If racism is the worst accusation that can ever be made, how do we discuss minor racist slights?

In comments at the Daily Cartoonist, regarding the Sean Delonas cartoon, I wrote “I don’t think it matters what was in his heart. What matters is what’s in the cartoon. And it’s a racist cartoon.”

RS Davis responded in comments (click through to read his entire comment):

Apparently, the all knowing, all seeing judges of humanity on this topic can see straight through the hearts of man and judge them as blatant racists, no matter WHAT they actually did. [...]

How Orwellian. We can twist what you did, no matter what your intent or who you are, we can judge you as a racist and you’re too stupid to know it, or you’re a racist because we say so, even if you’re not.

…Where was the howling when cartoonists drew Condi Rice as Aunt Jemima?

My response to RS:

Please reread what I wrote, because you seem to have read exactly the opposite of what I said. I’m not judging whether or not the cartoonist is a racist. I’m not condemning him or saying he should never work again.

I don’t know or care if he’s a racist. I’m critiquing the cartoon, not the cartoonist.

And since you asked, I have criticized racist images of Condi Rice in cartoons. I’ve also criticized anti-semitic images in left-wing cartoons. And I said the same thing then that I’m saying now: it’s about what’s in the cartoon, not about what’s in the cartoonist’s heart.

Delonas maybe be guilty of a lame cartoon, but those screaming one of the worst accusations that can be made, racism, over it, REGARDLESS of who the man really is, his intentions or his past work, is far more frightening and a bigger crime that anything he did.

No one has said Delonas committed a crime.

I also don’t agree that racism — especially racism that’s quite likely inadvertent — is “one of the worst accusations that can be made.” Thinking of it that way is a mistake, because it makes it impossible to talk about minor racist slights. If someone tells me “I think that this cartoon is kind of racist,” that’s not at all the same as them saying “you’re a KKK member!” And if I take it as if they’ve accused me of being a monster, then all I do is guarantee that no productive discussion can take place.

Two links I’d recommend you read:

First, directly related to this controversy, Kevin’s newest cartoon, “Racism 101 for White Cartoonists,” which is brilliant.

And second, RS, I’d recommend you read this post I wrote a couple of years ago: How Not To Be Insane When Accused Of Racism.

This entry posted in Cartooning & comics, Race, racism and related issues. Bookmark the permalink. 

23 Responses to If racism is the worst accusation that can ever be made, how do we discuss minor racist slights?

  1. 1
    Elusis says:

    This post from coffeeandink at Live Journal was written in response to a truly disastrous few weeks of posts from assorted authors, editors, and fans of science fiction/fantasy in which… well, it doesn’t bear going into for the uninterested, but it was a Hot Mess of white people losing their minds over some fans saying “look, the way some of these authors have written characters of color is problematic.”

    Regardless of the larger mess in which it was embedded, this author distills it down beautifully when she writes:

    Racism is an institutional system of prejudice enforced by political and social power, custom, media, and personal interaction. When I say that you have said or done something that was racist, I do NOT necessarily mean that:
    * You intended to do or say something racist
    * You belong to the Klu Klux Klan
    * You burn crosses on lawns
    * You consciously discriminate against people of color
    * You have no friends who are people of color
    * Your friends who are people of color are race traitors
    * You have never done anything for any cause of social justice
    * You are a worthless human being
    * Deep in your soul, you are evil
    * You need to engage in public or private guilt or self-abuse

    I mean:
    * You have said or done something that reinforces systemic oppression based on race
    * You have said or done something that reveals racist assumptions you may not consciously subscribe to

    Sometimes I even mean:
    * I am willing to explain why I think this thing you’ve said or done is reinforcing systemic oppression based on race
    * I think if we discuss this, you will be willing to change your actions or amend your speech, because you do not approve of systemic oppression based on race.

    I mean, how much more straightforward can it get?

  2. 2
    sanabituranima says:

    A message to the person who left that comment – “Racism” is a huge term. It covers everything from unintentional slights to genocide.

