Friday, February 17, 2006

in which I think about something other than bereavement, for once

I happened to catch part of Oprah's recent show on "Changing Races" in rerun last night. Confession time: I am embarrassingly prone to watching ice skating competitions, the glitzier and tackier the better. I love the adaptations of bad Broadway scores, the horrific costumes, the desperate athleticism. I'm not above surfing the channels on Sunday afternoons while "grading papers" or "reading" in the hopes of stumbling across some obscure championship. If it redeems me at all, I have to say that I find "ice dancing" a travesty of the sport....Anyway, I was hoping to catch the finals of the men's iceskating, and during the breaks, found Oprah.

In life and at work, I've been thinking a lot about white privilege. It's a particular issue for us, with our largely white student body, many of whom have lived in relatively homogenous suburbs before coming here, and whose attitude toward issues of race, culture, and social relations is best described as benign neglect or fatigue. They have been raised by teachers who, products of the Civil Rights era and those just following, have introduced more and more "multicultural" material into the classrooms. Most of them are from what they themselves consider "liberal families," which in practice tends to mean families who object to overt acts of racism, pay lip service to the idea that "we're all alike under the skin," and live, whether by conscious or unconscious choice, in ways that almost guarantee the absence of any meaningfully diverse encounters across social, racial, or economic class lines. In other words, these kids largely represent the (white) American dream: safe suburbs, good schools, and a homogeneity whose roots in discriminatory institutional practices are well-concealed from its beneficiaries.

So "teaching race" at our college is largely a matter of convincing disinterested and occasionally hostile white students that race relations are not "solved," that inequality exists, and that their own life experiences are not, in fact, representative of "everyone" in America. At the same time, we find ourselves having to work hard to protect our students of color (many of whom are themselves from affluent, middle or upper-class communities, and may have had little explicit contact with the poverty and social ills we associate with American racism) from being turned into "experts" or, worse, exotic representations of some kind of racial identity truth.

Oprah's show featured two families who, with the help of Hollywood make-up teams, "switched races" and lived together in L.A. while venturing into the world as members of the opposite race. Here I need a disclaimer: I did not watch the whole show, and so the following comments are meant not as a definitive interpretation of either family's experience, but as my own meditation on the pieces I did see..

But what I did see made me very, very uncomfortable. And at the risk of being one more white liberal woman trying to have her say on the race issue, here's why.

Carmen, the mother from the white family, dominated the segments I saw. Drawing heavily on the rhetoric of "prayerfulness" and a kind of new-agey desire for "speaking her truth," she insisted, over and over again, on bringing the discussion back to her intentions. She and her husband were, apparently, amazingly naive about the freighted history of things like "the N-word," and took their foray into "blackness" as apparent license to test out the limits of black tolerance for what are, perhaps, the most history-laden and pain-evoking words in contemporary English (okay, perhaps some derogatory words for women have equally long and ugly histories). And they insisted on doing this despite the explicit responses of the black family with whom they were sharing a home. Perhaps worse yet, they felt defensive for having to be "careful" in their choice of language, after deliberately invoking words that--as they finally admitted--mean something different depending on who is saying them.

And Oprah, I thought, was a bit too careful to provide her "understanding" that these self-described 'well-intentioned' but horrifically ignorant white folks wanted to be given a "pass" for deliberately, if, as they claim, unintentionally trying out every indignity associated with blackness in today's world. I can see why, in a larger sense, she needed to be very careful not to appear to simply side with her black guests on every issue and attack these white people, but I think she missed several opportunities to ask the hard questions that might have promoted some real learning (from the audience, if not from the particular white family in question).

Now, I know this is "just TV"--carefully edited, with the dull, harmonious parts cut out. And I know that more careful, perspicacious white folks would probably not a) persist in tossing out offensive racial epithets just to test the waters; or b) agree to such a loaded experiment in the first place. It takes an especially dense or self-righteous person to persist in such arrogant acts in the face of clear messages from other people that these acts are causing pain.

