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An important message

I ran across this gem in another blog:

sometimes i think there are way too many people who mostly understand "racist" as something like:

1) Racism is bad.
2) I am not a bad person.
3) Therefore, I'm not racist.
4) Lather, rinse, repeat.

Perfectly stated.

I wonder, sometimes, what it is that makes people think that being a generally good person is a magical shield against being racist (and/or sexist, homophobic, or otherwise *ist). I mean, I know a bunch of people, myself included, who would think of themselves as good people - yet admit that they have major flaws such as a short temper or the inability to keep deadlines. Doing so doesn't trigger some debilitating cognitive dissonance as we try to wonder, How can I still be a worthwhile person if I needed an extension on my term paper!?

And yet. Pointing out a *ist behavior to a person is like sticking a pig with a needle. A narcissistic, defensive pig, who thinks that self-proclamations of being a "good person" are enough. Regardless of the arguments or evidence presented to them, the metaphorical pigs are determined to persist in their self-image as a good - and non-prejudiced!!1! - person. (Yeah, a man insisting he can determine what is or isn't sexist? A straight person attempting to define homophobia? Is the ridiculousness of this somehow not apparent?)

And, okay, *isms are more serious flaws in character than, say, being late on an assignment. It's natural that the thought of being *ist would be more troubling. But not to the point of denial, and the implication that the member of the oppressed group is somehow wrong in identifying your behavior. On the contrary, being on the bottom of an oppressive system means that someone is more likely to have greater and more intimate knowledge of the oppression. Privilege begets blindness.

Privilege is also pervasive. It's much, much harder to recognize and extinguish it than to accept and ignore it.

I am a part of the interlocking systems of oppression. I dedicate myself to feminism, anti-racism, and everything else that fights oppression - but I still live and function in society, and society is steeped in *isms. Have I internalized sexism against myself and other women? Of course. Have I internalized racism against my race? Ho-boy yeah. Against other non-white races? You betcha. And am I full to the brim of privilege due to being a straight person, a wealthy person, an educated person, a U.S. citizen? Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

And yet. Do I still think I'm a good person? Yes.

But that means it's my duty to educate myself about the privileges and oppressions I experience, so I can really earn that label.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 21st, 2006 11:57 pm (UTC)
You should run for President. ^o^
Jun. 22nd, 2006 02:25 am (UTC)
Heh. I think I'm too lazy for the job. XD
Jun. 22nd, 2006 08:09 am (UTC)
Delegation, it runs on delegation. You just set awesome policy and someone else figures out how to implement it for you.
Jun. 22nd, 2006 08:01 pm (UTC)
So I just need to figure out how to make other people do my work for me? Brilliant!
Jun. 24th, 2006 05:09 am (UTC)
Biology v. Society
Hmm... interesting...

I've always looked at it from the other direction: that society actually makes us "better" and "more good." Here's how I mean:

As social animals, we are biologically predisposed to protect and group with those in our particular tribe, and in that we are hardly alone. Lions gather in prides, wolves in packs, birds in flocks, fish in schools, elephants in herds, and so on. A pride of lions, for example, doesn't look kindly on other lions that don't belong to the pride—such creatures are competition for food at best and immediate threats at worst. The same with packs and flocks and herds and fish and tribes. That which is not of us is against us. Even our smaller social circles have this attitude (like cliques in high school).

Our Western society is not at all alone in having prejudices. Every society does. Every society. Rich, poor, insular, worldy... every person alive has prejudices and *isms that he (or she) gains from the society in which he (or she) was raised.

In my (admittedly optimistic) world-view, advanced societies such as ours actually take steps to suppress, at least officially and outwardly, such prejudices. We at least are aware of our prejudices and can analyze and discuss them with some degree of logical reasoning. We know that it's morally wrong to oppose someone based solely on his (or her) morphology, gender, sex, religion, or sexual attractions. We know it's wrong, so we consciously try to suppress those feelings that are, generally speaking, unconscious. I wonder how many of the less culturally advanced societies can say the same? Actually, I wonder how many non-Western societies know of their prejudices and actively try to suppress them? Hmm... :\

On the other hand, I totally agree with you that those who aren't part of a certain group can't possibly know what it's like to be in that group. I'm certain that I do and say things that are sexist, racist, homophobic, and otherwise-ist every day without ever realizing it. It's not something I mean to do, obviously, as I try to be as empathic and PC as possible, but because I don't live as a woman, a non-WAS person, or a homosexual person, I don't really know what sorts of actions and words a person from one or more of those groups considers offensive. I have some general ideas, of course, but there might be little things I do that are offensive. And frankly, as a "white" heterosexual male, I don't really have an insider's view on any American minority. :\

