likely to occur behind your back. Maybe you're just tired and don't want to deal with this shit. And as I can tell you from personal experience, the chance for an actual productive exchange is low. But then again, racism should be challenged. People usually take silence as assent. Worse, if you're black and someone says something stupid and you don't challenge it, there's a tendency for the speaker to take that as evidence that what he or she said couldn't possibly be racist or unacceptable. "Hey, I said that around this black guy, and even he thought it was funny!" All of this goes right back to W.E.B. Du Bois; black people in America have always been forced to exist as a kind of double, the particular and the general black subject.

I couldn't possibly tell you what the right thing to do here would be. I'm not black, I've never had to navigate this particular minefield, and I never will. My point is only to say that if you're a racial minority, you have to make a choice, even if that choice is inaction. Having to face that choice is in and of itself a way of being racialized that white people don't face. Sure, we've all been in positions where we have to decide whether to engage with racism or not. But as I said above, there is an implied responsibility when you are a member of the insulted group that doesn't exist for white people. And there is no not choosing, as choosing to do nothing is making a choice, and a socially loaded one at that. It's like the guy who passes you on the street and tips his hat to you. You have no choice but to respond. You can choose to do nothing, but doing nothing is itself a choice, and in context one that sends one of the loudest social messages. Now take that and multiply the importance by a thousand times.

I have myself felt some of the discomfort that I describe above in classes where we discuss race. Then I leave the class and I'm just some dude. Meanwhile a black student leaves class and operates in an environment where many white people will take him or her to be emblematic of all black people. That's a necessary context to understand race in America, and it points to the poverty of terms like "playing the race card." The race card got played a long, long time ago. You can try to ignore it but you can't put it back in the deck.


Heather said...

I am a white person, but I lived in India for two years, during which I experienced what it is like to be classified as type white person by a few of the people I interacted with. There are some big differences between being classified as type white person as opposed to type black person, such as assumptions about wealth level, but your description of the phenomenon seems spot on.

ovaut said...

'the kind of statement that is expressed so banally that it seeks to implicate others in its assumptions.'

very nice

i had a romanian landlady whose anti-gypsy racism i tried to challenge

J. Otto Pohl said...

I am a white guy and almost all of my current students are black. I am currently teaching in Ghana. I don't have a problem discussing issues of race in class. I also do not think Africans understand race and racism better than white people by mere virtue of their skin color. Trying to explain Nazi anti-Semitism in my Aspects of World History 1914-1945 history class wasn't super easy. Not all black people all have an innate understanding of what race and racism are conceptually. It is all contextual and the context has to be explained. When I lived in Kyrgyzstan I certainly experienced racial discrimination, although not on the same level that Uzbeks did. But, while the experience made me somewhat more empathetic it just made me very, very angry more than anything else. I suspect the same thing is true with most black Americans. The anger is justified, but it is not insight.

jcapan said...

As Heather said, whites are indeed emblematic in many parts of Asia. As a long-term resident, it’s a bit trying at times. But as a temporary experience--becoming the other--it affords a good deal of insight.

That said, most of us are here by choice, short-term expats from (often) wealthier nations. Our experiences are thus never as debilitating as those of minorities born into a form of internal exile (blacks, Native Americans etc. in the US). We can pack up and go home. They are home. Here in Japan, the white other gains numerous benefits that blacks or, far worse yet, fellow Asians rarely if ever receive. I find the white experience in parts of Asia to be the reverse of the modern Asian “model-minority” experience in America.

Adam said...

Very interesting thoughts. Thanks.

I find it a little amazing that your white students feel racialized by discussion of contemporary racism, as I think my first reaction would be, "that's definitely not me."

But I think the feeling you describe is broader than race, and I think the set of people who feel a responsibility to act as an emblem for a group is actually growing. Whether it's race, religion, or sexual orientation/identity that's being stereotyped, I think their is growing awareness that standing by while someone makes ignorant comments can reinforce the ignorance so that anyone with empathy or a personal relationship to members of the group also faces the decision of whether to speak up.

Obviously the "friends" have an option, and their quiescence is less powerful, but it's still something.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

This is absolutely right, and those last sentences are spot-on. Many white people, especially young white people, especially especially young white people from mostly all-white communities, don't like to think of themselves as having a race, much less being part of history. And making students aware of their place in history is what education is all about.

That said, it's worth noting not just the discomfort that can result for white kids, but also the dangerously tempting feeling of power a professor (or minority student) can feel when calling the white kids out. In an academic environment, authority is power. And many white kids can feel like being called on their white privilege is a form of silencing. It doesn't help that too many professors sometimes take a sadistic pleasure in the discomfort their students feel when their assumptions are challenged, mistaking their ability to inflict unhappiness for an ability to educate (Chaucey De Vega, of We Are Respectable Negros, is one of the worst online exemplars of this, with his incredibly icky tendency to refer to white students as "snowflakes", but I've seen it in too many classrooms as well).

There's no easy guide to talking about race, though Jay Smooth has tried to provide one. But as you say, it's important for white kids to understand that not talking about race is the ne plus ultra of in white privilege

Anonymous said...

"What I would like for more white people to understand is that this feeling that they feel in those moments-- that they have been racialized, made to feel like an avatar for their entire broadly-defined ethnic or racial group-- is a feeling that many non-white people feel all the time."

This is exactly correct. -WDM