Monday, March 31, 2008

The Conservative Dilemma on Race

It is a common conservative mantra that the problem with race in our society is that people simply aren't colorblind. Conservatives go around proclaiming that a better world is one in which we go around pretending not to notice the color of someone's skin and, worse, to pretend that this obvious and unavoidable reality (i.e. a world composed of people with different skin pigmentation) should have no social meaning.

I do think, though, that there is an underlying problem in the line of argument that goes along with the foolishness of this "colorblind" absolutism that permeates conservative orthodoxy on the subject of race. For most conservatives, at least from what I have seen, the concept of "Eracism" is nothing more than "Erace." By this I mean that conservatives think that ending racism depends upon making race irrelevant and meaningless.

Let me stop this foolishness in its tracks right here and state, for the record, that there is nothing inherently wrong with race having meaning for one's identity. What is problematic is when race becomes a wedge used for purposes of discrimination. But that someone's blackness or whiteness gives meaning to one's life is not necessarily, de facto, an evil and reprehensible thing, something we should avoid and resist.

I have no problem with a black person or a white person claiming that being black or white is a source of pride, or an important component of identity, or a fundamental symbol of cultural meaning. Just like I have no problem with women or gays or short people or left-handed people or disabled people or Southerners or Irish Americans coming together to discuss how a shared attribute has given meaning to their lives. We should celebrate this diversity, not seek to eliminate it from the public discourse, as the conservative orthodoxy on racial difference tends to want to do.

My advice to conservatives is that when they speak about race, they would do well not to pretend that they don't see skin color or to claim that seeing different skin color doesn't (or shouldn't) have meaning and value to peoples' identity. Conservatives (or anyone, for that matter) who would go around extolling a colorblind absolutism in the public square are fools to proclaim this. But what we all can say is that we won't allow or tolerate the meaning of race to one's identity to translate into or express itself through a policy of social, political, or economic discrimination.

15 comments:

Eric said...

Huck,

I think it is important in this debate to seperate culture from race as much as possible. When conservatives talk about a colorblind society, I think they generally mean one where we don't treat groups or individuals differently based solely on the color of their skin. Nobody is saying we should act as if cultural differences don't exist.

What you seem to be talking about here is skin color as it relates to culture, which I see as a seperate issue.

Recently, I was conducting interviews to hire some help for my business. The job requires spending a lot of time on the phone talking to corporate IT managers all over the US. I needed someone who sounds professional on the phone (which in rural Oklahoma is not necesarilly an easy person to find). I informed all applicants of this during the interview process, and an important part of the interview was a role-playing excercise where they had to interact with a theoretical customer. I used this excercise to determine their ability to speak in a professional manner.

I interviewed about 10 people for the position, both men and women, from various ethnic backgrounds. The lady I eventually hired is a white woman who naturally speaks with a very think Okie accent and vernacular that would not be appropriate for the types of clients I have. She got the job in large part because, during the role-playing excercise (and with no prompting from me), she dropped her Okie accent and adopted a very professional tone and vocabulary.

Many applicants who applied for the job, both white and non-white, were otherwise qualified but weren't considered preciscely because of culturally acquired mannerisms that they either refused or were unable to set aside when required.

Now, according to many liberals, it would be racist of me to make hiring decision based on somebody's hispanic, asian, or african american speech patterns, but I doubt they would call me a racist for discriminating against Okie accents. I'd argue that your accent is not a race-based affectation, it is a cultural one.

Similarly, I'd argue that it is entirely appropriate to call for a colorblind society, without meaning we should also be cultureblind.

Huck said...

Good points, Eric. I think we may be about to argue over semantics, but I'll go forward anyway. I think your desire to separate skin color from culture is problematic. I don't think it is recommendable because it is essentially asking that any inherent, immutable characteristic be devoid of social meaning. Let's take your hiring example. Presumably the Okie who dropped her accent and slang and replaced it with something you would consider more generic, including vocabulary choice, word inflection, and other ways of presentation that you might consider "professionl." Again, it depends upon a definition of professional behavior that is constructed by a dominant (and, yes, hegemonic) culture. I have (as I am sure you have) had "professional" conversations with people of different cultural backgrounds in which different accents, vocabulary choice, conceptions of politeness, voice decibel levels, etc., were all present, but which in no way diminished the professional nature of the conversation. What I object to is the expectation that "professionalism" conform to some kind of sanitized representation that is rooted in a kind of mainstream cultural norm. I don't think people have to pretend that their ethnicity doesn't matter and shouldn't manifest itself in the full range of aspects of their lives.

