A comment by Chris in the recent Alexandra Wallace discussion highlights an interesting debate on the Left related to race and power.
The Alexandra Wallace controversy has stirred up much debate. In the original post, I mentioned an unexamined matter is the defense of Alexandra Wallace and how it has been used as a way of bringing up white opinion on her correctness and, by extension, “double standards” applied to whites and the like.
Chris articulates a view that racism and sexism are racism and sexism, no matter who it is. I replied to Chris’ comments, as they serve as a good starting point on important political issues.
I think racism and sexism is far more complicated. Moreover, I am concerned that the desire to make everything equal underscores the problem that, in fact, nothing is equal. White racism is still a powerful tool in politics and society, and tagging those with fewer numbers and less power as the same as those with power and numbers to flex it misses crucial junctures.
On the Alexandra Wallace matter, Chris writes:
Now if racism and sexism are universal and not gender-dependent or race-dependent then Alexandra’s comments should be equally “offensive” even if we substitute “Asian” for something else, right? But as we can see that doesn’t hold up!
Imagine if Alexandra had complained about wealthy white students whose parents came up to their apartments to cook, clean and do their laundry. Would what she said be considered racist? No! Alexandra is white and making a cultural critique about other whites is perfectly acceptable. But more importantly in our American culture ANY cultural critique of white suburban culture is valid and never ever considered racist no matter if a white person says it or if any other race says it. Calling white students — especially wealthy white students — lazy or spoiled is not considered racist by anyone.
Many academics and theorists have written about this issue, related mostly to the unconscious assumptions behind it across gender, race and class. In short, joking about or critique of whiteness is seen from a fundamentally advantaged position because whiteness, white culture, etc. is looked upon as the norm and ethnic Otherness the aberration. I replied:
[But] racism and sexism are not universal, nor are they not gender-dependent or race-dependent. Is there discrimination? Of course. Do people of color occasionally say an unkind word of a white person? Sure. Does such now mean “racism” is now the movement not simply against the forces of white supremacy, but against a Latino thinking whites hurling racial slurs are ignorant? No.
More broadly, the issue of simply saying anyone can be a sexist or racist regardless of their gender or race directly and indirectly seeks to take the legs out from social justice movements by presuming racism and sexism are now matters where true power is shared by everyone, regardless of race or gender. This presumption is patently false. I added:
Should sexism be called sexism, even if it is a woman stating it? Should racism be called racism if a Black person talks about bigotry she or he has faced? I do not think so.
I concede the movement to obscure white privilege from discussions of power is one that seems reasonable to many white people, even progressive ones. Unfortunately, one can’t talk about racism, sexism and power without talking about whiteness, and one cannot legitimately claim white discomfort and abuses against Black people is equal. Not historically. Not theoretically. This is a talking point, plain and simple.
Chris asks, “White people in general and white men in particular should not be exempt from cultural discussions concerning discrimination or prejudice, should they?” To me, participation has to be predicated on understanding those same people don’t get to set the agenda, terms or throw into the mix the idea that whatever prejudice they think they experience is on the same footing as what people of color actually experience. They aren’t equal at all. Again, this is a talking point.
Everyone needs to be crystal clear that, when the words ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’ come up, we’re talking power and privilege — who has it, who wields it and who benefits, even if they never wanted to — not that everyone who says something unkind, regardless whether they’re white or not, is a racist or sexist. Segregation, class conflict and economic divisions, to which white supremacy and racism have played key roles in the formation of the American Empire, are just not the same as ‘that brown person looked at me funny and hurt my feelings.’
Not to say someone’s feelings are illegitimate. We can’t, as political organizers, call this scale the same, in my opinion.
Chris sums it up:
… in America we have inadvertently created a racial and gender double-standard. We, people interested in fostering social justice, have gone so overboard in trying to root out the historical perpetrators of racism and sexism that we’ve unconsciously created a cultural double-standard. In other words: it’s not sexism if we say insulting things about men and it’s not considered racism if we make derogatory comments about white people of either sex.
For example: is it sexist for a woman to say men are all stupid pigs? Culturally the answer is no. No one considers that a sexist comment. Is it racist if a black man says that he has trouble getting promoted because most of the white people where he works are racist? Generally we do not consider such comments and beliefs racist.
Equating a Black person saying he can’t get a promotion or a woman calling men stupid pigs to a white person saying Blacks are ignorant and live off whites are not equal statements. Each individual’s place in the political spectrum is far different. A Black person complaining about discrimination or a woman calling men stupid pigs (in the context of abusive, anti-woman behavior she experiences [let’s face it, people do not say such things in a vacuum] historically does not have power and their statements are institutional (white discrimination and patriarchy) coming back to actions. The white person credits such actions to individuals not the institutions to which she/he has benefited and others have been disenfranchised.
To me, it is a critical political point that we see racism and sexism and their interlocking relationship with white privilege.
Because we have become so hyper-sensitive to past injustices regarding race and gender (admittedly perpetrated by white males throughout our history) that we have gone overboard trying to “correct” those issues. And by overboard I specifically mean that we as a culture of made it basically okay to “hate” white people. Again my point is that we should be striving for a society in which all races and all genders are treated with equality and respect. We are not currently doing that. What we are doing now is treating all races except Caucasians with respect and all genders with respect, unless of course its a white male in which case, you know, it’s okay to treat those assholes differently because you know they all hate women and most of them are racist.
That’s not equality.
For what it’s worth, I think the equality is not a debate to ensure white men (or anyone else) are not picked on, but rather one of resources and access. Tim Wise, correctly, speaks of this as “a well-intended but destructive form of colorblindness” as well as “an equally destructive colormuteness. These mean, quite literally, a tendency… to neither see nor give voice to race and racism as central issues in our communities and the institutions where we operate, or their connection to and interrelationship with other issues. Both liberal/left colorblindness and colormuteness perpetuate the marginalization of people of color and their concerns, in the larger society and within progressive formations for social change.”
Two ideas (racism and sexism should be stamped out whenever it shows itself, and a comment is racist and sexist regardless of the race or gender of the person speaking) sum up a troubling departure for U.S. Left politics: moving from institutional analysis to an individualized politic, one in which social ills are rooted not in historical and contemporary power, but in people’s actions and decisions. In such an equation, the kernel seems reasonable — all politics are equal, people are on an even playing field and everyone has the same power — but, in reality, none of that is true. Racism, gender bias and cultural intolerance are persistent. Whites still have institutional power others do not.
What do you think?
You are encouraged to check out our past posts on white privilege for more.
- Alexandra Wallace and the Unbearable Lightness of Whiteness
- Unlearning Sexism and Other Oppressions
- A MESSAGE FROM AN EDITOR TO RACIST WHITES: IF YOU CAN’T TAKE THE TRUTH THEN STAY THE FUCK AWAY FROM US NIGGERS!!!
- More on the “10 Conversations On Racism I’m Sick Of Having With White People”
- Racism Doesn’t Cut Both Ways, PERIOD