Finally, I really, really dig your analogy of sticking a pig with a needle. That's such an awesome analogy. :)
Jun. 26th, 2006 10:48 pm (UTC)
Re: Biology v. Society
I actually hadn't intended my criticism of current society to be a swipe against the concept of society ... but I can see how it might sound like that. I definitely agree with you that grouping humans into some sort of order is helpful. (That's about as far an analysis as I can manage, though, because even though I read Rousseau and Aristotle and various other philosophers who theorized about society, that was one part of philosophy that I've never gotten. :P)

I also agree that every society that exists has its share of *isms, both locally and as part of the global hierarchy. On the other hand, I have to say that we can't hold ourselves (Western society) up as the moral victor when it comes social equality. Sure, we hear news about other governments who do racist or sexist things, but that doesn't give us much of an accurate idea about what's actually happening in there, what social movements are being fueled by the populace in order to win equality. We can't evaluate the morality of countries by the actions of their governments (at least, I hope not, because I don't want to be judged by the actions of mine :P).

As I've started to read and take classes about transnational social movements (mostly feminism), I see more and more that there are organizations in non-Western countries that are fighting *isms in ways that match (or beat!) the U.S. and Europe. And yet I'm sure that I still don't know the half of it. I try to avoid saying that any countries are "good" or "bad" because it's almost impossible to overcome my ignorance on that subject. And also, since the U.S. is both a global power and a vehicle of global racism, I am blinded by the privilege of being a citizen. I can see the good done here, but I also miss a lot of the bad.

As for learning to overcome privilege ... Well, I can say without exaggerating that you're halfway there just by choosing to think about this stuff. Most people never bother to think about their privileges. (And some people don't think about their oppression, or find ways to pretend it doesn't exist.) And don't worry about being a member of multiple privileged groups - if I thought that straight white guys were hopeless, I wouldn't have a boyfriend (or as many friends). :P

I wish I could tell you more, but if I had a magic solution to overcoming privilege, I would've used it on myself a long time ago! All I can say is to keep thinking and engaging in dialogues (like this!) and learning where you can. Sorry for the lateness of my reply, and thanks for talking!
Jun. 26th, 2006 10:54 pm (UTC)
Re: Biology v. Society
Very well spoken. :)

I didn't actually mean to imply that Western societies are the pinnacle of moral achievement, only that we seem to be slightly more accepting than some of the other societies. Having never actually stepped foot outside America's borders, I can relate second- and third-hand knowledge. So I should probably stop talking now. ^_^

Thank you for your excellent reply!
Jun. 27th, 2006 01:38 am (UTC)
Re: Biology v. Society
I think I do understand what you meant, and I hope it was clear that I don't think you're deserving of harsh criticism. I didn't mean to say "NO YOU'RE WRONG and you suck!" but rather point out an oversight/misunderstanding you might be making. (And which I still make myself.)

Please don't hesitate to talk about this, either now or in the future. You came in good faith, and even if I disagreed with you on part of what you said, I don't want to shut you down. Feel free to comment here whenever, on whatever topic. I like discussion!
Jun. 27th, 2006 07:01 pm (UTC)
Re: Biology v. Society
I didn't think your rejoinder was harsh. Don't you worry none... if I want to weigh in on something I won't be shy about it. But I've said what I wanted to say, so I didn't have really anything else to add. :)

Thank you for the pleasant discussion. Sorry I don't have any more to add to it. :\
Jul. 23rd, 2006 07:24 pm (UTC)
Believe . . .
You're comments are extremely intellectual and thought provoking for one seemingly so young, and I hope you keep challenging yourself to search for that mystical quality you are looking for out in the cosmos without jading your perspective. Too many times as we age society molds us into conformity and forces us to see that to stretch our minds is to reach for the unattainable! Do not allow your dreams to be tainted while living in the real world, young one!

The challenge is to blend into this life while making “them” think we have grown up, even at the age I have obtained now! There is a great change coming upon us, and it the young who will survive it . . . prepare your mind and your body . . . for you will need all of your wits and your cunning to preserve and the abilities to commune with all races, creeds, and phobias! Believe, and Blessed Be!
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )