Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

On racism

on 2019 October 18

This is about my phases of understanding racism through life, and about structuralism vs liberalism.

  • PHASE 1 – UNQUESTIONED OPTIMISM. Ages 0-16. I believed everyone was equal and it’s best to be color-blind to race because that makes everything fair. Being autistic and faceblind, I was literally color-blind, meaning I didn’t understand where people drew the lines between “races” and didn’t get that people can even have a race identity. In high school I didn’t know my friend was black, and this phase ended when someone pointed out that she was; a line was cruelly drawn between us.
  • PHASE 2 – LIBERALISM. Ages 16-20. I learned that some people are still racist, but thought it was only a few, and still believed in the power of good will to fix it, because after all, don’t we all want justice? Seeing that black people seemed to stay poor through generations was confusing and I tried to come up with explanations that exclusively focused on what’s up with “them”, and I remember being irritated that I couldn’t understand it.
  • PHASE 3 – STRUCTURALISM. Ages 20+. Learning how social structures are maintained by profit and power, I added a structuralist layer on liberalism.

So what’s the difference? In this table, the titles are pretty abstract and it appears no widely agreed definitions exist, but “structuralism” here encompasses Critital Race Theory which is somewhat better defined. Each statement in the table is something you might believe if you generally fit into that column.

Naive/Extreme Liberalism Mix Naive/Extreme Structuralism
Each person is unique. Problems and solutions are the result of individual actions. People are unique and also products of group socialization. Racism is the result of individual actions fueled by a diseased social structure. People exist in groups. The white group as a whole oppresses all other groups. The problem is the structure.
Anyone of any race might be racist depending on if they do racist things. Any person can be racist to different degrees, plus the collective inaction by white people is also a form of racism. White people are racist by definition. People of color cannot be racist by definition.
We need laws, a justice system, and police to keep order. While we need order and justice, massive reforms are needed to actively prevent bias and racism in policing and courts. The laws are unjust. The police are part of maintaining white supremacy.
Each person is judged on their actions, not their intent or effect or associations. (So, walking around in a white cone hat is protected and not harmful.) Actions matter the most, and intent and effect also matter. Actions that constitute race-based threats can be wrong even if the same action in another context or done by a different person is not wrong. White people are guilty by association with their ancestors. People are judged by their associations and effect, regardless of intent or action. (So, humming a tune unaware that it goes back to slavery is a racist and oppressive action if a white person does it.)
Sub-criminal “wrongs” like making someone feel bad, are primarily communication issues, not a matter of guilt. Making someone feel bad through racist but protected speech is not likely to be solved by individual communication because it exists in the context of a violent history. Whtite aggressive behavior should be punishable, not protected by racist laws; POC aggressive behavior is retaliatory or protective and therefore just.
Policies that level the economic playing field matter, and race should play no part in policy. Becase of the history of racial violence and level of entreched racism, some race-informed policies need to be in place to change the course towards equality. (I have not yet found policy proposals from the structuralist side.)
Culture and language is shared, dynamic, and subcultures can mix and evolve. Cultures naturally mix and evolve, but those having a true lineage in the cultural element in question should usually be respected as authoritative, rather than white people co-opting, watering down and receiving credit and money for those things. Nonwhite cultures need to be preserved; it is wrong to appropriate elements from those cultures into white culture.
Everyone can study and understand racism; it affects all of us. While a few people directly benefit from racism, it mainly hurts all of us. White people usually have a harder time understanding it. People with privilege will be blind to the actual racism dynamics; they benefit from it and will never admit their guilt or truly understand it.
We can solve racism rationally through reasoned dialog and policy with all parties at the table. Power structures self-perpetuate unless we actively challenge them, so we cannot accept the usual players at the table. Those in power will prevent any change and so they cannot be at the table.
We should mix, not intentionally segregate anything ever. Minority and oppressed people need group identity and private space, but we should also aim to have one system that’s equal and open to all. To preserve and empower communities of color, POC need to own and control separate communities, and avoid integrating; integration always causes a loss of self.

Where do you fit? One way to identify your own position is to feel where you get energized by potential changes in power and policies, and where you feel fear. For example if you heard that a black separatist political party had won a handful of seats in the House, would you feel some fear that they would fuel a “race war” that would take away what you/we/someone worked for, or even destabilize the country? Or, would you be excited that white men have a new obstacle in their way? Noticing the fears and other feelings that come up can clarify how far you are willing to go away from the liberal side. (It should be clear that my bias is in the “mix” column.)

Woke and radical. Sometimes it seems that people are in a woke war and want to out-radical other people. But what is right is not necessarily the most extreme and simple things can be more radical than flashy absolutes. For example self-identified TERF’s have “radical” in their name but they don’t accept people; it might be more radical and less attention-seeking to accept everyone. In the same way, “All lives matter” might be more radical than “black lives matter” – but only if you really mean it, and are not just saying it to deflect the particular urgency of black lives mattering.