I wouldn't say at all that your decision to hire the Okie was rooted in some kind of racial discrimination; but I'd argue that someone can be an Okie (and be identified as such in the full glory of his/her "Okie-ness") without compromising his or her professionalism.

I agree that colorblindless when it refers to anti-discrimination based on race is a goal we should all aspire to; but it is my impression that often conservatives will throw the baby out with the bathwater in pursuit of this goal. In other words, the thinking that I observe in conservatives is that the best way to eliminate racism (a noble goal), is simply to try to eliminate race. Without race, how can there be racism? This is what I hear when conservatives express problems with people identifying as African American or Hispanic American as opposed to just American (whatever that means -- I'm always intrigued by folks who make this statement because they obviously have an image of what it means to be "American" that somehow is at odds with what it means to be African American or Hispanic American or Asian American). My point is that there is not only nothing wrong with valuing race in identity and proclaiming this racial identity publicly with pride as distinct from people of other races, but it is actually enriching to us as a society that we all identify as a hyphenated American. And it's not just a cultural conception devoid of race, because I believe that race is an integral part of culture. The two cannot be divorced.

Eric said...

I guess I just disagree with you here. I can be (and am) a proud Okie, enmeshed in my local culture and all its affectations, and still recognize the value (and even necessity) of sanitizing that culture when I enter the marketplace of public discourse. I do this every day and it doesn't make me feel victimized, marginalized, or disenfranchised. Why should it make someone of a different skin color feel that way?

I don't see what is wrong with our society having many satellite cultures around the periphery of a large common central culture. Especially in business and academia, it is helpful to have a common set of social rules to operate under.

Anonymous said...

Is there really room for dialogue on this blog?

I posted a comment yesterday and changed a few words in your commentary and noticed that it wasn't posted.

Did it strike a nerve?

Even Rush allows liberals on his program...as a matter of fact I think he puts them at the "front of the line"

Huck said...

anonymous - I don't censor postings. And I have no idea whether your posting might have struck a nerve because I never saw it. It never made it onto the blog as far as I can tell. I do have in place an author verification system to prevent comment spam, and sometimes the first time someone signs into the comment field and inputs the anti-spam verification code and hits post, the comment doesn't post and it needs to be submitted again. This even happens to me. I'm sorry that your comment never appeared, but I can assure you it wasn't because I am censoring or not allowing any comments to appear. Please feel free to repost the comment. As long as it doesn't devolve into gratuitous ad hominem attacks or gratuitous vulgarity, it's welcome, no matter how controversial or oppositional to my own opinion.

With regard to Rush Limbaugh, he certainly does allow them onto his show, but he does have this nasty habit of cutting these folk off in the middle of an argument when he gets peeved at the criticism being levied. That's his right, of course, as it is his radio show; but don't pretend that Rush is some free speech philanthropist. He manipulates the way liberal criticism is filtered onto his show so as to always make him come out smelling like roses.

Cynthia said...

The problem is when that "common set of social rules" is dictated by a culture that has declared itself the norm because of access to power that others don't have. Research has shown that what is considered acceptable and appropriate language and behavior in the media, by business professionals, and by higher ups in academia is dictated by a midwestern, WASP accent, manner of dress, etc. It's not a coincidence that this is so. National "culture" isn't born organically. It is created and engineered by those in power, and, therefore, it will (and should) be challenged.

For example, this "norm" has nothing to do with my reality, and, actually, as a client, I think I might find a female Okie accented voice more inviting than a white male midwestern accent that others might consider more professional. So I'd encourage you to imagine a world where an Okie accent might be considered professional just as much as you'd strive towards a colorblind world.

And I agree with Jimmy that color cannot be separated from culture because it is the hegemonic "professional" culture that marginalizes anything outside of what is considered normative, and more times than not, what is considered unacceptable is a manner os speaking, dressing, behaving, understanding associated with certain "lower" classes, Blackness, and ethnic minorities of foreign descent.

Eric said...

"So I'd encourage you to imagine a world where an Okie accent might be considered professional just as much as you'd strive towards a colorblind world."

I do. I live in that world. When I go to the horse sale, or a football game, or to a local mechanic, my Okie accent is in full swing, and it works great to facilitate communication.

