Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Racism and ambivalence

In an earlier post on "what racism is" I concluded that race is a social/political concept whose meaning and deployment has varied. Race is obviously not a concept that can be cashed out entirely in terms of biology or genes; on the contrary, thinking that it can is tantamount to a rather potent form of racism. There I drew on some of Ali Rattansi's excellent Racism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford 2007), which I'd like to share more of below.

Opening a discussion about Columbus's 'discovery' of two Caribbean islands, Rattansi points out that: "One of the lessons of the history of 'race' is an appreciation of the extent to which European colonizers saw not the cultures of the colonized as they were, but as they expected them to be."

Of course, the occupants of the islands were sophisticated peoples with deft agricultural, maritime, fishing and many other skills. But when Columbus showed up (who, incidentally, believed in 'one-eyed men with tails, mermaids, and wild tribal monsters), he saw "a primitive people, unclothed and dark, and therefore close to nature and uncivilized."

Nonetheless, Rattansi points out, "contrary to much of the writing about early encounters (with the occupants of the islands), Columbus's reactions were by no means entirely negative." Indeed Columbus's reaction tended to be expressive of a deep ambivalence about the native peoples of the islands: "he oscillated between seeing the natives as either completely and extraordinarily good or essentially wicked".

This ambivalence, we should take note, has persisted in different forms throughout the subsequent history of racism. As Rattansi puts it: "for the subsequent history of racism, it is vital to note this constitutive duality and ambivalence, and to understand its characteristically tangential relation to what these strangers might really be like".

I found this to be extremely poignant. It seems to me that this kind of ambivalence is always an aspect of the way that racism manifests itself. Think of the "noble savage", or the "positive good" ideology backing Slavery in the early 1800s. Or alternatively think about myths like "asians are good at math" or "black men have large penises". All of the above are no less racist for propagating supposedly 'positive' judgments instead of 'negative' ones.

I also find Rattansi's comment interesting because of the "tangential relation" that he takes note of: this ambivalence is always from the perspective of the dominant group gazing at the marginalized 'Other', and whether it assigns 'good' or 'bad' predicates it is nonetheless already estranged from the 'Other' people in question.

To link this ambivalence up with something else I've read recently, consdier how one of Studs Terkel's interviewees puts it in Divison Street (1967): "The average white person, you ask him about integration, is the Negro equal? He wants to scream NO. But he thinks back and he's a Christian. Now he knows in his heart that he doesn't believe he's equal, but all this Christian training almost forces him to say yes. He's saying yes to a lie, but he has to come face to face with the truth some day."

This seems to ring true even today in many respects. Many white people still feel, in some sense, that the answer is "NO", however, they also have many other commitments that do not jibe with that judgment. For example, many 'average' white people also take themselves to be committed to universal suffrage, belief in the humanity of all peoples, equal rights, etc. Peoples' commitments are rarely if ever without tensions and contradictions and racism is no exception.

Another way that this ambivalence expresses itself is in the fact that racism is not often about particular people, qua individuals. Someone can 'have minority friends' or may genuinely admire non-White individuals, while at the same time expressing racist views in many other ways (I've observed too many cases of this phenomenon to count). Or think of people who are genuinely kind to people they interact with, but nonetheless can be heard uttering racist remarks about this or that group. Racism hardly ever expresses itself as an all-encompassing worldview wherein the racist person categorically hates or looks down upon all individuals of a given 'race'.

Very often I hear character defenses for people who are accused of racism: "but he can't be wholly rotten since he's done so many other good things and has lots of non-White acquaintances!". But if we understand racism as a social phenomenon with some measure of ambivalence built into it, this kind of defence is no longer relevant.

