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On Doubting And Denying Each Other’s Experiences and Perspectives

The recent sociological blog debate on the supposed era of post-racism still weighs on my mind today, even as the conversation has tapered off.  Beyond arguing against this idealistic (and limited) vision of post-racism, I have reflected a great deal on how we have talked about race and racism, and the barriers that seemed to have gotten in the way of meaningful dialogue.

I have reflected upon how others have perceived me or even gone to the extent of criticizing me.  Most recently, I heard that some of my fellow graduate students dubbed me overly-sensitive.  I am used to this critique.  But, I joked with some of my friends that I must have gone “soft” over the years; I was labeled “militant” within my first year of graduate school, and then “uppity” by my third year.  Now, in my sixth and final year, I am merely “overly-sensitive.”

Doubting And Dismissing

Initially, it is upsetting to have fellow scholars — who are, by training, critical of the social world — lazily dismiss your critique of oppressive and unequal practices as sensitivity.  But, I learned to make peace with the reality that making friends in the academy is a bonus, not a given (this is not college!), and privileged and oppressed people come to academia for very different reasons.  Though we get the same training and do similar tasks (i.e., research, teaching, service), these are means to different ends.

So, I have grown used to the criticisms of unsympathetic privileged individuals — purportedly-liberal whites, heterosexuals, men, those of the middle-class, and those born in the US.  This weekend, it donned on me that the criticisms that have stood out in my mind, those with which I struggle for some time, are those from fellow marginalized group members — people of color and LGBT folks in particular.

Doubt And Dismissal By Other Marginalized Individuals

Obviously, the recent debate with Fabio Rojas (a Latino professor who advocated the “post-racism” thesis) continues to linger in my mind.  And, I still shudder today at the thought of having a gay man (who was a friend at the time) dub me “uppity” in arguing about the persistence of homophobia and racism.

My initial concern with having another person of color deny that racism exists, or is a persistent problem, or was relevant to a particular event in question is the fear of “airing dirty laundry.”  This is particularly true for Fabio’s suggestion that we live in a post-racist era.  Whether this is true or not, I fear that whites who secretly believe this, or who are on the fence about the significance of racism today, or who are too lazy or limited in their thinking to assess for themselves, will take this “post-racism thesis” and run with it.  “You see, even he thinks it, and he’s Latino!”  But, realistically, the hunger to declare racism dead is strong enough that those kinds of folks will find the evidence they need to do so anywhere.

But, beyond that fear, it has become clear to me that having another member of your oppressed group doubt or deny your experiences with oppression or your perspective more generally is harmful and disappointing in its own right.  First, because they do not completely agree, and, second, because they deny your perspective.  Of course, this is not to say that they cannot disagree, nor that you are automatically right and they are automatically wrong.  Rather, I take issue with those who seem so set on denying the existence of oppression that they reject your experiences and perspective that challenge that ideal picture.

In the two examples I mentioned, after drawing upon my personal exposure to racist prejudice and discrimination, a fellow man of color pointed out my (justified) rage and pressed on with his argument that racism does not exist.  After describing the homophobic prejudice and discrimination I have faced, a fellow gay man dismissed me as “uppity” because I became angry that he denied that homophobia is “all that bad.”  For whatever reason, they are so tied to these post-racist and post-homophobic utopias that my experiences failed to serve as evidence of racism and homophobia, and I needed to be further silenced by trivializing my anger.

Intersections With Power And Privilege

What complicates these kinds of challenging conversations with other marginalized individuals is that we may hold other privileged identities.  The force of the blow of being called uppity was multiplied by 100 because it came from a white man.  Our shared marginalized status as gay men shifted to the periphery in my mind as I was subject to the most racist verbal assault in my life, short of being called “nigger.”

As I have since learned, the racist history of the term uppity is not widely known; however, he failed to apologize once I called that to his attention.  Rather, he pressed on to correct me: “you could also say ‘uppity bitch’ or ‘uppity faggot’; it’s not just about race.”  He was right; it is not just about race.  It is about power.  Rather, it is about disempowering the recipient of the charge of uppitiness.

