Thursday, April 30, 2009

Who's the better racist?

I've been thinking a lot about racial intolerance lately especially with regard to honesty in racism. In the south, given the historical tradition of discrimination, people feel more comfortable expressing discriminatory views and acting overtly racist. In the mid-west and north, however, people seem (generally of course, specific locations may fail to conform to this generalization) to almost never explicitly acknowledge their own racist tendencies, but instead allow those tendencies to passively affect the way that they go about their lives.

What has prompted the most thought for me is which method of racism is worse. One is honest in its discrimination while the other is more overtly civil, but is that better or worse? With regard to the overt racist, one can put his position, actions, and dogma in perspective and weigh those same things accordingly while the passive racist's tendencies could easily be more damaging as it would be easier for him to affect policy or decisions in a calculating manner considering that the passive racist may not be easy to identify as such.

At the same time though, is the easily identifiable action of the overt racism more damaging in that it receives more coverage? An overly racist cause could serve to attract an entirely new set of racist or to mobilize those who might have lesser racist tendencies. The counterpoint there is that this type of coverage could equally mobilize the tolerant, counteracting or even overshadowing the gains made by overt racist. The passive racist on the other hand is not likely to attract new racists in the same degree, but if he is able to covertly affect change, those changes could persuade some to believe that the subtle racism that the passive racist is able to enact is proper. This passive approach is far less likely too to attract anti-racist sentiment among the tolerant.

So which is worse? I've been thinking about this off and on for the past several weeks and can't decide which is more damaging on the personal level or social level. Another thing I've struggled with is determining whether one who truly cannot divorce himself from his own racism should act overtly or passively. Does honestly with regard to intolerance yield a better result than letting it only subconsciously affect action? As you can see, after milling the concepts over, the questions are incredibly difficult to answer as each form of racism offers its own set of detriments, each as difficult to weigh as the previous.

ways to promote racial equality

This semester we have studied about the philosophy of race, racism and privilege, but we haven’t really touched on ways to fight racial injustices too much. Although white privilege affects nearly every aspect of life, it’s not easy to combat it. In this blog I will provide and describe some possible ways to help create racial equality.

One way to reduce prejudice and promote racial harmony is to interact more with those of a different race. Just simple personal interactions with a member of another race can help reduce prejudice in ourselves.

Start or get involved in an anti-racist coalition. Grouping together with others that feel the same about race issues can aid in the reduction of racism. This is a great way to fight race privilege on a school campus or other institution. It’s easier to impact systematic racism when people group together.

Be a white ally (if you’re white). By this I mean, do what you can to help race issues. Too many people quit in their efforts to reduce race privilege because they feel like their individual effort fails to make a meaningful impact. If you aren’t actively fighting racism then you are helping perpetuate it.

Talk to individuals. If you overhear someone making a racist statement, ask them why they said it. Try to understand why they would say this, and calmly explain your stance on the issue. Discussing race issues with others is a good way to combat racism on the individual level.

Obtain positions of power. The more power you have, the greater the influence you can make on institutional racism. Politicians, heads of organizations, and CEOs have more power than most to fight race privilege. People in positions of power can help restructure our society to be more racially equal.

Although these are just a few ways to promote racial equality, they can be pretty successful. White privilege is not a commonly believed phenomenon. The main problem surrounding white privilege is that many do not believe in its existence. It is the responsibility of those who believe white privilege is thriving to do what they can to spread awareness of it.

Does anyone else have any ways to help create racial equality?

Looking back...

Looking back to the beginning of this course, I remember being slightly surprised at some of the first philosophers' constructions of the term "race". Bernier, though notably the first one to use the term with regards to difference in skin color, was nonetheless unable to free his perceptions from the assumptions and biases that he was brought up around. I enjoyed Herder's calling out of the racial hierarchy when he stated that we were all "independent substances". However, none of these philosopher's could satisfy my need for some scientific consistency. Maybe it's because these early constructions of the word race are so different then how I am used to it being used today. However, reading about these early forms have given new light to the term in ways that I would never have thought of before.
Then we were introduced to Montagu. Ashley Montagu criticized the anthropological view of race as nothing but an inconsistent definition and an artificially constructed "omelet". Finally, it seemed as though I found a view that was as dissatisfied as I was about the inconsistent way we tend to use the word race. From that moment on, I agreed with Montagu that the term "race" should be completely eradicated from our language.
However I have come to realize the naiveté of this view. Though I hate the negative aspects of the perpetually broad definition of this word, it is essentially impossible to get rid of due to the dependence the human race has given it. "Race" is constantly evolving in meaning. Because we do not live in a "horizontal" society, the only way to thwart the negative aspects of using the word race starts with yourself.

Louis CK on white privilege?

I've finally found the clip of Louis CK's stand up comedy that I feel somewhat translates to our class.  Pardon the bad language, for our purposes I'm only discussing the first minute or so of the clip.  However, he does make an interesting point later on about the term "white trash" and how it is blatantly acceptable to use.  Feel free to comment/ discuss.
Just as the rich, according to CK, are blinded by their own privilege and benefits and can never understand poor life, the racial majority can never understand life as a racial minority. Not only do the racially privileged never feel the need to imagine life without privilege, they simply could not genuinely understand the other's situation if they wished to.  Likewise, just as the poor person is able to imagine wealth and is constantly reminded of it, a non-privileged, minority race can imagine life with privilege because they are continually reminded of its benefits.  This is where my argument stems from CK's and we are reminded that this is merely a correlating metaphor and not a solid match.  In no way am I trying to say that people of a racial minority constantly "fantasize" about what it is like to be white and enjoy white privilege.  What I am saying, however, is that based on the fact that there are overt and constant reminders of this imbalance,  said groups cannot help but take notice and have undoubtedly developed an awareness to others' situations that is unparalleled by the privileged race.  People of racial privilege would never imagine life under different circumstance.  Just like Louis CK says, "why would they do that?"

Human Rights Paradigm

A few weeks ago, I attended GlobeMed's annual Global Health Summit in Chicago. This year’s conference, “From Idea to Implementation: Securing Health as a Human Right,” brought together philosophers, economists, physicians, activists, and many others to debate the role of a human rights framework in realizing global health equity. Although most speakers fundamentally agreed that health is a human right, often citing Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, heated debates ensued once the topic drifted to pragmatics.

Between the conference and recent class discussions, I’ve noticed more and more parallels between the struggles for healthcare access and racial equality. Structural violence, unacknowledged privileges, and arguments over semantics create a glass ceiling preventing us from attaining the level of equity outlined in documents such as our own Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

I don’t mean to say that the Civil Rights movement was unsuccessful or that the UDHR was not a monumental stride. Clearly we’ve come a long way the past 50 years in terms of written legislation; however, it’s easy to simply pull quotes from these documents and argue that our work is complete. I think most of us would agree that unresolved social, economic, and racial inequalities are systematically buried under the façade of equal opportunity. From the impression of an equal playing field stems the common misconception and generalization that current inequalities can be attributed to a person’s innate ineptitude or laziness. The sick are sick because they don’t care for themselves (not because they lack equal access to preventive healthcare). The poor are impoverished because they lack entrepreneurial skills (not because they lack equal access to education). At the same time, though, somehow we need to recognize the significance of the structural forces at play without lifting accountability off individual shoulders.

Both racism and global health inequity are manifestations of structural violence. Not only does the system self-perpetuate its design and hierarchies, but realization of these sedimented structures can often deter individuals from taking action. General feelings of inevitability and helplessness serve to suppress efforts to dismantle (or at least navigate) the system. This makes perfect sense from an economic perspective. Why invest in something that will likely eat your money?

The assumed role of “investor” is a privileged position. Ability to extend one’s reach to others requires a certain level of health and stability. We gripe about costs of medical care in the US, yet we are incredibly privileged to have access to top-notch hospitals, clean water, food, and other services difficult to obtain in developing countries. Typically, we are not reminded of these benefits on a daily basis, and this is just one example of Western privilege when it comes to healthcare access. For most, the phrase “global health issue” tends to evoke images of starving children in Africa. Global health is often perceived as a Third World plague, with the potential remedy lying in the hands of the West. Likewise, racialism is typically portrayed as a problem for oppressed colored people, with the predominantly white government responsible to grant civil rights. In both cases, the fundamental aspect of privilege involves unconsciously extracting oneself from the issue and assuming the role of caretaker.

