On racism and certainty, or, how White people are Gaslighting People of Color

In the thread about the recent arrest of Henry Louis Gates in front of his home, Ron asked how we could be certain that the cops involved were racist. We don’t know what was in the cop’s head, after all. Maybe a white guy who acted exactly the same way would have been arrested, too.1

The call for certainty in these situations has the effect of making racism — and bigotry in general — invisible. It’s very rare that racism conveniently announces itself, wearing a white hood and handing out white business cards that say “I am a white racist, beyond any possible doubt.” In particular, racism cloaked in authority doesn’t act this way.

Racism can usually only be proven statistically, in the aggregate. We can look at pay data and notice that, even when qualifications and experience are similar, white people are paid more than people of color. We can look into statistics about police shootings and see that black and latin@ people (especially men) are much, much more likely to be killed by cops than whites.

But since we are not magical telepaths, we are incapable of looking at any particular shooting, however unreasonable, and proving beyond a shadow of a doubt what was going through the cop’s head the moment he2 pulled the trigger. “Maybe the cop just got no sleep last night! Maybe his wife left him, and so he was especially violence-prone! Maybe that particular cop would have been just as willing to shoot a white suspect at that moment!”

The same argument applies to any social interaction where racism is suspected. “That store detective might have followed a white boy around, if the white boy had been wearing those pants! That bank teller might have been just as rude to a white customer, for all we know! Maybe the real estate agent just forgot to show the houses in the nice neighborhood that day, and would have done so regardless of race! My cousin once asked to feel my hair, and I thought it was nice!” Blah blah blah.

It’s easy for us white people to think of it that way, because racial discrimination isn’t part of our daily lives. For us, we read a single, isolated report in a newspaper or on a blog, and we can say “well, there’s no real proof here… maybe it was all a coincidence…” We’re able to do that because we experience racism mainly as isolated news stories, not as a persistent pattern of ill-treatment in our life.

I’m white, so this next part is speculative. But I imagine that if I were a person of color, the constant encounters with ambiguous racism would wear me down.3 Because in some ways, it’s harder to defend against or respond to ambiguous racism than to overt racism. (Over the years, I’ve heard many Black people say so, both online and offline, but I don’t remember a specific name to cite — but this is not, of course, in any way an original thought on my part.) If the store clerk says “you have to get out, because we only serve whites here,” that’s as clear-cut as can be. Most people — even most white people — will admit that’s racist and wrong.

In contrast, suppose — after serving the white person ahead of you on line politely — the clerk makes you wait five minutes while she talks on the phone, is rude when she talks to you, and demands ID before accepting your credit card? You think this is racism, but will any white person acknowledge it? Or will they just think you’re a troublemaker, playing the race card, seeing things that just aren’t there.

A lot of our sense of reality is taken from what the people around us are willing to acknowledge. Has everyone seen the movie “Gaslight”? From Wikipedia:

Gaslighting is a sinister action which, depending on the exact circumstances of the situation involved, could be considered a form of intimidation, torture, harassment, or psychological abuse. It is a technique used to either scare a person, or to cause them to appear to discredit their own judgment or even sanity in front of others. The classic example of gaslighting in its simplest form is changing things in a person’s environment without their knowledge, and then telling them they “must be imagining things” when they discover and ask about the changes.

I think the demand for certainty and proof before racist incidents can be acknowledged, is how white people are collectively4 attempting to gaslight people of color.

“Maybe she just had indigestion that began as she started ringing you up; maybe she doesn’t like your perfume. How can you know for sure this is about race? Isn’t racism too serious a matter to level accusations without proof? Look, that other clerk who was there is black, and she didn’t object. Are you saying the black clerk is racist, too?” And on and on.

And if all you look at is the one, individual incident, maybe that way of talking about racism makes sense.

But for people who are assaulted by a lifetime of usually ambiguous, racist incidents, it would be a kind of slow suicide to try and view the world that way. It would bring about ulcers. Which is why expecting people of color to view the world that way is unfair and unjust.

  1. In fact, Ron said implied he was certain this was true — “If I walked out my front door and out to the street yelling at a couple of cops and didn’t get out of their faces I bet my white ass would be in cuffs too.” — ironic how the need for certainty and proof is sometimes flexible. []
  2. Or she. But usually he. []
  3. I do experience ambiguous anti-fat attitudes sometimes, but that’s a subject for another post. []
  4. Not 100% of white people, but a lot of white people []
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59 Responses to On racism and certainty, or, how White people are Gaslighting People of Color

  1. 1
    nojojojo says:

    Thanks for this, and thanks for the term; interesting and very apropos. (Also, interesting movie; I haven’t seen it, but I’ll see if it’s on Netflix!)

  2. 2
    PG says:

    The movie actually makes clear how neatly gas-lighting works with sexism: oh women, they are so inclined to be emotional, imaginative, hysterical.

    Isn’t racism too serious a matter to level accusations without proof?

    This is what I run into all the time. Some people have a very difficult time acknowledging that something they said or did could have been racist, because they read that as, “If I acknowledge that I could have said or done something racist, that means I am admitting to be a racist.”

    I think that’s why it’s crucial to try to couch one’s criticism in terms of someone’s behavior or speech rather than themselves personally. (This is also one of those things they tell you about marriage: always try to put things in terms of “When you do X, I feel unheard/neglected/etc.,” rather than “You don’t listen/care for me/etc.”)

    When I was not aware of the term cissexual and someone was trying to dismiss my opinion online by saying I must be a guy, I said, “No, I’m a woman-born-woman.” (My main exposure to trans issues had been with a trans friend who had quoted anti-trans people using this term without specifying that it was one that only anti-trans people used.) The person in that discussion who seized upon my ignorance to declare that “Aha! she must be a trans-phobe!” didn’t make me realize that the term was offensive, just that she (having already taken a dislike to me) was picking on me some more. The person who said, “Oh, actually, that term is offensive to most trans people,” is the one who made me want to apologize, find out what the correct term was, and inform others (in a similarly non-attacking way) who made the same mistake.

    Maybe calling a person a racist is too serious to level without proof — and proof, of course, pretty much requires being able to read their mind. But saying, “I think that statement sounds racist/ that behavior comes off as racist” should be valid as a call for the person to examine her words or acts instead of her intentions. At that point, the question isn’t, “Did I mean to be racist when I ignored the next customer in line?” but instead, “Did I, when finding the time when I was going to call my friend, do it when the next customer was black?”

  3. 3
    Mandolin says:

    In the late 50s, my father worked at his uncle’s concession stand at the state fair. Orders were, that if black people came in, the employees were not to tell them to leave. They were to pour huge amounts of salt over their food so it would be fouled and the black customers would not come back. This was, by all accounts, effective.

    (My father and his cousins responded to the instructions by saying, “Um. No,” but previous employees – not hired with the benefit of nepotism – just did it.)

    That probably wasn’t racist, though. I’m sure my great-uncle was just raised with a sincere belief that black people like enough salt to make things taste foul.

  4. 4
    joe says:

    Isn’t racism too serious a matter to level accusations without proof?

    This is what I run into all the time. Some people have a very difficult time acknowledging that something they said or did could have been racist, because they read that as, “If I acknowledge that I could have said or done something racist, that means I am admitting to be a racist.”

    Also, “Racism” cover a wide spectrum from the disparate impact of using credit scores to determine auto insurance rates to killing a someone for dating a white person. I’d rather not be grouped with the later so I’m going resist admitting that I’m racist tooth and nail.

    As far as the incident, I’ll bet dollars to donuts the cop was dick, Dr. Gates was exhausted by his return trip from china and had no patience of any crap, and he got arrested mostly for refusing to “respect my authoritI”. IMO that’s a much easier crime for a black man to commit than a white man. (also it’s not really a crime but most cops seem to think it is.”‘

    edited to add

    I doubt a older white guy would have had the cops called as readily as an older black man. If they gates had been white I doubt he’d have found it as obnoxious to have to prove he ‘belonged’ in that house.

  5. 5
    FurryCatHerder says:

    I think an alternate explanation for why there’s more resistance to charges of “Racism” is that “Racism” has gone from “Harm” to “Sore Feelings”. It’s also gone from “Demonstrable Harm” to “I disagree with your politics, therefore you’re a racist”.

    In the case of Dr. Gates — definitely an instance of “Harm”. If he’d been J. Random Blackman, he’d be looking for an attorney right now, after spending a day or more in the county lockup.