But when I am talking to somebody from Boston, over the phone, about complex technology issues that are confusing enough all on their own (or arguing over the internet about politics), the communication flows much better if we both drop our regional color and speak like anchormen from the 6-o-clock news. It just does.

If we are discussing the availability of a certain widget, and I tell you, "Hoss, those critters are like hen's teeth." you might assume that all hens have teeth, therefore the widget is readily avialable. But in fact, I was trying to communicate that this particular widget is hard to find. If we shared the same culture, you'd know that, but you shouldn't be required to translate cultures in order to do business with me. Probably, I should be required to adjust to your culture if I'm going to solicit your business. At best, we can agree to meet in a comfortable middleground, which as you mentioned, is typically agreed upon to be a midwestern WASPish dialect and vocabulary.

I don't consider it to be putting myself out to much to make these changes in my personal style in order to facilitate business. If I lived in Mexico, I'd be expected to learn the language and customs of Mexico, even if I remained an Okie at heart. If I want to engage in the business world, I need to learn the language and customs of the business world. If I wanted to be a hip-hop mogul, I'd probably need to adhere to a different set of rules in order to be succesful.

But my overal point is, regardless of your feelings about the appropriateness of cultural affectation in the workplace, we can discuss the issue all day long without race ever being a factor. These are two seperate issues that sometimes overlap, but they are not unfailingly intertwined.

Huck said...

Eric - I think the point cynthia and I are trying to make is not a question of being so culturally affected in interpersonal exchanges so as to make comprehensible communication impossible, but to suggest that one doesn't need to shed all cultural attributes or racial identity markers to communicate clearly and respectfully. With regard to verbal expressions of identity that are particular to race or its corresponding cultural manifestation, why is it that a polite southern drawl or a Kennedy-esque Bostonian accent considered quaint and acceptable in "professional" conversation, but not, say, an inflection of tone or an accent common to a particular race or ethnicity somehow inappropriate? And we can extend the list of racial identity markers that go beyond verbal communication, too, such as dress, grooming habits, hairstyle, etc., and which have important meaning to people rooted in racial identity. Why should such things be anathema to socially acceptable behavior?

We can discuss the issue all day long without race ever being a factor; but I would ask why should we have to keep race out of the discussion? This gets to my original point: race has meaning to people, and to want to try to eliminate that meaning from the public square is to advocate for erasing important (sometimes defining) parts of identity from the public square. I just don't think we should be trying to homogenize our culture, but embracing its diversity -- especially whent that diversity is rooted in immutable characteristics. When people say that they don't "see race" when they encounter people of different races is a lie. I don't believe for a second that race doesn't matter to people (in both positive and negative ways). And I think the way to deal with racism is to find a way to convert meaning and identity conditioned by race away from patterns of discrimination and more towards patterns of inclusion and celebration. We shouldn't be advocating a "colorblind" society of homogenizing identity, but rather a "colorful" society in which the positive and enriching racial components of identity are validated and not denigrated.

Eric said...

"I think the point cynthia and I are trying to make is not a question of being so culturally affected in interpersonal exchanges so as to make comprehensible communication impossible, but to suggest that one doesn't need to shed all cultural attributes or racial identity markers to communicate clearly and respectfully."

Ultimately, communication is key. Sure, you can retain cultural attributes while succesfully communicating the information you are trying to impart. Just don't complain if the job (or the sale) goes to somebody who deals with the prospective employer (or client) in terms of THEIR cultural attributes, because that person might be fairly perceived as being the better communicator (because we all understand things best within the context of our own cultural associations).

I'd also note that as we all become more connected through media and technology, and as cultures geographically pool and shift in relation to demographic populations, the world effectively shrinks. Cultural attributes of the perihery cutlures bleed into the larger central culture, and change it. It is a type of homogenization, but unlike you I see it as a positive thing. It allows more people to meet eachother in culturally familiar terms and eases social tension.

"And we can extend the list of racial identity markers that go beyond verbal communication, too, such as dress, grooming habits, hairstyle, etc., and which have important meaning to people rooted in racial identity. Why should such things be anathema to socially acceptable behavior?"

Again, it all comes down to communications and understanding. The very word "culture" implies a set of commonly accepted social behaviors. Regardless of your racial identity, religious identity, geographic identy, etc... if you operate within a group of people while rejecting their social values, your ability to effectively interact and communicate with that group will be hampered. That might not always be fair. Welcome to life. The important thing is, one cannot do anything about their skin color, but they CAN change other aspects of their identity if belonging to a certain group is important enough to them (and maybe it's not, or maybe it shouldn't be). That is why it is important to focus on a colorblind society.

"We can discuss the issue all day long without race ever being a factor; but I would ask why should we have to keep race out of the discussion?"

We don't have to keep it out of the discussion. I just refuse to consider it as anything but a superficial quality in and of itself. I can't tell anything about the quality, character, or even the cultural identity of a person based solely on the color of their skin or the ethnicity of their parents. If I seem obstinate in my unwillingness to discuss race outside those terms, it is because I believe doing so is a slap in the face to the people who worked so hard to put an end to white people making snap judgements about people based on their skin color.

Huck said...

Eric - First, as this comment thread approaches it's natural shelf life, let me thank you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking comments. I'm grateful that you take the time to offer up your comments here. Even though we go back and forth, sometimes, it seems, rehashing the same countervailing points in different ways, I always immensely enjoy the exchange. Keeps me thinking! And re-thinking! So, again, thanks. Now ... you write:

"Just don't complain if the job (or the sale) goes to somebody who deals with the prospective employer (or client) in terms of THEIR cultural attributes, because that person might be fairly perceived as being the better communicator (because we all understand things best within the context of our own cultural associations)."

But doesn't this essentially amount to a kind of culure-based, if not race-based, policy of sorts? You are hiring someone precisely because of his or her ability to cater to a particular culture and not because of his or her ability to perform the task well. It strikes me as preferential hiring on the basis of some kind of non-merit-based, culturally/ethnically determined criteria. But even still, all other things being equal between two competing candidates for such a job, I'd say that this hiring criteria is not necessarily a bad thing. It makes marketplace sense and also validates the importance of race/ethnicity and corresponding culture to meaning. It avoids trying to homogenize black culture to a dominant non-black context, just as much as it avoids trying to homogenize Okie culture to a dominant non-Okie context.

"if you operate within a group of people while rejecting their social values, your ability to effectively interact and communicate with that group will be hampered."

I think the above comment illustrates the crux of our differences. You assume that by being oneself, whatever that means, while operating within a group of people who may possess different social values, necessarily implies a rejection of the group's values. I think that takes it one step to far. In fact, it means no such thing. Just because I'm a vegetarian in a group of meat eaters doesn't mean I reject the value of eating meat for meat eaters. It just means that I don't eat meat. In essence, expressing one's identity doesn't mean rejecting or diminishing the identities of others. The thing that I'm trying to point out here is that the problem resides in the reactionary defensiveness some people express when confronted with difference, as if the simple expression of that difference is somehow a rejection of what is culturally important to them. What I would like is for people to be more embracing of that difference (and less judgmental because of it), to get beyond the calls for homogeneity and to accept harmony within heterogeneity.

"I just refuse to consider it as anything but a superficial quality in and of itself. I can't tell anything about the quality, character, or even the cultural identity of a person based solely on the color of their skin or the ethnicity of their parents. If I seem obstinate in my unwillingness to discuss race outside those terms, it is because I believe doing so is a slap in the face to the people who worked so hard to put an end to white people making snap judgements about people based on their skin color."

I'm not suggesting that including race in discussions of identity and meaning is asking for the practice of racism (i.e. judging people on skin-color alone). I'm certainly not advocating snap judgments by anyone -- black, brown, or white -- about other races. What I'm suggesting is that if someone associates his or her race with particular cultural meaning that doesn't discriminate against others on the basis of race, it is respectful and appropriate to value that meaning -- even if we don't or can't share it. It is not a question of judging the character of someone because they behave in ways consistent with either "black" or "white" or "latino" or "asian" cultural or ethnic ethos, but simply recognizing that race has meaning to character and then trying to acknowledge that meaning. You may consider race to be a superficial quality in and of itself. And considering race (i.e. skin-color) "in and of itself," I'd agree with you. But you certainly must know that, except in the realm of abstraction, race doesn't (can't) exist in and of itself. It is a component of identity that cannot simply be ignored and removed from history and context and culture. There is nothing inherently wrong in recognizing this, as long as we work towards not allowing this to be used as a basis for race-based discrimination.

Cynthia said...

We can stop talking about race when employers are not discriminating based on race. I think we can all agree that racial discourse based on phenotype and essentializing is ludicrous, but on the ground, this is still a very real practice.

And, btw, Eric, if you did business in Mexico, adopting the customs of Mexico would mean learning different dialects of Spanish based in different regions of Mexico and a few indigenous languages as well. And if you did business in Mexico, it might do you some good to know Argentine, Chilean, and other dialects of Spanish. Oh, and some Portuguese would also do you some good. Otherwise, you really wouldn't have an edge as a business owner.

Eric said...

"Even though we go back and forth, sometimes, it seems, rehashing the same countervailing points in different ways, I always immensely enjoy the exchange."

I do too, even if they sometimes give me a headache!

"But doesn't this essentially amount to a kind of culure-based, if not race-based, policy of sorts?"

Only if preference is given to the cultural aspects over ability. My point was only that, all other things being equal, the person who can transmit a quantum of information within the cultural context of the recipient is the better communicator, even if the communicator is imitating a culture that is non-native to them.

"It avoids trying to homogenize black culture to a dominant non-black context, just as much as it avoids trying to homogenize Okie culture to a dominant non-Okie context."

Yes, as I said, there is no problem with multiple cultures existing and interacing within society. I just think we also need, to some degree, a central cultural landscape that we can all engage.

"You assume that by being oneself, whatever that means, while operating within a group of people who may possess different social values, necessarily implies a rejection of the group's values."

I think it does imply that. Our theoretical vegitarian DOES reject the value of having meat in his diet. Here's a great example that I've actually witnessed before: In an office environment, maybe a group wants to go to the steakhouse for a lunch meeting. Some considerate person is going to ask, "What about Fred? Isn't he a vegetarian?" Now a decision has to be made. Do you go to the steak house anyway, invite Fred, and let him just eat salad? Do you not invite Fred? Do you pick another place to eat, causing animosity between Fred and the majority who wanted steak? Probably, you do the sensible thing and just say, "Hey Fred, we're going to the steakhouse for lunch to discuss next month's marketing plan, you want to come?" Maybe Fred doesn't want to go to the steakhouse because he finds the smell of cooking meat to be offensive, so he passes, and misses out on an important opportunity to gain information or give input (yes, I know... nothing that substantial has ever happened in the history of lunch meetings, but this could be the one).
Fred's rejection of of meat can cause a social tension that works against Fred. This doesn't mean there is anything wrong with Fred's vegetarianism, or that he should conform to the group and eat meat, but it does mean there may be opportunity costs associated with engaging in behaviors outside the cultural norm of his environment.

"What I would like is for people to be more embracing of that difference (and less judgmental because of it), to get beyond the calls for homogeneity and to accept harmony within heterogeneity."

I agree (again, only to a certain extent) but would say that heterogeneity can only truly exist when these cultural traits are culturally seperated. When they are embraced by another grup, they become part of that groups culture. For instance, the word "gracias" has become homogenized in American culture, it no longer belongs exclusively to the latino community. If somebody does me a favor, I can use "gracias" or "thank you" without causing even a hint of social tension or confusion. However, if I use the Creek word of thanks (mvto), I am identifying an association with a different non-mainstream cultural group, and I should be aware of the fact that there may be social consequences, however minute. I am effectively ASKING to be be identified as culturally different from the person I am addressing, so I can't very well blame them for treating me as such.

"[race] is a component of identity that cannot simply be ignored and removed from history and context and culture."

Again, we just disagree here. If race can't be ignored, then I should be able to make cultural associations about a person simply by looking at them and identfying their racial characteristics. Even a cursory glance at the shades and styles of my daugther's first grade classmates tells me that this would be impossible.

Eric said...

cynthia,

Your point about Mexico is well taken. In fact, we do a tiny bit of business in both Mexico and Columbia, and it is precicesly our lack of cultural familiarity in those regions that prevents us from being able to do more. However, I'm not willing to accuse people in those countries of being racist because they aren't more accomodating to my business.

Eric said...

One of these days, Huck, you will stumble upon a topic that we are in complete agreement over. I know it will happen!

I have been taking an interest in the topic of microcredit and microfinance lately. It strikes me as an area where conservative and liberal ideas can succesfully synergize and do some good for the truly impoverished people of the world. I'd be interested in reading your thoughts on the topic sometime.

Huck said...

eric - I think I'll let our discussion on race and identity settle and percolate some, giving it (and my brain) a rest. But I'll happily pick up on the microcredit and microfinance topic. I am a very big supporter of microcredit and microfinance programs. So, if you are an advocate, you can count us as agreeable on the point!