Right now, other than good will, there’s not much motivating the West to cure the Rest. This is where I believe the human rights paradigm potentially takes a stronghold over civil rights in the quest for social justice. It’s impossible to conceive of a free-standing right, or one without a corresponding duty. A right always involves two parties at minimum. You have no rights unless someone else acknowledges them, and then the “other” has a duty to act in accordance with those rights. When it comes to enforcing political or civil rights, duty primarily lies in the hands of the state. For human rights, the responsibility belongs to humanity. A couple others have asked about the possible synthesis of Alternative Epistemologies, and I wonder if human rights language may be the source of a universally resonating call to action.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Similarities of Gender and Race

In honor of Shakespeare’s 100th birthday, Rhodes College invited two scholars to speak about their experiences editing and studying the works of Shakespeare. Dr. Callaghan presented the first lecture on her experiences in editing a soon to be published edition of Taming of the Shrew. She began her lecture discussing her concerns with the book’s audience and the importance of the book cover. She had to make the decision of how Kate should be conveyed offering three different options. The first was a black and red outline of a woman’s eye and brow. The second was a comical picture of Kate and Petruchio smiling in an animated manner. The third was a picture of Kate and Petruchio displaying the patriarchal culture by Kate’s resemblance of a puppet. Her mouth is open and hands clasp together with Petruchio standing behind her to imply he is the puppeteer. Dr. Callaghan expressed her concern with the first image on the book, because it helps to guide the reader to a certain interpretation. It didn’t take her long to decide that the option number one best represented her perspective. In her editing, she did extensive research on the history of this time, specifically the issue of gender inversion. She asked the question where is the boundary between erotic intensity and rape, and used the example of a “shrewish woman.” There seems to be some idea that women may like restraint and force, and consent seemed to be blurry in the time period. She then looked at the other works of the time to show a comparison such as the character of the Greek nymph, Daphne. Dr. Callaghan emphasized the attractiveness of a chase, and the motivation that comes from an inability to possess something of desire. As a woman editor dealing with these types of issues, Dr. Callaghan refers to the Taming of the Shrew as an emotionally difficult play. There are many controversial issues such as gender, class, and the innate tendency to strive to be superior.

            In my psychology of gender class, I found there to be many interesting parallels to race. In Invisible Blackness, Charles Mills chapter on Alternative Epistemologies critics Rene Descartes’s Cartesian sum. As we learned, the Cartesian Sum is a detached observer, individualistic, and objective in isolation. There are benefits to use this perspective as a model for our perceptions, because it allows us to separate mind and body to offer objectivity and independence of what people think. Yet, the claims are not universal and cannot apply to all. The view is extremely narrow and shows the world perceived by the white male. Mills emphasizes the need for the alternative epistemology and offers gender as an option as well as race. There seem to be many parallels between the historical inversions Dr. Callaghan spoke of in her lecture, which are evident in the Taming of the Shrew. Dr. Callaghan emphasized the importance of the cover’s portrayal acting as a guide to the audiences’ interpretation. It was interesting to find that the play was written directly before the years of Descartes, who claimed the white male as the norm. In the play, Kate’s actions were observed from the male perspective. Dr. Callaghan’s question of what is rape and the idea of consent was not an issue for Petruchio. He says, “Will you, nill you, I will marry you,” showing his demand for the wife to conform to his ways. Just as the cover of a book influences the reader, Shakespeare’s plays in the late 1500’s and early 1600s seem to have impacted the culture as illustrated through Descartes and the audience. His writings parallel the character of Petruchio that the white male is the norm and superior.  The historical perception of race has been evident through our studies of the philosophers. But just as men are the norm in gender, white seems to be the norm for race. Although our nation has made great strides in creating equality, there remain issues regarding the topic. I feel that Dr. Callaghan’s referral to the importance of the audience needs to be associated not just with gender related issues, but also with race. She took a full ten minutes to describe the different options available and explained how people would interpret the book just by the cover. If more people focus on the audience and create more attention to details could this create a new norm, not just the white male that Descartes portrayed? 

Supreme Court Discusses Race

I came upon an interesting article while scrolling through the New York Times “Race Topics Page” which, by the way, is pretty interesting as it organizes all race related articles in one place ( The article discussed the Supreme Court’s examination of an interesting situation. When firemen wish to be promoted each are made to take an official exam to determine if they are apt to be promoted. In New Haven, CT such an exam was administered to a group of firefighters and the results yielded no promotions for black applicants. At this point the test was thrown out. The New Haven fire department was attempting to follow federal discrimination laws and were put in a tough situation. Either way they faced a potential lawsuit on both sides. A class action lawsuit was filed by 18 firefighters, all white except for one Hispanic, who claimed discrimination. The question at hand is whether or not the city should be protected because they were attempting to comply with federal law. Justice Breyer asked a series of hypothetical questions to explore the topic. “What if, he asked, a university is dissatisfied with the number of female professors gaining tenure under its usual requirements? May it suspend the requirements? And what if Texas, which admits high school students graduating in the top 10 percent to its public universities, becomes dissatisfied with the resulting racial mix? May it switch to 15 percent?” His point was not that the answer to any of these questions would be a definite yes or no, but that the decision the court makes could have very far-reaching decisions. I think this case could have some big employment implications. Would the court not be implementing some form of affirmative action if they did not side with the white firefighters. Personally, I don’t know why the test was thrown out in the first place. It seems that in an attempt to carefully sidestep any issue of race the city decided that no promotions would be best. But although this approach does not technically directly discriminate against any races, it seems unfair for the firefighters who performed well on the test. In the words of their lawyer, ““It’s neutral because you throw it out for the losers as well as for the winners? That’s neutrality?” The situation is a sticky one; obviously the city feels that they should not take race into account at all, but federal law has certain employment statutes.

