Monday, September 17, 2007

you know, "racists."

i've been wanting to put up a post about stereotyping and society for awhile. i want to put up that post right now, in spite of the fact that i feel unable to string three coherent sentences together. so what this lacks in cohesive persuasion, i hope it makes up for in awesome and informational linkage.

so. i think there are three main points i want to make here. they are simply this:

1) we are all racists and misogynists and homophobes.
2) we cannot exactly help it.
3) this does not have to constitute the end of the world as we know it.

(i should qualify point number three - it could constitute such a thing, if we don't wise up about it already.)

now, admittedly, people tend to - to put it mildly - fucking lose it when accused of one of the big three prejudices above. i assume that this is because, in this day and age, to be called a "racist" conjures up images of the ku klux klan and those guys you see in grainy 1950s film reel with pomade hair and cigarettes rolled into the sleeve of their undershirts. you know, "racists." racist means unabashedly, unapologetically against considering black people as equal. and while it's interesting that i can't come up with an equivalent cultural image for "misogynist" or "homophobe" (anti-abortion protesters? ted haggard? i'm stumped), the same extreme brush applies. racists and misogynists are those awful people, over there, doing and saying all those horrible things. certainly not us.

but really, if it's just those fringe wackjobs and hysterical protesters "over there," being and doing racist, misogynist, homophobic things, how exactly do these bigotries survive? how is this shit perpetuated so steadily, so ceaselessly, for generations and generations? because - obvious answer alert - it's bigger than that. it's a system. it's in everything, it's everywhere. and that means none of us are above it.

one of the best encapsulations of the enemy that feminism faces i've ever heard is this: "patriarchy is a culture, not a conspiracy." these prejudices are a culture that we are steeped in, that our parents were steeped in, their parents were steeped in, etc etc and so on. no one gets a pass; no one somehow arrives at adulthood magically untouched, untainted. all of us, based on the societal soup in which we've been cooking since day one, have both the capacity and inclination for racist, misogynist, and homophobic thought and behavior.

i think that just stating such a thing, of accepting and owning one's complicity (willing or not!) in the system is a critical starting point. the revolution starts at home, right? awareness is the first step.

i hope i've kept you reading til now, because if you haven't read about Project Implicit, i highly recommend checking it out. malcolm gladwell's Blink highlights this Harvard study about unconscious prejudice; much journalistic ink has been spilled about it as well:

Gladwell has some fascinating insights into this dark side [of rapid cognition], and his section on the implicit association test -- a psychological tool that determines your unconscious, "automatic" preferences for certain kinds of people by measuring how long it takes you to assign words and faces to categories -- is the best part of the book. You can take the IAT here, but be careful. The unconscious is a mysterious thing, and don't be surprised if your test shows you to have an automatic preference for white people over black people, or for thin people over fat people, or for young people over old people. I grew up in apartheid South Africa and consider myself, as most people do, exceedingly egalitarian in how I treat people, but, I'm ashamed to say, my test showed an automatic preference for whites over blacks. Gladwell, who is half-black, found a similar preference when he took the test. Indeed, he notes, of the 50,000 African-Americans who've taken the race IAT, half show an automatic preference for whites.

subsequent use of the IAT through Project Implicit has illustrated the way these unconscious prejudices noiselessly and unobtrusively influence areas like health care, politics, andhuman resources. from the Post article:

In perhaps the most dramatic real-world correlate of the bias tests, economists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago recently sent out 5,000 résumés to 1,250 employers who had help-wanted ads in Chicago and Boston. The résumés were culled from Internet Web sites and mailed out with one crucial change: Some applicants were given stereotypically white-sounding names such as Greg; others were given black-sounding names such as Tyrone.

Interviews beforehand with human resources managers at many companies in Boston and Chicago had led the economists to believe that black applicants would be more likely to get interview calls: Employers said they were hungry for qualified minorities and were aggressively seeking diversity. Every employer got four résumés: an average white applicant, an average black applicant, a highly skilled white applicant and a highly skilled black applicant...

