On the Palatability of “Racism”

Eric Garner choke holds and headlocks are the same thing

by Shayna L. Fevre, Vanessa Deolinda Tottle, & Gabriel Diego Valdez

There’s been an obsession lately with the terms and definitions we use to describe racism. In the past few months, each of us has brushed up against large discussions regarding how the term “racism” is understood. The running theme from many who join in is that “racism” is too loaded a term, and is often likely to make the average white middle American recoil into his shell the moment it’s uttered.

These conversations, which we’ve observed mostly taking place between millennials of Caucasian descent, are signature of something both good and bad. Good because people are trying to be more aware. Ferguson and Eric Garner may be the headline-grabbing cases, but there are thousands of incidents that mainstream news has passed over covering because they haven’t been forced to do so. Keep in mind, channels like CNN only began covering Garner’s murder after video of police choking the man to death had already exploded across YouTube and alternative media outlets.

Yet it’s also bad because the conversations tend not to center on how people can find roles of support for a fight that’s been going on for our nation’s entire history, nor on how people can contribute to diminishing the power of racism in their own lives, but rather on how they can swoop in and fix the fight itself. It’s not an attitude of helping, it’s an attitude of taking over, of appropriating the fight as a cause celebre.

We also worry that once people feel they’ve done their share, it allows many who weren’t previously engaged in the conversation to recede back into academic, removed views. This creates a worrisome combination where young, well-meaning people enter the conversation, try to lead it instead of listening to what’s already taking place, attempt to make a big change, and – feeling they’ve done so – step back out and leave the conversation even more confused and misrepresented among their peers than it started.

Starbucks exterior

STARBUCKS

Nowhere is this more deeply pronounced at this moment than in Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz’s announcement that Starbucks’ baristas, armed with no training, are being asked to engage customers about race. How many baristas will be singled out for this duty because of their race? How many customers?

As Think Progress writer Jessica Goldstein observes, despite 40 percent of Starbucks employees identifying as a racial minority, 100 percent of the people in the press photos are white. What’s offensive isn’t that Schultz seeks to discuss racism – it seems to come from an honest place. What’s offensive is that a panel of Caucasian business leaders feel they should come in and, instead of supporting an ongoing conversation, instead of – as Vox writer Jenee Desmond-Harris suggests – bringing in groups like the NAACP or ACLU to design a helpful program, and instead of selling books at their locations that discuss racism and racial injustice, they have decided simply to replace a hard-fought, ongoing conversation with one they thought of in the last few months. The attitude smacks of “We know better,” as if all civil rights leaders have been doing is waiting for a wealthy white man to come in and fix the problems because they’re too incapable.

Customers who discuss race will even be given stickers, as if a participation trophy, to show off their brief involvement in discussing “racism” – excuse us, Starbucks even refuses to use that word – discussing “race.” The notion that someone can do their part by talking about it for 30 seconds via awkward prompts like, “In the past year, I have been to the home of someone of a different race X times” and “How have your racial views evolved from those of your parents?” risk defenses that are, as Desmond-Harris puts it, the equivalent of asking people to respond, “But I have black friends!”

Asking strangers to respond to these prompts in front of strangers is asking them to reconfirm their implicit biases and use culturally ingrained defenses against acknowledging their own racism, not to confront them. It dismisses the possibility for nuance and context, and starts a brand new conversation without the training, history, or context of the old one.

The urge to redefine the conversation about racism stems from an attitude that the conversation itself is too uncomfortable in its present state. In the conversations we’ve observed and participated in recently ourselves, the most common factor is trying to come up with alternate terms or alternate understandings for “racism.”

The notion that either words or definitions are a problem means that we’re not strategizing about the fight over civil rights. Instead, we’re debating about how we’re going to talk about strategizing about the fight over civil rights. We’re several layers of Inception down from reality in this debate, to the point of bordering on a Portlandia skit.

“Racism” as a term is perfectly suited as both a word and in its definition without discussions over whether its associations should be retconned away. Those associations are important, that old definition is important because the baggage it comes with isn’t extraneous to the conversation; it IS the conversation. Cleaning up its definition, cleaning up the conversation, and making it all more palatable, is whitewashing the past in all meanings of the verb.

Arkansas rice fields

JOE FLYOVER

The idea that racism and the conversation that surrounds it isn’t palatable, that it’s not tasteful or appealing enough, so we ought to change it, we ought to come up with easier delivery systems – the notion that a term representing a long history of pain and suffering – that those associations, however messy and complex, are too burdensome for someone who’s white to want to cope with is insulting to everyone involved.

First off, the white middle American we spoke of earlier – he was called Joe Flyover in one conversation – he doesn’t care what you call it. Fox News and conservative talk radio give it a word and then spend hours bitching about it. The power is not in the word or how it’s used. The power’s in the bitching. They have the editorial and organizational ability to take any word and burn it down overnight, and we are sick of liberals retreating from one term to the next, seeking new ways to lighten the conversation and make it more palatable, in the search for some magic phrase that will finally convince Middle America.

Secondly, Joe Flyover can be convinced, but the notion that some shift in description is the key to that rather than hammering home the point with pictures, video, arguments – every tool at our disposal – is disrespectful to Joe Flyover. It isn’t the term or conversation that loses him – it is that disrespect he feels when he knows you think he’s too stupid that all it takes is a magic word or phrase to make him magically convert his opinion or change his worldview. People who disagree with us are adults, too.