White Man Dead, Black Man Standing... It Must be Murder

As some of you may know I am a member of the Rhodes College Mock Trial team. We had a pretty good season this year and actually competed in the National Championship two weeks ago. Some of the best schools in the country were competing such as Stanford and Yale. Many people seem to think that the more educated a person is the less likely they are to believe in or support blatant racial stereotypes. Unfortunately, this is not the case at all.

We were arguing a libel case in which a celebrity turned politician claimed to have been accused of murder in a breaking news report. One of the strategies we mock trial teams use in order to grasp the attention of the jury, is the use of a theme which relates all the facts of the side of the case we are arguing. Well Yale’s theme for their side of the case was, “White man dead, black man standing…so it must have been murder.” As if the theme was not enough, the guy playing the so-called accused politician was black. Out of a team of seven people there were actually two African American males on the team. I must say this struck a nerve with me. For one, I could not believe that Yale would have the audacity to actually have a theme like this. Secondly, I could not believe that the two black males agreed to this theme. Am I wrong for being disturbed by this?

The latter concerned me more than the former. I guess I kind of expect that sort of thinking from some Caucasians. Maybe that is because I am a minority and I am just accustomed to being stereotyped however, I do my best to defy those stereotypes and not give in to the status quo whenever possible. The fact that the African American males agreed to be represented in such a light upset me most. I understand that Yale’s strategy could have possibly been to point out the problem with racial profiling in the media but considering the case had absolutely nothing to do with race I feel that was a strategy that was not needed and a point that was completely irrelevant. In view of how challenging it is for African American males to reach a high level of success in today’s society, I did not expect two African American males, especially ones who attend one the most stellar institutions in the country, to allow themselves to get pulled back so far. I would like to think that one of their goals is to exceed the status quo and the stereotype. I may have looked too deep into this theme but after hearing it I just could not help how disturbed I felt.

To my surprise, Yale actually ended up as one of the top 10 teams in the country. I could not believe that they were not scored down by any of their judges for this theme. Does this go to show the covert racism in our society?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What to do about white privilege

Racism is not the question anymore. I do think it is white privilege. We live in a world where overt racism has been denounced, but white people have not relinquished the privileges they have gained through time. There are so many it is mind boggling. Anything that a white person can do strictly because there are more of them is a privilege. The questions that come to mind, though, are could we remove them, and should we?
Personally I don’t think it is possible to remove all white privileges without removing our majority status. Some of the privileges Mclntosh mention come to mind, such as knowing that when I go somewhere I will be amongst the majority. Others such as the Affirmative Action privilege of not being questioned about my abilities because I am a white person are also entirely based on the majority status of white people since that was one reason for the creation of Affirmative Action.

To my second question of should we remove them, I find the answer more difficult to address than previously thought. As a white person I am loath to gain the worries that occur amongst other races. I refer to a movie I watched some time ago called Something New. In the movie a black business woman dates her white gardener and expresses, among other things, the difficulties of reaching a high level in her business while being black. It is difficult enough as a woman to reach high levels in business nevertheless getting past the unfair disqualification of being black. That is only one among many privileges granted in a Fanon’s racialized post-colonial country. I think it fair to grant equal rights to those who merit them, but that is much too simple a response for real life. It begs the question of who decides merit? A white person? That’s just another privilege. It also brings up that it is more difficult for minorities to express their merit because of the situations that they have been entrenched in from years of white dominance. How could they possibly be granted equal opportunity?

It is so easy for a white person to accept that it is too difficult to answer and become cynical and move on about with their white privileges, (again a privilege we have is to ignore that we are privileged and continue to reap the benefits) but I think it may be like everything else and need time to evolve.

