Thursday, January 27, 2011

Featured Comment: Who Gets to Define Racism? The Victim or the Perpetrator?

On the post "Howard Stern's Ownage of the "Sarah Palin Tea Party Battle Hymn," Thrasher wrote:

Yes I can define (racism) by inserting a number of conventional definitions However I always reserve the right to define reality from my personhood as a Black man in USA where the articulation of this offense does not have to shaped or fashioned using the paradigms of the ruling class (read white folks or those educated and influenced by the ruling class)..

When Black folks rely on the lexicon and tools of engagement defined by the ruling class than we engaged in making excuses for racists like Stearn and others.. Tragically for some of us Unless we insert and employ their (ruling class) verbiage or tools our concerns are not acknowledged or recognized. I reject such an approach especially when racism is on the table...


I have a few other readers' comments in the queue to bump up. But Thrasher's observations on the nature of racism caught my eye because in the Age of Obama they are quite prescient and lead to no small number of important questions.

One of my formative experiences in graduate school was attending a lecture by noted scholar James Cone of Martin and Malcolm in America fame. In that lecture, Cone mentioned how some of the most difficult students to work with on questions of racial inequality and white supremacy are black and brown folk. Because they often translate lived experience into a universal and generalizable data point, the move from the personal to the scholarly can be a bit rough.

Thrasher's comment brought me back to that moment. What is the definition of racism (or sexism, or homophobia, or any of the other assorted "isms" that are now part of common speak)? Who gets to decide? Is there one definition? Or are there many? Is "racist" as overused and misapplied a word as "misogynist?"

Moreover, we must necessarily tread towards realpolitik in these explorations: What is the relationship of one's definition of "racism" to power? For example, conservatives embrace an insincere colorblind politics where to even discuss the realities of racial inequality is somehow "racist." By comparison, there are many liberals and progressives who would assert that to in fact not have an open conversation about the realities of race is itself racist.

Like many of you, I can offer an academic, dense, and complicated definition of the concept. But, I am curious as to how you balance the point of view of the aggrieved (the politics of feeling and emotion) with the politics of detached intellectualism, positivism, and a belief in the merits of specific historicism.

And yes, I am being intentionally provocative.


CNu said...

I am curious as to how you balance the point of view of the aggrieved (the politics of feeling and emotion) with the politics of detached intellectualism, positivism, and specific historicism.

merely stylistic differences...,

the former is the outgassing of the genuinely ostracized and the latter is the permitted, patronized, and compensated outgassing of the safe and included.

an angry old black man is the ex-girl and a smug afrodemic is the next girl - next girl wallowing in the temporary and fleeting luxury of giving poor Camille Grammer the side eye - bofe-of-em sharing the taste of Kelsey's nuts in they mouf...,

Plane Ideas said...


I appreciate the recognition of my constructs in this commentary and of course I always want folks to be "intentionally provactive" I like all of reality and truth to be' straight with no chaser'..

The notion that the aggrieved only articulate with the instruments of 'feeling and emotion' is elitist and a tired construct..The notion that unaggrieved articulate with detached intellectualism is also an elitist and tired construct....I would argue both invoked all of the above feelings, emotions, detached intellectualism etc...

Power always inserts itself in the exchanged between the aggrieved and the unaggrieved with the latter of course always controlling the presentation..

I have often framed the nature of this excercise by constructing a paradigm of how the aggrieved react to the power of the unaggrieved some of us become impotent, hopeless, apologist, militant, partners, liberators, and finally Free ..Being Free is the mindset of an 'architect explorer' unemcumbered by history, culture, legacy etc..You live the life of life..No more balancing acts , no more tribal duties, no more need to engaged the unaggrieved..

That is my take on your question..

Plane Ideas said...


BTW I agree in part with Cone's rule that the move from personal to scholarly can be quite tough..I often fall on my face but now I can give the lecture like,lol,lol

CNu said...

Power always inserts itself

Kelsey's motto...,

Devona said...

Can racism or any -ism ever be viewed in a detached intellectual manner--by both the victim and the perp? People have written numerous books, articles, essays on the topic, but I'm not sure any writer, scholar, intellectual can remain detached from his/her work. I do not believe in objectivity. One can not help interjecting a personal slant.