    The police acted in a racist manner, and someone needs to be fired. That Dr. Gates was in his own home is not disputed. That he was arrested is not disputed. That he was taken to jail — not disputed. What ground is there to claim uncertainty? We can’t read their minds? No, but we have their ACTIONS.

  6. 6
    UnHinged Hips says:

    “I think that’s why it’s crucial to try to couch one’s criticism in terms of someone’s behavior or speech rather than themselves personally. ”

    I don’t think people get a free pass to ignore their own bad behavior just because they are called on it in a way that isn’t as gentle, respectful, and full of sunshine and roses as possible. It’s my responsibility not to behave in a racist manner, whether or not anyone calls me on it and whether or not they do it nicely or (oh heavens!) while they’re angry.

    I live in a society that is at least somewhat racist, transphobic, misogynist. Since I am not somehow immune to social conditioning, no matter how much I try to unearth and change it, that means that *I* am at least somewhat racist, transphobic, and misogynistic. That’s true of every single person out there.

    I think the bigger problem is the idea that A Racist is a ReallyBadPerson(TM) who really out and out hates people of color. And of course a nice person who intellectually believes that everyone is equal would never intentionally do anything racist, so people must just be imagining it when they confront said person.

  7. 7
    bjc says:

    Honestly, there’s a very simple solution to this which white people owe everyone else in the world: when you’re dealing with non-whites you have to go the extra mile. Likewise as men with women, and so on.

    What I hear from people is “maybe he was just a douche and would do that to $privilege_type, but I can never be sure.” And how could they be with so much history of obvious discrimination? When we’re still the main perpetrators and we care to make a difference, the onus is on us to let people know it’s not like that. And we do that by doing more for them then we do for ourselves.

    It’s very simple to me: in a hard-to-read situation it is absolutely reasonable for an underclass to suspect it’s about being an underclass, so if we want to help we have to keep that in mind and make very sure that we’re going further than we normally would.

    Maybe if we do that for the next 400 years it’ll be even. Maybe.

  8. 8
    Sailorman says:

    If you want to follow the film, them IMO technically gaslighting wouldn’t be a third party who said “that’s not racist!” It would mean that you do something which you know is racist but which isn’t easily verifiable to a third party, and then when the victim complains, you deny it ever happened.

    But in any case this is an interesting post. I think you’re running into the usual general/individual problem: that ___ belief/action is common among a group, does not mean that it is correct to label a particular group member with ___.

    This is by no means applicable only to whites and racism. Recent Alas examples off the top of my head apply both to the empowered groups (whites/racism, men/sexism, straights/homophobia, cisgenders/transphobia) and to the disempowered groups (blacks/Prop 8, palestinians/bombing support, Jews/anti-palestinian rhetoric) though of course, here on Alas we discuss mostly the former group issues.

    So the problem is that on an individual basis, whether a particular interaction is or is not racist has shit-all to do with the larger questions “do POC suffer from racism?;” “do/did this POC in particular ever suffer from racism?;” and/or “did this white person ever do something which is racist?” (The larger questions are essentially rhetorical as they’re almost always going to be “yes.”)

    I’m usually on the ‘conservative’ side insofar as I am more likely than most Alas posters to agree to group blame, and unsurprisingly I’m all for group blame here as well: whites are more often racist than not, almost all whites will be racist at times. Blaming whites for racism, even without a definition of racism that makes such blame automatic, makes perfect sense to me. (I can’t tell: have the various “not OK to blame groups” folks switched sides for this issue? if so, why?)

    Still, although we can assume the answers to the larger questions, it doesn’t answer anything about an individual encounter. To use recent examples, I’m happy to blame black California voters (among other groups) for failing to support Prop 8 and I’m happy to blame whites for often acting like racist asshats. But just as it would be ludicrous to stop a black individual on the street and assume she voted for Prop 8, it is ludicrous to assume that any particular white person is a racist asshat, or that there is racist asshattery implied in any particular white/POC encounter.

    I don’t disagree with the prevalence of it though. But I think there may also be one other issue that you don’t mention:

    In my daily life, I do a fair number of things which may be perceived as negative. I step in front of people on the crosswalk without noticing them; I fail to let someone into my highway lane; I don’t see someone wave to me out of a car window. There aren’t intentional, they’re just a normal set of interactions. Some of them are careless, but most are random.

    And of course I also get just like I give. People do the same thing to me; I get my share on the receiving end.

    The racism issue comes up when you consider the effects of those interactions across all different combinations of race.

    Seeing as I am white, there’s a decent chance that if my random rudeness recipient is a POC, they’ll see it as racism. In fact (in this hypothetical) it has nothing to do with their race at all; it’s just random. Other whites won’t see it as racism when i do it to them, because they’re white. And I won’t when it happens to me–whether a white person or a POC does it–because I’m white.

    In a heterogeneous population, those white/POC interactions are going to happen all the time. Classifying them properly seems very difficult to do.

    After all, it’s not as if that hypothetical POC knows that it’s a random encounter. For all they know, I make a habit of deliberately stepping on POC’s toes on the subway. But if I accidentally step on someone’s toes and they accuse me of doing it because I’m racist, I’d get defensive.

  9. 9
    Jessica says:

    FurryCatHerder, could you clarify what you mean here? “I think an alternate explanation for why there’s more resistance to charges of “Racism” is that “Racism” has gone from “Harm” to “Sore Feelings”. It’s also gone from “Demonstrable Harm” to “I disagree with your politics, therefore you’re a racist”.”
    I’m not sure what you mean by “has gone from”. Does that mean that instances of racism now generally cause hurt feelings instead of harm? Or does it mean that the general public now thinks of racist actions as actions causing hurt feelings rather than actions causing harm? Or something else altogether? I think I disagree, but maybe I’m just misunderstanding you.

  10. 10
    Jeff Fecke says:

    Isn’t racism too serious a matter to level accusations without proof?

    No. The fact is that being racist is a fact of life. Every single person I’ve ever met has been racist to some degree, including myself. Especially if you’ve grown up in America, you simply can’t help it — this stuff is in the water, it’s in the air, it’s in our nation’s soul.

    I have to work to overcome my own racism (and, for that matter, sexism, homophobia, and other biases); I do so because I recognize that racism is wrong, and I want it to stop.

    The fact is that the right won a big victory when they made “racist” into an epithet, rather than a descriptive term. What the Cambridge police did was racist, full stop. That does not necessarily mean the cop in question is an evil, vile, and despicable human being beyond all hope of redemption. It simply means he behaved in a racist way, and that he needs to fix that in the future.

    The fact is that everyone’s racist, and only through acknowledging and engaging with that can we overcome that.

  11. 11
    Myca says:

    I think an alternate explanation for why there’s more resistance to charges of “Racism” is that “Racism” has gone from “Harm” to “Sore Feelings”.

    In order for this to make sense, I’d need an example of a time when racists didn’t try to downplay the harm racism does in precisely this way.

    —Myca

  12. 12
    PG says:

    SM,

    Have you ever had the experience that something you did in a truly accidental way (like literally stepping on someone’s toes) was, to your knowledge, chalked up to racism?

    I am thinking about the (thankfully relatively few) incidents in my life of racism and sexism and xenophobia and religious bigotry. And I can’t think of one where the underlying injury could have occurred by accident. When I thought a colleague was pulling shit on me (I being in a managerial position over him) because I was female, I didn’t think that simply because he was being a jerk — hey, maybe he’s always a jerk, to everyone. I thought it because I knew for a fact that he hadn’t gone this far with a friend of mine who had previously served in my role. The friend was a white male, but I framed it as sexism rather than racism because the colleague was also being a jerk to the white women working on the same project, but not to any of the men. I don’t think this guy is consciously sexist, I know he’s fairly literally a card-carrying liberal and doubtlessly considers himself very liberated and probably even a feminist.

    Someone questioned my assessment of this as sexism by saying, “Hey, this guy is just going to push for as much advantage as he can get, and you women are not showing him clearly that he can’t get away with that, whereas John [the white male previously in the role] made it clear that he couldn’t.” Perhaps that’s true. Perhaps it wasn’t sexism, not even of the kind where someone unconsciously assume women will be easier to roll over than men are and therefore feels he can push further with them.