Joe Flyover is smart and hardworking or he wouldn’t have been able to own that house that’s being flown over in the first place. Joe Flyover is not a focus group to be won over by adding “super” or “sugary” or “minty fresh” or whatever the hell we want to add to the front of “racism.” And that includes avoiding the term “racism” altogether so we can, as Starbucks puts it: “Race Together.”

Joe Flyover can handle the difficulty of the conversation over racism and, in the end, that’s the only way his opinion might change. This obsession with being better at kvetching than Fox News, or outbitching talk radio, of just being that much simpler so that poor Joe Flyover will understand – it’s undoing us. We don’t need to invent new words and new meanings; we need to reinvest power and faith back into the old ones.

Indiana lynching 1930s

USING ONE WORD, DEFINE “RACISM”

The notion that the word “racism” can make someone of a certain privilege uncomfortable because of its associations or complexity is the entire point. The struggle we face isn’t in making “racism” more convenient an issue to face. For everybody who’s not white, it is the experience of facing it on a daily basis that is inconvenient. If the term or the conversation is difficult and requires nuance and explanation, and it’s messy and painful and too confrontational, then good, because all of those associated feelings that can’t be put into words – that’s the definition. That’s the conversation.

The conversation does not need participants who will enter, try to fix everything, and leave 30 seconds later. The conversation does not need African-American, Latin-American, Asian-American, Native American, and other minority voices replaced. It needs those voices boosted.

The mess in your head that “racism” as a term and conversation creates, the cognitive dissonance of what it brings up and what people of a certain privilege have taught themselves to ignore in their everyday lives – the abyssal void that keeps people from being able to marry those two things together – that’s the definition. It’s not meant to be easy. It’s not meant to be palatable. We shouldn’t transform it so that it is. It’s not meant to be defined in a neat, compact phrase everybody can agree on. It’s definition is created by the disagreement it causes, between you and others and especially inside your own head.

Working from a clear or sound bite-appropriate definition of “racism” is not important at all. It’s illusory because understanding of the word is experiential on both ends. You can’t describe “hate” or “love” or “sadness” or “anger” to someone who hasn’t felt that themselves and been the target of someone else feeling that toward them. The problem is that we have all denied having each of those feelings at some point in our lives, and those emotions are much more basic, much less cultural, much less complicated. If we can deny those basic feelings in ourselves so easily, how easily can we deny something more complicated in ourselves, like racism?

Starbucks racial density by Melvin Backman and Zach Wener-Fligner for Quartz

RISK AND REWARD

Can these conversations seeking to lead an already-led movement, or this Starbucks effort to replace the old conversation with something more palatable, make a difference in someone’s life or make them confront problems they haven’t? Absolutely. In some circumstances, they will. The question is, will the benefits of conversations being held this way, free of context and nuance, seeking to leave that cognitive dissonance and that history out of it, stressing only the most appealing forms of discussion about racism – will that teach people the right way? Will that do more damage to how people believe racism should be approached as a topic, will that train people of certain privileges to appropriate the topic as their own rather than to educate themselves about the work others have done?

Institutional and systematized racism are problems, clearly, but the third rail of a topic that’s already treated as a third rail is implicit bias. We can walk into a Starbucks and agree that the first two forms are a problem, and walk out, and feel good about ourselves, as if we did our part and made some change. We even have the sticker to prove it. We can’t walk into a Starbucks and – in 30 seconds – do anything but burrow further into our own implicit racism.

Think of it this way. It’s easy to insult the way someone else looks in that span of time – that’s called gossip. We don’t gossip about ourselves. That’s unnatural. We defend ourselves from gossip. How do you look in a mirror and accept criticism from a stranger serving you coffee in the space of 30 seconds, if that long? We don’t. We’ll make the conversation more palatable, we’ll come to snappy conclusions, we’ll judge others but not ourselves, and come away feeling as if we did our part when we’ve made no corresponding change in the real world, or worse yet – further adopted an attitude of co-optation toward a pre-existing conversation.

As Medium writer Tressie McMillan Cottom puts it, “It takes a lot of training and a lot of institutional support to teach people things they would rather not hear.” She warns, “We may be at a point when the language about race and racism has been so degraded that it can be a corporate initiative. By definition that means having little potential for risk and some amorphous attention value. If talking about race is a shortcut to the sort of medium fame that is all the rage on social media, then talking about race is meaningless.”

That’s the risk. Will it happen? Not necessarily. But it’s a hell of a risk, and the reward seems to be a temporary cultural appeasement for those who most need to be confronted, at a time when that confrontation is primed. The reward is replacing an old conversation that’s gained power because of what we see in the news with a new conversation that lacks the history, training, and time to delve into anything meaningful. The reward is feeling like participation trophies are good enough when it comes to discussing racism, that 30 seconds is good enough, that acknowledging it in others but not ourselves is good enough.

The fight against racism and for civil rights needs white allies, not white leaders. It needs minority voices boosted, not white ones drowning them out, and it needs us all to confront the bias we each hold, no matter how progressive, so that we can begin to face what’s inside ourselves down, so that we don’t seek to make “racism” more palatable a topic, but rather begin to acknowledge that our discomfort with it is not a problem with the term or the conversation, but rather in ourselves.

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