Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Racism, Prejudice, Power and Convincing Bollocks

I recently came across a post that linked to a consideration of racism... a consideration that I happen to think is very wrong indeed. The basic characterisation of racism was thus:
Black people can't be racist. Prejudiced yes, but not racist. Racism describes a system of advantage based on race. Black people can't be racists since we don't stand to benefit from such a system.
That's actually from a film called Dear White People, or, at least, we're told it is (I have not seen the film). But just because it's in a movie doesn't make it so. Racism is not like that as, I hope, I can demonstrate via reasoned argument... and that is what I did in the comments section of the post that led me to the consideration (but I should stress I don't think my comments were germane to the post's substantial discussion).

There are some important things to start off with. Firstly, I assume the film was talking about the situation within America rather than, say, Zimbabwe. Therefore, if by some miracle, this post attracts comments and they take this tack (e.g. but discriminatory systems that benefits blacks are possible)... you, the comment writer, you're an idiot, piss off. Secondly, this is a piss poor way of criticising reverse racism. It doesn't exist because if it's racist it's, well, just racism. Sometimes things which sound stupid are right. In fact, the human propensity to favour certain things because they're pricier, more authoritative or have some sense of class is one of the issues with the above definition of racism.

When I wander around the internet, I sometimes encounter the idea that racism = prejudice + power and I think this conception is the same as the one described above. In particular, I think this is a deeply appealing description because it sounds complex and educated. In other words, if you come across this definition, you can pat yourself on the back for being Educated, you've got past the "lies to children" and now understand the actual world. In reality, prejudice + power (or systemic advantage) is a gross simplification that greatly blunts the utility of racism as a tool of analysis. The reality is that when you try to use prejudice + power you find yourself unable to wield a tool that is useful. Let's think about an example.

Imagine we're confronted with a situation where an African-American shopkeeper and a Native American customer come into contact. If the shopkeeper decides that the customer is Native American and closes up shop, how do we analyse this situation? What about if the customer determines the shopkeeper is African-American and decides to walk away? How do we deal with that?

Strictly following Dear White People we have to call this prejudice. We thus deny the possibility of any minority group member's ever having agency/power in society as is. The ability to create small micro-systems of discrimination is a possible work-around but the potential of personal power to cause harm in peoples' lives is exacerbated by prejudice + power. After all, prejudice has none of the cultural capital that racism does. Prejudice just lacks the oomph that racism has. It's hard to explain but you're just not going to get people as up in arms to fight prejudice as if you're talking about racism. I think a large part of it is because if I describe someone as being prejudiced I implicitly say, "Well, they've got their dumb views, their prejudices, but that's on them as an individual, and if it is individual it is small, isolated and why should I care?" When I say racism, I am talking about some big idea that lots of people buy into. "I'm not racist" means I'm not one of them that are, whereas "I'm not prejudiced" means "My views aren't prejudiced".

The thing is, I haven't just contrived a situation to show this flaw. If we want to talk about systemic advantage in New Zealand with Maori you're going to get two views. Firstly, the notion of the Treaty gravy train. Secondly, the reality that Maori (or Pasifika) end up at the bottom of all breakdowns of social welfare. This is true of employment, education, justice and mortality... it is a fundamental and inescapable character of contemporary New Zealand society. The Treaty gravy train may or may not exist but insofar as it does it is intended to redress the historical causes of this "bottomness" (unfortunate phrasing, but you get the idea) and it definitely only benefits a small "elite" group of Maori who have control of the Iwi PLCs (a metaphor now). So, hopefully you'll believe me when I say prejudice + power makes looking at Maori attitudes towards Asian immigration to New Zealand problematic.

Now, it must be said that Maori may not be particularly more racist towards Asian immigrants than New Zealanders in general for two reasons. One, that's not what that poll says and I haven't thorougly researched the topic. Two, in the research I did do (trying to find why I had this perception in the first place) I discovered a paper suggesting Maori are just more anti-immigration in the first place, so their dislike of Asian immigrants may be an artefact of that. I will also say that things have probably only deteriorated since both the survey and the study because of the bastards in charge of the Labour party. I really do not think National has any ideas about how to run New Zealand, but at least they're willing to stand up for New Zealand's values, i.e. open-ness towards immigration and immigrants, and have not, as yet, played the Yellow Scare card Andrew Little is so keen on.

Anyway, the point is that if we were serious about exploring attitudes towards immigration in New Zealand and were serious about cleaning up racism in New Zealand, we need to be able to have conversations about Maori racism just as easily as we are able to have viral discussions about the Mad Butcher. If we were to ignore that these attitudes exist (due to the absence of power) we say two things. One, that Maori do not matter at all in New Zealand because they're completely unable to influence opinions. Two, that there is no tension between bicultural policy and multicultural society. We might also end up saying another thing, that attitudes towards immigration are a small part of being racist in New Zealand. This could lead to undue focus on other kinds of racism and allow the continued exploitation of, for instance, immigrant labour on fishing boats.

The overall point here is that racist structures aren't racist because they're structures. They're racist because they are prejudiced and discriminatory on the grounds of ethnicity. This is not to say that racism that is reinforced by a structure is qualitatively the same as racism that is not, because they're not the same. It really does make an enormous difference if, say, an Asian comedian makes jokes about "Asian excellence" and if I do so. Basically, I'd have to be very clever indeed to avoid reinforcing stereotypes, whereas the former comedian needs simply to be somewhat self-deprecatory (of course they can be clever too, but they've got more options). Context matters a lot (which is why I get annoyed about blackface... it has no major tradition here, so stop pretending that an American context is appropriate in New Zealand, in the Netherlands or anywhere else; this is not to say that it is advisable, it is to say that people need to think a bit more).

The clearest illustration of the failure of racism = prejudice + power is if we turn to the institution that created racism as we know it: the Atlantic Slave Trade. In history, as in historical analysis, it is very important to avoid anachronism: one needs to understand the past on its own terms before introducing anything else. In this sense, if we decide that Slaver Joe decides to get into the slave trade way back when because he's racist, we need to think about what that means. People in the past may be dead and beyond return, but if we have bad ideas about why they did what they did, we don't actually understand what happened. A theory of behaviour needs to explain an entire set of behaviours, it can't just make sense of one event. If we treat racism as the explanation for proceedings, it becomes more than a little difficult to explain why slavers would marry daughters of their African contacts. But it is also the case that the existence of the Atlantic Slave Trade reinforced racist ideas once they developed, for instance it created the observation that Africans were inferior.* This is why historians typically describe racism as a modern phenomenon.

Racism isn't a particularly pleasant part of contemporary society, but if we want to be able to do something about it and understand how it helped create the present we occupy, we need to be able to use conceptions of slavery that allow us to do so. The truth is simply that racism = prejudice + power does not allow us to do that and we must always confront those who suggest that it does. But more than that, we need to be aware of why it fails... and it fails because minorities can have agency in society and can influence opinions, it fails because it doesn't do anything more than racism = prejudice and makes it harder to confront and dispel prejudice. It fails, and please don't let it become popular.

*Data, that is facts, do not speak for themselves.

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