    But I do think that especially when I, a person at the intersection of many kinds of minority/disempowered statuses, instinctively assign how I’m being treated to a particular one, that there is something happening in the interaction that explains that. If I think, “This is happening because I am female,” rather than because I am brown/ non-Christian/ 1st gen in America, I am inclined to trust my instinct on that. I am resistant to letting people tell me that my instinct must be wrong. (Especially because I rarely think sexism is coming into play in my life; when I was interviewing for colleges, I remember one interviewer asked me, “What difficulties do you think being a young woman may impose on your plans?” and I just looked at him blankly because so far as I knew, no one ever had gotten in my way because I was female.)

    I think telling people their instincts are wrong is part of gaslighting.

  13. 13
    Sailorman says:

    PG,

    I wasn’t attempting to say “hey look, I’m being falsely accused.” I was trying to expand on Amp’s comment, noting that (1) a POC would be justified in thinking that most whites were racist; (2) in addition to the interactions whites have with POC which are in fact based on racism, there will also be interactions which are not in fact based on racism… but (3) both interactions can be subjectively identical from the perspective of POC; and (4) that this makes matters more difficult to analyze, and presumably worse to experience.

  14. 14
    Sailorman says:

    But to respond more particularly:

    I think telling people their instincts are wrong is part of gaslighting

    My instincts can be right or wrong; doesn’t the same apply to you? How can it be gaslighting (which I assume has a negative connotation) to simply disagree?

    If you and I interact and we both have different experiences of the encounter, I am not gaslighting you–or you me–merely because we disagree. That disagreement has to be OK.

    Similarly, if I witness an interaction between you and Joe, and I have a different interpretation of the encounter than you do, or than Joe does, that disagreement is OK no matter what the subject matter. (IOW, if it’s OK for me to say “yes, Joe’s statement sure was racist!” or something similar, then it also has to be OK for me to say “nope, Joe’s statement wasn’t racist at all” or something similar.)

    Finally, if I hear about an interaction between Joe and Mabel, and (having heard the report) I have a different interpretation than you do about Joe’s or Mabel’s actions/motivations… that’s OK, too. (just like the above, if it’s OK for me to say “yes, Joe’s statement sure was racist!” or something similar, then it also has to be OK for me to say “nope, Joe’s statement wasn’t racist at all” or something similar.)

    It’s gaslighting if I lie about it. It’s gaslighting if I deliberately make you try to think you’re crazy for having your opinion. But it’s not gaslighting to disagree with you in good faith; to trust my own instincts over yours.. No way, no how, can that be “not OK,” no matter what color or privilege level you and I and Mabel and Joe have relative to each other.

    ETA: As usual, I’m making the general argument. If you think this is a special case which is an exception, then I hope you’ll explain why it’s an exception.

  15. 15
    Brian says:

    On the other hand, there is a strong tendency in humans to always feel that they are being put upon by others. Living in a majority Black city, and having worked in majority Black government offices, my perspective may be different from most.

    There hasn’t been a week in the past three years that I haven’t heard something along the lines of Black workers complaining to Black coworkers that their Black boss was picking on them to be suck up to some imaginary white person that doesn’t exist anywhere in the government agency we all work for. I’ve seen “victimhood” psychology among Black folks just the same as I’ve seen “victimhood” psychology from poor white trash railing about “jew bankers” or “goddam gumment libruls” or any other mythical boogeyman.

    That SOME people dismiss legitimate claims of racism by saying “It’s all in their head” doesn’t change the fact that in many cases it IS in fact all in their head. It’s an obvious logical fallacy, a false generalization to make EITHER claim.

    My home town of Baltimore has had a murder rate that tops the nation and has since the 1980s. It’s young black men shooting young black men to the tune of 300 murders a year and lord knows how many more shootings. When I listen to local talk radio, who is being blamed for this? “The Man.”

    I’m a socialist by temperament, politics and religion. I know for a fact that this nonsense is inflamed by the upper 1% to keep us all from organizing and hanging the upper 1% from light posts by their own intestines. But it’s certainly made easier for the plutocrats and the pimps and the exploiters of the world that the masses of humanity have always had one battle cry over any other.

    “It’s not my fault. You’re picking on me because I’m _______ and you’re ______.” Victimhood keeps people victims.

    If Henry Louis Gates had said “Hey, this is my house, this is my ID, I had to break my own back door in because I lost my keys, but THANK YOU for protecting my house, because it could have been some crackhead stealing my TV,” we wouldn’t be having this thread. Instead, Harvard professor or not, he decided “I’m a victim! Fuck this cop, and fuck whoever called him!”

    And some billionaire is glad he did, because it keeps our mind of what’s really going on in this world.

  16. 16
    FurryCatHerder says:

    Myca,

    There wouldn’t be a time when that happened because I’m not talking about racists downplaying racism. I’m saying that the arguments against “That’s so racist!” by racists is being aided by diluting what is considered to be “Racist”.

    “Racism” used to be more about police dogs, fire hoses, lynchings, vote suppression, job discrimination, housing, etc. “Racism” involved harm and power. Is that act intended to cause real harm, does the actor have the power to cause that harm — that’s the definition of all the “-isms” that I know of. Or at least it was.

    I think that controversies over words like “niggardly” have fed, because they trivialise “Racism” have had the effect of giving racists more ammunition to attack statements about REAL Racism.

    The questions, I think, should be “What harm does this cause?” and when confronted by someone who denies something is racist “This is the harm that causes.” Indirect harm, sure — I’ll go for that. I believe Racism is a form of Ethnic Terrorism. Hurt feelings? No. Police dogs, firehoses and lynchings were more than just “Hurt Feelings”.

    Clearer?

  17. 17
    tariqata says:

    I know this wasn’t addressed to me, but I’d like to play the devil’s advocate card for just one moment (though I do agree with the original post in it’s entirety, this is a situation I’ve run into – again – today, and it’s bugging me):

    Have you ever had the experience that something you did in a truly accidental way (like literally stepping on someone’s toes) was, to your knowledge, chalked up to racism?

    I currently work for a bank (in Toronto, Canada), and the bank in question allows customers to do their transactions at any branch. That means that at any given branch, a significant number of people will come in to withdraw cash or do other transactions who have never been in that branch before, and are therefore unknown to the staff. In those situations, we are legally required to ask for identification before we can complete the transaction (for good reason, because we run into impersonation and fake identification situations literally on a daily basis). I’ve had plenty of people of every age and colour ask me why we have to do that, and I’ve had plenty of people take it a step further and scream and swear at me, because it’s not something that people (who really are who they say they are) enjoy, no matter how politely they’re asked. But I have had several people of colour accuse me of singling them out for harassment because of their colour, and I’ve been called a racist directly for asking for ID several times, and that’s not something I’ve had directed at me from customers who are, as I am, white. (However, I should note that I’ve heard similar exchanges between, for example, an East Indian co-worker and a Black customer.)

    In this case, I don’t think that the difference is in how I’m asking people for their identification, because most people of every stripe are okay with it, or at least polite about the fact that they are uncomfortable about the request for ID, and the group that is most likely to be rude about it is in fact middle-aged white men. My customers who are people of colour are not more likely to take offense to my request, just more likely to say they believe I’m asking because of racism if they do take offense.

    It’s very, very hard to respond to this accusation, because there are definitely policies within the bank that, while not intended to hurt people of colour, do disproportionately affect them (for example, the rules on cheque-cashing mean that we are more likely to hold cheques for customers who don’t have a great deal of money or regular pay, and although I don’t think race and poverty are as closely linked as they are in the US, they certainly are correlated here as well; negotiating this conflict between trying to provide good service and not being permitted to help people who really need it is one reason that I’m handing in my resignation tomorrow). Because I’m in a position where I deal with the public, and because the bank I work for actually does have a very diverse workforce, and Toronto is a very diverse city so that lots of my customers are POC, I do try very hard to monitor my own behaviour and to catch myself if I’m making assumptions about race. But this is a situation where there really is no racism involved, but it’s a belief on the part of my customers that is entirely understandable, and all I can do is assert (without any proof to offer) that I ask every person whom I haven’t served before for identification and that I’m really, really not singling them out because of their colour.

    Apologies for the long post – this is, as I said, something that really bugs me. I’m usually good at resolving conflicts with customers, but this is one that I’ve gotten stuck on, beyond working to be as polite and respectful of others’ dignity as I can.

