Easy fascism and romance novels

One thing that is hard for my students to understand is that fascism was (and is) much more normal and widespread than you might think. It appeals to certain surprisingly widespread notions, especially that some people are simply born to be leaders (because of their blood) and we should put all political power in the hands of one of those people.

Elsewhere I’ve written about antisemitism and inter-war thrillers, and here I’ll just give some examples from a fairly banal inter-war romance, D.E. Stevenson’s The Baker’s Daughter (1938).

I liked Stevenson’s Miss Buncle series, so I have nothing against the author (in fact, I know nothing about the author), and my point isn’t that Stevenson is bad–it’s about how normal various notions were that were useful to fascism.

The novel concerns a charming young woman who impulsively decides to keep house for a woman and her artist husband. Sue Pringle is a thoroughly attractive protagonist, with whom the reader is supposed to identify, and she’s a Franco supporter (mentioned twice), her drifting brother is transformed by joining the Army, and the novel completely endorses the notion of the purity of race/entitlement.

(Spoiler alert–but if you haven’t figured this out by about page 29, you don’t know the romance genre)

Sue and the artist fall in love, but there appears to be a problem that in that he runs among the elite, and she is descended from shopkeepers. No, it isn’t a problem! She is the illegitimate daughter of an upper class Admiral!

That’s a common plot point in early 20th century and late 19th century novels, so common that the importance of it can go un-noticed–she was raised by a shopkeeper, as was her mother. The rightness of her marrying into the upper class is settled by blood. A racist notion.

A lot of novels look as though they are critiquing racist notions about the heritability of aristocratic values by showing that an apparently “common” person can have better values than (or just as good as) the elite, but, by the moment of reveal when the hero/ine turns out to have the right blood, they are reinforcing the notions that “blood will tell.”

And then there’s this–when the hero is painting her:

“For instance, thought Darnay [the hero], we may not admire the golden skin and slant eyes of the pure Mongol, but who can dare to say that the Mongol has no beauty of his own? If we do not believe that purity of race is beauty then we deny God and God’s hand in our making–in the making of the races of the world.” (71)

That wasn’t 1938 mainstream anthropology, by the way. Mainstream anthropology was so critical of the notion of race (and especially purity of race) by the teens that racists had to form a new discipline (eugenics). Even biology had a lot of critiques of the notion of race. This was eugenics, not anthropology, and candy to Nazis, American segregationists, and fascists of various stripes.

I’m not saying that Stevenson was a fascist, or that people who like the book are fascists and racist and evil. I’m saying that the basic premises of fascism were (and are) so widespread that they were/are un-noticed.

A racist fascist reading this book would find it confirming–someone neither racist nor fascist would probably not even notice those aspects of the book. Ideology is always about the narratives we tell about causation–what causes some people to be better than others? If we say that blood causes some people to be better than others, then we will be comfortable with racist policies. If someone is in a world in which the dominant narratives all say it’s about blood, that person is likely to find racist policies normal and unremarkable.

Persuasion, as Kenneth Burke said, is about repetition. As Paul Ricoeur said, is about narrative–the stories we tell.

No one will be suddenly converted to racist/fascist ideologies by reading this charming romance. That isn’t my point. What’s important about this book is that it isn’t important. It’s just a romance.

[Image from here: https://paperbackrevolution.wordpress.com/2016/04/04/collins-white-circle-in-australia/fn-stevenson-miss-bun-the-bakers-daughter/]

It isn’t about a person being racist; it’s about doing something racist

When I was wandering around pro-Trump pages and groups prior to the election, I found a large number of people who said, “I don’t like being called racist, and so I’m voting for Trump.”

While I do believe that all racists voted for Trump, I don’t think all Trump voters were racist. And, really, whether they are racist or not doesn’t matter as much as whether we can talk about racism rather than racists. What’s interesting about that argument is that it isn’t just a pro-Trump argument–not all the people who object to being called racist voted for Trump after all–but why people would vote for someone with an obvious record of very racist statements and actions because they themselves feel unjustly accused of racism.

And, so, really, this is about how to talk about racist statements and actions.

Sure, some of the people who come out regularly to support Trump’s racists statements, are avowedly racist—the neo-Nazis who support Trump wholeheartedly [1].  But I want to talk about supporters who aren’t Nazis, don’t like Nazis, and don’t like being called Nazi (or racist).

Being a racist person in our culture (especially media) is associated with all sorts of horrible things—with being vicious, immoral, evil. If you think in terms of good and evil being absolute binaries—something is either good, or it is entirely evil–and you think of racism as evil, then saying that someone is racist is telling them they are entirely evil. And their response is, quite reasonably, they aren’t entirely evil. In fact, they’re good people because they think racism is evil.

This whole situation is complicated because of how racism is a natural out-growth of three conventional ways of thinking—what sociologists call in-group favoritism, what social psychologists call “faith in group entativity,” and what cognitive psychologists call “confirmation bias.”

In-group favoritism

We tend to think in terms of “people like us” and “people not like us.” And, completely unconsciously, we tend to think that “people like us” (the in-group) is better. So, if an in-group member does the same thing as an out-group member, we’ll explain them differently. The in-group member did it because of being a good person (if it’s a good thing), and an out-group member did it for bad reasons.

If I steal a parking place from you, and I appear to be in-group, you’ll either explain my behavior (she was in a rush, she didn’t see me) or make me not in-group (she looks like an LSU fan). There are all sorts of things that factor into your decision as to whether I’m in- or out-group—what bumper stickers do I have on my car, what kind of car am I driving, how am I dressed, what race/ethnicity am I. Racism is simply the tendency to make race, completely unconsciously, one of those factors. Being racist doesn’t make you evil; it makes you human. [2]

If you’re twitchy about people who appear to you to be transgender, and I am otherwise entirely in-group, you might be slightly more hostile in your interpretation of why I took the place than if I were in-group in terms of your ideas about gender, but still less hostile than if I were out-group in every way (a liberal transgender LSU fan). But you would never think, “Oh, I liked that person till I thought gender was not an issue, and now I don’t.” Biases happen in moments of perception—it’s not easy to see when we’re being biased.

People think of racism as a self-aware pure hostility to every member of every other “race.” If that’s what racism is, then you couldn’t do it without knowing, and you couldn’t be friends with anyone of other races, and you would never do anything kind to any member of any other race. The kind of people who support Trump think that’s what it means to be racist—to hate every member of every other race, and so they think they’re being accused of being like that. And so they’re mad. And, if someone in their in-group (especially a person they see as representing their in-group publicly) says something that might be racist, they’ll find ways of excusing it, largely on the grounds that “He isn’t racist, so he can’t have said something racist.”

But that has never been what racism is—it’s never been pure hostility to every other race. Let’s start with the premise that genocide is racist—all advocates of genocide, or race-based slavery, could think of members of other races for whom they had affection. Adolf Eichmann, who relentlessly pursued the eradication of European Jews, emphasized that he had Jewish friends (and he did). Slaveholders talked about their affection for some slaves, advocates of segregation claimed that their stance came from concern for non-whites (see Bilbo’s introduction to his racist book arguing for getting all African Americans out of America, or David Duke, an actual Nazi, talking about his affection for his African-American maid).

So, simply having kind feelings toward people of other races doesn’t make us not-racist. Racism isn’t about feelings that individuals have for others.

In our culture racism is bad, and we have a hard time thinking of acts as bad without immediately jumping to the actor being equally bad. That was a complicated sentence. Here’s what I mean: I spend a lot of time in the courses where racism comes up (courses on racism, free speech, demagoguery, going to war, Hitler) and I say that “being racist doesn’t mean a person is evil.” And some students hear me saying that racism is okay, and they’re shocked. And that isn’t what I’m saying. Not-evil people say and do racist things. We all do racist things, and we aren’t all evil.

Racism is very bad, but not every act of racism is equally bad, and the worst kinds of racism are the consequence of institutional practices, that don’t necessarily involve anyone being deliberately hostile to someone else.

Think about this in terms of disability. My campus is really bad for anyone with even mild mobility issues—lots of the larger classroom have stairs such that you can’t get to the stage if you are on a scooter or in a wheelchair (and it would be really difficult on crutches), there aren’t enough ramps or curb cuts around campus, elevators are wonky and small (and there aren’t enough), there are buildings with stairs in the middle of hallways and at most entrances, and some ramps are too steep. The people who designed those buildings didn’t do so because they were trying to make it hard for anyone with disabilities to navigate campus—they didn’t say to themselves, “Wow, I sure hate people with disabilities—I’m going to put a stairway here.” Instead, they were designing at a time when the style was to have entrances have a few steps—the idea is that they look more elegant that way. The architects didn’t think of what it would be like to navigate the building or campus with a mobility disability (or any other kinds, really) because that concern was invisible to them. They didn’t think. So, what they did was bad and discriminatory, but it didn’t come from evil intentions; it came from a lack of thought.

So, culturally, we need to talk about the harms caused by actions, policies, and institutions, and not whether the individuals involved are good or evil. The next time Trump says something racist, we need to stop shifting the stasis to whether he’s racist—what matters is that thing was a racist thing to say. As long as we allow the stasis to shift to whether he is racist, then his PR people can point out a single non-racist thing he did, or some relationship he has with a non-white, or condemn the people who quote him, or some non-white says he’s okay, or point out that he didn’t do something even more racist.  What he says matters more than who he is. If someone comes back with a “Well, it was an unfortunate comment,” then we can point out he’s got a lot of comments like that. He says a lot of racist things, and that matters, not because of what it means about his soul, but because what he says matters.