To the economists' surprise, the résumés with white-sounding names triggered 50 percent more callbacks than résumés with black-sounding names. Furthermore, the researchers found that the high-quality black résumés drew no more calls than the average black résumés. Highly skilled candidates with white names got more calls than average white candidates, but lower-skilled candidates with white names got many more callbacks than even highly skilled black applicants.

now, i'm sure these human resources managers are just like people we all know - decent, hard working, well meaning. they aren't white supremacists or guys who drive around with the stars and bars on their pickups. but they, like all of us, unconsciously and unfortunately perpetuate systems of unfair oppression every day. the sooner we realize this to be true, and noteworthy, and important to acknowledge, the sooner we could actually, maybe make a little progress.


Tom said...

One of the problems is the language used to describe bias gets intentionally warped by some, and meticulously parsed by others. In Ten Things You Can't Say In America, Larry Elder argues that blacks are more racist than whites, but white condescension is as bad as black racism. Why on earth wouldn't those both be considered racism? Racial supremacists often claim they don't hate other races, just that they're different and socially incompatible.

I think that's especially the case with gender. Most of us caught in the culture of patriarchy aren't misogynist or misandrist, but sexist. There isn't an active hatred, just a lazy "viva la difference" attitude that contributes to the culture, and the inevitable effect of the culture is misogynist.

With homophobia, I've often heard people say some variation of "I'm not afraid of homosexuals, just blabidy blah blah..."

In all of these cases, the reaction is understandable; when you get accused of something worse (or slightly different) than what you've done, you tend to get your back up and look for any argument to defend yourself. But it distracts from the real problem.

kate.d. said...

tom, you're right, the semantics of the whole thing are really sticky (and i don't mean semantics in that dismissive way, either!). i know it's hard to dialogue when we're all using these broad terms that, while they have a dictionary definition, have myriad usage and meaning in everyday life and probably mean slightly (or hugely) different things to different people.

BoyCat and i were actually debating this a bit before i posted - he felt that labeling someone who has a racist thoughts as "racist," because he felt that action was the basis for "being" racist. i felt that the thought was enough to warrant it. different perspectives...

(also, i'm intrigued by the fluidity between terms - for instance, when does relentless, acted-upon sexism become misogyny? how do you define whem something becomes hateful? etc.)

kate.d. said...

whoops - i meant to say "he felt that labeling someone who has racist thoughts as 'racist' was unfair" - i really should not be allowed in front of a computer any longer for today.

Tom said...

Don't worry, I figured that's what you meant. I definitely sympathize with BoyCat's stance, mainly because as your post suggests, we're all biased and we can't help it; it's the actions which cause the problems. Focusing on what people think brings the understandable critcisms of Thought Crime.

But at the same time, the inactions which may result from racist thoughts feed into the culture and give it it's real perniciousness. Basically the midpoint of "difference" becomes the fertile ground for the extreme hatreds.

As for the sexism becoming misogyny, I'd say that's inevitable in a patriarchy. I would guess that it would become overwhelming misandry in a matriarchy.

kate.d. said...

tom, to your first point, i thought this quote from the post article was very interesting (i wanted to include it in front of the resume example, but the post was too long already!):

Banaji [one of the researchers who developed the IAT] is the first to say people ought to be judged by how they behave, not how they think. She tells incredulous volunteers who show biases that it does not mean they will always act in biased ways -- people can consciously override their biases. But she also acknowledges a sad finding of the research: Although people may wish to act in egalitarian ways, implicit biases are a powerful predictor of how they actually behave.

Tom said...

Oh, and don't forget the reverse-overcompensation trap. In one instance you go too far, so now everyone screams "White Guilt!" and then use that as a way of pushing back farther right. See Steve Sailer's take on Barak Obama.

Or even better, the "I'm Against All Discrimination" Defense while not recognizing the sides and direction the world around you has taken.

Toast said...

we are all racists and misogynists and homophobes

Of all the crap that Jesus Freaks say that makes me nuts, the worst is "We are all sinners." Every time I hear someone repeat this ridiculous trope, I think to myself "Uh, sorry, no. You want to consider yourself a 'sinner' that's your business. Don't tar me in order to dilute your own guilt."

This is a lot like that, only the tactic, as you're using it, isn't designed to dilute your guilt but rather to aggrandize your point of view by indicting everyone as part of the problem.

Well, I'm sorry:

We are not all racists.

We are not all homophobes.

We are not all misogynists.

"Ism" implies a conscious belief system. It implies something that is chosen and deliberately acted upon. Analyses of subconscious preferences don't prove that someone is an "ist". Only actions can do that, and we do not all act in the way your ideology imagines we do.