  18. 18
    PG says:

    SM,

    “if it’s OK for me to say “yes, Joe’s statement sure was racist!” or something similar, then it also has to be OK for me to say “nope, Joe’s statement wasn’t racist at all” or something similar.”

    Try thinking about this in something with which we have a more general social message of being supportive (although obviously that has partly to do with how much graver a matter it is): if a woman told you, “I think I was sexually assaulted,” and described what happened and how she felt — that she didn’t feel safe, that she was worried about what would happen if she didn’t go along, that she just lay there and was clearly not into what was happening — do you think it would be equally OK for you to say, “I am sorry that you were assaulted” as compared to saying, “You weren’t really assaulted, and I know this even though I wasn’t there”?

    And of course you know this, but: in any situation where someone is telling you about a bad experience, the options are not only “Tell them they are correct in their perceptions” or “Tell them they are wrong in their perceptions.” If you think, “That sucks, but I wouldn’t consider it sexual assault,” and you’re not being called upon in your capacity as a lawyer, then you can just express the first clause rather than the second: express your regret that something undesirable happened to someone, and keep to yourself your opinion that it wasn’t THAT bad.

    It’s not like anyone was going around grabbing white people by the lapels and demanding that they give an opinion: Gates’s arrest, something to do with racism or nothing to do with racism? Everyone has the option of saying nothing, expressing a generalized regret that an arrest occurred where no one had really been harmed, or otherwise avoiding taking a stance on it.

  19. 19
    FurryCatHerder says:

    SM writes:

    If you and I interact and we both have different experiences of the encounter, I am not gaslighting you–or you me–merely because we disagree. That disagreement has to be OK.

    Similarly, if I witness an interaction between you and Joe, and I have a different interpretation of the encounter than you do, or than Joe does, that disagreement is OK no matter what the subject matter. (IOW, if it’s OK for me to say “yes, Joe’s statement sure was racist!” or something similar, then it also has to be OK for me to say “nope, Joe’s statement wasn’t racist at all” or something similar.)

    No, it isn’t “OK” no matter what the subject matter.

    When I speak about my experiences as a Woman, a Queer, a Trannie, or any other such thing, I speak directly from my experiences. Saying that a non-member-of-a-group has an equally valid perspective on being a member of that group — Woman, Queer, Trannie — is just not right.

    What you can’t know as not-a-member is how an action is part of a pattern of behavior against you because you don’t see the pattern, first hand. When I, the only female of my IBM team, was asked to make photocopies for a vendor, it wasn’t an accident that I, the only female of my IBM team, was asked to make the copies. It didn’t matter that I was signing the checks for the vendor (I signed $2.5M in checks to them), or that I was the senior technical person on the team, what mattered was that I was the only woman who didn’t work for them. Men aren’t asked to make photocopies or fetch coffee.

    Men do ask other men to do things for them in meetings. But I’ve yet to see a junior level man ask the most senior man in a meeting to make copies or get coffee. Men might say “Hey, what’s problem? I ask men to make copies for me all the time!” But they don’t ask more senior men to do it. And I bet they don’t ask the man who’s paying their bills to do it. And for that reason, it’s sexist and you may well not even realize it.

  20. 20
    PG says:

    tariqata,

    I think it’s really difficult for it not to look like racism if a black person is in line behind three white/Asian people (since Asians at least in the U.S. have average incomes comparable to whites’) and none of those people were asked for ID, but the black person was.

    I’d also think that it would help a lot if either (a) the bank just asked for ID from everyone (which is what my bank does — expect overworked tellers in a big city to remember people? bwahahaha; the only bank where people know who I am is the one in my small hometown where there are only a half dozen families of my ethnicity). Or (b) you announced before asking for the ID, “Since I haven’t served you before, I’m required to verify your ID — we just have to do this once and then I will remember your face from now on.” When the request for ID comes out of the blue, people who have been dealt with as “born suspect” before will automatically wonder if it was race-based, and if they voice that suspicion and there’s a post hoc justification that wasn’t offered from the outset… not going to help much.

    But there’s a difference between the people who are just annoyed to have to spend 30 seconds digging out ID; and the people who have seen others NOT have to do something they’re now being told to do, who wouldn’t have minded if they were certain that everyone is being treated the same.

    This kind of reminds me of how I seem to be a lot less bothered by airline security procedures nowadays than many of the people I know. I have a white male Republican friend who thinks it’s nuts that his 60-something mother has to take off her shoes. *Obviously* she’s not a terrorist, right?

    Me, I don’t mind as much because I’m pretty sure that the alternative is deciding that certain people — of particular age, color, ethnicity, maybe sex — will be the only ones who have to do it. And what I don’t mind doing when the white senior citizen named Mary Smith is doing it too, feels a lot more humiliating when I’m picked out of the line as the young, brown, “foreign”-named possible terrorist.

    That, by the way, seems to be a pretty clear instance of “hurt feelings.” Where’s the HARM, if I’m not much bothered by it when everyone does it, if the policy is changed so it’s only me and people who look like me? I’m doing exactly what I was doing before, right? Why am I making a big deal about it now? Sheesh, what an over-sensitive, race-card playing baby.

  21. 21
    FurryCatHerder says:

    PG writes, taking a dig at me:

    That, by the way, seems to be a pretty clear instance of “hurt feelings.” Where’s the HARM, if I’m not much bothered by it when everyone does it, if the policy is changed so it’s only me and people who look like me? I’m doing exactly what I was doing before, right? Why am I making a big deal about it now? Sheesh, what an over-sensitive, race-card playing baby.

    I wouldn’t call it “Harm” or “Not Harm” (I lied — it’s harmful to far more people than just People of Color). I’d call it a “Poor Security Practice”, and because it doesn’t have a legitimate objective (it has an illegitimate objective — providing terrorists with the information needed to thwart security practices and actually, physically harm people), and it does create distrust (there’s your “Harm” — it doesn’t matter if YOU are not bothered since YOU are not everyone of your race / ethnicity / whatever), it’s racist.

    What is not “Harmful” is asking all members of other branch banks, based on their account information, for identification. That is also a “Poor Security Practice” (I’m a security expert — 23 years experience with security) as it provides information about how to commit fraud — send someone known to the bank to the bank where the fraudulent item is drawn against, or whatever.

    In the case of racial profiling, People of Color have laid out cogent arguments about the harm (distrust, loss of time and money, being forced to make other travel arrangements, etc.), so I would never suggest it be swept under the rug.

    In the case of being asked for ID, not racism, but also not a good idea. I wouldn’t do business at the bank, but I would first explain the security implications of the practice.

  22. 22
    tariqata says:

    I’d also think that it would help a lot if either (a) the bank just asked for ID from everyone (which is what my bank does — expect overworked tellers in a big city to remember people? bwahahaha; the only bank where people know who I am is the one in my small hometown where there are only a half dozen families of my ethnicity). Or (b) you announced before asking for the ID, “Since I haven’t served you before, I’m required to verify your ID — we just have to do this once and then I will remember your face from now on.” When the request for ID comes out of the blue, people who have been dealt with as “born suspect” before will automatically wonder if it was race-based, and if they voice that suspicion and there’s a post hoc justification that wasn’t offered from the outset… not going to help much.

    We do start to run into a bit of a catch-22 though: I mean, I know the customers who come in every single day (of whom there are many – at this point, I actually can probably greet close to half the people who come in by name – even in a big city), and of course those of us who’ve been at the branch for a while remember those customers and they get upset if they’re asked for ID no matter how often they’re told it’s the policy (I dread it when new tellers are hired for just this reason). But, if a person only comes in once a month, I for one can’t promise I’ll remember them next time I see them. I like your proposal to simply start transactions with unfamiliar people by announcing the identification requirement, but another issue is that some transactions require a higher level of identification (for example, an access card is sufficient to make a deposit, but photo ID is requested for large cash withdrawals) – plus the unending pressure to create a friendly, welcoming, empathetic atmosphere and a sense of rapport from the get-go…

    I understand why someone who’s faced with ambiguous, possibly/probably racist situations on a regular basis would interpret the request for ID to be one more manifestation of the same thing – but trying to demonstrate that it’s not in a specific situation, but in a context where institutional racial discrimination is certainly occurring, is hard, in my experience. No matter what I say, at least to my ears, it ends up sounding like the gaslighting described in this post.