    When a male friend of mine made a casual joke about women sucking at science last week, that was misogyny.

    A girl I know through a mental-health support-group was repeatedly raped between the age of twelve and fourteen, and made to believe that she DESERVED it and that she was slut for having been raped (which caused her to attempt suicide). That was also misogyny.

    That doesn’t mean that those two things are equally bad. It doesn’t mean that every guy who makes a stupid joke about women sucking at science is going to rape little girls, and/or say little girls deserve to be raped. It doesn’t mean that every man who finds jokes about women sucking at science is going to think “Hey, that joke was really funny! I have a sudden urge to repeatedly rape a prepubescent girl until she tries to kill herself!”

    What it DOES mean is that both kinds of actions contribute to a culture that hurts women.

    Similarly, racist cartoons contribute to a culture that hurts PoC (and, in some cases, Jews and non-English-speaking white folks.)

  3. 3
    Sailorman says:

    sanabituranima Writes:
    February 19th, 2009 at 4:08 am

    A message to the person who left that comment – “Racism” is a huge term. It covers everything from unintentional slights to genocide.

    Which may suggest, to those who consider it, why people are resistant to being tagged as racists, ya?

    So long as you use the same word to refer to “people who think all blacks should be shot” and “people who think crack sentencing laws are appropriate,” you won’t get people to admit it. Therefore they will defend themselves against the term.

    I keep reading these plaintive “but racism doesn’t mean you’re a bad person; why don’t people just admit they’re racist?” posts and I don’t understand why so many smart people ignore the reality of how “racist” and “racism” are defined by a significant group of the population. Willful blindness? It seems so freakin’ obvious.

    In fact, the same people who discuss the many people who think that “racist” means “in the KKK” are often simultaneously claiming surprise that more people aren’t willing to have the label applied to them. It’s as if they never thought, not once, that ‘hey, if you say you’re a racist then all those people will think you’re a KKK-level POC hater; they have no fucking idea you are referring to a failure to chastise a peer for thinking a blackface cartoon was funny.’ Makes. No. Sense.

  4. 4
    sanabituranima says:

    accidental double-comment

  5. 5
    sanabituranima says:

    Which may suggest, to those who consider it, why people are resistant to being tagged as racists, ya?

    Yes, I can see why that’s a problem. But huge things and trivial things are part of the same system of oppression, and I don’t think it would work to have separate words for them.

    All forms of human communication (written language, spoken language, sign language, body language, music, pictures) are imperfect and imprecise. But they’re all we have and we need to do our best with them and to explain when they go wrong.

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  7. 6
    nobody.really says:

    Here’s my standard General Semantics reaction. Regular readers can skip ahead.

    By what authority do any of us claim to say what a word means? At best, I can say what I mean when I use the term, or I can appeal to the authority of a dictionary author. There is, however, a more empirical standard: Observe how people react to a word and draw your definition from that. (Indeed, many dictionary editors assemble usage panels in an effort to do just that.)

    When I observe how people react to the term “racist,” I conclude that many people regard the term to reflect an effort on the part of the speaker to make a moral judgment or to impugn someone’s intentions.

    Now, to be fair, I read Amp’s post to attempt to clearly preclude the idea that “racism” implies something about the speaker’s intention. Amp did his best to clarify that he was using the term “racist” in a clinical sense. Yet readers continued to draw the contrary conclusion.

    And predictably so, right?

    When I want to discuss how an act has a disproportionate affect on one group or another, I try to discuss it in those terms. I know that using the term “racist” will only muddy the discussion, no matter how many clarifying disclaimers I attach to it.
    ________

    Now, I find discussions about people’s intentions rarely yield anything useful, so I try to avoid them. With that disclaimer, let me take the discussion one step further:

    If doing X foreseeably results in Y, I have difficulty believing that a person who intends to do X doesn’t also intend to do Y. Having lived 40+ years in the US, I find it pretty clear that when I use the term “racist” people will conclude that I mean to impugn someone’s intentions or imply a moral judgment. So when I use that term, you might be justified in questioning whether I have some hidden agenda in mind, all my protestations to the contrary notwithstanding.