In addition, axes of power drawn from institutions can complicate matters, as well.  One challenge to the dialogue with Fabio is that he is a tenured professor; I am a graduate student on the verge of finishing my training (so, I still tread lightly to prevent making myself vulnerable to backlash).  Though he has not exploited his power, and has been civil throughout the debate, he very well could draw upon his status as a professor to silence me.

In my and other students’ interactions with other professors, being told homophobia is not that bad or sexism is dead and gone, we, as mere students, can only go so far in disagreeing with a professor.  Beyond fearing retaliation, we are constrained in many ways because these conversations tend to occur on the professors’ turf and terms.  How intensely and for how long can you disagree with a professor as you sit in their office, meeting with them during the time they are available?  And, you probably met with them for their help.  Moments after you leave their office, you could witness a white professor pet the hair of another Black student and ask whether it is really hers, but, while in the professor’s office, their view that “racism is not that bad today” is Truth.

A Call For Better Support From Our Fellow Group Members

I should stress that I do not intend to demonize those individuals of one’s own marginalized group for disagreeing, or even verbalizing that disagreement.  Also, I do not care to engage why some oppressed people fail to “see” oppression.  Some may have yet to gain the necessary consciousness to see more subtle expressions of prejudice and discrimination.  For the rest, dismissing them as having internalized their own oppression is just as harmful as them denying your oppressed reality.

Instead, I call for doing a better job of supporting one another.  As marginalized people, we already face enough doubt and denial from privileged people.  I will probably spend much of my energy in research, teaching, and serving on various university committees trying to convince whites that racism still exists.  What I need from other people of color, then, is a shared safe space to be free from doubt and denial.  Let us be sure to protect a space for ourselves where we do not have to convince one another that racism exists, or that our experiences were really shaped by racism.  We need a space where we will not trivialize each other’s emotional responses to prejudice and discrimination.

In fact, this safe space is one of the reasons why marginalized folks seek out others like themselves.  It is exhausting to deal with heterosexism and homophobic prejudice and discrimination, having your rights debated daily and voted upon every election cycle, while being told your fight for equal rights is not that important.  So, LGBT and queer people find solace in one another’s company.  It is no coincidence that, given my challenging experiences in graduate school, most of my closets friends today are queer, of color, and/or working-class.

I do think that we should challenge one another, whether it be raising our consciousnesses about our oppressed reality or trying to think outside of our own perspective.  But, this is not the same as outright doubting or denying someone’s experiences or perspective.  While growing together, supporting other people of color, other LGBT and queer people, other folks from working-class backgrounds, and other women means seeing, hearing, and validating each other in a society set on making us invisible, silent, and insignificant.

There Is (White Men’s) Truth, And Then There Are Opinions

Recently, a friend of mine posted a link on Facebook about the media reaction about a comment journalist Dan Rather made referencing selling watermelons in a conversation about President Barack Obama.  The essay, penned by Dan Rather himself, does not have a title that clearly indicates anything about race or racism, so I barely even noticed the link.  But, it was the response of one of his friends that caught my attention: “jeez louise… some people are just hell-bent on getting offended. they need a punch in the face.”  This, of course, warranted my immediate attention, so I checked the link out.  Dan Rather came to his defense to clarify that his comment was not meant to be about race, and, the common defensive response when white people are accused of being racist, to acknowledge how anti-racist he is.

A Response

As in do in many moments like these, I felt the need to give the anti-racist sociologist’s critique that redirects attention from the “overly-sensitive” individuals to the history and prevalence of institutional racism:

Think about the (racist) society that produces the potential for such sensitivity and misunderstanding. Instances like this can’t simply be blamed on overly-sensitive people, because that would assume that they are sensitive about an issue beyond what is appropriate or expected. We don’t live in a post-racial society, nor one that is free of prejudice and discrimination. So, it makes sense that people in minority groups are wary of the dominant group, ever vigilant. (Think about constantly looking over your shoulder when walking alone at night as a gay man, fearing a “gay-bashing.”) I suspect that no one *wants* to be offended because it is a toxic feeling and it keeps groups distant and distrustful. So long as our society wreaks of racist prejudice and discrimination, things like this with Dan Rather will continue to happen – face it, racism hurts everyone.

