Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Is Civility Really Asking "Too Much"?

I came across the following article in the International Journal of Intergroup Relations entitled "For White People, on How to Listen When Race is the Subject," by Beth Roy. Generally, I think it is a well-written, necessary, and important article.

So, before I discuss my point of contention, I think it is necessary for me to preface my disagreement by stating my specific points of agreement with this article. For instance, I agree that we "live in a society situated within troubled forms of power" that is "laced with dehumanizing notions of pathology." I see this, and sometimes experience it, in the way that women, people of color, and LGBT people are branded as non-default, wrong, and/or sick.

I agree with Roy that, because the white experience in the world is thought of as the norm, conversations about race between white people and people of color are necessarily asymmetrical. Because of that, I agree with her that, in discussions about race, white people should meet people of color more than halfway. Anyone who is considered a default human has more to learn and more to hear from those who live their lives as non-default human beings. "Others" already know about the experiences of Default Humans in the world, because these representations are everywhere. They are in our television shows, are music, our textbooks, our "history," our songs, our comics, and they are in our leadership. The experience of the "other" is not. Those who are default have to put effort into experiencing, seeing, and knowing what reality is like for "others."

And, I agree that many white people possess some degree of "white guilt," feel fear about unintentionally coming off as or being "racist," and are resistant to the idea that they personally possess tangible race-based privileges.

I agree with all of that.

Yet, Roy continues:

"Many people of color have already suffered so much emotional pain and worked so hard in the ways I've described just to get to the decision to speak out, that when they do it is often with passion. To be angry in the face of oppression is a courageous and wholly normal thing. Rage is not pathological; it is an expression of the human spirit. How rage is expressed may be problematic. It may be raw, accusatory, judgmental, personalized. It would be helpful to many white listeners if the person feeling anger were willing to speak in a gentler voice. But under the conditions of racism that exist in our society, it is asking too much to insist that those oppressed by racism find and use a non-threatening voice."

At the risk of the rest of the post coming off as overly-preachy and holier-than-thou, I say everything that follows with an acknowledgment of my own personal triggers for anger, which would be heterosexist and anti-feminist bigots. I am so not perfect in being able to always successfully contain my anger, but I do try. So, while I agree that rage is a normal and natural response to oppression, I have to resoundingly disagree that acting out that rage, even verbally, is somehow justified. In fact, I think that arguing that "it is too much to ask" people of color, or any other marginalized group, to contain their rage (a) can backfire, (b) can dehumanize them and (c) condones their failure to remove themselves from the cycle of violence.

One, I know that Roy's article was targeted towards white people who care about racial oppression. I appreciate that, because there are many white people who are trying to think about issues of race in a sincere, thoughtful way. However, there will always be a segment of white-privilege deniers and racists who will condemn the expressed rage of people of color and will then use that rage as an excuse to not actually address the substance of the arguments and experiences of people of color.

To illustrate how the expression of justified anger can backfire on a movement, we can look at the LGBT rights movement. After Proposition 8 passed in California, I think that many in the LGBT community were very hurt that yet another state passed another symbol of our pathological status as "other." The natural reaction to this hurt and misappropriation of power by the heterosexual masses was anger. Rage, even. I found none of it surprising. Anyone with any understanding of humanity would not be surprised by anger as a response to such dehumanization. Emotions are not "wrong." Our anger was justified. "Marriage defenders" took away the right for same-sex couples to marry, not because it has any real impact on their lives or anyone else's, but just because there were more of them and they could.

Yet, in the post-Prop 8 period, many "marriage defenders" were very surprised by what they hyperventilated as the Mobby Rage of the Homosexualist Masses. While I know that they characterized our peaceful protesting and mobilization as nothing short of Domestic Terrorism, I also know that, any time any gay person said something remotely aggressive, "marriage defenders" pointed to the anger of the LGBT community and used it as further evidence that we were pathological, evil, inherently bad, and undeserving of equal rights.

It would have been nice, of course, if "marriage defenders" would have met us (even) halfway in understanding our anger, but that's not a realistic request. Instead, anti-gay bloggers advised us to Just Get Over It and organizations like the monomanic National Organization for Marriage (NOM) built an entire narrative in which the poor heterosexual majority was now being oppressed by the Incredible Power of the Angry McCarthyist Gays.

Two, to justify the expression of rage under the idea that one is just so oppressed that one cannot help but to express anger is to dehumanize a person. It is understandable, justified even, as to why those whom are "other-ized" by society would feel anger. Yet, to say that it is to "expect too much" for such people to not express anger, to not be hostile, and to not speak in a threatening manner is to deny the basic goodness of humans. Animals act on impulse. As humans, we have the capacity for self-reflection, for being aware of what triggers us, and for not acting out anger that we may be feeling. None of us is perfect in this regard, I'm certainly not, but essentially telling people that their aggression is okay because other people did it to them first is a dangerous and unacceptable proposition. It's not about packaging things the right way so as not to "offend" white people, it's about accepting that every human being, no matter how much harm has been done to him or her, has a responsibility to end aggression and violence.

Which brings me to three. While I agree that those who have the privilege of not being viewed as "other" have a duty to meet "others" more than halfway, I do not believe that "others" are justified in expressing rage in problematic ways. As human beings, we all need to acknowledge our capacity for violence, because as humans no one is immune from feeling anger. As such, everyone, no matter how oppressed, has a duty to recognize that and remove her or himself from the cycle of violence. Violence, even verbal aggression, has to stop somewhere, doesn't it? There isn't a single person alive who is, or should be, off the hook for not putting more aggression into the world.

All that being said, I see how some could feel that my criticism lets oppressors off the hook in some way. Perhaps I have focused too much on the wrongdoing of "others," as opposed to the wrongdoing of those who hold power that is inherent in being considered a default human. So let me add that, too often, default humans- whether they are white, heterosexual, male, able-bodied, and/or Christian- point to the reactions of "others" as though it is evidence of inherent pathology rather than evidence of the cycle of violence. It is an unfortunate tendency, but default humans often act as though they are magically outside of the aggression, when the reality is that they are often a key part of it. Whether this act is real or feigned, it helps oppressors maintain the "naturalness" of their own power and legitimacy.

So, I don't think that, at any point, we should forget that those who are not "others" are often the instigators of violence and aggression. As those who hold more power than "others," they have more power to do harm and, through little more than the sheer, brute numbers of them, they often do so in clumsy and reckless ways. Denying their own privileges, they don't understand the concept of cause and effect when it comes to their own actions. Criticizing "others" for having a Victim Mentality (tm), default humans fail to recognize or take responsibility for their own aggression and, in turn, end up convinced that it is they who are victimized by the anger of "others" for no reason at all.

If anything, it all shows us how humans, whether we're "others" or defaults, aren't so different from each other after all.

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