People want to believe that our group is basically good, and we are drawn to someone who tells us that. When people are told that someone they believe represents the in-group (when they identify with that person) then they feel that they have been accused of being racist, and that means they feel accused of being evil.

I think it would help if we imagined people as more like those architects—not evil, but thoughtless.

And yet there is a moment when you can stop calling the architect unintentionally thoughtless. If an architect has a history of designing buildings that are inaccessible, and it’s pointed out, and they keep doing it, then we can condemn their architecture as being discriminatory—it doesn’t matter if they have a friend in a wheelchair, or don’t make jokes about disabled people. We can say they shouldn’t design any more buildings.

We can say that a person with a long history of racist statements shouldn’t be in a position of decision-making in which race might matter. That isn’t attacking a group, and it isn’t attacking the person who likes Trump; it’s criticizing Trump. (Of course, charismatic leadership makes this complicated.)

Group entitativity

Social psychologists talk about “group entativity”—that is, the degree to which someone thinks about groups as Real Things. For some people, groups are just ways of grouping things that could be grouped in other ways—you might take a group of college students and group them by year, astrological sign, writing skills, major, paper topic. The value of that way of grouping would depend on what you were trying to do. If you were trying to put students together for group writing projects and wanted to make sure that each group was balanced in terms of skill, then grouping them by astrological sign wouldn’t make any sense. It would make more sense to group for diversity of writing skill. If you were going to have student groups work with a research librarian, then grouping by paper topic would probably make the most sense. That way of seeing groups is as functional and pragmatic.

That pragmatic way of thinking about groups makes some people nervous, since they want to see social groups as Real—they want to believe that people in this group are Really Different from people in that group. They believe that all you need to know about someone you can know by inferring their group memberships, and they reason deductively from that—if you’re a woman, you must be bad at sports. (If you’re a woman, and good at sports, they’ll often invoke the No True Scotsman rule.)

Some people, in other words, strongly believe in group entativity. Sometimes they’ll work to make the groups absolutely perfectly distinct—such as prohibiting African Americans from learning to read, so that they could maintain their belief that African Americans aren’t intellectual, or prohibiting Japanese or Jews from owning land, and then condemn them for not being grounded.

People who believe in Real groups often believe that the fundamental Real distinction is between Good and Bad people. So, when you say that someone in their group is racist, they hear you saying that their group is made up of Bad People. And they know that isn’t true, because they know they do good things.

It’s the same problem with hearing someone say that white people have an advantage—some (white) people hear that as saying that they didn’t work at all, or work for anything. They hear that as a claim that white people are lazy. And that means their group is bad.

They hear it that way because, if groups are Really totally different from one another, then either a group earned what it has achieved through good things or it didn’t.

The notion of white privilege also threatens the Just World Hypothesis, which is central to the Prosperity Gospel. So, saying that the playing field isn’t even, and not everyone who succeeds worked harder than anyone who didn’t, threatens some people’s sense of their group, themselves, and their sense of the very world. That’s why they get so mad.

Confirmation Bias

I’ve written about this a lot, but it’s central. People who believe that groups are Real, and that only Bad People are racist are also likely to believe that you can just look and see if someone is good or not. In other words, they don’t recognize that we are all subject to confirmation bias.

But, if they think in black or white terms, then the notion of confirmation bias is really threatening. If things are either completely good or entirely bad, and research suggests that our perception is flawed, that must be saying that we can never tell whether someone or something is good or bad. It must mean we have no judgment at all, and they can point to lots of times they had good judgment, so their judgment is good, so confirmation bias is wrong.

A sweet case of confirmation bias.

Demagoguery and the “That thing you said was racist” problem

When you have people who reason from identity (people in this group are good, and people in that group are bad), it’s really hard to get them to see that their in-group information sources are giving them bad information. They will believe things that come to them from the in-group because the in-group is good.

If you’re in an echo chamber, as it’s called, it doesn’t look that way because you’re very aware of all sorts of in-group disagreements. You can see disagreement, so you think you’re in a world of dissent. And, if you equate in-group membership and reliability, then you also believe what your in-group information sources tell you that the out-group is saying about you.

Right now, our media world reminds me of the world described by Queen Bees and Wannabes, in which manipulative people create solidarity by repeating nasty things other people (are supposed to have) said about you.

The most damaging aspect of demagogic media, and this is just as true of Fox as it is of OccupyDemocrats, is that it normalizes demagoguery—that is, making every issue an us vs. them issue.

Whether someone said something racist isn’t an us vs. them issue. It’s a what did they say issue.

So, telling someone that they said something racist, or that someone they like said something racist, involves keeping a clear eye on the stasis—it isn’t about which group is better. It’s about what they said. Keep the stasis there.


[1] It doesn’t bother Trump supporters that neo-Nazis like Trump; they think revolutionary Marxists liked Obama, and they think that evens things out. Of course, revolutionary Marxists hated Obama, as they hate all third-way neoliberals.

[2] I’m not saying that all forms of in-group favoritism or out-group aversion are the same, equally bad, or anything along those lines. They are wildly different in impact depending on things like social structures, history, power.

[3] It’s important to be careful about how class is factoring in to this—so, if it’s a poor Lithuanian family, don’t ask whether you would judge a rich Moravian (because you’re Moravian) family the same way. Ask whether you would tell the same story about a poor Moravian family.

As long as I can think of someone more racist, I’m not racist at all

My *favorite* assignment in the Rhetoric of Racism course is having students look at a text (or practice) about which there is an argument (ideally a text they think is racist) and explain why there is a disagreement.

There are basically eight ways people argue that a text isn’t racist:

1) a text isn’t racist if it doesn’t make a big deal about race;

2) texts are either racist or not racist and so if there is any way in which this text criticizes racism, then it can’t be racist;

3) it’s just a “feel-good” text and you’re over-reading;

4) it isn’t racist because what it says is true (in other words, the person saying the text isn’t racist is racist);

5) racists are people who explicitly and self-consciously hate everyone of every other race, and only racist people say racist things, so if the person created the text isn’t someone who never ever associates with or who never says anything “nice” about any member of any other race, then the text can’t be racist (also known as the “some of my best friends are…” defense);

6) the author didn’t intend to be racist (so it’s only racist if the individual who created the text engaged in actions s/he knew to be racist);

7) it doesn’t have the marks of hostility toward another race (the tone isn’t over-the-top, it doesn’t use racial epithets);

8) it isn’t racist because there are other texts that are more racist, or it doesn’t endorse the most extreme versions of racism, or the person knows of people who are more racist (what I’ll call the “Eichmann defense”).

This is also a list of how racism is legitimated—these are the ways that people allow racist practices to continue. They’re all complicated to talk someone out of (although there are ways), and here I want to focus on two of them: 4) and 8), which often co-exist. These are the ones that really muckle my students, and they are really interesting.

I think the two of them share the assumption that calling a text racist is a personal attack on, not just the author(s) of the text in question, but anyone who likes it. The underlying logic is: racists are evil, evil people are entirely not-good, people who like something racist are racist, so calling someone racist, or saying something they like is racist, is saying they are entirely evil.

That logic is a good example of what Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca called “philosophical paired terms.” The logic maps out like a question on a standardized test “Dogs are to mammals as parakeets are to ____.”

And, therefore, since good and evil are binaries (something is entirely good or entirely evil), then, if you can imagine something more evil, you must have some good, and so can’t be entirely evil, and so you can’t be evil at all. Therefore, you must be on the “not racist” side of the equation.

Most of us (perhaps all) engage in judgments comparatively, so that, as long as we are more [whatever] than our peers, we feel good about ourselves. Clearly, 8) relies on that move—as long as you aren’t as racist as someone else, you can feel good about your attitudes.

Interestingly enough, Adolph Eichmann relied on that argument a lot. In the interrogations, he several times condemned people for a Streicher-kind of anti-Semitism—part of trying to persuade his Jewish interrogators that he wasn’t anti-Semitic. He also continually tried to represent his job as okay because it wasn’t as directly death-dealing as the people who actually pulled the triggers or applied the gas.

If someone else was more guilty, then he wasn’t guilty at all.

This move is sometimes characterized as “whataboutism” but it’s actually different. Whataboutism is sheer tu quoque—it’s an attempt to shift the stasis of the argument away from what I did to some competition as to which group or individual is better. It’s almost always an admission that the people making the argument are engaged in sheer factionalism (there are complicated exceptions). So, for instance, defenders of Trump said Clinton did it too (a fallacy). But, some critics of Bill Clinton pointed out that he claimed he was a feminist and supporter of women’s rights, so his sexually harassing women was a violation of feminist principles. That’s a legitimate and important argument.

People who claim that the GOP is morally superior to the DNC can’t logically use the “Clinton groped women” argument at all because it shows that they think both parties are just as bad—and they’re claiming theirs is better.

“Whataboutism” works by accusing the out-group of doing the same thing the in-group has recently been outed for doing. But this move doesn’t accuse the out-group of anything—it just points out that there is a worse version (perhaps even a worse in-group version) of this behavior.

Eichmann defended himself as not anti-Semitic because another Nazi was more extreme. During slavery, slaveholders defended their treatment of slaves on the grounds that there were other slaveholders who were worse (they also engaged in tu quoque, but that’s a different story); pro-segregationists posited the KKK and violent segregationists as worse than they; the people I know who drink the Rush Limbaugh/Fox News flavor-aid all name somein-group pundit too extreme for them.

