So, I’m starting this with a caveat: the below is not meant to suggest that I don’t think it’s a good idea to talk about race, try to educate, confront racism, etc. On the contrary—I’m incredibly glad people do, because it’s made a major change in my life. My first year of graduate school, one of my professors showed us some very unsettling films and had us read several assumption-questioning papers ("Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," etc.) It made me start to really question a lot of my beliefs about race, and it sent me to the internet, where I joined ap_racism and read and wrote a lot of essays (yay rachelmanija, oyceter, coffeeandink, and yhlee), and generally spent about two years thinking. The result of which is that I’m much clearer about my views, much more comfortable addressing and working with race in my fiction and my practice (very good thing when you work with clients of color), feel much less guilty and more empowered, and am enthusiastically working for equality.
All of which is why I was a little taken aback by what happened when, at a dinner party yesterday, the question of race came up. I mentioned the idea of differentiating between “prejudice” and “racism,” where racism = prejudice + power. What interested me was that while many people had interesting things to say, one of the reactions was not to react to the idea itself, but, “That sounds a lot like the kind of internet-wankery that people get into on livejournal.” I replied that yeah, I and a lot of my friends on livejournal do talk about race a lot, and someone else said that this was all well and good, but that often, it seemed to fall into the “gotcha-game”—where discussions of racism became, not discussions of racism, but people trying to catch each other doing something wrong.
Which is frustrating. Because yeah, many white people do feel very guilty and defensive about our privilege, our attitudes about race, etc, so there is a fair amount of defensiveness\. But on the other hand, it’s totally true. Some discussions about race really do feel like the discussants are just trying to “win” by proving the other person stupid.
The problem with this, and the way to prevent it, seems to be one of clarifying one’s goals before starting the conversation. I can see five different reasons why people discuss race, particularly online, and I think they’re all worthwhile… but when they get conflated, things go downhill fast.
As far as I can see, anti-racism activists write about and discuss race in order to:
1. Work out our own ideas, or vent feelings. I’ve written a number of essays in my own journal, and had a number of conversations because I was trying to figure things out, or relate issues specifically to myself. It’s true that, obviously, I wouldn’t be writing a livejournal entry if I didn’t want people to read it, but it’s not directed at anyone else specifically, or with any real purpose beyond personal satisfaction, relief and self-understanding.
2. Be politically active. This is when we have a specific action we want people to take: sign this petition, write to your congress-critters, boycott this product, etc. It’s directed and focused, and we’re using our writing to increase the number of people taking this kind of action. It’s not usually opening up a debate (that happens, because people will argue anything, but it’s not the point).
3. Keep ourselves safe. This is when someone has said something to us that we find hurtful or offensive. Particularly by commenting in our journals, sending us email, etc. In which case, I see little reason to treat it differently from other kinds of harassment—the thing to do is to answer it however we see fit, ignore it, delete it, ban the person, cut the person, report the person, etc. There’s also the form of keeping ourselves safe which involves not going places where we know we’ll get hurt—not reading the journals of people who say offensive things if we're not up for being offended, or, if they’re people we have a relationship with, letting them know that we were upset and we’d really appreciate it if, out of consideration for us personally, they would cut it out.
4. Look for people being stupid for our own entertainment. On the other hand, sometimes we go and read people being racist because we want to. I’m not sure why we do this—why we click on the link that we know leads to ass-hattery. Maybe we enjoy having something to feel angry about, maybe we want to know the depths people can sink to, maybe we just like bolstering our self-esteem by feeling smug about being more enlightened than other people—I don’t know. But sometimes we do this, and sometimes we write about it, and I think it’s not the healthiest thing in the world as a regular diet, but sometimes it’s okay-- when we keep in mind that that’s what we’re doing.
But the tricky thing, the big hang-up of all this, is that people will throw all of those under the general subject of 5. Educating. Which is problematic, because I think educating (or, to put it more respectfully, arguing the anti-racist position) is very worthwhile (it worked for me)—but only when it’s done well. As I see it, the purpose is to present anti-racist ideas to people as clearly and convincingly as possible. It has to be done smoothly, in such a way that it slips past defenses to present a point of view that people may not have thought of before, such that their first reaction is “Oh, interesting—I never thought of that before!” not, “Shut up! I am not!” The former lets the person think the idea over and decide whether or not s/he agrees with it—the latter cuts off that possibility before the conversation’s started.
And for that reason, I think that if we are truly trying to change people's minds, we have to be non-confrontational. We have to use I-statements (“I hate having to worry about getting hassled by the cops,” “I wish there were more people who looked like me on TV,” “I don’t want to get served first when there’s a person of color standing in front of me in line,”), and listen to what the other person is saying as non-judgmentally as possible, and above all, express that we disagree with his/her ideas, not that we think s/he is a bad person. In other words, communication skills—they don’t stop being useful just because the subject is important.
And it’s worth noting that we don’t need to do these things for any of the other four purposes. When we’re not trying to educate, there’s no earthly reason to stifle feelings or ranting at all (even though people often do get defensive around anger, particularly white people around the anger of people of color—the same thing about avoiding places that make you feel too uncomfortable to be applies here, too. If someone is going to get upset about me being angry in my own space, that’s his/her look-out). A lot of the time, we aren’t intending to convince anyone of anything, and it’s unreasonable to expect us to spend all our time being presentable. If we're in a conversation where we don't care about what the other person thinks, or don't see any chance of our changing his/her mind, then we can say whatever we want, and it doesn't matter how we say it (beyond our own standards of polite).
But when we are trying to convince, people aren’t going to listen if they feel more attacked than valued. It’s all about relationship, I think. If you care about someone, because you feel affection or respect or both for him/her, you’re more likely to listen to what s/he says. If you don’t feel either of those things, then you’ll listen if it’s interesting, but you have no particular impetus to agree. Therefore, if we really want to change someone’s mind, we need to do something to interest him/her or to make him/her like us or respect us. It helps to have a previous positive relationship—people’s minds are more often changed by friends than by strangers. But in either case, it won’t work to just tell people they’re wrong without giving them a reason to care what we say.
This is all a little discouraging, and it makes the idea in some ways less fun—it feels really good to really zing someone in an argument. But there’s a lot that needs to change in order to reach racial equality, and in the end, I’d rather win the war than the flame-war.