It is the same with conducting research. Many times people formulate a hypothesis (there own personal thoughts or what they "personally" infer from observations) and conduct research in a way that is guaranteed to support the hypothesis. We are suppose to believe the research is objective; this is especially true in the social sciences.

Oh Crap said...

I am curious as to how you balance the point of view of the aggrieved (the politics of feeling and emotion) with the politics of detached intellectualism, positivism, and specific historicism.

I suppose I'm a specific-historicism type o' gal, but like every other topic on earth, it really depends on the setting and the audience.

One of my guiding principles -- and this is difficult because we live in a race-hysterical society -- is to disallow the other from imposing damaging pathology/race fantasies onto my person, and turning them back on them whenever possible.

Said race fantasies manifest in many, many forms so sometimes, it's impossible to avoid completely, depending on the situation. To my mind, that impossibility is a defining feature of what it means to be a minority in this country, and especially an African-American minority.

Often, it means setting aside worn out terms like "racist" and "misogynist" in favor of more direct terminology like "white (or male) supremacy", when facing down "whites-first/whites-only males first males only" sentiments and motivations. I find that specificity to be quite helpful.

In fact, in my exp I've found that people use words like "racist" and "misogynist" like a badge of honor, especially when bestowed by someone Black.

It's not a very popular view, but popularity has rarely been a personal goal. I've found it to be a lot more effective than pointing at something and calling it "racist" or "sexist" or "homophobic", lord that list drags on. Too often people just try to turn it into a game and absolutely nothing gets accomplished, no one is reached, and we end up having expended energy for nothing.

I've been having this problem while being Black on the political left, for many, many, many years and honestly at the end of the day it's not all that different from being Black on the right. I'm watching a friend try and wrestle with the same issue using the "that's racist" method, and it's occurred to me: there's no point in having the same old hackneyed conversations about race, racism, etc and somehow expecting a different result.

It's really not worth one's sanity.

Plane Ideas said...

OH Crap,

Insightful comments I have for years been aware of the limitations of terms like racist, bigot,sexist etc ...Often I like to indict and leave the offender with a charge that they are "incompetent" such a charge stings more and lingers with the offender that on a personal level they did not measure up..

It is a great tool in the activist arsenal..

dr. becky said...

I am intrigued by Cone's pespective (new to me) and can offer a (perhaps) paralell from teaching feminist theory to women undergraduates. I've had students tell me that they do not "identify with" or "relate to" feminist theories and as such they struggle with the course materials or state that they are not enjoying the course. In this case the feminist imperative of the "personal is political" also backfires. My standard response is that I am not asking them to relate to feminism per se, but the course requires that they engage with theory and think and write from a critical perspective. As a relatively new university teacher I was a bit surprised to hear this, I admit.

Sorry to be off topic, but I think this speaks to how folks relate to theory and practice...

chaunceydevega said...

@Ohcrap. I agree on directness. I use the language of white supremacy when I teach or write. Funny, the reaction you get. Folks who are all over the racism gambit have pause when you call a thing what it is. Many "allies" have been lost that way.

@Dr.beck. I love that purposing of the personal is political. I am going to borrow from your intervention. As with gender as you sharply pointed out, only with race does one's "relationship" to the material come up as a deflection. Do we ever here students talking about calculus using the logic of the personal is political.

Oh Crap said...

@Thrasher - good advice re: incompetent. I find that methods like that which separate men/boys really cuts down on the amount of energy demanded us in these interactions. So often, that energy just ends up wasted and not worth even half the effort.

@Chauncey: Many "allies" have been lost that way.. Yes indeedy dawg.

@dr becky I know what you mean. I used to TA in Women's Studies and had to deal with that a lot, the idea that WS courses = Kumbaya Sharing Circle hour. This was several years ago so surmise it's only gotten worse over time but I tend to be very pessimistic about it.

dr. becky said...

@all. To be an ally is to use that exact language of white supremacy. And it totally freaks white people out to hear it - especially from another white person.