    One obvious secret agenda is that I’m feeling hostility and, consciously or not, I’m on the attack. It doesn’t mean that what I’m saying doesn’t have merit, but you might be justified in reading it with a grain of salt.

    But another possible hidden agenda is to provoke a discussion of word usage, such as we’re having here, in order to challenge people’s understanding of racism. In my case, I believe that it is NORMAL to make snap judgments based on easily-acquired information, especially visual cues (race, age, gender, attire, social context). I don’t deny the harm this practice causes. But I fear that stigmatizing the practice merely makes people unwilling to acknowledge it, and therefore to develop systematic ways to manage it. When stigma isn’t a big issue, people seem reasonably comfortable in saying “I’m really not a numbers guy,” or “Could you read that fine print for me?” I want people to be equally comfortable saying, “Could you give me your take on this resume? I don’t want my biases to trip me up here.”

    Here I might use the term “racist” to refer to a person’s unconscious decision-making process. I distinguish that from Amp’s use of the term to refer to an inanimate object (a cartoon). But notwithstanding these differences, I sense we share an agenda of removing the focus from the actor’s conscious intentions (for which she is blameworthy) and thereby reducing the stigma around the concept.

    I don’t like racism. I don’t like lynchings. I don’t like lynchings motivated by racial animus. But not every act of racism, or even racial animus, is the equivalent of a lynching. I suspect there have been political advantages to blurring the distinctions in the public’s mind, but I fear the disadvantages are now predominating. It’s time for all us racists to move on to a more nuanced understanding of racism. And maybe challenging the public’s understanding of the term “racist” is a place to start.

  8. 7
    chingona says:

    So for the folks that think we have to just deal with the way most people interpret the words racism and racist, what words would you use to describe the cartoon in question?

  9. 8
    PG says:

    I can’t think of a single word, but “insensitive to racial implications” probably is the least accusing way to put it. The interesting thing is that some people, particularly those on the right (and this IS the NY Post), take “insensitivity” and “unPC” and similar terms as badges of pride. It makes them feel cool and edgy rather than prompting any self-examination. You pretty much can’t get them to realize there’s a problem unless you use the word “racist,” but then they freak out that you’re calling them a Klan member.

  10. 9
    chingona says:

    You pretty much can’t get them to realize there’s a problem unless you use the word “racist,” but then they freak out that you’re calling them a Klan member.

    Almost as if they don’t really want to talk about it.

  11. 10
    Elusis says:

    Ken Hardy and Tracy Laszloffy wrote an essay about how it is possible for “good” people to unintentionally act in accordance with “a pro-racist ideology” in their essay “The dynamics of a pro-racist ideology: Implications for family therapists.” It’s readable here starting on page 118. It’s a good re-frame of the problems that arise when the topic of race and racism starts to inspire such defensiveness.

    Of course, that defensiveness is, I would argue, a direct result of white people’s insistence on being at the center of every discussion – if everything in the world is All About Me, of course a discussion of the racist implication of something I did or said is a total condemnation of me and my entire life as hopelessly, utterly racist.

  12. 11
    Cerberus says:

    Um, honestly, fuck the whiners on the “accidental” stuff. It’s all obscene. Oh sure, one is an insult that removes one’s humanity or argues for the increased oppression or injustice against a minority group, one is actions in attempt of genocide, but you know what, all of them are bad and all should be STOPPED.

    I’m really tired of the oppressive class in all of these discussions highjacking the semantic debate to reduce culpability in the greater crimes and to dismiss the pleas of the oppressed class as “the real problem”.