Making A Case

I gave this response, a long, accessible, plea, in place of what I really wanted to say: “c’mon, you should know better.”  But, realistically, as I am sure many can agree, the strength of ignorance and prejudice disallows for one to simply say “you should know better” when someone like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refers to Black people as “Negroes”, or when singer John Mayer jokes about having a racist penis because he does not find Black women physically and sexually attractive.  If I were to call someone out for making an ignorant or prejudiced comment, the onus is placed on me to explain why – and this quickly becomes a matter of pleading my case.  Many anti-racist activists, scholars, journalists, and bloggers have been trying to make a case for why the United States is far from being classified as “post-racial.”

Who’s Truth? Who’s Version Of Reality?

In having to make a case, someone else is to be the judge, primarily the dominant group.  That is, in arguing that racism continues to plague our nation, in the form of inequality, exclusion, disparities, and exploitation, is done in hopes that we will be believed, that our perspective will be validated – and whites are the ones to decide whether they buy it.  This means then, that there is a way of seeing the world that is regularly privileged over other ways of seeing the world, and that way is the way that dominant groups view the world.  When people of color highlight racial prejudice and discrimination, they can be easily dismissed as overly-sensitive, even exaggerating their claims.  When women raise doubts or concerns about an issue, they can be dismissed as being on their period, suffering from PMS.  This leaves in tact white, heterosexual, middle-class, able-bodied, US-born men’s perspective as truth, to which other perspectives must be evaluated as acceptable enough to compliment the existing version of truth.

A Note On Political Correctness And “Hypersensitivity”

As one blogger noted at sexgenderbody, the norm of political correctness is flawed, encouraging people to avoid saying things that could be perceived as prejudice, but failing to critique the prejudice itself.  The intent underlying political correctness is misguided, in that it seeks to avoid offending members of marginalized groups for fear of their reaction.  There is little critique of why minority groups may take offense.  As I suggested in my response to the facebook link of Dan Rather’s defense, I cannot imagine that there are people who actively search for implicit or explicit prejudice – mainly because you don’t have to search to instantly find several examples.  For most, there is a response of offense and guardedness because of the history of prejudice and discrimination of the US.

Aside from Klansman and skin-heads, bigots do not clearly mark themselves from others, so one must constantly be wary of members of the dominant group to defend themselves.  Potential racists do not inform you in advance that they may turn on you when jobs dry up.  Potential rapists do not identify themselves before preying on their victims.  There is no special pin that individuals wear to let you know they will gay-bash you when you walk home alone at night.  At least, in the past, one could have a good chance of guessing someone is a potential threat just by virtue of belonging to the dominant group.  But, today, the numerous forms of oppression have taken on subtler forms, so those who intentionally discriminate must find ways to do so within the confines of the law and, of more concern, is that dominant group members may harbor prejudice and discriminate against minority groups unknowingly while otherwise well-intentioned.  (This is why many respond with confusion and anger when accused of being prejudiced.)

It’s Time To Move Beyond Playing Racist Hot-Potato

We have, in fact, made great strides in this country in terms of gender, racial, ethnic, and sexual equality.  So, while labels like “racist” used to be worn as a badge of honor, they have quite the opposite effect today.  But, my fear is that the game of “whose a racist?” shuts down real, meaningful conversations about inequality, prejudice, and discrimination.  Even before being called a bigot, many decide just to stay silent all together to avoid the embarrassing label.  Rather than having frank conversations in which we call can articulate our views and understanding of the world, even if misguided or prejudiced, in which we could find out if our views are misguided and prejudiced, we just do not talk.

I will state this plainly: we are all implicated in racism, sexism, homophobia, heterosexism, ableism, ageism, xenophobia, nationalism, religious intolerance, classism, and so forth – no matter our privileged or disadvantaged status.  There, I said it.  Now, let’s move forward.  If we’re all racist, then the conversation does not cease to play the racist hot-potato game.  Further, it is time that we think like sociologists and implicate society as a part of the problem.  All of the inequality and discrimination we see is not solely at the hands of a few proud bigots, rather they are sustained by social institutions (e.g., religion, education), social interactions among individuals, socialization (i.e., family, schooling), and culture.  In our now frank discussions of prejudice, discrimination, and inequality, we must talk about what we can do as individuals and as groups to change our own minds and practices, institutions, and society at large.