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Race and terms

I recently saw some writings from another thinker who conceives/defines something way differently than I do.

In their world-of-terms (this is not meant as diminutive; we all have worlds-of-terms, and there are various consenses that people struggle to build either within a community or society-at-large):

It is impossible for someone of a marginalised group to exhibit racism, because racism is defined as a tool of the dominant social forces against minorities. At most, members of marginalised groups may exhibit bigotry.

In my world-of-terms:Racism is a natural and usually-harmful expression of in-group mentality, primarily done by individuals to others outside their most coarse hereditary background. Institutionalised racism is a meaningful term, but it is also the kind of racism most easily misattributed in the less-obvious-cases, as racism is about intent (if there is no racist intent, there is no racism, although there still may remain injustice).

There's not a lot more I can say about this; both views seem coherent to me.


In the latter, by my framework, yes; less-value, or other related traits.

Racism is a statement about intent, and a mark of bad character. Likewise with sexism. They are heavy words, and need to be used appropriately both to keep them heavy and to avoid doing injustice to someone who might (support a policy/have a perspective/use a world-of-terms) that is not maximally friendly to some group for some reason other than intending to oppress that group. If I hear someone accused of racism, and I get to know that someone's perspectives, I strongly expect either the person to actually be a racist or the accuser of being someone not intellectually trustworthy. To me, an accusation of racism is effectively a call-for-censure (except in the very mildest of forms of racism).

When you find someone who actually is racist/sexist/etc, you will have to use entirely different classes of arguments/experiences, if it's even possible, to converse with them and push against the racism.

When you're arguing with someone whose preferred-policies/perspective/language-use is not maximally friendly (or as friendly as you like) to some minority, but they don't seem to be actually against that group, you should not consider them to have bad character, and the most you can really do is say what you think and see what they think and maybe work a bit with that.

They are miles apart, and I consider it a terrible, pushy, nasty thing to conflate them, easily leading one to be all-elbows. Intent, to me, is absolutely crucial.

Edited at 2011-12-16 11:34 pm (UTC)
An act can only be racist if it is done with racist intent.

Some acts done by large groups of people are racist; lynch mobs attacking black communities because of an interracial marriage, laws/practice barring people of a certain race from certain privileges, etc.

Of course, everyone struggles with racism to a certain extent (I actually have a half-done post that I'm not sure I want to make public examining racist elements in the cuckolding community), and some expressions of it might even be tolerable if they're engaged on a "play" level. But, like with much criminal law, I think without the mens rea an act has a different character.
The actions suggest something about the likelihood of future acts, the acceptability of the act itself, and how one moves forward beyond it. The very same act could be done by two people with very different intent and we would, in my opinion, be right to weigh it differently as a whole for the above three reasons.

Edit: Let's be a bit more concrete and consider a case. Someone who has anger issues and a week after an argument comes back to kill the person they were arguing with is exhibit A. Someone who sees another person who is gay/trans/black moving into their neighbourhood and kills them is exhibit B. Someone who is driving too fast and runs over their best friend on the street, killing them is exhibit C. In my judgement, exhibit B merits the strongest punishment, then exhibit A, then exhibit C. The intent follows that progression down. The amount of targeting also follows that progression down. The alienation and lack-of-basic-feeling-of-safety of a community follows that progression down. The guilty mind (mens rea, the legal term I mentioned earlier) is progressively weaker in each. The systematicity likewise.

In my kind of social activism, what we're primarily trying to do is to eliminate the ill intent of sexism/racism/etc. Any accidental injustices are things we might consider taking on, but with different tools (argumentative tools), much less urgency, a strong disinclination to shin, and more acceptance of being dissuaded by reasonable arguments.

The "play" level mention was with regards to the cuckold culture, and more broadly in non-normative humour.

I have major issues with the cited post; I pretty much disagree with the whole thing, and find the perspective pretty reprehensible; it's the kind of post that makes me discount someone as not being worth listening to after just part of a quick skim. She's the kind of person who makes building broad consensus on feminist conclusions difficult because she poisons the brand (likewise with people who can't stand being called out for having terrible tone). Whenever I'm talking about feminism with people for the first time (whether chiding them for thinking of women as less capable or talking more broadly about social justice), I typically have to spend some time explaining that there are many reasonable forms of feminism and then there are some kinds that are kinda crazy; I have encountered innumerable people who seem to meet most or all of my basic ideas about being a feminist who find the term "feminism" off-putting because they sound like Kinsey over there.

Of course, those flavours have their own rationalisations for their perspectives. That's fine. But they're them, and I'm not part of those flavours, and except to the degree that there actually is common cause between their flavours and those flavours I like, I don't really mind them grumbling at me. Any movement has its crazy fringes who don't consider the rest to be $whatever enough. To the extent that I can undermine those fringes, I will; their noise is unwelcome, their theory harmful and excessively controlling, their willingness to listen deficient, and the possibility of building consensus when they're within the room is greatly diminished. Still, they are part of the movement, I can't get rid of them, and there really are some common causes I have with them. Sigh.