    Acceptance of a framework that says oppressed class is less than at all levels, increases public acceptance and therefore incidence of the big crimes. There’s a reason that it’s transexuals, homosexuals, women, blacks, the poor, jews, immigrants who are targeted for random crimes of assault, murder, and rape and not say rich white bankers. There’s a reason we see child rapists spend a couple years max in prison while cops who execute blacks see no jail time at all when black drug users can see 20 year sentences easy.

    So no, I’m sorry, but I’m really tired of this continual dodge that we need to be more forgiving and thoughtful of the oppressive class’s insults and attacks to protect their feelings, when it is our goddamn lives that are on the line.

    Oh by the way, if you are so worried that people will “be mean to you” by saying you’re a really bad person, perhaps, you should think about the fact that you just made a comment that dismissed their humanity and this just might “make them feel devalued, put upon, insulted, and defensive”. Seriously, why is it always the oppressed class that needs to cater to the feelings of the oppressive class. Why can’t the oppressors take some time to consider the feelings of the oppressed and actually take their criticisms as serious statements by worthy, worthwhile human beings.

    Oh, wait. I think I see why.

    Don’t like being called racist, stop being a racist. Or get as thick of a skin as you expect the minorities in your life to adopt every time you’re racist to their damn face instead of whining about the “unfair” semantics of the whole thing. When you’re killed over semantics, call me, meanwhile I’ll be hoping my genderqueer ass doesn’t get beat down because I’m “too damn faggy”.

  13. 12
    Nancy Lebovitz says:

    Very tentative suggestion: might it help if adjectives were used with “racist”, so that “virulent racism” and “violent racism” get distinguished from “habitual racism” and “institutional racism”?

    And a recent history question– when and how did racist come to get used to mean a very bad sort of person?

  14. 13
    chingona says:

    … when and how did racist come to get used to mean a very bad sort of person?

    I’m guessing it’s somewhere around the time school children started being taught that MLK was a saint who drove the racism out of America.

  15. 14
    Decnavda says:

    I concur with the suggestion of Nancy Lebovitz. PG defined the problem well. You need a term strong enough to grab people’s attention, but there should be a way to distinguish variations and gradiations. I, and probably most somewhat reasonable men, would not freak out or get terribly defensive if you called me or something I said or did “sexist”. I *would* get defensive if you called me a “misogynist”. Both refer to ideas or actions that support the patriarchy and hurt women, but “misogyny” implies a degree and hateful intent that I would be offended to be accused of. I have seen “white supremisist” used by people on the left to mean something approximately equivilent to “misogynist”, but “white supremisist” implies an ideology and political agenda that is beyond what is needed for an equivalent term. I think “bigoted” would work, but for some reason the word “bigot” seems to have fallen into disuse.

  16. 15
    PG says:

    Bigot became unpopular because it’s indicative of someone quite all-round hostile: Archie Bunker is sort of the archetypal bigot of American culture, and he thought poorly of Poles, women, blacks, LGBT… I’m not sure people have the energy to be full bore bigots anymore.

  17. 16
    nobody.really says:

    So for the folks that think we have to just deal with the way most people interpret the words racism and racist, what words would you use to describe the cartoon in question?

    Who you callin’ “folks”? :-)

    Dunno; it depends on what you want to say about the cartoon. This is just one more reason not to rely on that those terms.

    Earlier I had tried to re-write Amp’s statement that “The cartoon is racist,” but I came to realize that I didn’t fully understand what he meant. Mostly I learned what Amp DIDN’T mean; Amp didn’t mean to express an opinion about the cartoonist’s conscious intentions. But what exactly did he mean? Some possibilities:

    - The cartoon harms members of certain group, even if they never see it. (“This cartoon reinforces to the whole world the idea of blacks as chimps, savage and worthy of lethal force.”)
    - The cartoon will harm/offend members of certain groups if they who see it. (“Man, when black people see this they’re gonna be pissed.”)
    - The cartoon will harm/offend members of certain groups who learn of it. (“Man, when black hear about this they’re gonna be pissed.”)
    - The cartoon reveals the cartoonist’s bias, conscious or otherwise. (“At some level he clearly associates blacks with lower, more primitive life forms; he’d never depict a white person that way.”)
    - The cartoon reveals differences between certain groups. (“The fact that he’d draw such a cartoon reveals the chasm between the world black people live in and the one white people live in..”)
    - The cartoon reveals the cartoonist’s shameful ignorance about members of a depicted social group. (“He should know better than to draw such a cartoon; a black cartoonist would.”)
    - In creating the cartoon the cartoonist transgressed mores about social groups. (“It’s ok to depict W as a chimp but not Obama because depicting black people as chimps is simply not done in polite society.”)

    The mere statement “That’s racist!” leaves a lot of room for interpretation.

  18. 17
    Sarah says:

    I’m gonna have to second what Cerberus said.

    Tip-toeing around the word “racism” because it makes the white people uncomfortable seems like the exact opposite of what anyone should be doing. In fact, derailing conversations about the racism present in a current event to see if we can accomodate the white peoples’ feelings about the word racism seems rather, um, racist.

  19. 18
    nobody.really says:

    Heck, for purposes of this discussion I’m not advocating tip-toeing around on behalf of white people. I’m not advocating doing anything on behalf of anyone. Indeed, I don’t mean to advocate.

    I mean to observe.

    And I observe that using certain words has predictable consequences. Now, I may not give two shits about the consequences for other people. But if I have a goal that I want to achieve for my purposes, I may want to choose words that predictably will advance those purposes — or at least avoid the words that predictably will detract from them. Not because they are the right words or the wrong words, or good words or bad words. But because they do or don’t help me achieve my goals.

    I try not to make a religion of word use. I try not to tell people what they should do or what they musn’t do. Words are tools — nothing more.

    If your goal is to provoke defensiveness, to close off discussion, hey, we’ve all got those tools in our toolbox.

    If your goal is to provoke reflection, to invite discussion, some people also have those tools in their toolbox, too.

    Don’t want to see things derailed? Maybe dynamite isn’t the right tool for the job. Just sayin’.

    Decide on your goal. Pick your tool.

  20. 19
    PG says:

    nobody.really,

    When stigma isn’t a big issue, people seem reasonably comfortable in saying “I’m really not a numbers guy,” or “Could you read that fine print for me?”

    It’s actually about a particular kind of stigma. For example, there is stigma in our society for being short, slow, weak-muscled, etc. It is understood to be much better to be tall, fast and strong (and those who are and use those gifts can get paid millions in professional sports and endorsements).

    Yet for the most part there isn’t moral stigma attached to being short, slow, weak-muscled. If I can’t reach the copier fluid, run 5 blocks in 2 minutes or get the cap off my apple juice, I might get a little mocked but these are all seen as unthreatening deficiencies. No one worries that I can cause serious problems for others because of them. Moreover, they’re not something people are expected to change in themselves or in which there’s been a big wave of change from short, slow, weak-muscled to tall, fast and strong.

    In contrast, being sexist, racist, homophobic etc. have moral stigma (at least among groups like most AAB readers). They also don’t hurt only the person who has those deficiencies; that person’s failings create harm for others who suffer from his discrimination. If there’s no one to help me get the cap off the juice bottle, OK, no juice for me. I am not eligible for jobs that require one to be tall, fast and strong. On the other hand, if I am biased, there’s generally not any testing of my attitudes to ensure that I can treat all people fairly before I might be put in a position where I need to be able to do that, and where there might not be anyone around to help correct for my biases.

    I’d love to be able to mask the fact that I’m short, slow, weak-muscled so I’d be eligible for jobs reserved for the tall, fast and strong, and I’d have to be an unusually good person not to try to mask that if there were socioeconomic benefits to myself and only undetectable harms to others in doing so. People who are biased can mask it, and do, and there’s not much benefit to them in admitting it. Nobody, except maybe the military when they’re short on bodies, is going to devote the time and trouble to making me faster and stronger. Why would anyone devote the time and trouble to fixing the failing of bigotry in a person who disclosed it if there are other candidates who don’t appear to have that failing?