That someone may be more racist doesn’t mean you aren’t racist. Both you and they might be racist.

Talking about racism means, I think, getting the argument away from whether people are racist, whether their intentions are deliberately racist, and whether racist/not racist is a binary.

[Image screenshot from here.]


On the precious little snowflakes who want to ban _To Kill a Mockingbird_

We have all read about the precious little snowflakes who want great pieces of literature banned because they feel that their group is attacked by some piece of literature generally considered by scholars to be great. This is a rallying point on the part of the Right-Wing Outrage Machine (RWOM), about how effeminate and sensitive students are being created by the faculty of political correctness who go on to insist that students not be allowed to read a book. That effeminate group is offended by something about the book, perhaps a word, more commonly the representation of a character who might be taken to represent their group. Perhaps the character is the only member of that group represented, or perhaps even every member of that group is represented as ignorant, violent, and criminal. The argument, according to the RWOM, is that these people say that you can’t have literature in K-12 classrooms that makes some of the students feel bad about their group, and the RWOM) is clear that they think that is a bad thing to do.

This claim—that people who object to great pieces of literature on the grounds that it makes them feel bad about their group—is an important plank in the platform of RWOM—that “liberals” are too precious to have their concerns taken seriously. “Liberals” are simultaneously sensitive and authoritarian—they can’t stand criticism of their group, and they will silence anyone who criticizes them. Thus, “liberals’” views on policy issues can be dismissed—they don’t understand that democracy is about being willing to be tough and listen to criticism of our in-group.

So, this issue, as far as the RWOM is concerned, isn’t just about the book—about whether “liberals’” concerns need to be considered at all.

And, for the RWOM, To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) is a case in point. There are people who object to this book being taught in K-12 because it portrays their group unfavorably. And the RWOM is univocal that those people are idiots, whose views on politics are so impaired (soft, weak, sensitive) that the people who make those arguments shouldn’t even be considered in political discourse.

The argument about TKAM, then, isn’t just an argument about that book—it’s an argument about who is should even have a voice in democratic political discourse. Democracy, as the founders said, is about disagreement. The principle of democracy is that a community benefits from different points of view. The RWOM argument about trying to censor TKAM is pretty clear: the people who want it banned from high schools are weak people who don’t understand democracy. It isn’t just that their views are bad, but that they are such weak and fragile people that their entire group should not be considered when we are thinking about policy.

Banning the book is “caving in” to people who want it banned is stupid.  Banning TKAM is a war on learning. The National Review asserts that the records suggest that all attempts to ban the book come from people who don’t like books with the “n word” in them (that isn’t true, but it is one of the reasons often given).

“But a different sin concerns today’s anti-Mockingbird crowd. In fact, the last time Mockingbird was challenged solely for its depiction of sexual intercourse, rape, or incest was in 2006 in Brentwood, Tenn. Since then, all five challenges — in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, and 2016 — have involved parents or children made uncomfortable by the use of the “N-word” or the book’s depiction of racism.”

That National Review article condemns, in no uncertain terms, people who want the book banned because it makes them uncomfortable. So, as far as the National Review is concerned, banning the book is, prima facie, evidence of your entire political group being an idiot.

The RWOM is unusually unanimous on this point: people who object to teaching TKAM because it hurts their feelings are fragile little snowflakes whose views can be dismissed from consideration on the grounds that they are…well…too fragile. And they are clear that this isn’t a partisan issue: “But to consider To Kill a Mockingbird racially divisive is exactly backwards. The book is invaluable both for introducing students to the reality of America’s racial past and for exposing its injustices.” As in the above cases (both minor and major media), they were unequivocal that they were operating on a principle of education: that, as the National Review says, “Eliminating the hard stuff eliminates the reality.”

In other words, they aren’t taking this position because of partisan politics: it’s a principle that they hold universally.

For the sake of argument, let’s treat that as a principle. I have often argued that the RWOM makes arguments that present themselves as thoroughly, totally, and deeply principled, but are actually rabid factionalism. They were opposed to pedophilia till a pedophile was the GOP candidate for Senate; they wanted Clinton impeached for groping till they had a groper in chief. The RWOM says that their stance on TKAM is principled. Is it?

And here it’s useful to distinguish tu quoque from an argument from principle. If a person really cares about a principle, they will condemn anyone—in-group or not—for violating that principle. If concern about the principle is just a handy brick to throw at the outgroup, then, when it’s pointed out that they are violating a principle they claim to be sacred, they will say, “The out-group does it too!” That’s tu quoque. It’s a fallacy.

More important, it’s an admission that the principle didn’t matter. If I say, “You are bad because you pet squirrels,” then I am making an argument that has the major premise “people who pet squirrels are bad.” If I later defend someone who pets squirrels, I have violated the logic of my own argument. I am putting faction above principle. I don’t think someone is bad for petting squirrels—I think out-group members are bad for doing that, but not in-group members.

So, is the RWOM flinging itself around about sensitive snowflake lefties on the basis of a principle about democracy and the need to read unpleasant books? Or is this about faction?

Most of the articles I could find on the right were about the Biloxi, Mississippi controversy, when a school board decided that the book would not be required reading in eighth grade English classes, and I couldn’t find any major right-wing media who endorsed banning the book. So, this might look as the RWOM is acting on principle.

But there is some sneaky partisanship: snowflakes are lefties, and people who want to ban the book are fragile snowflakes—a term that has become a synonym for social justice warriors. So, condemning the specific policy point of wanting TKAM banned isn’t just a condemnation of that policy point—as far as the RWOM is concerned, the stance of various groups about banning TKAM can be used to condemn the entire group.

The RWOM is so drunk on outrage about the fragile lefties who want the book banned that they make objection to the book, on principle, a sign of being partisan: “I wonder if any of the Biloxi school district’s administrators know how to read.” Obviously, anyone who wants it banned is an idiot, regardless of party.

And it’s interesting to me how the metaphors work in this argument—the people who want the book banned from classrooms are girly (weak, fragile, frail, sensitive) while the people who want it taught are masculine (strong enough to see criticism of America), anti-racist (they univocally endorse Atticus Finch’s stance), and, unlike flaccid lefties, not people who demand “to soften education, to remove any pain or discomfort.” They are firm, strong, and standing tall. (The tendency on the part of the RWOM to use metaphors of hardness for their view and softness for the opposition is both sad and hilarious.)

Were this a principled stance—if the people who have worked themselves into outrage about Biloxi are acting on principle and not just partisanship–then the National Review would fling accusations of flaccidity and girlyness at anyone who objected to TKAM on the grounds that it criticized their group. Do they?


There are two, very different ways, this book is challenged.

First, there is the argument it is racist, and that’s complicated. That argument is public because it gets to school boards—the first thing a parent does when objecting to a book is go to the teacher, then the principal, so going to the school board means the teacher and principal are holding their ground.

So, what, exactly, are the arguments that TKAM is racist?

Well, for one thing, it uses the ‘n word’ a lot. And here I will say that I frequently teach material with racist epithets in it, and I make sure they know it on the first day of class. I believe, firmly, in the notion that students should be warned about what they’re getting into, and students who don’t want to read anything with racist epithets shouldn’t take the class. That isn’t because there’s anything wrong with students who would rather not read a lot of appalling racist things, but because they have a right to make choices as to whether they will read them. So I try to be clear about just how awful the reading will be.

My courses are not required; my students are college students. I thoughtfully design my classes so that students can choose to skip a fair number of readings a semester and still get a good grade on the “keeping up with the reading” part of the grade because I know that some of the readings may be unhelpfully provocative, and they can miss up to two weeks up class with no penalty. So, students who are “triggered” by readings can make strategic choices about readings and attendance. High school students don’t have those choices.

The use of the ‘n word’ in TKAM is complicated, as it is in comedy, and high school students aren’t very good at that kind of complexity, and it is used in the book in a way intended to inflict damage. Granted, one can (and, I think, should) read the book as condemning that usage, but reading the book that way involves understanding other minds and perspective-shifting, and not all high school students are there. In other words, as anyone remotely aware of scholarship in rhetoric, reader-response, or, well, basic teacher-training knows, whether a particular class can understand the complicated relationship between the narrator and the events being narrated is something only the teacher of that class could know.

But, let’s side aside the notion that audiences are different from one another and that people receive texts in different ways (really, that only means setting aside sixty years of research, so not that much).

There is another argument, mentioned above. Malcolm Gladwell has made this argument best, and I would simply add that there is a toxic and racist narrative about the Civil Rights movement in our world. That narrative is that people were racist—meaning they irrationally hated everyone who wasn’t “white” and knew that they hated everyone and knew it was irrational. So, a racist person got up in the morning and said, “In every way and every day I will irrationally hate all other races.” As long as you didn’t say that (if, for instance, you said to yourself, “I will only rationally hate all other races”), you weren’t racist.

This is the classic move of feeling good about your decisions because you could imagine someone who was behaving worse. Cheating on this exam by glancing over is okay because you didn’t get the whole exam ahead of time like someone might. Cheating That Race on the rent is okay because you didn’t try to evict them for their race. Adolph Eichmann justified his racism because he wasn’t like Julius Streicher.