Culture supremacy. One of the ways racism thrives among liberals is the demand to keep white cultural patterns central – that is, ways of communicating, structuring people in groups, values, and language (spelling, word choice and everything). So POC can be invited into white-dominated space but only accepted if they conform to the culture demands; this is not a melting pot of cultures; it’s one over the others, also known as supremacy. Often it feels like the groundrules are set before the space has opened up for diversity and then anyone new coming in is secondary to the founders because some things are pre-defined to be off-topic. I’ve experienced this a lot because my disability makes it impossible for me to internalize white culture as strongly as others, and I think this is somewhat how nonwhite people can feel in spaces that are “open to everyone” but aren’t really.

Voicing. There’s a huge difference between being allowed to exist and having a voice that is heard – meaning the authentic experience of a person voiced by her own words in her way of expressing and about the topics that are important to her. If a diversity of voices is really accepted, then the demand for white culture supremacy would be set aside. If there are nonwhite authentic voices that affect how things are organized and what’s being discussed, it would feel very different and liberating.

White depowering. I’m not sure how white people would create real space for everyone else, but I’m very turned off by the rampant shame that goes along with adopting the extreme structuralist view. White people acting like we are automatically wrong and racist on everything is non-helpful, especially when it goes along with seeking validation for doing it. If we want black people to award us the non-racist prize for being allies, we are still centering ourselves. It would be better to do two things. One, be quiet and go on being liberal and just not engage with this. Two, live authentically in your cultures even if they originate from northern Europe. We need a middle way between one extreme of banding together to push out all other voices, and the other extreme of pretending to be powerless.

Structuralism as religion. Christianity has a nasty kind of internal logic that means when you don’t believe in one part of it, fundamentalists will diagnose your disbelief from within the belief system, such that the system can never be questioned. Structuralism as in the table above has the same feature – if you claim you are not racist, it proves that you are racist. The white individual is fully culpable but has no way to be non-racist. According to the logic, we have responsibility in the sense of guilt but no responsibility in the sense of agency. To me, taking it that far is the same as being a religious zealot.

Rootlessness. A lot of people in North America have tenuous links to any indigenous homeland, or none at all, even though all of our ancestors at some point lived indigenously. Dominant white culture today seems to be a remnant of some actual cultures of the past in Northern Europe, with a giant dose of colonial/capitalist thinking, idol worshiping, and civic and communication norms. I suppose we cling to idols and systems and other flat substitutes for rich culture because we’re hurting from the loss. From some observation, POC in America seem to drive culture change more than white people and don’t seem to cling as much.

Cultural appropriation. I haven’t grasped the outrage on this point, and would like to propose that mixing is mostly a good thing. Anyone who lacks culture needs it; autistic people like me can fail to integrate into a culture even if it is all around us, and I feel like the flatness of what’s left of white culture is even harder to assimilate to than a more real one. I used to do a lot of Israeli dancing before I understood that it was an element of a minority culture; I appropriated it into me and made it mine, and I think that’s the right way to spread things. But on the other hand when I call my preferences for arranging furniture “feng shui”, that’s misleading because I’ve never studied it and made it mine. In the extreme when minority-cultural elements are monetized by white people in that colonizing flattening way, it demeans the real thing. But even when a white pop star “steals” in this way and none of the original artists get the money or credit, it seems symptomatic rather than a cause of racial stratification.

Passivity. Here is a comprehensive and clear source on these topics and more. That author takes a mostly structuralist perspective but without the dogmatic absolutes. One of the points is about how white people lie to ourselves about being passive and therefore not responsible. The structuralists seem to want white people to actively identify as white in order to own the oppression that is going on and stop it, rather than just cop out. I never identified with being white and I have no idea how to purposefully adopt an identification with something when I don’t feel it, but it is an idea worth further reflection.

This is another article worth reading.

One response to “On racism

  1. Adelaide Dupont says:

    Star and everyone:

    A really good example of emerging structuralism in Australian media and political culture is the TV series TOTAL CONTROL.

    A Senator who is based in Winton [north Queensland] goes to a Land Council meeting. There are lots of interests and groups involved on a potential Pine Gap-like base.

    Native title has been used and claimed in some of the regions that our Senator and her family and friends and community live on.

    She has a powerful reconciliation with her brother and her mother supports her after the Land Councils throw her out for being an “offcomer”/outsider/politician – perpetrating the “white shite” structures in her role.

    Your point on never having had a culture or specific aspects on a culture – applies to Alex too.

    Very true about POC and the ways they drive culture change – there’s lots of great Internet language and thinking and expression of feeling.

    Accepting everyone can be in itself radical and attention-seeking – and it is then you question your reasons and commitments.

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