Edited at 2011-12-17 01:26 am (UTC)
I still reject the premise that it is definitionally appropriate to call things racist if one doesn't reasonably believe they come from racist intent. One might nontheless criticise the foundations that led to the reactions, provided one is willing to listen as well, and possibly yield if there is good other reasoning (legal or philosophical coherency being generally very good other possible reasons).

I also think that humour is fair game so long as it's not normative.

As for the linked post, I greatly dislike her tone (but given a quick skin of her other posts, she doesn't seem to really mind having terrible tone), disagree with a fair number of her premises (e.g. I'd say that yes, being disabled is being broken, but that doesn't make it anyone's fault nor does it make the disabled person a bad person) and her conclusions (which are not directly argued for, because her post is just mockery; if the reader want to dig an argument out of that mess, said reader needs to fish it out themself).

Edited at 2011-12-17 02:59 am (UTC)
I agree with your whole post, except for this point: << if there is no racist intent, there is no racism >>. Racism exists unconsciously inside most people. I think that almost everyone is guilty of making racist judgements once in a while, and I am including those who are committed to racial equality, and who hate that part of themselves.
I see (and struggle with, at times) that too in myself sometimes; what I mean is that something must flow from the racist (conscious or unconscious) part of us in order to properly be deemed racist. Things that are not derived from that part of us (e.g. our failure to challenge terms or common frameworks that might disadvantage a race) are not properly considered racist (even if they might be termed a problem).

Thanks for pushing on this; I don't know if with my qualification you'd agree with me, but it did help me clarify something that was missing in my expression on this point.
Then I'll push some more. Saying that racism only exists with intent ("the guilty mind") allows people to claim no ill intent when the ill intent was mostly or entirely unconscious, and how do you argue with that? Intent is a subjective experience!

Let me give an example (sexism, not racism, I'm presuming you agree these are analogous phenomena) that's very close to my current mind, from US News. This is a case where everyone has the best of intent - people are writing positive letters of recommendation where they force the adjectives that are used to describe people into gender baskets, and then admissions committees (even if they're totally gender blind) are selecting for the male adjectives. Perhaps the admissions committees are wrong, but almost certainly the frame-of-reference actions of the well-meaning recommenders are leading to what amounts to a profound systematic bias against women. I have a hard time saying that anyone's intent is anything but pure; I also have a hard time saying that the result isn't sexism and sexist.

You say "without mens rea an act has a different character." That's not false, and overt, conscious racism is its own thing to be combatted. Nevertheless, all of the deaths you described in your concrete example - the murder, the hate-crime murder, and the negligent homicide - were at least "unnecessary violent deaths of humans."

I think what chris, gustavo, and I are are trying to say was that the thing we want to prevent (hell, what we want to give a name) is the analogue of killing-of-human-beings. We want to call "racism" that thing. That desire rests on the fact that thing-we-call-racism, like "violent unnecessary human death," is bad, but whereas everyone agrees what it means for violent-unnecessary-human-death to happen, it's often really hard to even point out that thing-we-call-racism, which is bad, has occurred, because the discussion always deteriorates into a discusion of intent.

We want a name for the problem. There's not another word. So we call it racism.
The fact that it does not let you make as strong-feeling arguments as you otherwise would is not effectively a criticism of the perspective. If introspection doesn't show a tie between the parts of us that struggle with racism/sexism/etc and the behaviour, and it is not deeply obvious that there is a tie, I don't think it merits the term (racism, sexism, etc). These are very strong terms. They deserve to be very strong terms. The things that I consider racism/sexism/etc are also things that unambiguously, positively must go, with no excuses entertained.

The other things don't always need to go; if an act/way-of-speaking/etc is not inspired by racist/sexist roots, then even if it interacts with race/sex/etc in a way disadvantaging of a community, we might decide that it is based on other principles that are worth respecting, or be generally much more willing to give it a pass if the effects are slight, because the likely other damage caused by the perspective is not there (as the racist/sexist perspective is not actually there).

I think the discussion always should and must enter discussions of intent (as well as effect). That's not deterioration. It's healthy.

I just reject the terms sexism/racism/etc for these (I would use the term "disadvantaging") because dealing with sexism/racism/etc is to me mandatory, because I am willing to shun or condemn people who keep their views on these matters, because it intentionally and deservedly makes chasms open between me and them. I do not bend on these topics; when my family in Texas has said obviously racist things, when my grandfather took part in organisations that explicitly made sure business leadership stayed "in the hands of the right people" and the idea meant there was members of his all-white Rotary Club, that's stuff that has a very different character than, say, someone who opposes affirmative action because of a principled stance, or someone who occasionally makes watermelon jokes in the same way people make lawyer jokes, or so on.