What did Atticus Finch do? He, against his will, defended a black man whom he knew to be innocent in a case he knew to be entirely the kind of case Ida B. Wells-Barnett had already named years before. And, throughout the book, he insisted that the racism that would put Tom Robinson to death was one that could (magically?) be cured if people were… what? nicer? less redneck?

Finch acknowledges that the system is SO racist that Robinson telling the truth will tank his case. Robinson mentions that he was nice to the young white woman because he felt sorry for her. And Finch flinches. That moment is why this movie, and the book, are racist.

He knew he lost the case at that moment because he had a racist jury. So, does he try to do anything about their racism? Nope.

Instead, the moral center of the tale says that you need to be nice to racists and hope they’ll be a little bit less racist.

That’s racist.

I love the book. I love that one of my sisters called me “Scout” for a while because I looked like Scout. The movie and book rocked my world, and helped me to see how racist my community and culture were. It was a great book. Now it’s racist.

In its era, it wasn’t. A major issue in 1960 was that “good” people accommodated the KKK, lynchings, Citizens Councils, and that juries couldn’t be counted on to do the sensible thing. So, something that said that the KKK is not actually okay, and that juries that endorsed state-sponsored terrorism were bad was making a useful argument.

We’re way beyond that. There are various problems with TKAM in our era. Atticus Finch is a white savior, his whole stance is the progressive mystique, and the basic message of the story is that racists are rednecks, but we should all submit in a civil fashion to racist justice systems while privately bemoaning that we can’t get a better outcome. (Too bad about Tom!) To be clear, had more people in the South been like Finch in 1960 the world would have been a better place. But, in 2017 we don’t need to make heroes of people who believe that racism is a question of individual intention and feeling, and who think there are good people on both sides. There aren’t. There weren’t. Atticus was wrong about that.

And a text that can make white students feel that racism is over because it isn’t as bad as it was then, and that they would totally have been Atticus Finch (even though they do nothing that involves the same level of risk his actions involved) doesn’t do any kind of anti-racist work. It might even (albeit unintentionally) endorse racist beliefs, insofar as it makes all racism an issue of personal feeling.

This isn’t 1960, and what Finch proposes (and does) isn’t enough for where we are now. That’s another way that people can argue it’s racist—that it can make people feel that we just need to be like Finch and racism will end (or worse yet, that racism did end). So, the argument that the book is racist isn’t a stupid argument, and it certainly isn’t one that assumes some inability to handle difficult or unpleasant material—on the contrary, it’s grounded in the notion that TKAM is simplistic. And, so, as far as the Right Wing Outrage Machine goes, I am a precious and fragile snowflake because anyone who makes the kind of argument I am making is a snowflake.

But, let’s consider fairly the RWOM argument that lefties are weenies who want to silence free speech. Granted, the RWOM never engages the argument I made above—a nuanced and complicated argument about TKAM. Their argument is (as I hope I’ve shown) the false argument that anyone who objects to TKAM being taught in K-12 is a weeny who doesn’t want to hear criticism of their in-group.

If you are intellectually generous, you can find an implied syllogism in the RWOM outrage about TKAM: Lefties are people whose views can be dismissed because they oppose texts like TKAM on the grounds that it offends their feelings about their in-group.

That’s a potentially logically argument, and argument from principle: anyone who objects to TKAM on the grounds that it offends their feelings about their in-group is promoting a political agenda we should dismiss.

Recently, I spent the day with high school teachers from various places in Texas, and the issue of TKAM came up, especially their being told they couldn’t teach it. I was familiar with the cases when it came to school boards, and was willing to defend the case that it wasn’t a useful book for teaching about racism because we’ve moved beyond when aversive racism was the major issue, but that wasn’t the main complaint for any of them.

Every one of them said that the book was pulled because parents of white students complained that it made white Southerners feel bad about their past. They complained to the principal, and the book was pulled.[1] That’s the second reason the book is pulled, and you can see it in the ALA list of reasons the book is challenged.

So, I’m sure, now that I’ve said that racist white Southerners feel hurt about TKAM the RWOM will, because it’s a principle about criticism, insist that TKAM be taught. Who is the snowflake here?

I’m sure, since the Right Wing Outrage Machine is all about principle, they’ll now look into this issue.

I’m also sure I have a unicorn in my garden that poops gold.


[1] Here is the interesting point. Yes, parents who didn’t want TKAM taught because of the n word, and because of complicated issues about its racism, went to school boards. Presumably they didn’t first go to the school boards; they went to the principal and didn’t get anywhere, so they kept taking it up the ladder. Parents who didn’t want their white students to have to confront white racism went to the principal, and got their way. In other words, people who wanted to protect the fragile feelings of white Southerners didn’t need to go to the School Board—they could count on principals protecting the feelings of their previous snowflakes white students who didn’t want to hear that segregation might have been bad. Parents with more complicated issues had to go to the School Board.




On normalizing Nazis


I often find myself telling people that we demonize Hitler and his followers, and therefore we can’t learn from their example. But even I am unhappy about the NYTimes article about a neo-Nazi because it doesn’t make a Nazi more understandable—it actually makes him less understandable while making him more empathetic.

What’s clear from scholars of the Holocaust is that Nazism was normalized, largely through identification with Hitler (people saw him as the person they would be if the leader), and also through normalizing him and other Nazis. Hitler at Home does a thorough job of showing just how that normalizing worked—careful control of his public image, including the design of his private spaces. And Hitlerland shows how many people were suckered by Hitler and Nazis, to think that their concerns were legitimate (when outside of in audience spaces, Hitler didn’t talk much about Jews, and talked mostly about the Versailles Treaty and reparations), that Nazis were persuaded to become Nazis because of desperation about their economic situation, and that the antisemitism was just rhetoric, so to speak.

That isn’t how it actually worked then, nor is it how it works now. Nazis were anti-Semitic, and the antisemitism was central to their identity—more important, they were deeply committed to doing anything necessary to destroy democracy. Neo-Nazis and KKK and alt-righters aren’t people moved to that position because of some single action or a single book or concerns about their economic situation—they are racist, and they are deeply and violently committed to ending democracy. They were generally racist from the beginning (although they will often insist they aren’t racist, and then cite “science” that they say shows non-white races are inferior). They aren’t very bright, as is demonstrated by how often they respond to argumentation with violence or threats of violence—they can’t put forward a logically persuasive argument to save their lives.

And they don’t care about argument, just as they don’t like democracy. They want an authoritarian government.

I think it’s important to understand that people like that don’t necessarily walk around with swastikas on their foreheads, and they aren’t always screaming, and they can be the people next door, or someone at work. They can be very normal in appearance, but their politics are not normal. And emphasizing one and not the other raises the spectre of just what happened in the Weimar, when Hitler and Nazis persuaded people to support them on the grounds that, despite their politics, they seemed like good people.

The NYTimes article didn’t mention any of that. It didn’t ask the Nazi about democracy, or race.  It just made him seem like a normal person, which he sort of is.

And that’s dangerous in a world in which people believe that they can make all political decisions on the basis of whether advocates/critics seem to be in their in-group.

The underlying assumption is that good people support good policies and bad people support bad policies, and that bad and good are in a binary relationship—something/someone is either entirely good or entirely bad. Thus, if you show that, say, a Nazi is a good person in some way (someone with whom you identify) then some number of people are likely to conclude that Nazism isn’t all that bad.

For instance, notice that it’s common for someone accused of saying or doing something racist to be defended by other people saying “They aren’t a bad person.” As Kenneth Burke said (an author of probably the single most apt analysis of Hitler’s Mein Kampf in its era), Hitler’s rhetoric depended on readers identifying with him. If his readers accepted that there is an us/them dichotomy, then the more he looked like “us” the more they would accept his “us” as normal and his “them” as dangerous.

Nazis want to end democracy. They might be nice, they might claim to be worried about the same things we are, but they blame democracy on the Jews, and they want to exterminate the Jews (and lots of other groups). And any mention of Nazis should keep front and center that they respond to any criticism with violence, they want a violent response, and they want genocide.

And the NYTimes article didn’t do that.  It didn’t explain what a Nazi believed; it just made him seem like a nice guy.



Teaching about racism from a position of privilege

I’ve taught a course on rhetoric and racism multiple times (I think this is the third, but maybe fourth). It came out of a couple of other courses—one on the rhetoric of free speech, and the other on demagoguery, but also from my complete inability to get smart and well-intentioned people to engage in productive discussions about racism.

I never wanted to teach a class on racism because I thought that there wasn’t really a need for a person who almost always has all the privileges of whiteness to tell people about racism. But I had a few experiences that changed my mind. And so I decided to do it, but it is the most emotionally difficult class I teach, and it is really a set of minefields, and there is no way to teach it that doesn’t offend someone. And yet I think it’s important, and I think other white people should teach about racism, but with a few caveats.

Like many people, I was trained to create the seminar classroom, in which students are supposed to “learn to think for themselves” by arguing with other students. The teacher was supposed to act as referee if things got too out of hand, but, on the whole, to treat all opinions as equally valid. I was teaching a class on the rhetoric of free speech—with the chairs in a circle, like a good teacher–when a white student said, “Why can black people tell jokes about white people, but white people can’t tell jokes about black people?”

And all the African-American students in the class shoved their chairs out of the circle, and one of them looked directly at me.

That’s when I realized how outrageously the “good teaching” method—in which every opinion expressed by a student should be treated as just as valid as the opinion of every other student—was institutionalized privilege.