  23. 23
    PG says:

    “In the case of racial profiling, People of Color have laid out cogent arguments about the harm (distrust, loss of time and money, being forced to make other travel arrangements, etc.), so I would never suggest it be swept under the rug.”

    That would be true if there were something added that only applied to PoC.

    But if the switch is simply from having everyone undergo a procedure to instead having a limited group undergo exactly the same procedure as they were before, I am confused as to how there is “distrust, loss of time and money, being forced to make other travel arrangements, etc.” I lose no more time nor money under the racially profiled regime I hypothesized than I do right now. Indeed, the overall process would actually go faster if 60-something white Mary Smith doesn’t have to take her shoes off. There don’t have to be as many people working security, so the “security fee” on my ticket decreases. I receive a tangible *benefit* from the profiling regime. There’s no need for me to change travel arrangements based on my doing just exactly what I’ve been doing all along.

    How, other than in feeling humiliated and singled out because I am doing things almost no one else around me is doing — and those are merely feelings — am I being harmed?

    And it’s not taking a dig, unless you feel like someone’s taking a dig when a woman of color applies your theories about what constitutes *real* racism to her own life.

  24. 24
    PG says:

    tariqata,

    Right, but that’s why the comparison to airline security came to my mind: it’s a pain in the butt, it decreases the friendliness of the environment, it takes more time. On the other hand, if you make everyone do it, you know no one is slipping by, and everyone is treated the same so there’s no one feeling singled out. It’s a difficult balance in any job where you’re the gatekeeper on people who are just trying to get something done in a hurry.

    And oy, if it has to depend on someone’s subjective memory and an individual employee is better at distinguishing white people from one another than, say, East Asian people from one another? That means someone who is an equally frequent customer might be getting ID’ed simply because she’s less specifically memorable than another customer.

    Rules that apply to everyone regardless of specific circumstance seem coldly bureaucratic, but I think there are good reasons for them.

  25. 25
    Ampersand says:

    I’ve seen “victimhood” psychology among Black folks just the same as I’ve seen “victimhood” psychology from poor white trash railing about “jew bankers” or “goddam gumment libruls” or any other mythical boogeyman.

    Just a quick moderation note: Normally I’d mod someone for using the phrase “poor white trash.” I’m letting it through this time because I know Brian (we were best friends in high school!), and back in my high school days I heard Bri refer to himself as poor white trash lots of times.

    Bri: Don’t you think that you should give the police account of the incident more skepticism? You seem to be assuming that the cop’s account is true, and Gate’s account is a lie. (Or maybe you haven’t read Gate’s side of the story yet, but you should.)

    More later!

  26. 26
    chingona says:

    Have you ever had the experience that something you did in a truly accidental way (like literally stepping on someone’s toes) was, to your knowledge, chalked up to racism?

    When I was in college, I was waiting out on the quad for some friends. A black student was standing maybe 20-30 feet away from me, having a conversation with a friend, also black, who was in a fourth floor dorm room. As you might imagine, what with one person on the ground and the other on the fourth floor, the conversation was being had at a pretty high volume. I was staring off into space, but in the general direction of these two students.

    And at some point I realized the student on the ground was no longer yelling at her friend but yelling at me, talking in a white accent, as if to reflect what I was supposedly thinking, saying “Oh, those black people are soooo loud” and so on.

    So, yes, it happens. She thought I was staring at her thinking racist thoughts. I was actually staring off into space, only vaguely aware of her and her friend.

    And there’s no way to defend myself or prove what my thoughts were. Of course I would say that I wasn’t staring at her thinking racist thoughts even if I were.

    But to counter that anecdote with another, my father has told me that he’s worked in many shops (he’s a cabinet maker) where any time a black guy came and filled out an application, everyone (almost everyone – not my dad and probably not one or two others, but most everyone) would start snickering and elbowing each other in a knowing way to indicate how ridiculous it was that the guy would even think he might get hired. If any of those black men were to say they got a weird vibe off the shop and thought the reason they didn’t get hired is because they were black, it would be pretty easy to dismiss it as “all in their heads.” Where’s the proof? Maybe they weren’t even laughing at you. Maybe it had something to do with some in-joke in the shop.

    Nowadays, something that overt is less likely to happen. But he still sees applications get tossed, especially for younger guys, because the boss thinks they look a little too street. Now, it’s easy to say they should wear some clothes that are less baggy when they go looking for a job, but these places employ plenty of white people who are more than a bit rough around the edges. Somehow, the boss can see past the rough edges on the white job applicants, but the black applicant looks like a thug. I’m pretty sure the boss in that case would say she isn’t racist. Is the black applicant wrong to suspect his race played a role in not getting the job?

    Sure, in individual cases, particularly in a fleeting interaction with someone you don’t know, it’s possible to misinterpret. But racism takes its toll, at least in part, by the cumulative effect of thousands of individual interactions, the majority of them impossible to “prove” in any objective way and many of them motivated at least in part by racism. It’s asking too much of PoC and too little of white people to ask the PoC to always, constantly, and forever extend the benefit of the doubt.

  27. 27
    chingona says:

    And one more thing … I guess the opposite of gaslighting would be someone affirming your perspective. I’m always a bit surprised at myself how damn good it feels when a man notices something sexist and calls it out as sexist. It’s like a burden I didn’t even know I was carrying was lifted. It shouldn’t be that remarkable a thing, but the amount of relief I feel says something about the toll it takes just to never be believed or even to always be wondering if this or that was because I’m a woman.

  28. 28
    FurryCatHerder says:

    PG writes more:

    “In the case of racial profiling, People of Color have laid out cogent arguments about the harm (distrust, loss of time and money, being forced to make other travel arrangements, etc.), so I would never suggest it be swept under the rug.”

    That would be true if there were something added that only applied to PoC.

    There is — enhanced security screening, denied access to flights, refused re-entry to the United States, deportation, etc. My neighbors sold their house earlier this year, and went back to Great Britain, because the husband was a victim of Racial Profiling.

    But if the switch is simply from having everyone undergo a procedure to instead having a limited group undergo exactly the same procedure as they were before, I am confused as to how there is “distrust, loss of time and money, being forced to make other travel arrangements, etc.” I lose no more time nor money under the racially profiled regime I hypothesized than I do right now. Indeed, the overall process would actually go faster if 60-something white Mary Smith doesn’t have to take her shoes off. There don’t have to be as many people working security, so the “security fee” on my ticket decreases. I receive a tangible *benefit* from the profiling regime. There’s no need for me to change travel arrangements based on my doing just exactly what I’ve been doing all along.

    YOU lose no more time, but People of Color, lose more time when they are inappropriately targeted. But you know that — you just want to play Devil’s Advocate to attack me and extend this vendetta. Or should I attack you for agreeing with racist whites who think Racial Profiling is all okie-dokie, instead of acknowledging that you’re attacking me because you want to slander my character?

    Okay, you’re a racist because you support Racial Profiling. Made you happy? I think it makes you look silly and petty, as well as vengeful and a few other things.

    As for Racial Profiling schemes, they don’t work. 60-year-old white Mary Smith could well be a terror sympathizer, asked to carry a bomb in her cane / walker / orthopedic shoes because terrorist friends know she’s less likely to be searched. This is factually what has happened in other countries, where women and young people are increasingly being recruited to perform terrorist acts because profiling has been used.

    How, other than in feeling humiliated and singled out because I am doing things almost no one else around me is doing — and those are merely feelings — am I being harmed?

    Because they aren’t unjustified feelings, devoid of any relationship to actual HARM. Being denied boarding rights to an airplane because you have the wrong skin color, surname, religious garb, etc. is not just a “feeling”. They are feelings associated with actual HARM.

    And it’s not taking a dig, unless you feel like someone’s taking a dig when a woman of color applies your theories about what constitutes *real* racism to her own life.

    Excuse me, but I’m the one arguing that Racial Profiling is racist because it causes ACTUAL and IDENTIFIABLE harm. You’re the one arguing that Racial Profiling is okay. If you want to keep taking the racist stance in arguments so you can attack me for being … racist? … go ahead. I’m not going to switch sides in my arguments no matter how weird a stance you take.

  29. 29
    chingona says:

    YOU lose no more time, but People of Color, lose more time when they are inappropriately targeted.

    PG’s not white.

