Talking About Racism: How our Dialogue Gets Short-circuited Paul Wachtel
Racism : A term with a host of meanings
A list of potential examples from page 541 to 543.
Review the list and decide which terms best describe each situation:
Looking up the term racism in the dictionary is beside the point. The central issues here is who gets to write the definition used in the dictionary.
Some contend that blacks cannot be racist because the word means discrimination by the majority against an oppressed minority.
So you see the definition makes all the difference. One of the problems is that many of us are using different definitions (whether the difference is subtle or not).
The author says that it is, in the end, a bit arbitrary to attempt to assert in an absolute manner what racism “is.”
While we cannot settle on an objective and definitive definition, we can ask what the consequences are in our definitions of the term.
The consequences the author sees: we have overused the term. And because we have overused it, it has lost clarity and precision within our language.
The term has in fact become a detriment to our ability to overcome our racial divisions.
He is not saying racism is gone.
He is not saying our racial problems are less severe.
He is not saying we need to use milder terms.
Extend our vocabulary
He wants a vocabulary that is more precise and differentiated (increasing our ability to both come together and make sense of each other).
Can, in some instances, describe events far more accurately than the term racism.
Yet, the reflex term has become “racism” (apply it through out).
The word is a ‘conversation stopper’
When white people avoid discussing their real feelings because they are afraid they will be called racist, all that results is the covering up of real issues and their real feelings.
Openly discussing our real feelings is essential to any progress we want to make.
Term often seems to others to be a descriptive word. It is simply an account of what they encounter everyday of their lives.
Term for whites often creates a defensive attitude that shuts down honest communication.
Racism (as a strong word) is/was used to break through strong denial.
Especially since many other euphemisms permit continuing evasion of the real issue (casualties, losses, passed on, etc).
While racism was meant to be a strong word, after a while we habituate to its use, we “tune it out” and it thus loses all its power.
The transformation of the word
First used to describe the most deplorable and shameful of traits and actions.
Now extended to include virtually universal human characteristics (prejudice/stereotyping) and so to include almost everyone.
Expansion of the word happened in large part because of the civil rights movement (North versus South).
In order to combat the North’s refusal to listen, writers and activists began using the term racism (get their attention).
These events changed the word over time; but they also “watered the term down.”
The Paradoxes of Guilt
Is there an inconsistency here?
Racism = a strong word that creates defensive reactions and shuts down dialogue
Racism = term has been diluted and we have become desensitized to it
These different responses will come about for different people in different situations. Some may be intimidated or defensive while others are desensitized.
Even the same person may experience the word differently in different contexts.
Two reactions can even come about for the same person in the same instance (as opposing sides of the same coin). A person could defiantly embrace the term aloud and give a “Here we go again” eye roll to themselves.
These are defensive responses to having been made to feel guilty. “The impact of the message is so strong that its conscious acknowledgement is so minimal” (547).
Guilt does not always produce the response we might wish or expect (if it is overwhelming, the response can be to continue to be insensitive to those we have harmed and to be angry at them for confronting us with our inadequacies) (547).
Good responses to the feelings of guilt are most likely to happen when there is something productive to be done to relieve the guilt (but if the problem looks to be too big…)
“ Institutional Racism”
Institutional racism - a central feature of the dialogue today, but not fully understood.
Must keep in mind here that institutions can produce racist consequences whether they do so intentionally or not .
This concept is blurred because the term racism is so emotionally charged and for many connotes intention.
Institutional racism – while “ seemingly impersonal, can allow ‘respectable’ individuals to dissociate themselves from the acts of those with the poor taste to be overtly racist, while continuing to benefit from the ways in which our institutions maintain the inequalities between blacks and whites” (548).
Institutional racism: “I am not saying you want this to happen, I’m saying that the whole society is set up in such a way that certain outcomes inevitably result, and those outcomes are consistently to the detriment of people of color in comparison to whites” (549).
The result: the term can obscure the very phenomenon it was designed to highlight (impersonal and systematic outcomes instead of intent).
Obvious and Invisible
Wachtel says it is easy NOT to see racism and that you do not need to be a racist to have been blind to these facts.
Why? Because society trains us to not see it: “Part of the system we live under is that we are systematically trained not to see the system” (549).
Does this seem to you to be true or false?
We are taught to see the differences in income and influence that result from how we organize our society as really only the results of an individual’s choice to work hard or not .
“ We are taught not to notice the statistical probabilities that make the bright child of a truck driver or a manual laborer less likely to go to college than the child of a doctor or lawyer” (549).
Noticing the Exceptions
We are instead trained to notice the exceptions!
There are some children of truck drivers who go to college and we use these exceptions to affirm that this is a land of opportunity.
We thereby “ignore the fact that we can predict with virtual statistical certainty the differential life courses of the children of the two groups” (550).
“ The roots of the confusion lie in the fact that the effects of institutional arrangements are statistical rather than universal .
What is predictable and shown to be statistically true is that “the circumstances most blacks encounter from birth on are likely to make it harder for them to succeed than are the circumstances most whites encounter” (550).
“ Otherness” and Indifference
A great deal of what is now described as racism can more accurately be described as indifference.
Indifference - likely the most cumulatively responsible for the pain and privation experienced by our nation’s black minority.
And probably the most misunderstood and overlooked issue.
Indifference is a quiet toxin – it severs the nerves of society without announcing itself
Its effects are devastating, but its tracks are hidden in the attitude that it is every man for himself
Indifference is also obscured because in times of great tragedy we briefly overcome our indifference and join together to help each other (9/11).
“ But when it comes to the slow bleeding that daily drains the spirit and hope from life in our nation’s inner cities, indifference shows itself in full measure.
Otherness: We tolerate the misery in the midst of the affluent society because of the strong sense of ‘them’ that attaches to the miserable, the sense that ‘they’ are not like ‘us,’ that they are different” (552).
While whites are unlikely to acknowledge, to see, institutional racism, they can recognize indifference within themselves
“ The real meaning of race comes down largely to this: Is this someone I should care about ?
Summary and Conclusion
Accusing a guilty man of the wrong crime is the greatest gift you can give to him.
Why? Because it allows him to self-righteously deny it and maintain innocence while conveniently diverting his attention from his real offense
The real crime white America is committing is indifference (not racism). Accusing white America of racism allows them to self-righteously deny it and maintain their innocence.
“ Accused of a crime of which their self-examination tells them they are innocent, they can go to bed with an undisturbed conscience” (554).
Responding to the claims
Some may say that while there used to be obstacles within the Black community, times have changed. Now there are opportunities if ‘they’ will only apply themselves.
While there is some truth in this claim, “it fails not only to acknowledge the continuing discrimination that does still exist, but even more importantly, it fails to take into account how hard it is to see the new opportunities from the vantage point of the typical block in our poorest neighborhoods” (554).
Boarded up buildings unemployed people
drug pushers gangs everywhere
and the resultant suffering tend to block the view of the wider world.
“ Few children have the capacity to see past such a compellingly bleak immediate reality” (554).