But what scares me is how typical the interaction seems, and how it's emblematic of a key element of white privilege.

From what I could see, the white parents (Bruno and Carmen), never really "got it." That is, in spite of their statements about seeing things differently, they still expected, whatever the historical reality, to be judged by their "intentions," and by "what was in their hearts,"—even when, in practice, they deliberately did things someone else had specifically identified as hateful.

It seems to me that their insistence on "intentionality," and the refusal to take responsibility for anything outside of what one acknowledges about his or her intentions and desires, is at the root of white privilege. The black family (Renee, Brian, and Nick) tried to explain (and I don't mean to paint the white folks as simple "villains" against the noble black family, I'm focusing only on this specific aspect) the difference between Carmen's and Bruno's "intention" and their own reality (coming up against racism in multiple settings), but Carmen, especially, insisted that she be read in terms of her own desires and intentions, despite the reality of centuries of black history, and the explicit statements of the black people about whom and to whom she was speaking. Her "solution" to the 'race problem' is the same as well-meaning white folks everywhere: "believe what I say that I mean, and let me define the terms by which I say those things; Ignore your own experience, your history, and your visceral reactions and forgive me for whatever I might do that hurts you, as long as I don't do it intentionally (or say that I don't). Then we'll get along."

Sorry, but that's just bullshit. It's a demand for understanding and tolerance from those to whom you refuse to extend the same courtesy; that is, the courtesy of allowing them "their truth"—historical truth—if it means you might have to change your own behavior or accept that your experience is not, in fact, an infallible measure of reality.

As long as white people, especially well-meaning, liberal, politically correct, and, ostensibly, non-racist white folks, persist in insisting on their own "feelings" (and their right to express those in whatever terms they please) as more important than either a) the realities of black/white history and the legacies of institutional racism, b) the feelings of actual black people, I suspect we are all going nowhere.

26 Comments:

At 11:08 AM , Blogger Yankee T said...

This is an amazingly well thought-out and and thought provoking post. I think your points are clear and well-taken. I wish I had seen the show and/or lived next door so we could pour a cup of tea and talk more about it. Raising my black children in a liberal white family has brought all kinds of interesting perspective into my world, not all of it positive. Thanks for writing this. I like you even more now.

 
At 11:21 AM , Blogger OTRgirl said...

Having grown up as the white girl in a mostly black, inner-city neighborhood, it took two years at a white liberal college to soften the chip on my shoulder toward all the well-meaning clueless rich kids.

You point out really key issues.

 
At 12:57 PM , Blogger Lace said...

Ended up here via (anonymous) Dean Dad and (anonymous) Bitch, PhD to read your thoughtful, insightful (anonymous) entry.

Two questions: 1) How/where/does blogging manifest as an incident of white privilege? and;

2) How/where/do we reinforce privilege (white/class/etc.) when we blog anonymously?

As my questions tell, I'm leaning towards blogging as another form of privilege. Then again, this is a terrific post for which little "traditional" social capital is being earned, so maybe blogging is a way to disrupt privilege after all...

L?

 
At 1:10 PM , Anonymous AB said...

Wow. This is really great.

I'm particularly struck by how much it mirrors my experience in college of doing anti-rape education, and the typical response we got from many men. In trying to define what sexual assault was and running through various scenarios, the point that kept being brought (stubbornly) up was that it wasn't rape if the guy didn't mean to. (She's passed out and he doesn't realize it? She's not raped, because he didn't have the intention of raping her.) Stated intentions counted more than the experience of these (hypothetical) women.

Anyway, not to derail your thread. I'm just fascinated because I never really thought about the way in which this operates with white privilege.

 
At 2:11 PM , Anonymous slg said...

Well said!

