Saturday, December 12, 2009

What Constitutes Racism?

I have once again been bantering with some conservatives over at Right Wing News about the subject of race and racism. No need to get into the specific details of the conversation, but my discussion over there did cause me to ponder a hypothetical situation related to race and I do want to throw out a couple of questions for readers of The Huck Upchuck to hear what you have to say.

Here's the hypthetical (which is not unimaginable and probably, in fact, happens with some regularity): You are a white person who is out shopping for a Barbie doll for a little white girl in your family (let's say granddaughter, daughter, niece, or cousin). You know for certain that this little girl really wants a Barbie doll, and you will not go home without one. You arrive at the local department store to find that all the white Barbie dolls have been sold, but there are still a few black Barbie dolls on the shelves.

Here's the question, in two parts: (1) Do you grab a black Barbie doll and purchase this as your gift, or do you head back to the car and head over to another department store in search of a white Barbie doll? (2) If you decide to pass on the black Barbie doll and search elsewhere for a white Barbie doll, does that make you a racist?

I have my own thoughts and answers, but I'm gonna sit on them a bit so that I can hear from you first.


Kris said...

Actually, Ken and I were faced with a rather similar dillema to this one many years ago.

We were shopping for our niece who was about 9 or 10 at the time, and who is mixed race. We knew she wanted a Barbie, and we got to the store and realized we didn't know if we should get the black Barbie or the White Barbie.

So we called my sister who asked my niece who it turned out wanted the white Barbie. (Although in the end it didn't really matter as her younger brother blew it up with a firecracker)

Editilla~New Orleans Ladder said...

Ok then, I'm just as upset that there are no White Frog Princess Dolls????
What am I gonna tell my little girl? "Sorry honey, God didn't make any White Frog Princesses." And, no honey God doesn't do genitalia either.

Alright, a bit extreme, perhaps. But then again, are you talking about one of the ugliest false stereotypes marketed on women since the Virgin Birth as a vehicle of Racial Conciliation?

I would try to find out which Black folks purchased the White Barbie and attempt a trade?
You are working on the false assumption (common for fathers) that this will be the only Barbie. Sorry, but there is only a "first" Barbie, of many to follow, then there's the cars and jeeps, then you're going to have to take out a 2nd mortgage for the Beach House.

So yeah, I'd get my girl the Black Barbie, and tell her Santa knows there will be more Barbies in the future if she's a Good Girl. But if she continues to be a Bad Girl then Santa will bring her nothing but Tiger Woods Dolls since there are Tons of them left on the shelves at 2/1 discounts.

Editilla~New Orleans Ladder said...

'Course then there's...

Huck said...

Editilla - Loved the Tiger Woods doll comment. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. But, I'm still curious to know if you think passing on the black Barbie in search of a white Barbie would constitute racism.

Editilla~New Orleans Ladder said...

Yes, of course it would constitute racism, just as buying the Black Barbie to counter the by-pass-guilt would also constitute racism. And btw, she is not even a Black Barbie but more of a Mild Chocolate Barbie. Ain't nothing Affrodite about this doll.

But if you want to just get your daughter any Barbie and start her on the road to Bulimia then I can't see where Racism really rates that high honestly on the scale of Grotesque Societal Stereotypes. If you really want to get racial let's consider Barbie as the Ubber Doll, blond hair blue eyes. Nazi Barbie. Barbie from Brazil.

No one looks like Barbie --that is the point. Now, to Barbie or not to Barbie, that is the question.
Barbie is the Stepford Teen no matter what Color you want to paint her.

I just want to know why the first Disney Fantasy set in America is in New Orleans with a Black Princess, and why those dolls aren't genitalonomically (sorry) correct neither? Nobody's complaining about that. Have you tried finding a White Frog Princess Doll???? HA! Good Luck!

Now don't get me started on Ken Dolls and same sex tea parties.

Huck said...

Thanks, Editilla. As usual, an inspired comment. We don't fully agree, but I appreciate the full richness of your opinion! I think my mistake here was to focus on the Barbie. I agree with you in terms of the whole question of the Grotesque Social Stereotype of the bulimic feminine ideal. But I should say that the type of doll is not that relevant. I'm just trying to get at whether there is such a thing as a black cultural identity and, if so, whether it is racist to acknowledge that and recognize it in some way as something that either does or does not apply to individuals depending on whether they share the commonality of race behind it.

