Joanna Schroeder wants us to face the truth about the type of prejudices we all carry inside of ourselves, and try to figure out how to combat them.
I know racism is alive and well in America, and yet I don’t believe that the majority of people in our society consciously want to be racists. I don’t even think John Derbyshire wants to be a racist, and yet he clearly is.
So how is racism still so pervasive? Clearly we are doing things unconsciously that propagate racism. But how do we address people on behaviors that they don’t even know they’re doing? It feels like an unsurmountable problem, a Catch-22: We want to stop racism, but we don’t believe we’re racists, so we don’t feel responsible for actually being the ones to stop it.
The first thing we need to think about is why racism still exists. And I just read a great description of how racism survives, even when most people outwardly condemn it. It’s from Lindy West over at Jezebel in her piece A Complete Guide to Hipster Racism:
“People benefit from racism—hell, I benefit from it every day—and things that benefit powerful people don’t just suddenly get “fixed” and disappear because Halle Berry won an Oscar or whatever. Modern racism lives in entrenched de facto inequalities, in coded language about “work ethic” and “states’ rights,” in silent negative spaces like absence and invisibility, and in Newt Gingrich’s hair. And in irony.”
We walk around believing that because slavery is illegal, and has been for some time, that racism is gone. I don’t know anyone in the Klan. No one I know would even hang a Confederate flag (though they might in the town where I grew up). Clearly our racism is manifested in some very subtle ways. Of course, racism comes out in incredibly obvious ways, too, but in this case, I really just want to look at how well-intentioned people are propagating racist attitudes.
Now, we all have prejudices. I’ve written before about how I’m suspicious of people who love cats. I think cats are cute, but I don’t understand letting an animal shit in your house, even if it’s in a box of dirt (that you buy at the grocery store?). I barely let my family shit in my house, I’d prefer they all wait until they’re at school or at work. But I digress… Anyway, this is my own freaky hang-up. It’s a prejudice. I pre-judge cat-lovers as strange. It’s terrible, I’m a jerk for doing it. But I can’t help it. So I remind myself when I meet a cat-lover (Oliver Bateman I’m talking about you) that cats are awesome, and not everyone is as weird as me.
Here at The Good Men Project we’ve been trying to tackle the prejudices society holds against men. Society prejudges men by thinking they aren’t nurturing parents, that they aren’t trustworthy care-givers, that they’re violent, that they’re sex-crazed, that they are emotionally unavailable, that they aren’t emotionally affected by sexual or domestic abuse the way women are. Challenging notions about masculinity can feel like an uphill battle, because a lot of people feel that men shouldn’t receive the sort of sensitivity that every other segment of the population does. But the truth is, men are incredibly diverse and often suffer under people’s prejudices as well.
When it comes to race, we all carry some prejudices. We’ve grown up in a racist society, we simply cannot help but absorb some of those messages. I have messed-up messages worming around in my head about about almost every race and nationality I can come up with, including white people. Especially Europeans, i.e. Dutch people are cheap, French are snobs, Belgians are ugly, Italians are over-sexed, Serbs are violent… (I’m Dutch and my husband is a Serb so we’re screwed).
The work of being a good person is to question oneself and the traditional ways of thinking that have created these fallacies in our minds. The trick is to watch the thought come into your mind, and to challenge it each and every time. I meet a French person, I think snob. And then I think, Shut up, sub-conscious, you’re being prejudiced. Give Jean-Pierre a chance. And boom! I’ve taken the first step toward exploding my internal prejudices.
This doesn’t mean that I’m forcing myself to think Jean-Pierre is perfect, but it means I’m going to do my best to see him as an individual, rather than a member of a group that my little diseased brain has a pre-conceived notion about. I remind myself that although Loony Toons taught me weird things about French accents (Pepe Le Pue?), it’s just an accent. It means nothing about a person. This little internal monologue works pretty well, though I’m sure I still screw up sometimes. Who doesn’t?
So I couldn’t help but laugh (and cry inside, a bit) when I read Lindy West’s list of ways in which Hipsters are being racist in their everyday language and actions. And I want to note for the record that I do not fully consider myself a Hipster, as I do not shop Vintage or listen to The Shins. But I will smugly admit to the fact that I own the exact pair of sunglasses the Klan-Hipster in the Jezebel graphic wears, and I ride a skateboard in public. Oh, and my husband has a neck-beard and wears dark-rimmed eyeglasses. As do I (the glasses, not the neck-beard).
Now that we’re all clear, here are my favorites of West’s main points, synopsized. You’ll have to cruise over there to read the whole thing:
#1: “Tee-Hee, Aren’t I Adorable?” – Basically she asserts that when cutesy little white girls who grew up on the Upper West Side or in Grosse Pointe or Beverly Hills flash gang signs and talk about how “ghetto” something they like is, they’re being racists. Why? Let’s let West explain what’s actually being said when a blonde thing like me uses a hashtag like #thuglife:
“See, it’s hilarious, because we aren’t thugs—we are darling girls, and real thugs are black people who do crime!”
For the record, I’ve never used the hashtag #thuglife. First, I don’t get hashtags at all. Second, I agree with West. It’s obnoxious and presumptuous. I get it that us Hipsters think we’re making fun of ourselves when we make a joke like this, but there’s a sinister underbelly to the joke—the idea that we’re above thug life, that we’re above the ghetto. Mostly because we’re white. But also because the people in the ghetto are others and we are not like them in any way.
I also really dug West’s Point #3: “Ummm, I’m a Writer and I’m Trying to Write in Here!”… It has to do with the righteous indignation some white people have over not being “able” to use the N-word in their writing or language. This is something that has always perplexed me. I hear people say, “Black people can say the N-word, but I can’t? Why not?”
It seems obvious to me why you cannot use the N-word, but somehow this is a hard thing for me to answer. Despite trying probably a dozen times, I’ve never quite found the right words to explain it. But West nails it:
It’s all tied up with the deliberately obtuse people who conflate “freedom of speech” with “immunity from criticism.” You “can” say the n-word. Go ahead and say it if you want, Skrillex. And I will go ahead and give you the world’s most sidewaysiest eyeball forever. Because it hurts people. Why do you want to hurt people?
Nailed it. Because it hurts people. You have a lot of words at your disposal, friends. You don’t need that one.
And as far as your jokes where you say things like “I’m going full-on Heeb here,” or “I’m Negro Tan,” and then you laugh because it’s clear you’re actually not an anti-Semite or a racist, so it’s funny… Well it’s not funny. It’s actually racist! And by saying it, you actually sound like a racist!
And here is where West verbalizes something we all know (or should know) about what makes good comedy funny:
People in positions of power simply cannot make jokes at the expense of the powerless. That’s why, at a company party, you never have a roast where the CEO is roasting the janitor (“Isn’t it funny how Steve can barely feed his family? This guy knows what I’m talking about!” [points to other janitor]).
While I’m not sure “powerless” is the exact right word, I would say the message is true. White people are still in power in this country. You know that little thought experiment: “Name ten very wealthy black people off the top of your head who don’t work in sports or entertainment.” No, seriously, try it right now.
It doesn’t matter who you think you are inside, the world gleans its understanding of who you are by what you say and what you do. Your language defines you, and what’s worse, the language you use defines us as a culture. And I really don’t want our culture defined like that. I know I’m not the boss of all (or any) white people, but seriously, knock that shit off.
Let’s watch our words, friends. They matter. And let’s try to keep an eye on our thoughts while we’re at it, too. Oh, and tell me when I’m wrong and I’m screwing something up. As I said, I’m a product of this culture, too, and I hope you’ll all hold me responsible for doing better every day. Seems to me the best way we can heal all these wounds is by holding one another accountable for doing better.
Another note that is tangentially related: Don’t jokingly call me “bitch” or “whore” or “slut” either. I don’t dig that. That is some Hipster shit that needs to end right now.
Image of a Hipster cat in a hoodie courtesy of penguino.
Image of me in ironically oversized Hipster sunglasses with Hipster road rash from falling off my Hipster skateboard courtesy of myself.