She was making me crazy too with her earnestness. Other problematic aspects:
--"Physical" transformations...who the hell at Fox decided what "black" should look like, with nose prostheses, etc.? I wish Oprah had at least addressed this.
--At least three (?) 'bar' conversations in which workingclass(?)/lower-middle-class) whitefolk discussed their prejudices. It was just too easy--granted, they said some messed up stuff, but these are not the folks who are going to be redlining loans to black families, or admitting black kids to college, or choosing television scripts. I'm really tired of people picking on working-class whites' more obvious prejudices rather than the covert bigotry of the upper-middle class and professional people.
--Which leads to my most basic problem, which is focusing on shoestore service and individual feelings rather than the bigstuff--like why white families have seven times the wealth of black families, why black folk with exactly the credentials of white still can't get bank loans, or pay higher interest on them. Why Oprah might be on the list of highest salaries, but nowhere on the (allwhite) list of real wealth (see Forbes Mag).....

And then again, however flawed, I have to be thankful that at least _someone_ is talking about race!

p.s. wonder why the producers/directors of the show weren't on the show too?

s.

 
At 4:08 PM , Anonymous susan said...

AB-- I do rape education for a living, and you are right on with this one. the storyline about 'clueless' men accidentally raping women is holding hard and fast among current college students. we've got to figure out new strategies for debunking that myth.

and thanks et al for posting this. I continue to struggle with white privilege and see a lot of other white liberals continuing to use the term 'politically correct' to describe what I see as the ongoing need to challenge language and ASSUMPTIONS and prioritize respect for respect. I'm worn out by it, and you put words to it beautifully.

 
At 5:37 PM , Blogger Scott Eric Kaufman said...

Perhaps spending my formative years in southern Louisiana makes me question this dismissal of intentions per se, but I think, in practical terms, that intentions are important when they signal a willingness to change. Some people, after all, have reprehensible intentions and no inclination to change. Then there are the many people who don't intend offense but have no desire not to tailor their behavior to their intentions; but there are an equal number of people who, when they offend, admit their intentions in order to quantify the disconnect which led to the offense to avoid doing so again in the future. (I know I fall in that category, as do most people I've chosen to associate with.)

Also, I don't think the rape example maps onto the racial one. If one man doses a woman at a party and another man, one who doesn't know she's been dosed, has what he considered consensual sex, I would suspect that upon learning that the woman had no memory of the act (or possibly even of him) and wanted to charge him with rape, his intentions would factor into and alter his decisions and behavior at subsequent parties. That's a monster sentence, I realize, but I think my point is clear. The disconnect between his intent to engage in consensual sex and realization that he hadn't would force him to reevaluate his criteria of, say, drunkness and consent, &c. (So when I said I didn't think it maps onto the racial example, what I really meant is "I think it does map on. Almost perfectly.")

 
At 6:42 PM , Anonymous Hattie said...

What has helped me to clear out the nonsense in my head about race has been reading The Heart of Whiteness by Robert Jensen.
He relates white attitudes of entitlement not just to the fate of people of color in this country but to American imperialist activity at the expense of people of color everywhere.
Jensen is willing to "own" his prejudices and admit his privilege, as all white people need to do.

 
At 6:51 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if they beat their saying that their intentions are good.

 
At 3:31 AM , Blogger Dorcasina said...

Thanks, all, for the thoughts and questions. I have to say that I hadn't thought much about extending my critique to other arenas (i.e., rape).
Scott, I don't think I dismiss intentions per se (and perhaps you are not suggesting I do); rather, I am critical of the (white, in my example) insistence on "intentions" as more important than (black, in this case) reception. I don't dismiss intentions out of hand, but think that if one has truly "good" intentions (and I am suspicious of how honest Carmen, in this case, was being with herself, as well as with us), then one should not insist on being read in terms of those (presumably invisible) intentions at the expense of all other evidence.

sig: Absolutely! There were so many frustrating aspects--you identify some other things that also really, really bugged me (I mean, did anyone really believe Renee as "passing"?) about this show. And again, why do white people need to "see for themselves" instead of accepting black folks' interpretation of their own experience? And yes, the class elements of the "encounters" were such an easy shot...