    ETA: And I’m pretty sure she’s not arguing in favor of racial profiling, and I think if you read her comments with an open mind instead of the assumption that she’s trying to get you, that would be pretty clear. I’ve disagreed pretty strenuously with PG before, so I feel I can say with some confidence that she doesn’t disagree or argue with people just to carry out vendettas.

  30. 30
    FurryCatHerder says:

    Chingona,

    Yes, I know that. However, PG is taking the “Pro” position on Racial Profiling.

    Sorry — I thought my comment that her support of Racial Profiling against People of Color made her look silly made that clear, as well as my post @ 21.

    Just so it’s very clear, I’m aware that she’s a Woman of Color.

  31. 31
    chingona says:

    Then what distinction are you making when you say “YOU” (PG) lose no more time, but “People of Color” (not PG?) suffer harm?

  32. 32
    FurryCatHerder says:

    Chingona,

    When someone takes a stance that is counter to what might be a predictable stances (blacks who support racist policies, women who support sexist policies, gays who support homophobic policies), I use “you” more as a singular term, excluding them from membership in the group in question.

    I’m not going to respond to the rest of your “ETA” because of Amp’s post in another thread.

  33. 33
    chingona says:

    I use “you” more as a singular term, excluding them from membership in the group in question.

    You can’t exclude someone else from their own identity because you don’t like their politics.

  34. 34
    Ampersand says:

    For the record, I don’t believe that PG supports racial profiling. I frankly doubt anyone but FCH believes that.

    That said, I’ve forbidden PG and FCH from responding to or about each other on “Alas” until August. So everyone, drop it right now. And that means, don’t respond to this comment of mine, either.

  35. 35
    Simple Truth says:

    I really have a problem when commenters here make a statement similar to, “You can’t have an opinion if you’re not of *our group*.” Yes, I can have an opinion, and you might consider it wrong, but that’s it goes. If we’re both feeling very outgoing, we can discuss our difference in opinion, and you might decide I’m a hopeless square and be done with it, but everyone is allowed to have an opinion. Whites are allowed to have opinions on racism, straights on gay issues, men on feminism, etc. The difference is that if you’re paying attention, you’d know better than to think your own experience automatically trumps someone of that group. There’s a lot of subtle, insidious ways that experiences can differ.
    I really dislike it when a person’s immutable characteristics are used to single them out into a group that has no voice, whether they be majority or minority. Besides, expressing an opinion that leads to a civil debate is a great way to learn about a topic, and that’s really what we’re here for, IMO.

  36. 36
    Simple Truth says:

    Sorry Amp – crosspost.

  37. 37
    Rich B. says:

    Imagine that you are a lawyer representing the police in Cambridge. Imagine that you are aware that Gates was arrested, and that it smells fishy, and that there is a possibility that Gates will sue — possibly on his own, or possibly as a class representative — and honestly who could blame him if he did?

    When and if there is a lawsuit, you will try to settle it for as small an amount as possible, or — if you can’t settle it for an amount the city would be willing to pay — you will defend the city in litigation.

    Now imagine the cop comes into your office and says, “After thinking it over and reading some posts on Alas, I have come to the conclusion that I was probably acting in a racist manner, and would like to publicly apologize for doing so.”

    Thinking about the number of zeroes such an admission will add to the value of a lawsuit, what do you advise the police officer?

    EDIT: The point, if it is not obvious, is that — in this society — admissions of racism are potentially devastating. Why did the Republicans try to pin Sotomayer with “reverse racism”? Because, if the label had stuck, it would have disqualified her. The potential risk of being identified as a racist are huge, especially for public or semi-public figures (although, admittedly, often those risks don’t come to fruition). As long as the downside risk is so high, no white person is ever going to do anything but fight tooth and nail against any claim of racism. And, really, who could blame them?

  38. 38
    Dianne says:

    Thinking about the number of zeroes such an admission will add to the value of a lawsuit, what do you advise the police officer?

    Apologize. The courts are for the administration of justice, not for the administration of the verdict most convenient and least expensive to the township.

  39. 39
    PG says:

    Rich B.,

    That same claim about how people can’t apologize or express regret because it will be used against in tort is standard with regard to medical practitioners who fear a malpractice suit: “I can’t say I’m sorry about Grandpa dying on the operating table, because they’ll use that admission against me in court.”

    It’s erroneous. Yes, it would be foolish for the cop to say, “I’m actually a huge racist and I clearly was motivated by racism here,” just as it would be foolish for the surgeon to say, “I got 5 hours sleep last night and I must have been negligent in my performance.” However, I don’t recall Gates asking for the cop to do that. The cop can say, “I’m sorry all this happened, I think it escalated and I could have handled it better.”

    Since the standard for being able to sue the city for police malfeasance and civil rights claims is much higher than mere negligence, that’s not an admission that is going to help much in litigation. It also actually indicates that the cop probably *isn’t* acting based on conscious racism, because a conscious racist isn’t going to voluntarily apologize to a black man.

    Republicans like the label “a racist person” and hate having “racist” used as an adjective to describe speech, acts or institutions, because they want to be able to categorize people and then banish a few scapegoats instead of having to deal with the pervasiveness of racism in a substantive way. It isn’t ruinous to acknowledge that one has been thoughtless — I just acknowledged it in this thread with regard to trans-people, and most people would not try to use that admission against me to say, “Aha, transphobe!” Sure, a few would, but they’re not speaking in good faith.

  40. 40
    Sailorman says:

    PG Writes:
    July 22nd, 2009 at 8:18 pm

    SM,

    �if it�s OK for me to say �yes, Joe�s statement sure was racist!� or something similar, then it also has to be OK for me to say �nope, Joe�s statement wasn�t racist at all� or something similar.�

    Try thinking about this in something with which we have a more general social message of being supportive (although obviously that has partly to do with how much graver a matter it is): if a woman told you, �I think I was sexually assaulted,� and described what happened and how she felt � that she didn�t feel safe, that she was worried about what would happen if she didn�t go along, that she just lay there and was clearly not into what was happening � do you think it would be equally OK for you to say, �I am sorry that you were assaulted� as compared to saying, �You weren�t really assaulted, and I know this even though I wasn�t there�?

    No, of course not; it would be rude as hell. However, it doesn’t actually mean that I would commit myself to believing that she was right, or that her report was factually correct (having learned the hard way through my own clientele, I tend to remain skeptical.) If I were asked to actually judge her, or to take action against the man she said assaulted her, or to do something which WOULD require me to reach a conclusion: then yes, of course, I would have to include all possible outcomes in my analysis, including the outcome of “you werenâ��t really assaulted, and I know this even though I wasnâ��t there.”

    And of course you know this, but: in any situation where someone is telling you about a bad experience, the options are not only �Tell them they are correct in their perceptions� or �Tell them they are wrong in their perceptions.� If you think, �That sucks, but I wouldn�t consider it sexual assault,� and you�re not being called upon in your capacity as a lawyer, then you can just express the first clause rather than the second: express your regret that something undesirable happened to someone, and keep to yourself your opinion that it wasn�t THAT bad.

    1) thank you for the “of course you know this” part; and 2) yes, I agree.

    It�s not like anyone was going around grabbing white people by the lapels and demanding that they give an opinion: Gates�s arrest, something to do with racism or nothing to do with racism? Everyone has the option of saying nothing, expressing a generalized regret that an arrest occurred where no one had really been harmed, or otherwise avoiding taking a stance on it.

    I’m not really sure I agree on this: It was a public matter, it was being publicly discussed, and IMO it’s both reasonable and socially acceptable to give a public opinion on it. (My own opinion, incidentally, is that it was racially motivated. But that’s neither here nor there.)

  41. 41
    PG says:

    chingona @27,

    I’m always a bit surprised at myself how damn good it feels when a man notices something sexist and calls it out as sexist.

    I have that sometimes, but sometimes it almost irks me if the man who is doing it is someone who doesn’t seem to believe that sexism is pervasive in society. If it’s safe to mention my white male Republican friend again, he was once telling me about witnessing a judge acting in a sexist way (jokingly telling another judge’s female clerks that they should be getting busy on his blanket at a chambers-wide picnic), and while I was glad that he recognized this was sexist (indeed, pretty close to sexual harassment in a legal sense), I was also exasperated by his OMG How Could This POSSIBLY Be Happening attitude. My response was more like, “Huh, that’s a little surprising just because a judge should know that he’s potentially creating a legal problem here, but middle-aged man having a drink and being an ass to young female subordinates? It’s a day that ends in ‘y’.”