What I hadn’t realized till that moment was that the apparently “neutral” classroom I had been taught to create wasn’t neutral at all. I was trained at a university and a department at which nonwhites and women were in the minority, and so every discussion in which all values are treated as equal in the classroom necessarily meant that straight male whiteness dominated, just in terms of sheer numbers. Then I went to a university that was predominantly women, and white males still dominated. White males dominate discussion, while white fragility ensures that treating all views as though they’re equal is doing nothing of the kind. The “neutral” classroom treats the white students’ hurt feelings with being called racist as precisely the same as anything racist s/he might say. And they aren’t the same.

That “liberal” model of class discussion is so vexed, and so specifically vexed in terms of race, gender, and sexuality. Often being one of few women in a class, and not uncommonly being one of few who openly identified as feminist, I was not uncommonly asked to represent what “feminists” thought about an issue, and I’ve unhappily observed classes (or was in classes) where the teacher asked a student to speak for an entire group (“Chester, what do gay people think about this?”) It’s interesting that not all identities get that request to speak for their entire group. While I have seen teachers call on a veteran to ask what the entire class of “veterans” think, I have never been in a class where anyone said, “Chester, what do “working class people” think about this issue?” I’ve also never been in a class, even ones where het white Christian males were in the minority, where anyone asked a het white Christian male to speak for all het white males.

The most important privilege that het white Christian males have is the privilege of toggling between individualism and universalism on the basis of which position is most rhetorically useful in the moment. In situations in which het male whiteness is the dominant epistemology, someone with that identity can speak as an individual, about his experience. When he generalizes from his experience, it’s to position himself as the universal experience. Het white males are simultaneously entirely individual and perfectly universal.

The “liberal” classroom presumes people who are speaking to one another as equals, but what if they aren’t? The “liberal” classroom puts tremendous work on identities who walk into that room as not equal—they have to be the homophobic, racist, sexist whisperers. That isn’t their job. That’s my job. I realized I was making students do my work.

That faux neutrality also guarantees other unhappy classroom practices. For instance, students who disagree with that falsely neutral position do so from a position of particularity. The “normal” undergrad has asserted a position which seems to be from a position of universal vision, and so any student who refutes his experience is now not only identifying with a stigmatized identity, but self-identifying as a speaker who is simultaneously particular and a representative of an entire group. When your identity is normalized, you claim to speak for Americans; when your identity is marked as other, you speak for all the others in that category.

There’s a weird paradox here. Both the het white Christian male and the [other] are taken as speaking for a much larger group, but in the case of the het white male it’s that he is speaking for humanity at a whole. If he isn’t, if his identity as het white male isn’t taken as universal in a classroom, then some number of people in that category will be enraged and genuinely feel victimized and dismiss as “political correctness” that they have to honor the experience of others as much as they honor their own experience.

What the white panic media characterizes as “political correctness” is rarely about suppression of free speech (they’re actually the ones engaged in political correctness)—it’s about holding all identities to the same standards of expression. The strategic misnaming of trying to honor peoples’ understanding of themselves as “political correctness” ignores the actual history of the term, which was about pivoting on a dime in order to spin facts in a way that supported faction. In other words, the whole flinging poo of throwing the term “political correctness” at people asking for equality is strategic misnaming and projection.

The second experience was in a class that was about the history about conceptions of citizenship, I was trying to make the point that identification is often racial, and that the notion of “universal” is often racist. I gave the class the statistics about Congress—that it was about 90% male and also in the 90% (or more) white. I asked the white males in the class whether they would feel that they were represented if Congress were around 90% nonwhite nonmale. Normally, this set off light bulbs for students. But, this time, one student raised his hand and said, “Well, yes, because white males aren’t angry.”

Of course, that isn’t true, and I’d bet they’d be pretty angry about not being represented, but, even were it true, it would be irrelevant. That student was assuming that being angry makes people less capable of political deliberation—that anger has no place in political argument. That’s an assumption often made in the “liberal” classroom, in which people get very, very uncomfortable with feelings being expressed. And it naturally privileges the privileged because, if being emotional (especially angry) means that a person shouldn’t be participating (or their participation is somehow impaired) then we either can’t talk about things that bother any students (which would leave a small number of topics appropriate for discussion), or people who are angry about aspects of our world (likely to be the less privileged) are silenced before they speak—they’re silenced on the grounds of the feelings they might legitimately have.

So, if we’re going to have a class about racism, we’re going to have a class in which people get angry, and not everyone’s anger is the same. Racist discourse is (and long has been) much more complicated than a lot of people want it to be—we want to think that it’s easy to identify, that it’s marked by hostility, that it’s open in its attacks on another race. But there has always been what we now call “modern racism”—racism that pretends to be grounded in objective science, that says “nice” things about the denigrated group, that purports to be acting out of concern and even affection. That is the kind of reading that angers students the most, and I think it’s important we read it because it’s the most effective at promoting and legitimating racist practices. But it will offend students to read it.

And so the class is really hard to teach, and even risky. And that was the other point I realized. If we have institutions in which only people of color are teaching classes about racism, we’re making them take on the politically riskier courses. That’s racist.

I remain uncomfortable being a white person teaching about racism, and I think my privilege probably means I do it pretty badly. But I think it needs to be done.










Privilege and perspective-shifting

It’s interesting that there is such resistance to the notion of privilege. Every human knows that privilege is a thing. I grew up in a very wealthy area, and we all knew whose parents could pull strings, get their kid a part-time job from which s/he couldn’t be fired, intimidate the principal, get rules bent. Let’s call that kid That Guy (although he wasn’t always a guy). People who grew up around rich people (even if they were rich) should be the first to acknowledge the power of privilege, since they must have had direct experience of it, but often they’re the last. And it isn’t because they secretly put hoods on at night and attend white supremacist marches.

I think there are several reasons: the stories that privileged people tell themselves about That Guy, a tendency to think in binaries, a commitment to naïve realism (and the often-connected notion that good people have good judgment), imagining self-worth and achievement in a zero-sum relation, and the impulse to hear “check your privilege” as something other than “time to listen.”

As to the first, That Guy got away with everything–he was completely tanked, totaled his car, and yet didn’t get arrested—and that obviously doesn’t apply to us. He never earned anything, and never faced consequences. And he was an asshole. People hear the observation of privilege as an accusation that we are That Guy. People think they’re being called an asshole. Self-identity is comparative—rich people can feel “poor” if they hang out with richer people, attractive people can feel unattractive, and so on. As long as there is someone with more privilege than what we have, then we can feel that we aren’t That Guy, and therefore, don’t have privilege (or none worth considering).

That impulse to consider our privilege trivial because of how it compares to someone else is connected to the tendency to think in binaries, especially a binary central to American political discourse: makers or takers (producers or parasites). You either work hard and make/produce wealth, or else you are a lazy person who takes from those who make wealth. William Jennings Bryan’s rhetoric described bankers (and people in the city) as parasitical on the real wealth production of the farmers; Father Coughlin positioned “international finance” (his dog whistle for “Jews”) as against the real producers of wealth; Paul Ryan and current toxic populist rhetoric makes public servants and anyone on assistance (unless they are Republican) as takers, with the top 1% as the makers.

People who think that you are either a maker or a taker can point to the ways they make wealth and therefore are enraged at being accused of being a taker. That Guy is a taker, but we aren’t him, so we are makers. The mistake here is the maker/taker binary. Privilege has nothing to do with whether you’re a maker or a taker, and it isn’t an accusation of anything. It certainly isn’t an accusation that the person hasn’t worked at all, nor is it an accusation of being an asshole.

The maker/taker binary is attractive because of the dominance in American culture of the “just world model” (or “just world hypothesis”): the notion that good people get good things and bad people get bad things. That model means that we can reason backwards from outcomes to identities: a person has good outcomes (makes a lot of money, is healthy, is successful) has caused those outcomes to happen by their good choices, good faith, and good identity; a person who has bad outcomes (is financially struggling, unhealthy, unsuccessful, or has been the object of crime) has caused those outcomes through their poor choices, bad attitude, or lack of faith.

To tell someone that outcomes might be influenced by conditions outside a person’s choice (such as accidents of birth) is tremendously threatening to someone who believes strongly in the just world model. It threatens their sense of justice and belief in a controllable universe. And research suggests that being faced with uncertainty means that people will resort more firmly to their sense that their group is inherently good, so a privileged person, faced with evidence that the world is unjust, is likely to want to cling more fiercely to the notion that they are part of a good group.

And, if that person has a tendency to think in binaries then to say that outcomes might be influenced by conditions of privilege will be heard as saying that outcomes are purely the consequence of privilege—no choices involved. Thinking in binaries means that a person will tend to believe “monocausal” narratives (any outcome has one and only one cause). If the milk spilled, there was one action that caused it, and we can argue about whether it was yours or mine, but it can’t have been both, let alone the consequence of various factors.[1] So, privilege either determines everything or nothing; if a person who believes in monocausal narratives can find a single thing done by agency, then their life wasn’t purely the consequence of privilege, and therefore it wasn’t at all. For someone like that, individual agency is the single cause or has no impact at all.

When people ask that we consider privilege, it isn’t substituting one monocausal narrative (everything I have achieved is purely the consequence of things I have done) with another (everything you have achieved is purely the consequence of your privilege). It’s an observation about relative advantages. A person raised speaking a language has an advantage over someone who had to learn the language as an adult. Because of our tendency to assume that fluency with language necessarily means fluency of thought, we tend to think of people who come across as native speakers as more intelligent. So, a person who learned a language as an adult has to work harder than the native speaker to get taken seriously and be heard. That isn’t to say that the native speaker didn’t work at all—it isn’t a binary. It’s about relative advantage or disadvantage.