  21. 20
    sylphhead says:

    What PG said. If any lesser term actually worked, it’d be used. But it’s the exact same people that’d gleefully get into a whole self-righteous, “oh I’m so controversial” routine if a softer, kinder word was used, who are saying we should stop using the word “racism” because it’s a horrible accusation that paints the walls blood red.

    So long as we’re at this impasse, I’m content to let the status quo reign as far the word “racism” is concerned; bloody walls and all.

  22. 21
    nobody.really says:

    When stigma isn’t a big issue, people seem reasonably comfortable in saying “I’m really not a numbers guy,” or “Could you read that fine print for me?” I want people to be equally comfortable saying, “Could you give me your take on this resume? I don’t want my biases to trip me up here.”

    Why would anyone devote the time and trouble to fixing the failing of bigotry in a person who disclosed it if there are other candidates who don’t appear to have that failing?

    Whoops; let me try that again. I wasn’t trying to suggest that an employer would overcome his aversion to hiring biased people. I was trying to suggest that an employers would overcome his unwillingness to acknowledge his OWN tendency for bias, and would therefore seek out assistance from someone whose judgement he trusted.

    People who are biased can mask it, and do, and there’s not much benefit to them in admitting it.

    Tell that to all the baseball team owners who declined to hire Jackie Robinson, the record labels that declined to hire Ray Charles, the Nazis scientists who were trying to build nuclear bomb without relying on the research of, or assistance of, Jewish scientists.

    Or consider the book MoneyBall. Baseball teams had traditional ways of evaluating players. A bunch of statisticians figured out that these traditional ways were largely bogus, unrelated to winning ball games. They figured out a less biased way to evaluate players. With this info, the Oakland A’s figured out that they could unload some of their own players for a lot more than they’re worth, hire a bunch of other players who were a lot cheaper than they were worth, and proceeded to win the World Series. Now all the major league teams use their system.

    “Bias” means picking someone on some basis unrelated to some concept of merit. Talk to any college official who has had to expel a violent student, any employer who has had to fire an disastrous employee, or any landlord who has had to evict a destructive tenant. These people have a deep self-interest in overcoming any bias they may have that keeps them from accurately assessing candidates. And to overcome their own biases, they pay handsomely for “objective” information – standardized testing, background checks, interviews, references, credit checks, criminal background searches, etc.

    In brief, people who are biased may often be able to mask it from colleagues. But they can’t mask the consequences from rival baseball teams, record labels, or armies. Their own self-interest is linked with an ability to make accurate assessments about people – that is, an ability to transcend their own biases.

    I don’t mean to deny that some people exercise intentional bias. Indeed, people who employ family members may well know that they’re getting less than the best employee available, yet presumably they feel that they’re getting some less tangible compensation. But I would suggest that the amount of bias arising from people who knowingly picking less-than-the-best people for admissions, employment or rentals is swamped by the bias arising from people who have every incentive to judge people accurately, but simply lack enough information to make an informed decision and therefore fall back on preconceptions to fill in the gaps.

  23. 22
    PG says:

    Tell that to all the baseball team owners who declined to hire Jackie Robinson, the record labels that declined to hire Ray Charles, the Nazis scientists who were trying to build nuclear bomb without relying on the research of, or assistance of, Jewish scientists.

    Were the people in charge of making these decisions always the ones who would get immediate benefit from making a good decision? Or were they more likely to get the full brunt of the unpleasantness of having to be side by side with a person whose race they despised, without reaping the full benefit of that person’s talent? FYI, from what I understand, it’s generally the manager who does all the legwork of deciding to hire a player, not the team owner.

    yet presumably they feel that they’re getting some less tangible compensation.

    If you haven’t read Gary Becker on the taste for discrimination and the willingness to pay for fulfilling that taste, you might find it interesting.