Month: August 2014

Race Language pt 2: The Dictionary

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The language of race is still in its infancy.  That may sound odd.  Does racism need a language?  It does.  Every serious field of study over time develops a highly specific lexicon.  Social justice will need one.  Perhaps it already has and I just don’t know what it is.  When it comes to social sciences I am an admitted amateur.  However, as a lay-person there are a couple of methods I’ve heard activists use to try to describe the experience of minorities.  I’ve listened to music spanning genres, I’ve heard some of the poetry, read some of the books, I try to keep an eye out for prominent minority journalists, and of course non-white comedians (also a lot of white comedians but that’s not really germane to the point here).  But as a white person I can’t use that language.  Take a black comedian for example.  Their pithy insights on racial issues are often profound, but its purely in one direction.  I can’t say those things.  I wouldn’t even if someone let me.  But this is the only race language that many, if not most, white people have heard.  In terms of crafting a narrative, this language is second to none.  However, it does nothing to foster dialogue between disparate groups.  The assumption inherent to cultural immersion, is that if someone can engage with the various cultural elements long enough, then they will begin to understand that culture both as a collection of individuals and as a group and this in turn will defeat racism.  This is one of the reasons that cultural appropriation is such a sin.  Further, not only has this assumption shown to be false, we’ve doubled down on it with a kind of collective immersion that has proven to be doubly ineffective.

For long term social change, a new language must be had.  It must be exceedingly precise, verifiable, and transmissible.  The fundamental failing of the current language is that is largely dependent on one’s subjective personal perspective.   I’m sorry to say, we’re talking about math.  It’s not enough that policies like Stop&Frisk are racist.  It’s not enough that people are harassed and inconvenienced, it’s not enough that it’s a miscarriage of justice.  It’s that the searches of black men outnumber black men by at least 2:1.  It’s when you can show that the government of Ferguson has a 90% white police force in a predominately black neighborhood and have been using racially biased citations to fund the city government then you have a basis for social change.  Or It’s the racial biases in sentencing laws.  These and other examples are the numbers promoting social change.

But let’s talk about White social change.  Do white people sing songs, go on marches, read poetry, write books?  Sure.  And I’d argue that this has been as effective for White people as it’s been for Black people.  It’s tempting to believe that the Whites are in power as a result it’s their policies.  There may be some truth to that but That’s an incredibly simplistic view.  White social change got its start in the 60s too, only it started with think tanks.  Organizations dedicated to finding mathematical justification for the issues of the day.  These think tanks are effective for several reasons.  One, their very well funded.  Secondly, they produce a data  set that supports their favored policies.  Thirdly, they they promote specific policy objectives.  Fourthly, they are fundamentally based on self-interest.

When we talk about even relatively positive things the only effective means will be through a specific context.  Like gentrification.  In most places this is a wonderful thing.  Property values go up, cities prosper, services and opportunities expand.  It’s a genuinely wonderful thing.  So why are minorities upset? Because it’s only minority neighborhoods that fall within a certain percent of diversity (less than 35% black).  And because local laws make development and expanding housing and transportation difficult (You can’t make more housing available, you can only make it more expensive).  It’s a policy that actively marginalizes minority groups by pushing them into underdeveloped parts of the town, which, under normal circumstances, would undergo a cycle of development except an institutional bias against risk taking from conservatives, and anti-exploitation efforts from liberals make development a difficult prospect.  It’s probably not intentional, it’s probably the culmination of different power brokers looking after their own interests that generate a racial disparity.  But if you want to change it, then you have to have the numbers to back it up, and you have to have specific policies to address it, and you have to have an argument why including poor families and minority groups are beneficial for everyone.

I look forward to the day when moral questions will win out over questions of self-interest, but we have not arrived there yet.  Activists use the language of social justice.  They passionately talk about fairness, justice, feelings and story.  It resonates with the human heart like nothing else can.  But when you compare that to my own selfishness, it’s a losing argument.  I, and most people, have no problem with the cognitive dissonance of being moved by the plight of racism in America while at the same time being comfortable doing nothing about it.  Consider Ferguson.  When militarized police starting burning down the town of Ferguson, it caught the nation’s attention.  Why? Because a black kid got shot?  No.  I wish that was true.  That should be true. I wish as a society we cared about that kind of selfless inequality.  But it was because it was manifestly apparent that this kind of response could have far reaching implications.  A smart activist group might point out that if they can brutalize and harass people of color, they can harass and brutalize anyone with impunity.  And indeed that case has been made and made effectively.

Specific language, math language and large data sets, specific policy objectives, and enlightened self-interest.  This is the language of social change.  This is the kind of language we need to use to discuss race.  At the moment, the way race is discussed actively precludes anyone not part of that specific minority group and that needs to change.

Race Language Pt 1: defining terms

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Race can’t be boiled down to differences in language.  Obviously it’s a complex social phenomenon that must take into consideration history, economics, culture, legal strictures, identity, and more.  In fact trying to elucidate all the factors that go into race, and racism would be cumbersome and I’m not qualified.  I’m not even sure it’s at all possible.  I hope to learn and grow as I move forward, but at the moment I would simply do disservice to those better qualified to educate.  It’s ironic perhaps that those best suited to expounding on this nuanced race issues are comedians.  But comedians can only bring catharsis.  Their role in achieving permanent dialogue is limited. I, as a white person, certainly can’t use the same language as a Black comedian.  I wouldn’t even if I wanted and no one wants that. Even though race can’t be boiled down to difference in language, I believe we can use differences in language as a  proxy for the broader discussion of issues affecting race.

For simplicity’s sake I’m going to divide the population of the United States into four groups.  Underprivileged, Allies, Non-allies, and Hostiles.  Hostiles are straightforward enough.  They’re overt bigots, they go around in white sheets telling people they’re bigots. They picket funerals and do their level best to ruin everyone’s day.  They have no useful role in the discussion, other than to highlight what can go wrong, and I don’t know how to help them other than to send them to serious intensive deprogramming therapy.

Underprivileged are also a category that’s easy to describe.  They’re anyone who has suffered from a system that is inherently unequal.  There are a lot of different kinds of privilege and a lot of different ways someone might fit into that kind of category.  In fact, a majority of individuals will fit into in some way and to a greater or lesser degree.

Allies are people with privilege, know they’re privileged and want to help.  I’m placing people whose efforts are ineffective or even counterproductive in this group (I recognize that I may fall into this second category.  If so I’ll try and do better.  We’re all learning).

Non-Allies, are the “I’m friends with black people”/”I don’t see race” type of people.  They don’t know or don’t believe they are privileged, or that there even is such a thing as privilege, and think that attempts fixing inequality or even talking about it merely perpetuates that inequality.

Each group has a specific language that they’re using, and there are few individuals, in my opinion, that can really translate between groups, because language is a function of common experience.  Allies are only allies because they have had experiences in common with under-privileged groups.  A quick example, a man living with a woman might gain some appreciation for the difficulties and expense in maintaining an attractive hairstyle.  Obviously this is a trivial example, but I hope it’s demonstrative of what I mean.  White protesters in Ferguson are getting a small taste of what it means to be on the receiving end of police brutality.  I realize that in real life nothing is ever so simple that they can fit into four easy to define categories.  For example, there are plenty of people who will fit into both the ally and underprivileged category.  In fact, there are plenty of people that will fit into all four categories simultaneously.  My point is not to confine individuals into predetermined stereotypes based on my own choosing, but rather to define words in a useful way.  In the next blog I’ll talk more about how I see different groups using language differently.