    I guess it’s when the recognition of sexism (racism, religious bigotry, etc.) is accompanied by expressions of shock and “this is so bizarre and never happened before!” that I can’t enjoy the good feeling, because it’s cancelled out by the thought, “OK, you’re catching the most freakingly obvious thing, but you clearly don’t realize that it’s a lot more common than this one blatant incident.” It comes back to Dave Chappelle’s point in the routine Amp has linked, the “White people just now figured out that this police brutality thing is happened, ’cause they read it in Newsweek.”

  42. 42
    PG says:

    SM,

    If I were asked to actually judge her, or to take action against the man she said assaulted her, or to do something which WOULD require me to reach a conclusion: then yes, of course, I would have to include all possible outcomes in my analysis, including the outcome of “you werenâ��t really assaulted, and I know this even though I wasnâ��t there.”

    Right, which is why I tried to clarify that by pointing out that you weren’t being asked in your capacity as a lawyer.

    I’m not really sure I agree on this: It was a public matter, it was being publicly discussed, and IMO it’s both reasonable and socially acceptable to give a public opinion on it. (My own opinion, incidentally, is that it was racially motivated. But that’s neither here nor there.)

    I think that becomes problematic to the extent that, well, black people are a minority, and one that has less power in this country than is proportional to their numbers. If we acknowledge that those who haven’t dealt much with racial bias toward themselves are generally going to be less inclined to perceive it, then if there’s no particular value given to how the individual who was subordinated in the incident (and I hope we agree that the guy who gets led off in cuffs got pwned there) experienced it, the non-black majority will come to the dominant conclusion that it wasn’t racism. Because they are not only a numerical majority, but also with more control over the media and other outlets of information, then black people are also going to be getting told in an overwhelming way that the non-black people have decided that the black folks got this wrong, and nope, wasn’t racism. That’s where the gaslighting comes in.

  43. 43
    Kai Jones says:

    To Diane at 38: If the attorney advised the officer to apologize, he could lose his license for unethical behavior. The attorney has a duty to aggressively defend his client’s best interests, and it is not in the best interests of the city to promote behavior that will increase a money award against the city.

  44. 44
    Sailorman says:

    PG,

    I think your point is valid. It may simply be that we are coming from different value bases: I value open discourse more highly than do many people, and I assign a concomitantly high value to free speech. So even when the results of that discourse are negative, I am probably less willing than most people to constrain the ability of a speaker, whether those constraints are legal or social in nature.

    So when you say:

    I think that becomes problematic to the extent that, well, black people are a minority, and one that has less power in this country than is proportional to their numbers…. because they are not only a numerical majority, but also with more control over the media and other outlets of information, then black people are also going to be getting told in an overwhelming way that the non-black people have decided that the black folks got this wrong, and nope, wasn’t racism.

    I think that we are on the same page; that’s a factual issue, and one in which I agree with your summary.

    Where we seem to disagree is what to do about it: Must/should a member of a majority (white or otherwise) constrain her speech to avoid the collateral effect on one or more minority group members?

    Whether you want to refer to it as ‘constraining’ the majority or ‘listening extra closely’ to the minority is sort of irrelevant. We’re talking about a relative change. not being aware of any existing term (though I’m sure there is one) to describe this type of minority deference, I tend to mentally refer to it as “conversational AA.”

    I view thoughts and ideas as unusually worthy of protection, and on a personal level, I am not comfortable extending the type of limits you propose. I don’t think you’re bad or crazy to propose them, but I don’t think I will ever really agree that they’re OK.

  45. 45
    PG says:

    Sailorman,

    I am fiercely opposed to legal constraints on speech (which is why I keep explaining to some folks that no, a cop generally *can’t* constitutionally arrest you for calling him a racist). But I’m also in favor of civility, kindness, avoiding dominating behavior, etc. (at least in theory; I don’t pretend to be a pillar of them in practice).

    Perhaps the picture that someone recently posted online of part of my bookshelf really does say something about me: the Federal Rules of Evidence, two historical romance novels, Miss Manners Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, the Aspen Criminal Law textbook, the Aspen Evidence textbook.

    I think the law should back up off most of our behavior, but that social norms should be stepping in, particularly when the behavior imposes what I consider a harm by furthering subordination of certain groups. It’s not a harm that I would want considered cognizable by law, any more than I would want my hurting my mother’s feelings to be cognizable as “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” but it is a harm of which we should be aware and not careless in inflicting.

  46. 46
    FurryCatHerder says:

    Kai,

    I’m not at all convinced that an apology would increase a money award. An apology would have to be crafted so it wasn’t “I’m a big racist and I suck, please sue me”, but there is a lot of room for a meaningful apology which acknowledges the facts and any circumstances that led to the incorrect behavior by the officer.

    It’s human to learn from a mistake. I’d be more inclined, as a juror, to award greater punitive damages if the defendant hadn’t shown that they’d at least learned SOMETHING. Given what I’ve read so far, I’d be more inclined to award greater damages because the present reports are that Crowley has no intention of issuing an apology. Indeed, with what I’ve read so far, I’d award the maximum amount permissible simply because Crowley appears to be so unwilling to learn anything.

  47. 47
    Sailorman says:

    PG, I certainly never thought you were talking about legal restrictions. Still, seeing as we seem unlikely to alter each others position (I think we both understand each other, but we simply disagree) I won’t reply further.

  48. 48
    Dianne says:

    I’ve mentioned this on the other thread as welll, but the lawyers seem to be here, so…Why hasn’t the cop who refused to give his name and badge number-which police in Massachusetts are legally required to do-been charged with a violation of state law?

  49. 49
    Ampersand says:

    My guess is, because it’s the cop’s word against Dr. Gates’ word, so an arrest is unlikely to lead to a conviction. (And just to be clear, I think they’re correct not to make an arrest in that circumstance.)

  50. 50
    Dianne says:

    My guess is, because it’s the cop’s word against Dr. Gates’ word, so an arrest is unlikely to lead to a conviction.

    You’re probably right. It just disturbs me to see the law flaunted by those who are supposed to be upholding it. (Assuming, of course, that Dr. Gates’ version is correct. Perhaps the officer did give his name and badge number but Gates didn’t hear it and then refused to repeat it because he was getting upset-unprofessional, but not illegal. Or maybe Gates is lying outright. I doubt it but one never knows. )

  51. 51
    PG says:

    Dianne,

    I think the second scenario you described — “the officer did give his name and badge number but Gates didn’t hear it and then refused to repeat it because [the cop] was getting upset” — is the most likely. It would have been odd for Gates to keep demanding the name and badge number and to follow the cop outside in order to get it (which is what the police report says happened) if he’d heard the cop give that info already.

    What I find interesting is that even by the police report’s account, this was an unconstitutional arrest (charging someone for disorderly conduct for perhaps a minute of yelling on his own porch at 1pm on a weekday) and questionable procedure. And Officer Crowley’s statements to the media aren’t helping: he refers to how Gates “provoked” him and thus caused the arrest, but of course annoying a cop isn’t against the law. It’s revealing that Crowley thinks that his own discomfort with being called a racist is justification for arresting someone.

    It’s also odd that someone who should know quite a bit about racial profiling and dealing with minority communities found it so “strange” that a black man would be put out at having a cop question his presence in his own home. The folks defending Crowley hold up his having taught classes on racial profiling as proof that his behavior must be devoid of racial bias, but to me that’s an indication that he’s an ivory tower type himself: he teaches the class but apparently doesn’t put into practice what he should know, which is that a black man is going to be more sensitive about such an accusation than a white person might be. Instead, Crowley speaks about Gates’s negative reaction as “strange,” “confusing,” “surprising,” “uncommon in my experience,” etc.

    Crowley is now also apparently trying to spin Gates as posing some kind of threat to Crowley: “I was leaving as I reached the porch, and I was aware that now he was following me because he was still yelling about racism and black men in America, and that he wasn’t somebody to be messing with.” Gates, of course, didn’t make it more than a couple feet out of his own door before he was arrested; he was still standing on his own porch when he was cuffed. And by Crowley’s own account in the police report, he’d told Gates to follow him outside if he wanted Crowley’s name and badge number.

  52. 52
    chingona says:

    The constantly shifting standard is kind of interesting. Gates was “uncooperative” for not leaving his house immediately, but he is at fault for his own arrest for following the officer outside, even though the police report states the officer told Gates to come outside if he had any additional questions.