Lace, I'm not sure I see *exactly* how you are relating white privilege and blogging (and I want to)--I certainly see the differential in (practical, if not hypothetical) access to technology, assumptions about who is listening. It makes sense to me that many, probably most, of my readers are going to be other white folks, which precludes this being a truly cross-racial discussion...I know there are some excellent bloggers who identify themselves as African American--although I don't know enough of them, and doubt they read my site. I think anonymity could be useful, in this case, because I can think through these issues, get scolded justifiably for my own blind spots and assumptions, and keep moving my thinking forward. But you are absolutely right that it's a very solipsistic process; I'm not doing much for actual issues of racism, or to address systemic inequality, by spouting off about it anonymously! You've given me much food for thought.

Yankee Transplant, I so wish you lived next door! I'd love to talk adoption, multi-racial families, and life in general with you...

 
At 6:54 AM , Anonymous ginmar said...

God, I have to deal with this every time I discuss rape on my blog. Every. Damned. Time. "He didn't intend to rape her!" Really? The classic excuse used on a rape victim was to give her a pencil and then have her try and thrust it into a moving donut or something. I think that can be very aptly turned around on a guy. It's impossible to thread a moving needle. Oh, she wasn't moving? Then why in hell-----?

 
At 8:08 AM , Blogger AFM said...

absolutely - and more white folk need to speak up to other white folk about this entitlement.

And thank you for putting the razor edge to this part of entitlement. I have struggled to explain to my family where the fallacies lie cause I ain't so good at the words sumtimes.:D

 
At 8:36 AM , Anonymous tripleransom said...

Scott, explain to me how any man could have "what he considers consensual sex" with a woman who is passed out from being "dosed" or is too impaired to remember him or even the act?

Wouldn't you think that at some point he would notice that she wasn't sentient? Or moving?

Why would he assume that her inability to protest counts as "consensual sex"?

I don't think "accidental rape" is much of a defense.

 
At 11:23 AM , Blogger Scott Eric Kaufman said...

Sorry, I should've been clearer about what I meant by dosed: not "passed out" but given a drug that lowers inhibitions and, like the date rape drug, creates a memory hole. In other words, a "dosed" woman would seem a little tipsy, give consent at the time, but the next morning remember none of it and, correctly, claim that she's been raped. I should've distinguished my example from the ones above more carefully. Sorry about that.

 
At 3:23 PM , Anonymous Flewellyn said...

Scott, your contrived example is...absurd. I'm sorry, but if a woman (or man, for that matter) is so "dosed", you would be able to tell that she was not "all there", that she was acting a little tipsy at least, and quite possibly acting more than a bit spaced out.

In other words, if someone is so drunk or "dosed" that she can't really tell what's going on around her, you can tell by simple observation. I've encountered such situations before, for varying reasons (in one case, the woman in question was on prescription painkillers for her broken wrist, and the dose was too high; she knew this, and was still able to talk and reason, but was...well, spacey).

My instinct, when I encounter someone who is so "dosed", is to say "Are you okay?", not "Hey, you wanna go boink?" In fact, I would say that there is something seriously wrong with any man who would say the latter to a "dosed" woman.

I might also ask why him saying "I didn't intend to rape her" carries weight, but her saying "I didn't intend to have sex with him" does not.

-Flewellyn (male, by the way)

 
At 5:36 PM , Blogger Scott Eric Kaufman said...

Scott, your contrived example is...absurd. I'm sorry, but if a woman (or man, for that matter) is so "dosed", you would be able to tell that she was not "all there", that she was acting a little tipsy at least, and quite possibly acting more than a bit spaced out.

Depends on the person and the dose. I know people who've been dosed, behaved as they would have had they had a drink or two, but reported the next day of having no memories of what happened to them the previous evening. This is esp. true now that we're seeing an uptick in mass dosing, in which one person (or a group of people) try to increase their chances at a party by spiking everything they can get their hands on. I read of one case of a four men being arrested after they'd spike the vodka that'd go in the mixed drinks. I doubt they did the math to determine how much of the drug they'd need to put in the vodka to create a one-shot/one-dose ratio.