John Scalzi has an article I like a lot for explaining privilege, and it’s interesting to see how people in the comments misunderstand his point. His argument is that being a straight white male is like rolling high in the character-establishing point in a role-playing game. You have an advantage over someone else who rolled low, in every situation, all other things being equal.

What that means is that a person who has no disabilities and grows up in a wealthy family in a stable environment and is a straight white male necessarily has advantages over a gay black female in exactly the same situation. That’s a comparison that keeps everything other than gender, sexuality, and race the same. But a large number of the critical comments changed other variables, insisting that Scalzi was wrong because a rich (variable of wealth) gay black female would have advantages over a poor (changed variable of wealth) het white male.

That’s clearly not engaging Scalzi’s argument.

He says “all other things being equal” and a large number of examples ignore that part of his argument. And, really, the two of the three most common ways I see arguments about privilege go wrong is that they introduce other variables (especially class) or they think the observation of privilege is a claim that the privileged person has done nothing at all (the maker/taker binary).

Since so much cultural and political discourse has the maker/taker binary, it’s understandable that people would force the observation about relative advantage into the maker/taker binary, but let’s be clear: that’s a misunderstanding that’s on the hearer. Saying you have privilege isn’t saying you’re That Guy. It’s saying that, in this situation, you have relative advantage.

One of my favorite studies is one you can do in any classroom. Ask students to write the letter ‘E’ on a small piece of paper in such a way that, when they put it on their forehead, it will be correct for someone looking at them. In one version of this study, half the group was given a small amount of money, and they promptly did worse on being able to imagine the perspective of anyone else. Thus, giving relatively small signals of privilege to some students can make perspective-shifting harder for them.

That task, perspective-shifting, is crucial to democracy. Communities in which people only look out for their group (or for themselves) inevitably end up in highly-factional squabbling, in which people will cheerfully hurt the overall community just in order to make sure the other side doesn’t win. Democracies thrive when everyone involved believes that our best world is the best world for people whom we dislike. Democracy depends on people looking at more than what is best for them or their group to whether we are establishing processes by which we’re willing to live. And that requires not just looking at whether this policy benefits me, as the person I am, but whether I would believe it was a good policy were I a completely different kind of person.

Privilege makes perspective-shifting less necessary, and makes it easier for us to think of our perspective as the “normal” one. If we are naïve realists (that is, if we believe that reality is absolutely apparent to us and we just have to ask ourselves if something is true in order to determine it is) then we are likely to think there is never any other perspective, or, if there is, that there is never any benefit to looking at things from that perspective since our perspective is right.

And our perspective is likely to be that we worked hard for what we have, that we earned every inch of our way, so it is likely to seem ridiculous to have someone say that we have privilege.

It’s a natural human tendency to attribute our successes to our work (and worth) and our failures to externalities. Even That Guy thinks he worked hard, and so doesn’t recognize his own privilege. Privilege isn’t a binary—it’s on a continuum; it isn’t an accusation of being a worthless taker, but an observation about relative advantage. It shouldn’t be the end of a conversation, but the beginning of one.






[1] It’s striking to me that people who tend toward monocausal narratives also tend to think of cause purely in terms of blame, but they aren’t the same. Perhaps, just as I was getting a glass of milk my husband requested, I was startled by the mayor having chosen to sound the tornado siren. The causes of the spilled milk might include my having an active startle reflex, the tornado, the mayor, my husband requesting a glass of milk, my decision to get him one while I’m up, perhaps whatever it is (genetics? experience?) that caused my startle reflex, but none of those factors is one it makes any sense to blame.

How to argue about whether something is racist

This class is about how to argue whether a text or action of some kind is racist; this isn’t about whether a person is racist. On the whole, that isn’t a productive argument (although you sometimes have to have it). The first step in a useful argument about whether something is racist is to try to figure out why we’re having the argument in the first place—what the determination of racist/not racist will do for us is what enables us to decide which definition of racism is the most relevant.

All of this may seem confusing to you, since you might be accustomed to thinking of “is this racist” as a straightforward question of right and wrong—if it’s racist, it’s morally wrong, and if it isn’t, then it’s morally right. And while I do think racism is morally wrong, I also think there is a continuum with some things being more racist than others (as you’ll find later, it’s even possible for something to be racist and anti-racist at the same time). Even if something is morally wrong, you’re likely to respond to it in different ways. For instance, your 90 year old not-quite-all-there grandpa might use a term we now consider racist but which was considered the polite term when he was young. You’d react to that differently than if someone your own age (who knows perfectly well it isn’t an okay term) uses it. You might not do anything at all with your grandpa, but drop like a hot rock the person your age.

If a person making hiring decisions for your company said something racist, you’d react differently than you would if some random person in line at the grocery store said the same thing. If you were HR, you might fire them—whether or not they intended to be racist, on the grounds that their mere presence on the hiring team jeopardized your company.

In this class, we’ll spend a lot of time talking about different definitions of “racist,” which ones are more useful than others, and under what circumstances.

On the whole, definitions of racism tend to emphasize one of several points on the rhetorical triangle: text, intent, consequence, relationship to context,or impact on audience.

For instance, for some people, as long as a text does not have racist epithets it isn’t racist (although those same people don’t usually immediately decide that a text with racist epithets is racist—more on that below). Others do decide that the use of racist epithet (by any character or in any context) is racist. Both those decisions rely purely on text.

This criterion—presence or absence of racist epithets—seems to me the least useful, in that there are the fewest instances in which it seems to me especially relevant. A person can, after all, argue for the expulsion or even extermination of another race without using racist epithets (in fact, that’s most commonly how it’s done). And some anti-racist texts can use racist epithets to persuade the audience that racism is harmful (the argument often made about Django Unchained).

Many people believe that the main problem with racism is that it is hostility against members of another “race”—that is, it is an issue of individuals’ feelings. If you define “racism” as “hostility toward members of another race,” then you will tend to look at texts for evidence of hostility—affective markers, boosters, and other linguistic signs of anger. That method also doesn’t work particularly well, as some of the most racist policies have been invoked in the name of kindness, with apparently calm tones, or by appealing to “facts” and “reality.” (White supremacists often call themselves “racial realists.”)

Emphasizing the feelings that individuals have is one example of how people imagine racism to be a problem of individual agency (rather than systems). In this model, racism exists because too many people choose to be racist, or allow themselves to slip into racist and ingrained habits. If enough individuals chose to stop responding in racist ways, then racism goes away. (That is a problematic assumption.)

Intent seems to me a slightly more usable criterion, but only for limited circumstances. It is important in social situations in which we’re trying to determine if a person should be forgiven. If a person says something racist, but didn’t mean to (didn’t realize it was a racist term, was thoughtlessly repeating a meme they didn’t understand to be racist), then you’re more likely to be willing to forgive them. If they keep saying that thing, although it’s been explained to them that they’re saying something racist, then we might conclude that they really do intend to be racist.

Intent matters in some legal situations (e.g., hate crimes) but not others (e.g., the question of disparate impact). “Disparate impact” is a kind of racism that doesn’t require any intent—if you have a policy with no intent of hurting a particular race (or religion), but that’s exactly what it will do, then you’ve got “disparate impact,” which has been ruled discrimination. If you ban hairstyles that you consider too casual, and they’re precisely and exclusively the ones worn by people of a particular race, then—whether or not it was your conscious intent—your policy has racist consequences. (A lot of school dress codes get challenged on exactly these grounds.)

Intent, like the question of feelings, assumes that racism is the consequence of individuals choosing or allowing themselves to be racist—that there is individual agency in racism. I think the reasoning works something like this: evil in the world is the consequence of individuals choosing to do evil things; racism is evil; therefore, racism must bet he consequence of individuals choosing to be racist. The assumption is that if we had a world in which no one intended to be racist, there would be no racism, but that isn’t the case.

Thus, intent matters for law and social castigation, but it’s of limited importance otherwise. For instance, google image search “beautiful hair.” You’ll see a very racist outcome—almost exclusively white women (and the nonwhite women usually have very, very high maintenance hair). But there was no one intending to create a racist cultural view of what is beautiful hair. There are people intending to sell products, and doing so within a racist culture.

One of the more straightforward ways to measure whether a text or action is racist is to look at whether it reinforces existing racist practices and structures. The most productive arguments, it seems to me, work within this framework. I think it’s helpful partially because it allows a more nuanced discussion—it’s possible to talk about how much harm something caused, what kind, and to whom (rather than a binary of harmful/not harmful). It’s also possible to talk more intelligently about texts that are both racist and anti-racist (South Pacific, To Kill a Mockingbird) if we think about harm; we can talk about the kind of harm the text or action tried to prevent or ameliorate and what kind of harm it caused.

Thinking about consequence also enables us to talk about the same act or text having different consequences in different era or with different audiences. Some critics of American Sniper argued that it was not seen as racist in its showings in Iraq because viewers saw it as demonizing a particular political party, but it had racist consequences in the US because viewers saw it as confirming demonized (and racist) views of Iraqis. It could be argued that To Kill a Mockingbird was progressive for its era, but now it’s actually regressive.

That last comment brings up the argument about relationship to context—what do we do about texts that are racist, but less racist than was the norm for their era or culture? If we think of “racist” as an absolute category—something is either racist or it isn’t—then we’re hopelessly entangled by these cases. If we can think of it as on a continuum, then we can talk about them more sensibly.