To me, that is an absolutely crucial distinction, so crucial that I don't accept the term racism/sexism for anything that does not likely/clearly come from someone who is not racist/sexist. With the term "disadvantaging" for the latter category, it also helps us remember to ask "is this an advantage worth correcting", which is often an important question (e.g. I don't believe that religious or cultural groups should ever be immune from criticism or mockery, and any such group that would invoke the notion of privilege in order to silence should probably just be told "no"). Either way, for disadvantaging cases, while on the face of it these things may be bad for a group, we need to weigh whether fixing it is appropriate.

I accept that some mutual irritation is likely across this linguistic difference then; Gustavo did not push me to move my judgement so much as he pushed me to dig out more of the details of it in my head into an expressible form. I also very strongly feel that the language of "calling out" for things I categorise as disadvantaging is deeply inappropriate.

Edited at 2011-12-18 07:49 pm (UTC)
I guess I can see where our worldviews diverge more clearly now - I think you can see clear distinctions where I see none.

But I'm still curious where the distinction falls. Again with the recommenders describing women in "more communal (social or emotive) terms." I see the behavior of the (well-meaning) recommenders that (unconsciously and unintentionally but pretty clearly) disadvantages female applicants as "a way of speaking inspired by sexist roots." Is that not how you'd describe it?
I am not actually sure where I'd sit with your given example, as if it's not an example of institutional language so much as an expression of common subconscious sexism of the people involved, I would be willing to consider it a lesser form of sexism.

I am primarily concerned with a clear line that says "you can't call an act sexist if it doesn't come from sexist roots", but a second line distinguishing intent and subconscious intent seems also valid.

Maybe a revision would be:
1) Conscious (or near-surface) sexism creates sexist acts as an expression of sexism
2) Subconscious sexism creates subconsciously sexist acts
3) Acceptance of language/worlds-of-terms create acts that may be sex-disadvantaging

I imagine I would actually want to treat all three of these differently, treating the last very gently and not necessarily expecting to sway someone, treating the first with considerable energy to either convince someone or think less of them, and the second .. well, the problem with the second is really distinguishing it from the third. I would probably treat things I think might be the second with a lot of initial gingerness (and avoiding the term racism) until I could really determine if it belongs in category two or category 3; raising the level of consciousness on the issue is key.

I want to be very careful with the terms "sexist"/"racist", etc in general though, absolutely never using them in the third case (both because they are and should be very harsh words and because by my framework it's definitionally inappropriate).
I don't really understand (3) - like, I don't parse the sentence - but in general, I think we're almost to the point of agreeing with each other.

Category (2) is, indeed, hard to deal with - there's no clear playbook, in a sense there can't be. In my experience, dealing with that category requires patience and sensitivity and thoughtfulness and judgment, it requires uncomfortable self-introspection, and it sometimes even requires restraint and picking-of-battles. It also can potentially require being wrong; "absolutely never" using terms inappropriately guarantees profound under-diagnosis. Perhaps that's acceptable to you - there's really no way for me to change your mind if those are your absolute commitments. However, I will point out that an environment of profound under-diagnosis is obviously going to be advantageous to people who look like you and me over people who are more likely to be negatively impacted by category (2) stuff.

But mostly, the only point I really wanted to make was that things in category (2) exist and deserve consideration even when they're not subject to ongoing research at Rice University and reporting in US News and World Report, even though it's hard to use the word "intent" to describe them.
#3 is the category of words/deeds/perspectives that might happen to disadvantage a group but are not at all the result of conscious or unconscious sexist/racist parts of anyone's psyche.

As I said, I'm willing to use the words racist or sexist (with some qualifiers) for #2, once I'm convinced that something really is of type #2 in myself or someone else. If I'm not sure, yes, I do have a commitment not to use use it until I'm sure it's not #3. I am willing to accept reasonable underdiagnosis because I think the cost of laying a false and very harsh criticism is quite high, impinges on philosophical prerogatives that I care a lot about, and rightly alienates a lot of people.

All three categories deserve consideration and potentially discussion, although the urgency, tone, and insistence on change needs to differ between the three.

Aside: if you're referring to feminist studies programmes in your reference to Rice, I reject large chunks of contemporary feminist theory/reserach, preferring a more minimalist, inclusive approach. This also generally how I feel about the socialist movements I've seen in the US, which are usually dominated by a locally hegemonic discourse that is very unaccepting of independent thinkers, complete with the same grating "you're one of us and accept all of our elaborate theory or you're our enemy", "call you out" BS.

Edited at 2011-12-18 11:13 pm (UTC)
Nope, I was only referring to the US News and World Report study that I linked to: "A recommendation letter could be the chute in a woman's career ladder, according to ongoing research at Rice University..."