Liberalism and Racial/Religious Expression

Since beginning this course and grappling with plotting and conceptualizing both local and global systems of racial classification and how those classifications manifest themselves in reality, I have been forced to reflect on my own beliefs regarding race and religion. I came into the course a proud, outspoken liberal. I had been through several diversity programs which focused primarily on deconstructing divisions between racial and religious groups, seeking ultimately to demonstrate the basic underlying humanity of all participants, regardless of racial/religious affiliation. I also attended middle school and high school at schools where I was very much in the racial minority, and I felt that this qualified me to speak accurately on common humanity, affording me the ability to disregard the very real social and cultural differences between myself and many of my classmates. Per Bridge builders and Facing History and Ourselves, everyone was one day destined to melt into one single, indiscernible cultural identity. Why, according to these organizations, is this the only answer to racial and religious stereotyping? The answer is because the organizations are fundamentally liberal and thus take it for granted that the ideological reality they hold for the future is ideal for everyone. But is this sort of reality ideal for everyone, or are liberals fooling themselves to hold the belief that a world without expressionary markers or signs is ideal for everyone involved?
To the liberal, anything that stands to affirm difference between two people is counterproductive. It is not necessarily the existence of groups, but their assertion of difference which poses a problem. To the liberal this will often seem like masochism (see, for example the Negritude movement which essentially affirmed many stereotypes directed at blacks). A liberal could point to numerous examples of discrimination and persecution which could have been avoided if racial and religious groups simply masked their beliefs (as we will see later, a recipe for the slow decay of racial/religious communal vitality). Everything is explicable in word form and by historic retrospection. It is not simply the racist’s fault for finding a problem with the difference between his/her group and the other, but in the other’s assertion of this difference through cultural expression. The liberal, unlike the member of a visibly discernable racial or religious group, is not invested in the real world (he/she is invested in no particular group’s continued existence and loses nothing in stripping a group of its unique identity), but is invested almost exclusively in achieving a far off, unrealizable, idealized world where there is nothing to differentiate groups and thus nothing on which to base any group’s superiority.
To the willing participants in racial and religious affirmation of identity nothing could be more devastating than being stripped expression. To this person, difference is not something that stands in the way of an ideal world, but something which binds one closely to other likeminded members of this community. A main focus of a “Methods and Theories of Religious Studies” class I took last semester was on religion’s potential to unify its participants and perpetuate itself through communal expression by elevating participants to states of ecstasy. In the above paragraph when I was describing the liberal, I stated that liberal’s position is explicable in “word form” and demonstratable by “historic retrospection.” This gives the liberal a certain advantage when it comes to political and legislative dialogue. For the religious or raced person forced to play in a court dictated by a hegemonistic liberal worldview, this is very difficult to argue with, for to the liberal person the religious or raced person is not arguing on the behalf of logic, but on the behalf of something that shouldn’t exist in the first place. This person’s stance is not communicable to the liberal by logical discourse because to the liberal the religious or racial assertionist’s (made that word up) stance is socially debilitating to themselves. It is something the liberal doesn’t understand. “Why would they want to set separate themselves and basically identify themselves as easy targets?” he might ask. Their stance is not as easily communicable in logical terms because what they are experiencing by their participation in activities which serve to unify their members is something based not on intellect, but on experience and feeling. Mass communal religious expression (something at which the liberal cringes or chuckles to observe) is an extremely powerful thing to members of religious groups. This is something that some of you have probably experienced. It is a sense of awe at its very least and can go so far as to literally elevate one mentally to a state of ecstasy. This is a main motivating factor in bringing people back to places of worship time and time again. It is what hooks people. It is a main, if not the main, factor in the perpetuation of cultural expression (and not just religious). It is this very real, visceral feeling evoked by mass, public expression (note, mass, public expression of anything other than common humanity is what the liberal wishes to minimize) that the liberal can’t understand. Because of the fact that the assertion of beliefs (and inevitably differences) stems primarily from a feeling evoked by communal expression of those beliefs, it is more difficult for the non-liberal to put his/her reasons for perpetuating differences in a word form logical enough for the liberal to understand and accept. It is something that the liberal would have to experience, but to which he/she is opposed and thus something he/she will never truly be able to experience. Because of this and the inability to signal with words this reason for expression in terms logical to the liberal, the liberal will never understand why unique groups wish to preserve religious and cultural expression.
When first faced with this proposition my initial reaction as a liberal person was to say “I don’t want to remove the existence of unique groups, but to help them to understand that they can be happier and less discriminated against if they don’t make themselves targets by conforming to that group’s identity, often manifested publicly through stereotypes.” I now realize, however, that in the end the liberal could never truly preserve the existence of unique groups while simultaneously limiting their public expression of difference, as this expression of difference is what polarizes and perpetuates the groups in the first place. By limiting or removing the desire to express themselves, the liberal would guarantee the group’s future extinction, and I don’t think any liberal person would agree to that position.