    In the police report, the officer writes that he started to provide his name but Gates didn’t hear him because he was yelling. He leaves the impression that he complied but never says he succeeded in giving his name and badge or completed the act of providing his name and badge number even once. Then, by the police report itself, he refuses to repeat it (or provide it the first time).

    So who was uncooperative?

  53. 53
    Radfem says:

    I’m amazed that Sgt. Crowley’s being allowed to talk to the media actually. Unless Cambridge likes train wrecks in action and paying out a lot of money in lawsuits filed against it.

    To Diane at 38: If the attorney advised the officer to apologize, he could lose his license for unethical behavior. The attorney has a duty to aggressively defend his client’s best interests, and it is not in the best interests of the city to promote behavior that will increase a money award against the city.

    The officer is usually not allowed to say anything about a case or he or she will be disciplined. I think that’s how it is in most cities and counties (which are usually sued on behalf of officers and departments under indemnity and the city’s attorneys or hired outside firm represents the officers unless they waive this indemnity). I kn0w from personal experience that this is true. An officer in a case I witnessed told the press she wasn’t disciplined (even though one allegation was sustained) and she got in more trouble for doing that than in violating a person’s constitutional rights. I don’t think that’s unique.

    I’m not at all convinced that an apology would increase a money award. An apology would have to be crafted so it wasn’t “I’m a big racist and I suck, please sue me”, but there is a lot of room for a meaningful apology which acknowledges the facts and any circumstances that led to the incorrect behavior by the officer.

    It’s human to learn from a mistake. I’d be more inclined, as a juror, to award greater punitive damages if the defendant hadn’t shown that they’d at least learned SOMETHING. Given what I’ve read so far, I’d be more inclined to award greater damages because the present reports are that Crowley has no intention of issuing an apology. Indeed, with what I’ve read so far, I’d award the maximum amount permissible simply because Crowley appears to be so unwilling to learn anything.

    The problem is the city’s got a different viewpoint in that an apology can be viewed as an admission of guilt or in a greater sense, responsibility by the city, county or state that hired the officer. And anything that smacks of admission of responsibility (and if you notice in most settlements of lawsuit, cities and counties still aren’t admitting an iota of guilt or responsibility-in fact, one term of settlement might be not having to do so) is not allowed because the city or county or party being sued under indemnity doesn’t want to be found liable. I know of onecase in my city in recent years where an apology was actually issued including in the press but that case actually had the claim of damages paid on it which almost never, ever happens as claims for damage are usually routinely denied. So you had a very rare exception.

    As a juror, if the officer apologized, that would push me to rule for the plaintiff and even if it might mitigate (or not) amount of damages (although in my state governmental agencies can’t be sued for punitive damages in these cases)

    And it’s not uncommon for police to fail to identify themselves. Especially when their actions are being questioned or they feel a complaint coming. Some agencies have policies about this that are actually are enforced. Many don’t. And they often have this deft way of placing their hands apparently casually over their name tags, like with one officer I encountered the other day. If it’s someone whose name I know anyway, I’ll ask how that officer is doing by his or her name. My agency is relatively small (though larger than the national average) and I pretty much know who is who so that’s easier done in a case like mine.

    The folks defending Crowley hold up his having taught classes on racial profiling as proof that his behavior must be devoid of racial bias, but to me that’s an indication that he’s an ivory tower type himself: he teaches the class but apparently doesn’t put into practice what he should know, which is that a black man is going to be more sensitive about such an accusation than a white person might be. Instead, Crowley speaks about Gates’s negative reaction as “strange,” “confusing,” “surprising,” “uncommon in my experience,” etc.

    The fact that he “teaches” racial profiling classes doesn’t mean a lot really, especially when you read examples curriculum used to teach officers in departments and academies. There’s a CHP officer who’s made it his mission or business to teach most agencies in the southern part of California about “racial profiling”.

    If he’s by chance, the more enlightened kind of instructor, then he’s certainly just shown he’s not practicing what he teaches at all or that what he’s teaching is playing a significant role in his assessment of the situation and his response.

    Most often, it’s how to racially profile in ways that circumvents the state laws prohibiting that behavior (which are usually pretty narrow in what can be defined as racial profiling anyway). Really, in most cases it’s not that impressive.

  54. 54
    FurryCatHerder says:

    And, of course, the entire police establishment in the upper right hand corner of the country is now up in arms because people keep noting that what happened to Gates is every black man’s worst nightmare.

    Dennis O’Connor, president of the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association, also took aim at Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who reportedly has characterized the arrest as “every black man’s nightmare and a reality for many black men.”

    The irony that Gates asked if he was being mistreated — and then continued to be mistreated — because he was black is not lost on me.

  55. 55
    Mara says:

    This post actually reminds me of a conversation I had with a roommate a few years back about how I, a black woman, could distinguish veiled racism from the unracist. Like you stated in your post, she had explanations for what, according to her, I perceived as racist behavior. It seemed she expected incidents of racism to be beyond cut clear which I found interesting because while some people may be totally comfortable in their racism, they are not necessarily comfortable with admitting it freely to the world. That is, I am privately racist but I will not admit publicly that I am racist. But on the other hand, I did think her question was valid, because there are people who claim every incident is racist. This isn’t to say that every incident that particular individual experienced was NOT racist, but I think when you start to claim racism at every juncture, people start to find your allegations a little suspect.

    With that being said, I can say that for myself, I am not overly sensitive but do notice how I am treated compared to how others are treated within the same context. Taking your store example, I might not immediately jump to race. I might consider that I was treated differently for some other reason (perhaps my age, etc). After evaluating the data, I draw my conclusion and sometimes, the only conclusion that I can draw is the color of my skin. I have been the only black student in many college courses where the professor seemed genuinely surprised that I was intelligent. I did not immediately attribute this to my race, but after observing that he was not surprised by the other white students in the class and that I had given him no reason to think that I was anything other than an intelligent and articulate young woman, I could only guess that perhaps he had some preconceived notions about me based upon my race. I do not think it was an unreasonable conclusion to draw.

  56. 56
    sylphhead says:

    On the other hand, there is a strong tendency in humans to always feel that they are being put upon by others. Living in a majority Black city, and having worked in majority Black government offices, my perspective may be different from most.

    [...]

    “It’s not my fault. You’re picking on me because I’m _______ and you’re ______.” Victimhood keeps people victims.

    As a POC myself, I understand what it is you’re talking about. Buying into the idea that you’re a victim is a mental trap, and you’re never going to get anywhere focusing and magnifying the negative. I know a lot of other Asian guys who get fed up with being portrayed as weak, and then develop a victim complex regards to being portrayed as weak, which of course only makes them look weaker.

    The best answer I can provide is to adopt a sort of dual persona – your everyday self, and your “political” self. When I’m in my everyday self, I try to avoid seeing everyday occurrences through a political lens. I don’t think about racism, and refuse to hold myself in a position of weakness, thinking of myself as the acted upon, rather than the actor. But meanwhile, I read the books, columns, and websites of those who do deconstruct the everyday stuff, talk about racial issues with my friends, and refuse to support any politician or figure who insists on “race-blindness”. It’s not a perfect solution, but it works.

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  58. 57
    Harry says:

    I’m biracial. I don’t look black but due to the 1/16th drop of blood rule, many, many people have felt a need to tell me in no unspecific terms that they regard me as black. Many, many people have tried their damnedest to get under my skin and to try to disturb my thoughts. And the sickest thing about this is that it isn’t even limited to white people who may be feeling unhappy about themselves, because that is what is usually going on, but Indians, Asians, Mexicans, Jews, plenty of people in ethnic groups try to define themselves, either because they are personally feeling alienated or because they are rejoicing in feeling like part of the group, and so they turn on the scapegoated minority, and they pretend that what they are doing is just, that they are setting things right, looking after their own interests and those of their group. I’ve seen numerous professors in universities take this position. A very good book to read to understand what black Americans face is: “Propaganda: the Formation of Men’s Attitudes”. It was written by a radical Christian, Jacques Ellul. It best expresses what black Americans are up against. And just try to express what you are feeling about racism to a white psychologist. They will go on the offensive, complaining that you are attacking white people when you complain about racism, clearly they identify with the racist in society! Institutionalized racism is alive, well and kicking.

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