In other words, if you think you can identify, beyond doubt, the difference between someone who's had a couple of drinks and someone who's been dosed, then you're in the exact situation I initially spoke to, i.e. one which could have someone confuse a woman who "looks" like she's had two glasses of wine with one who's been dosed. Unwittingly acknowledging that you yourself could easily find yourself in the "contrived" and "absurd" situation I described isn't the best way to convince people I'm mistaken.

 
At 7:06 PM , Anonymous Flewellyn said...

Wait a moment...if I CAN tell the difference between someone who is dosed, and someone who has merely had a few drinks, I am in the situation you described?

That does not make sense. At all.

But hey, since we're talking about intent and mass-dosing...what about the intent of the woman? She says she did not intend to have sex. There were drugs involved, which means we can be reasonably certain that she was not capable of consenting at the time.

So, why does the man's intent matter, while the woman's does not?

 
At 8:17 PM , Blogger Scott Eric Kaufman said...

Wait a moment...if I CAN tell the difference between someone who is dosed, and someone who has merely had a few drinks, I am in the situation you described?

That does not make sense. At all.


You're right. It doesn't. That's why what I said was "if you think you can tell the difference," the implication being that you can't. Thus, the danger in your assumption. If you, someone who's cognizant of the bigger picture, can't tell the difference between two glasses of wine and someone who won't remember a damn thing come morning...then the problem I originally identified is more significant than you initially thought (and condescendingly communicated). All I'm saying is: you think you can tell the difference, but you can't. If someone doesn't intend to rape someone but, like you, thinks he's talking to someone who's had two drinks but is in fact talking to someone who's been dosed, then he has to live with the fact that's he a rapist, even if it wasn't intentional, and he's more likely to change his behavior than someone who intended on taking advantage of an incapacitated woman in the first place.

I'm not disagreeing with you about the nature of consent not given, nor am I trying to advocate innocence on account of mitigating circumstances; what I'm trying to say is that the initial position and intentions of the man factor into his future response to the rape.

 
At 11:13 PM , Anonymous Flewellyn said...

Ah, I see. So you were not saying that the man's intentions factor into whether or not it was rape, so much as how he responds to it.

Well, that's very different. My apologies.

I might mention, though, that there is still an easy way to avoid this sort of problem: don't have sex with drunk people. And, if there is some doubt as to whether or not the woman is actually drunk...well, no sex. Err on the side of caution and respect, and the problem takes care of itself.

 
At 11:14 AM , Anonymous t said...

where you stand depends on where you sit... black,green or white

 
At 11:57 AM , Blogger Scott Eric Kaufman said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 1:57 PM , Blogger ding said...

i saw the oprah show and it was fascinating to see how far behind we all really are when we think about/talk about race.

my main reaction to the woman from santa monica (was that carmen?) was bemusement. i thought, typical L.A. liberal - childlike in her naivete but with the best of 'intentions.' intentions, as you say, don't cut it. and i'll cut those with good intentions a little bit of slack - but just once.

intentionality can only carry you so far. sooner or later, a person is going to have to do the hard work of confronting their privilege - and that's a lot more difficult than sharing one's truth.

 
At 5:18 PM , Blogger ABDmom said...

Excellent post. Thanks for making us think.

 
At 7:30 PM , Blogger Ravenmn said...

Well I have to say I'm glad I missed the program because I am growing intolerant of people with privilege whining about their intentions and how our needs and attentions are so important.

I want to know how we white folk teach each other that giving up control is the first step. How do we teach ourselves that it is not only OK but that it is absolutely necessary that we step away from our own needs at least for a little while.

Your post is a step in that direction and I think you for it.

 
At 1:11 PM , Blogger Lace said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 1:12 PM , Blogger Lace said...

Au contraire, I believe this post is all about actual issues of racism (and other isms as the comments have evolved.)
I've commented further at InterLace. Thanks for the thoughts.
L:)

 

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