Eric said...

Here's what I'd say: Going out of your way to buy a white doll over a black doll (or viceversa) might indeed be a form of racism, but only in the same way that, say, a man flirting with a woman who is not his wife is a form of adultery. In other words, if that's the worst form of racism we have to contend with in America, then racism isn't nearly as nefarious a concept as it used to be.

mominem said...

A phrase I sometimes see in Black commentary is "someone who looks like me", referring to another Black person. Is that racist?

If You buy the White Barbie, What about a black Ken?

Huck said...

Kris, Eric, Editilla, mominem, et. al., here's what I think. I think we have defined racism so broadly in this country that simply recognizing that race has meaning to identity has come to be defined as racism. I don't accept that. Pretty soon, just recognizing that there are different races is going to be considered racist. I prefer to define racism more precisely as an act or an attitude of wilful denigration of another person, or the denial of access to opportunity to another person, strictly on the basis of race. I don't see acknowledging the importance of race to one's identity as necessarily racist. It could be racist if that recognition of meaning is wrapped up in the denigration of others of different races; but simply saying that race is meaningful to identity in itself is not enough to constitute racism.

I guess another parallel might be to look at gender as it relates to sexism. Acknowledging that men, as well as women, can bond over a shared meaning of gender identity is not to say that either men or women are demeaning one another in doing so.

Anyway, I fear that the discussion of race and racism in our society has become so polarized that we have gotten to the point where we have to try to pretend to have erased race (and thus whatever race means) along with racism. And that just strikes me as not only impossible, but I'd even say unadvisable.

Editilla~New Orleans Ladder said...

Wow, Huck. That was solid.
OK, so how about the way we treated the Irish in this country, or even in New Orleans building the canals?

I resonate more with your descriptions of racism as equally applicable to socio-economic status, to wit: the tracks only separated people by income before color. I stand with your repugnance, though perchance from a different view. I grew up in the MS Delta. There was a day when living on one side or the other of those tracks meant whether you went to college or not. Didn't matter what color you were, though back then Blacks were segregated even further from even a place next to the tracks.
But the track is what mattered most...and who were "one's people".

Would you consider population increase among a set group as a vector of Racial or Religious or Educated identity?

I'm loving this conversation because we at this moment have our armies of mixed American Blood spilling up into the middle of a shit bucket of tracks and people's "people" on the other side of our world. Afghanistan is the Forking Track of Empires! HA! And btw they make Barbies in Pakistan too!

Julie P said...

As the mom of a Guatemalan daughter I'd like to see more dolls of color period - try finding a doll with non-white skin that doesn't have curly or kinky black hair. Now that is a challenge.
As usual I have to agree with Jimmy about the racism definition, I think its important to identify color and race as part of our individual identity and that recoginizing it as a characteristic of who we are and how we are different is not in my opinion racism.

eric said...

Huck, I agree to some extent with your definition here, but I think we need to draw a clearer distinciton between 'race' and 'culture'.

To me, if your identity is wrapped up in physical racial characteristics (for instance, a lot of Native Americans take pride in having thick, shiny, long black hair), that's fine. I think such identity associations are a bit vain and unserious, but plenty of people have non-racial physical identity markers that are equally vain and unserious, so I'm not going to begrudge anyone their vanities. But if your sense of identity is more wrapped up in, say, types of music or types of food or an affection for certain literature or artistic aesthetics that are associated with your race... that is cultural, and being discriminated against for THOSE factors, while perhaps improper, is not at all the same as racism.

To me, the main factor in determining racism is: is the discrimination based on something you have any control over?

Does that make sense?

Huck said...

