A few years ago, the great Jay Smooth recorded a short video on how to avoid running endlessly on the “you said some racist shit/but I’m a good person how dare you imply I’m not” treadmill. The video (due to being awesome) went way viral, so I sort of assume that everyone’s already seen it, but if you’ve not:
In it, Jay suggests that we avoid calling people racist, and to instead focus on their words and actions. Not, “you are a racist,” but, “that thing you just said was racist.”
I love this idea (though I often fall short of realizing it), both for reasons of courtesy and reasons of utility. Plenty of folks who think of themselves as good people hold racist views … thus it has ever been and thus it will ever be. Let’s have the conversation about the views without getting into an indictment of them as people.
Also, of course, almost everyone has some views that are sub-optimal in some way or another. That’s what Ampersand was talking about in his point #1 here:
1) It would be a miracle if any American of my own and Marco Rubio’s generation (or earlier generations) was not a bigot, in the sense of harboring prejudices against lesbians and gay men. We were raised in an enormously homophobic culture, and it’s unrealistic to think that had no effect on us. It would be like living your whole life in an ocean but claiming to have never once gotten wet.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has written about this a fair amount lately, with several (increasingly egregious) examples of people saying severely racist shit and following up with “…but of course I’m not a racist.”
My favorites(?) are here:
In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs. We believe this even when we are actually being racist. In 1957, neighbors in Levittown, Pa., uniting under the flag of segregation, wrote: “As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens, we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community.”
A few years ago I wrote a modern history of people practicing racism all the while claiming they were not. You can include this example of a Louisiana judge who refused to marry an interracial couple and then told a newspaper:
“I’m not a racist. I just don’t believe in mixing the races that way.”
And, most recently, here:
Jim Gile, a country commissioner in Kansas, was caught on tape discussing the repair of building with a group. He told the group that the county should hire an architect, instead of “nigger-rigging” the project. This suggestion was greeted with laughter. In case you were unclear about the meaning Gile went on to clarify — the project should not be “Afro-Americanized.”
When the tape emerged, Gile claimed that he had actually meant to say “jury-rig” or “jerry-rig.” How you get from “nigger” to “jury” or “jerry” is beyond me. And “jerry-rig” and “Afro-Americanized” became synonyms, I’m not quite sure.
But none of this really matters because Gile is a “good person” and isn’t racist:
“I am not a prejudiced person,” Gile said Friday. “I have built Habitat homes for colored people.” Gile said he also has a close friend whom he regards as a sister who is black. ”I don’t ever do anything bad and don’t know how to do anything bad. People know I am not,” he said.
So you see the dynamic. Person says or does clearly-fucking-racist thing. Person doing C-F-R thing wants to be super clear, though, that they’re not racist, because, as Ta-Nehisi says, “In modern America we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons and orcs.”
Over on Metafilter, user ‘jhc’ explored the problem with this view, using an analogy I’ll steal forever forever forever:
I think Coates is saying that in most cases he doesn’t divide the world into “a racist” and “not a racist.” It’s more like, oh, everyone farts, right? You’re not either “a Farter” or “a Non-Farter.” When Michael Richards does something hella racist and says “I’m not a racist,” that makes sense to him because he’s saying “well, sure, I farted, but that doesn’t mean I’m a Farter. I’m emphatically a Non-Farter who just happened to fart one time.” Coates doesn’t buy into those categories as being useful most of the time.
That was all setup and background.
Last week, Ampersand posted, both here and at Family Scholars, a post entitled “Kind, smart, lovely people sometimes support bigoted public policy.” In it, he was about as nice as you could possibly be while trying to gently explain that a particular view is bigoted in some way. He said things like:
But let me rush to say that’s not to say that you’re a bigot, a hateful person, or acting out of spite or out of “yuk.” From the little I’ve seen of you online, you seem like a lovely person, not at all hateful.
In other words, Ampersand was actually going one step farther than Jay Smooth suggests. He was doing his damnedest to not just have the “what you did” conversation, but to explicitly disclaim the “what you are” conversation, and any implication that the person holding the bigoted view might themselves be a bigot.
Nonetheless (and maybe predictably), Family Scholars exploded in offense at how uncivil it was to suggest that an anti-same sex marriage position might be bigoted. Fannie posted a follow-up to Ampersand’s post, and unbelievably, it got worse.
Teresa (who’d initiated the series of posts by asking whether opposition to same-sex-marriage ought to be considered bigoted):
Whatever ‘bigot’ meant decades ago, one can hardly believe that is hasn’t morphed into a sly way of calling another person worthy of contempt, in my opinion. Instead of arguing the merits/demerits of a position, I’ll send someone packing by calling them a ‘bigot’.
The word ‘bigot’ is a handy label to ‘other’ another. It immediately boxes the ‘other’ as the enemy. It most certainly, in my opinion, is an ‘ad hominem’ attack meant to belittle the person, and move away from arguing the premises.”
Do you, Fannie, understand when I’m speaking to pro-ssm persons, that the word ‘bigot’ is understood as more than what you’re saying. By inference, using the word ‘bigoted’ as descriptive of the anti-ssm position, what you’re saying, albeit, subtly and unintentionally, that those that subscribe to the anti-ssm position are themselves, bigots. Can you see this?
Susan, coming to Teresa’s defense:
Fannie, I think your honestly held beliefs when translated into words/actions ARE, by their very nature, silencing. You don’t intend for them to be so, but they are. Whether Teresa solicited your opinion or not is immaterial. Either you and Barry have a problematic pattern of behavior in using the b-word, or you don’t.
So did anyone else see what happened there? It’s ingenious. Even when the “what you did” is explicitly discussed, and the “what you are” is explicitly taken off the table, the claim is that:
- The ‘what you did’ conversation implies the ‘what you are’ conversation.
- The ’what you are’ conversation is uncivil and silencing.
- Therefore, it’s uncivil and silencing to discuss ‘what you did.’
As Jay Smooth would say, “I don’t care whether you’re a thief in your heart, I just want my wallet back.” By employing this tactic, those opposed to same sex marriage get to have it both ways. They get to pick your pocket and rule it out of bounds for you to bring it up. After all, that’s just calling names, right?
They just refuse to have the ‘what you did’ conversation. Flat-out refuse. The ‘what you are’ conversation is all there is, and how dare you imply I’m a bigot!
Meanwhile, Roger Gorley, a gay man in Missouri, was dragged away from his partner’s hospital bed in handcuffs after refusing to leave. He had a power of attorney, but the hospital wouldn’t look it up. And now there’s a restraining order, so he can’t visit his hospitalized partner at all.
But let’s keep in mind the real danger here. I don’t think anyone called Roger a bigot, so thank goodness for that.
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