Even in the extreme case of post-WWII Germany we find that this sort of ambivalence is part of what sustains racism. Adorno argued in the late 1950s that little could be accomplished in the way of fighting anti-Semitism by means of "community meetings, encounters between young Germans and young Israelis, and other organized promotions of friendship. All too often the presupposition is that anti-Semitism in some essential way involves the Jew and could be countered through concrete experience with Jews, whereas the genuine anti-Semite is defined more by his incapacity for any experience whatsoever, by his unresponsiveness". What he means by "incapacity for experience", is that to be able to carry out the horrors of Auschwitz one cannot just hate certain people, one must be unresponsive and hollow, mechanically precise and numb, incapable of seeing people as human beings. In the Marxist tradition, of which Adorno's work is an important contribution, this social pathology is called "reification", that is, seeing human beings as exchangeable objects and social relations as relations of exchange.

The point of Adorno's observation is that the problem was not a lack of 'good' concrete interaction with individual Jews: anti-Semitism has nothing to do with Jews as individual people, it's precisely the opposite. Anti-Semitism, like other forms of racism, often amounts to failing to see the hated group as fellow human beings. We misunderstand what racism is (and where it comes from) if we think that it has only to do with an individual's assessment of other individuals.

Adorno also mentions, in the 1959 radio address from which the above was quoted, a "story of a woman who, upset after seeing a dramatization of The Diary of Anne Frank, said: 'yes, but that girl at least should have been allowed to live.' To be sure even that was good as a first step toward understanding. But the individual case, which should stand for and raise awareness about the terrifying totality, by its very individuation became an alibi for the totality the woman forgot".

The point here is that racism is not overcome in the instance when a racist empathizes for a moment with an individual 'Other' as a fellow individual human being. Adorno points out that the experience of empathy for a fellow human being should, in fact, lead us to conclude that the entire phenomenon of racism as such is bankrupt. But unfortunately it doesn't always work like that; instead empathy for a particular individual may end right there at the individual level, and the constitutive ambivalence of the racist remains intact. The bigger picture remains opaque.

I agree totally with Rattansi when he argues in the introduction to his book that "one of the main impediments to progress in understanding racism has been the willingness of all involved to propose short, supposedly water-tight definitions of racism and to identify quickly and with more or less complete certainty who is really racist and who is not".

To wrap up this post, I'd like to make one more point. I don't mean to 'let racists off the hook' by claiming that they are really all just torn about whether to be racists. This is not the view I've examined above at all. Instead, I've rejected a straw-man account of what racism is (a thoroughgoing, uncompromising hatred of everyone who falls under the hated group in question) because it seems to me that this straw-man account shuts down many discussions about race among whites arguing over whether someone is 'really' a racist. Once we reject the idea that the object of discussion is whether a person 'really is a racist', where the set 'racist' is defined by precise and succinct necessary and sufficient conditions, there is no more need to put up with character defenses when discussing race. Many on the Right respond to accusations of racism by distorting the character of the accusation: "well, if you think he's a filthy, racist hatemonger who's never helped a non-White person in his life, then you're wrong!". They make it sound as though charges of racism are tantamount to charges of being a Nazi, with the result that those who call racism for what it is appear to be 'overreacting'.

It is precisely here that the point about ambivalence is helpful. When I notice that a family member or a co-worker says something really racist, I don't think: wow, this person is a horrible human being and they must hate everybody who isn't white. I do think, usually, that they've got some really fucked up views about race and that those views should not be tolerated. I think about how their social pathologies perpetuate injustice. I think about how disturbingly common those sorts of views are. I also think about how they can be changed and also how they came about. I think about how they are in a position of privilege to even be so blasé about race, given that they don't have to confront its oppressive character.

But none of these important thoughts that I have are helped along or illuminated by the facile attempts we often hear about whether or not someone gets the 'racist' sticker. I'm not sure I see the political payoff.

1 comment:

kazmira said...

Ok, that second to last paragraph was totally's what I meant to say:

So, I agree with you that the focus of the discussion really shouldn't be about whether or not this person 'really is a racist' - though it's definitely important to consider and understand where those views are coming from, rather than rail against them - because then it totally misses the point. And it makes the term "racist" so general as to be meaningless, too...calling all Asians smart isn't racist, because it doesn't serve any purpose in terms of actually (not subjectively) subjugating a group of people. It's a dumb generalization that may possibly be part of more systemic and harmful practices of generalization, but it's not racism.