We have to be careful, however, not to assume that things have been getting steadily less racist as time goes on. Huckleberry Finn (1885) is much more racist than Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), and there was a lot of anti-racist being done in its era. Sometimes we excuse texts by overstating the dominance of racism in an era—even in eras in which it was common, there were people who spoke against it. While I don’t think that racism is subject to pure agency (people could simply choose to be or not to be racist), there are some choices. Being in a particular culture or time doesn’t force someone to be racist, after all. So, while I think it’s useful to put texts in contexts, it should be in service of a nuanced understanding of how the racism works in them, not as a “get out of racism free” card.

The criterion of impact on audience might be subsumed under consequence, but students have found it useful to separate them. The impact on the audience might cultural (the text problematizes or confirms common racist attitudes) but it might also be more individual (the text makes individuals uncomfortable in a good or bad way). For instance, while the word “niggardly” has nothing to do with the similar sounding racist term, it’s reasonable for some people to be made really uncomfortable by it, and so it’s reasonable to try to avoid using it, just on the grounds of how it makes people feel. On the other hand, while the phrase “welching on a bet” originally came from a racist stereotype about the Welsh, I don’t think anyone knows that anymore (or has that stereotype) so, at least in the US, it doesn’t seem to me helpful to call that a racist phrase.

My point in giving all these criteria is not to set out some kind of easy decision-tree on “is this racist.” Instead, I’m suggesting that students see these criteria as stases for arguments about racism. It’s hard to have a good argument on anything if interlocutors are on different stases, and a lot of people don’t realize that any argument can have multiple stases—and you can choose among them. Sometimes, for an argument about racism to become more useful, people have to agree first on the stasis, and that might mean that people might have to understand that their notion about how to determine “is this racist” isn’t a useful criterion. In this class, you’ll be looking at that question a lot–what is the stasis for this argument, and is it the most relevant and useful stasis?

A lot of definitions with racism describe it as a problem of individuals who have hostility based on irrational beliefs. Google gives us “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” And prejudice is “preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.”

So, racism is an individual feeling antagonism against someone of a different race because she believes her race is superior, and that believe is not based on reason or actual experience.

Hubert Sumlin has accused Chester Burnette of being racist. If I agree with those dictionary definitions of racism, then I need to decide if Chester feels antagonism toward another race, if he thinks his race is superior, and if his beliefs have no basis in reason or experience.

One way to test whether that is a good definition would be to take a case we think a definition should catch. I think it’s reasonable to decide that the Nazis, since a major part of their political policy was the extermination of races, were racist. So, if this definition of racism doesn’t apply to them, then it isn’t a good definition.

Well, interestingly enough, if you apply those standards to major current defenders of the Nazis, you’ll find that they maintain they feel no antagonism to the other group but simply want separation. They insist that their support of Nazism is not unreasonable—they can cite experiences of the other races being bad, and one book advocating neo-Nazism has around 1k footnotes, so it gives reasons.

And, of course, the Nazis came to power on a policy of separation, not extermination, and the expulsion of illegal immigrants of that group, although the whole group was kind of suspect. So, that isn’t a good definition of racist.

And, let’s go back to Chester and Hubert. How would I would know what Chester feels and believes?

This is a surprisingly interesting question.

There is a period in cognitive development when children develop a theory of mind—that is, they understand that other people have ideas, feelings, and commitments that might be different from the ones they have (to put it crudely). Other people have other minds, in other words. (Not everyone develops that ability, and they go through life believing that everyone believes exactly what they do—people who disagree are just pretending to have different ideas.)

In some cases, developing a theory of other minds leads to the skill of perspective shifting—the ability to imagine what things would like from those other minds, and at least the effort to see things from that perspective. In an unhappy number of cases, however, it leads to the tendency to think that your mind is the one cleaved to reality, and those other minds are just unhinged or wrong. We also have a tendency to believe that our perception of those other minds is unmediated and perfect. This is such a profound problem that social psychologists call it the fundamental attribution error—it’s fundamental to a lot of other errors. We attribute views and feelings to other people, and then we believe we have perceived those views and feelings.

And that attribution is biased, especially by whether someone is in our ingroup or outgroup, what our feelings are toward that person (mad, afraid, attracted, sad). We tend to attribute bad motives to outgroup members and good motives to ingroup members, and can be astonishingly self-serving in our perceptions. For instance, if we’re feeling aggressive toward someone else, we’re tempted to attribute aggression to them, thereby making ourselves feel that our aggression is a justified response. Or, if we’re attracted to someone, we might interpret their inner state as attracted to us (that’s why stalkers never see themselves as stalking—they sincerely believe they know that the victim is or easily could be attracted to them).

So, imagine that we’ll use the standard dictionary definition of racist. It says “one’s own race,” so this is about what an individual does. And now we have to figure out if there is antagonism or prejudice, and if the person believes his/her race is superior.

If you believe that “Lithuanian” is a race, and you are racist about Lithuanians, believing them to be essentially stupid and criminal, you wouldn’t be able to use the common dictionary definition to recognize your racism (or the racism of anyone else in your ingroup who also believed Lithuanians are stupid and criminal). You would be able to ask yourself, “Is my belief about Lithuanians grounded in reason or actual experiences?” and answer, “Yes!” That’s because you would be able to think of a time that someone you thought was Lithuanian did some stupid. You might be able to think of an expert who also said they’re stupid. You’d be surprisingly likely to assume that every stupid person you met was Lithuanian, or to interpret smart things a Lithuanian did as stupid. If you were forced to acknowledge that there was a famous mathematician genius who was Lithuanian, you might decide she was probably adopted, illegitimate, or of mixed heritage. You might decide she wasn’t really a genius, but had just happened to get something right, or had stolen all her ideas from a non-Lithuanian. In fact, an infinite number of counter-examples would not change your mind about Lithuanians—more important, it wouldn’t even get you to see that your stance was unreasonable, because you could explain them all away.

You also might tell yourself that you don’t feel antagonism—you are just realistic about Lithuanians. And you don’t discriminate, you just don’t give them more than they deserve.

If a definition of racism is going to be helpful, it has to be one that enables racists to realize we’re being racist. And, that definition of “prejudice” isn’t helpful.

It isn’t any better if we’re trying to apply that definition to someone else. The inherent problem with believing that racism is a question of unreasonable feelings and bad intent is that we have to figure out the inner state of Chester, and we’re extremely likely to engage in the fundamental attribution error—if we think Chester is good, we’ll attribute good motives; if we don’t like Chester, we’ll attribute bad motives. There is a connected problem with this—we tend to think of racism as an issue of individual morality. Racism is immoral, and so people who are racist are immoral.

Therefore, if a person is not immoral, they can’t be racist. I am not immoral, therefore I can’t be racist. Ta effing dah.

It’s this false assumption that gets us into those weird cases of someone having said or done something racist and various people saying, “She can’t be racist, because she did these good things.”

There’s a second, and more complicated, problem with this way of thinking about racism—that it has to do with the intent, feelings, beliefs and/or prejudices of individuals. Take, for instance, this clip: https://everysinglewordspoken.tumblr.com/post/141726767183/total-run-time-of-all-nancy-meyers-directed. It’s every single word said by a person of color in every single Nancy Meyers-directed movie (it lasts about five minutes). Does Meyers exclude people of color from her movies because of antagonism? Probably not. And probably not because of any conscious notion that her race is better. She might not intend to discriminate—maybe she just doesn’t think to include non-whites in her movies; or maybe she is trying to get the most “bankable” stars (and audiences tend to be racist). It doesn’t really matter if she intends to discriminate against non-whites; she does. Having twelve hours of movie with five minutes of non-white is racist. But it isn’t just her racism—it’s the racism of audiences, producers, and the systems of movie-making.

So, how should we think about racism?

First, a few terms that will make all this more straightforward:

  • A “taxonomy” is a method of categorizing. If you have your closet organized by shirts/pants/skirts/jackets, that’s your taxonomy. You might instead organize your closet by what’s useful to have for different outside temperatures (warm/cold/moderate), circumstances under which you might wear them (formal/business casual/casual/athletic), or perhaps by color, how often you wear them, or some other taxonomy.
  • socially constructed. Some people think that a belief is either subjective (random, arbitrary, entirely in your head) OR objective (a perception of a brute fact that is entirely external to your brain, and which exists regardless of whether anyone believes it—also called “ontologically grounded”). That isn’t actually a very useful division. Where, for instance, would you put money? It isn’t subjective—I can’t draw Millard Filmore’s face on green paper and get Starbucks to give me coffee—but it isn’t a brute fact. I can get coffee in the US with a five dollar bill, but not in England. Money is a socially-constructed fact. It is a fact—it is an inescapable condition of our culture, but only because we’ve implicitly agreed to give it that kind of power.
  • salience. That word simply means the condition of sticking out. You might have troops in a line, but with a bubble that sticks out—that’s your salient. In any situation, there are all sorts of things you might notice, but some of them stick out. Those things have more salience. Salience is context-dependent, idiosyncratic, and/or socially constructed. If religion is important to you, then you might notice how many people of various religions there are in a group (or class, or room)—you might notice there are a lot of people who mention being Wisconsin Synod Lutheran. You might also notice that the class is quieter than you think normal. We tend to confuse salience with importance, and attribute causality to salient conditions. So, you would be irrationally likely to assume that the two salient things are causally connected—it’s quiet because there are a lot of Wisconsin Synod Lutherans.
  • confirmation bias. We tend to notice things that confirm our beliefs more, and more easily than things that don’t. Even when we try to “test” our beliefs, we generally do so in ways that enable confirmation bias. If, for instance, you believe that Wisconsin Synod Lutherans tend to be quiet, then you’ll decide that the class is quiet because there are so many of them. If you believe that Wisconsin Synod Lutherans tend to intimidate others, you’ll decide the class being quiet is an example of their having intimidated everyone into silence. A person for whom religion isn’t important, but who has a hypothesis that morning classes are more quiet, will, if it’s a morning class, conclude that this class proves that hypothesis.
  • The ingroup is the group you’re in that is important to your sense of identity. You have lots of them, and they become more or less salient depending on context. Being a Texan (or whatever state you’re from) is important if you’re around people from various states, and would be especially important if someone said something nasty about your state, but isn’t something you’d mention introducing yourself to other people in Texas.
  • An ingroup is often defined (or made more salient) by the sense of there being an outgroup which it is not. In terms of race, the concept of “white” only makes any sense if there is a “not white” to define it. (The various groups that are called “white” don’t actually have very much in common, and used to be designated as different races. But they can claim white because they aren’t non-white.)
  • essentializing (or naturalizing). Ingroups and outgroups are socially constructed—they’re both as real and as arbitrary as money. They have tremendous power but only because a culture decides they do, and individuals can’t suddenly decide, “I don’t see money” and have any impact on how the world works. (And they’ll still use money to buy groceries.) That so many things are socially constructed (such as the boundaries of states and nations, or the boundaries of groups) makes many people extremely nervous—especially people who don’t like uncertainty, ambiguity, or nuance. There are people who get anxious and angry if they are made aware that their taxonomies are socially constructed and might change. Their inability to manage uncertainty and ambiguity cognitively means that they will INSIST that those taxonomies are Real. Race is not, they will insist, a social construct, but a biological one—they will insist those categories are appealing to essences of people, to identities grounded in nature. They will take a socially constructed category (such as nation) and insist that the members of that nation are essentially the same in that they all have certain temperaments, political tendencies, or identities.
  • social/cultural goods. This is a vague notion, but useful. Any culture has things that are culturally marked as goods—money, prestige, status symbols (living in that neighborhood, getting treated this way by police, being able to go to those restaurants), political power.
  • zero-sum relationships. There are some relationships in which the more one category gets, the less the other category gets. So, if I have a discretionary budget of $100 per week, the more I spend on coffee, the less I can spend on going to listen to music. There is a zero-sum relationship between those two categories. If you spend less on coffee, you have more to spend on music. Many people grow up in a highly competitive family situation in which there is a sort of zero-sum relationship in parental love or attention—the more that a sibling gets, the less there is for you. So, a person in that world might think, “if my parents spend less love on my sibling, there is more for me.”
  • Moral Foundations research. The research (http://moralfoundations.org/) on this is pretty clear. People who self-identify as liberals tend to value fairness across groups as opposed to some notion of proportionality (fairness is you get what you deserve, which is what self-identified conservatives value). Self-identified conservatives value loyalty, authority, and sanctity more than liberals do.

Racism essentializes socially constructed taxonomies of ingroup/outgroup by relying on perceptions of salient characteristics of groups that we decide are true because of confirmation bias, and assumes those groups are in a zero/sum relationship as far as social/cultural goods; it therefore rejects any notion of fairness across groups.

Racism is a pernicious and toxic example of a relatively common phenomenon—that people have a tendency to categorize themselves and others in terms of groups, and to engage in “in-group favoritism.” It isn’t the consequence, let alone a necessary consequence, of that way of thinking—but a very nasty version of it. After all, while the tendency to think in terms of ingroups and outgroups is universal, making those groups racial categories isn’t—race is a relatively recent concept, not fully formed until the 18th or even 19th centuries, and different from other ways of thinking about groups in important ways.

In fact, “races” are socially constructed—what has counted as “white” has changed considerably, even in the last 100 years. In 1916, very powerful book was published that argued that there were three white races—not all whites, according to Madison Grant, were the same race (and race-mixing within whites was damaging to civilization). In the 19th century, racialist science sometimes claimed there were four races, sometimes three—that inability to agree is interesting, since racists claim that “race” is eternal and an obviously physiological category. If it’s obvious, why can’t they agree? In fact, even scientists promoting the notion of race as a scientific category couldn’t come up with a consistent definition of “race,” let alone one that fit the evidence they had.

Even in the early twentieth century, there were scientists who pointed out that the way eugenicists talked about race didn’t make any sense. They showed that people advocating racial purity used “race” in two very different meanings ways—there were the socially constructed categories, which were based on linguistic, political, and national boundaries (such as the notion of an “Irish” race); there were also possibilities of biological categories (such as Celtic) but 1) given the long history of human interaction, they were not discrete categories; and 2) those biological categories had nothing to do with the socially-constructed categories. Biologically, there was no “Irish” or “Italian” race, just nationalities. So, the notion that immigration quotas were backed by genetic data made no sense.

Racism doesn’t necessitate that people consciously think that their race is superior to others; it only requires ingroup favoritism (the unconscious tendency to perceive a situation as “fair” if our group gets slightly more).

It tends to get more antagonistic if we think our group and another (or several others, or all others) are in a “zero-sum” relationship. If we’re having a pie potluck, and each person who comes will bring more pie than he can eat, then more people who come means more pie for everyone. But, if we have a single pie and no one is bringing more, then the more people who come, the less pie there is for YOU. In that second circumstance, the more someone else gets, the less you get—someone’s gain is necessarily someone else’s loss. (There’s a complicated, but good, explanation of how it works in economics here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zero-sum_game).

There are some people who perceive every situation as zero-sum, even when it isn’t. Hyper-competitive people will often feel as though praise for someone else’s accomplishment injures them (as though it takes something away from their accomplishments), and so they can sincerely believe that the best response to someone else achieving something is to try to criticize or undermine that person. One of the characteristics of a toxic relationship is that one or both people believe that they are threatened by the other person being successful, and most of the bad behavior of bridezillas can be attributed to a sense that any attention paid to anyone else is taking something away from the bride to which she is entitled.

While not all racism requires zero-sum thinking, it is interesting that a lot of racism is justified through sloppy social Darwinism (that human interactions are inherently a contest which result in the survival of the fittest—not actually a Darwinian concept at all). White people (that is, people who think of themselves as “white”) who think about all social interactions as zero-sum competitions have trouble seeing the problem with Nancy Meyers’ movies having so few non-whites, and to condemn as “political correctness” any movie more diverse. It isn’t necessarily that they think to themselves that whites are superior, but they are likely to believe that it is “normal” to be more interested in white people (white people are “naturally” entitled to more attention, white people problems are more “interesting” or “universal” than the problems of non-whites, which are “particular” to those groups).

People drawn to racist explanations and assumptions tend not to be very good at perspective-shifting (they also get really uncomfortable with ambiguity and complexity). They not only see things only from their perspective, but the more racist they are, the less able they are to acknowledge that there are any other perspectives that might be legitimate. They might believe that everyone who disagrees is just pretending (but secretly agrees), or they might believe everyone who disagrees is an idiot, or they might believe that their way of looking at things is unbiased and universal and other ways are biased and particular. So, someone who looked at things that way would have trouble being interested in literature or films about people not like them—such art requires perspective-shifting, and they’re bad at it. They would be likely to think of their reaction as the one everyone like them has, so, if a white director made movies with a diverse cast, they would see that as deliberately pandering to people who don’t really have a valid perspective (wanting more diverse art).

But, again, they wouldn’t experience themselves as feeling any antagonism (except to “political correctness”), nor would they be aware of some sense of their race being superior—they would just want to focus on “people like them.”

People who tend to be racist tend to be drawn to thinking in black/white terms in general (they have trouble thinking in terms of continua, matrices, or probabilities). In fact, they often actively angry if you tell them a situation is complicated, as they think you’re being indecisive. They tend to believe that groups are meaningful (you can get most of what you need to know about someone by deductions that you can make from their group membership); they tend to think in terms of identities and motives (they essentialize people); they tend to dislike new music, new food, new genres (of literature, movies, TV), and new places (they get agitated by difference). They tend to be naïve realists. They have trouble admitting error, let alone learning from mistakes.

One more point about outgroups. It seems to me common for people to have two kinds of outgroups—a group that is threatening because it is cunning and scheming, and another that is threatening because it is animalistic. The first group is often represented as controlling the animalistic group, and the second is often thought of as in a binary of either submissive (like a domesticated pet) or in rebellion. When racists talking about that first group as “cunning” people can think it isn’t racism, since it seems to be a compliment; when racists talk about that second group as childlike and happy, people can also miss the racism (since they seem to be saying “nice” things about the group). Sometimes racists will praise submissive members of the outgroup, as though that shows they aren’t racist—but they’re only praising members who “know their place.” It’s still racism.

As you’ll see in the class, there is a lot of disagreement as to whether racism is a new phenomenon—some people categorize it as a kind of hostility to outgroup that is inherent to the human condition. I’m dubious, since other kinds of hostility to outgroups allowed conversion or assimilation. Because racism “naturalizes” the differences (that is, puts them into nature) there is no possibility of being treated as equal to the ingroup—the Other will always be Other.