Eric - All good points and it makes perfect sense. I agree. Where I would perhaps go a step farther is in claiming that race and culture are sometimes indistinguisable, for without one, the other cannot exist. What some people have done is, in their efforts to erase race, to also advocate in many instances for the elimination of culture, too. It's throwing the baby out with the bathwater. This is where I come in with my view that embracing what you would call the "cultural" identity that is intractibly wrapped up in race is not inherently bad, as long as that culture doesn't demean or unfairly exclude because of race. This gets me to what you define as the main factor in determining racism: discrimination based on something you have no control over. I agree with this to a point, but I think it does need more specificity because I can think of instances that such "discrimination" occurs, but which I would not consider racism. For instance, is it de facto racist for black kids whose cultural links tied to race make it such that they tend to congregate at the same school lunch table? Likewise, it is sexist that men form an all-male carnival crew (like one I belong to, by the way) or for women to have their female-only marching dance clubs (as some of my female colleagues and graduate students belong to)? Here we essentially have a kind of discrimination based on an immutable characteristic (race or gender). But I'd say you'd have to have something else present for such discrimination to constitute racism or sexism. And that would be either the denigration of the dignity of the human being or a denial of access to opportunity because of race or gender.

Eric said...

"But I'd say you'd have to have something else present for such discrimination to constitute racism or sexism."

I sort of disagree... Whle it depends on how formal the distinction is, I think an exclusively male carnival crew IS sexist, it's just a kind of sexism that a plurality of people can find some redeeming value in.

If a female seriously inquired about being part of your carnival crew, and you refused to let her based solely on the reason that you only allow men to do it, then she would have every right to be offended and accuse you of engaging in a sexist practice that is inherently unfair. My argument is simply that, when it comes to assembling carnival crews, you have a right to be unfair if that unfairness contributes to your overall hapiness.

Huck said...

I still think you may be defining racism and sexism in such a way that allows for any kind of discrimination that someone finds unfair to fit this definition. By that measure, I could think Victoria's Secret is sexist because it doesn't sell an equal amount of fancy men's undergarments, which I, personally, might find unfair. At some point, Eric, the argument becomes absurd and the functional definition of sexism becomes meaningless. On the unfairness angle of the all-male carnival crew, I agree. But unfairness is different than unjustness. It may not be fair that women just don't have the physical capabilities of making the cut in the NFL, but it's not unjust that they don't. It may be unfair that men can't bear children, but it's not unjust that they can't. It may be unfair that I sunburn (and suffer accordingly) more quickly and readily than black people, but it's not unjust. Just because some things in life are unfair because we are limited (or privileged) by an immutable characteristic, doesn't necessarily mean that it constitutes an injustice. I think we need to be clearer in our definitions of racism and sexism that recognize this distinction and that can differentiate when a discrimination rises to the level of an injustice, and not just to the level of an unfairness. I grant that this may be difficult to do and that there are certainly lots of sticky, gray areas between the notions of unfairness and injustice, but I think we have to make the effort to identify such distinctions, otherwise the pernicious "isms" of our world (racism, sexism, ageism, etc.) become essentially and functionally meaningless.

Eric said...

"At some point, Eric, the argument becomes absurd and the functional definition of sexism becomes meaningless."

I think the definition remains even when the functional outcome is absurd, but I do agree with you that it is important to define distinctions to describe the nuances in our definitions that make them functional and useful.

But that is a controversial statement, even among conservatives, because what I am ultimately arguing (and this matches how I read the gist of your argument) is that some forms of racism and sexism are OK, or at least not unjust.

What I'd warn against is trying to say that these instances represent something else besides racism or sexism, solely because we are uncomfortable with that term. The correct way of looking at it, IMHO, is to say that there are forms "x-ism" that are traditionally accepted in society (and these vary from culture to culture).

Here's a good 'for instance' that I've been thinking about as we discuss this: At Christmas and Thanksgiving dinner with my mom's side of the family, the men traditionally fill their plates first, and all sit down together to eat. With my wife's Native American family, the tradition is for people to line up according to age (elders first, kids last, regardless of sex), and people tend to sit wherever they want. With my dad's family, it doesn't matter at all... first come, first serve.

Now, out of all of these traditions, I'd say my dad's side of the family displays the least amount of ageism, racism, or sexism. The other sides all have some degree of inate "x-ism" built in built into their traditions, but those don't necessarily equate to injustice (or, if there is injustice there, those respective groups have deemed it to be insignificant enough to warrant changing their traditions).
But the "x-isms" do exist, and are even quite noticable in each situation.