Sunday, August 11, 2019

On the "r" word.

I expect I'll get in trouble for this post.


This past week, Toni Morrison died at the age of 88. She was one of my favorite authors. When I was in grad school, I wrote a paper about her -- which in no way makes me an expert, but it did give me an enduring appreciation for her work. 

Morrison was a major voice in American literature. The power of her prose was strongest when describing and explaining what we might call the black experience -- including the effects on blacks of racism, as in The Bluest Eye, and of the institution of slavery, as in Beloved.

I was reading a whole bunch of hyphenated-American literature back then: among them, Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits, Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, and Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (which he later adapted into the screenplay for Smoke Signals, a movie I highly recommmend). All of these books are magic realism, and so too is Beloved. And in all of them except Allende's book, racism plays a role.

I grew up with the classical definition of racism -- which, according to Merriam-Webster, is:
1 : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
2a : a doctrine or political program based on the assumption of racism and designed to execute its principles
b : a political or social system founded on racism
3 : racial prejudice or discrimination
But the "r" word has gotten thrown around a lot in recent years, to the point where it almost means anything the writer or speaker wants it to mean. I know English is a living language and the meanings of words change -- but too often, over the years, racism as a term has been co-opted and redefined to benefit a particular political agenda. 

Ten or twenty years ago, I was running into conservatives who would call me out for my support of things like diversity policies in the college admissions process and accuse me of reverse racism -- of favoring other races over my own, to the point of advocating discrimination against whites. At the time, I filed their opinions under Things that make you go "Huh?" Nowadays, it appears conservatives have shortened the term to just racism, which is really confusing to those of us who are used to hewing to the dictionary definition of the word. Of course, for folks who like to keep people they think of as smartass liberals off-balance, that obfuscation is part of the charm.

Lately I've been seeing a similar but opposite co-opting of the word on the left. Many African-Americans correctly maintain that many white people don't understand or acknowledge the privilege their pale skin affords them in our society. But then some make a sweeping generalization and say all whites fall into that category -- that is, no white person anywhere understands or acknowledges their white privilege. And then some black folks go even further and say all whites, by definition, are racists.

That seems like an unfair generalization -- particularly when racist has, for years, been an insult. But pointing that out opens me to a charge of trying to move the focus back to me and my experience as a white person, which is not my aim at all. And let me make it explicitly clear that I am not equating this usage of racism with the pretzel logic conservatives employ when they use the word.

But we can all agree, I think, that sweeping generalizations are almost always wrong. I think we can all agree as well that the word racist has historically been considered an insult. If you want to keep your allies on your side, insulting them is not a winning strategy.

Certainly, there are racist white people out there who Just Don't Get It, like the interviewer in this video of Toni Morrison that went viral in the days following her death. But not all of us are like that woman. We get where you're coming from. We support you. Please don't run us off.

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These moments of bloggy strategy have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.


3 comments:

Yvonne Hertzberger said...

To say that ALL WHITES are racist is just as racist as any generalized derogatory comment about any group. Just that statement alone makes the speaker racist. Just to throw my hat into the ring I take "racist" to mean any generalized, prejudiced belief about another group - which makes ALL of us racist.

Lynne Cantwell said...

All of us have the capacity to be racist, definitely. Folks who subscribe to the belief that humans have an innate need to group everyone into in-groups and out-groups - us vs. them, - would argue that racism follows directly. But a lot of folks have been fighting against that tendency or innate drive. To lump those folks in with the suspicious and scared who haven't tried at all is unfair.

Yvonne Hertzberger said...

I agree that we must not lump all of us in the same group. I just think we all need to do our best to be aware of our prejudices and to fight them with facts. And the only way to do that it to first admit that we all have those prejudices. I like to think that I am one of those who strives to do that - as are many others. Together we will make this world a better place.