Well, some people are, anyway. There's been a lot of talk about race . . . I guess always, but even more now that Obama's about to be president. Today at The Edge of the American West Eric linked to a video that he found at postbourgie that originally came from Ill Doctrine*. Jay Smooth speaks plainly about why it's more constructive to discuss actions rather than essence, an idea I've been pushing for years but have never said as well as he does in this video:
I think he said everything he needs to say on this point, but I'd like to consider just one aspect of it a little more deeply, and that aspect is this: Why is it important to call people on spreading racism?
I do think it's important that people be held accountable for racist remarks, but maybe not for the most obvious reasons. Focusing on peoples' "feelings" or on trying to avoid giving offense are, for the most part, the first two stops on this bus route. But while I think it's better to not contribute to peoples' negative emotional states, that doesn't strike me as a compelling reason to decry racism. In fact, I think it causes a problem brought up in the video: it makes it too easy for the accused to dismiss the argument as frivolous. Being offended isn't the same thing as being violated, so someone who's inclined to bristle at freedom-of-speech sensitivity isn't going to engage with that as a serious idea, and that's where that line of argument becomes counterproductive.
Does racism cause psychological damage to people? I think there's little doubt that institutional racism has caused serious psychological damage, but more importantly, it's contributed to serious physical damage and has negatively and unnecessarily impacted some peoples' pursuit of happiness. But a single remark? Maybe not, other than to the degree that it contributes to or exacerbates the institutional problems. But I'm neither a psychologist nor a sociologist, so take my assessment there with a grain of salt.
My problem with racism is that it's a generalization, and in most cases a malicious one. The problem with generalizations about people are (generally--ha!) wrong. Not morally wrong, though I suppose they could be that too, but incorrect. There will always be some (most?) people in a purported category who don't conform to the generalization, unless that generalization is a tautology, and then it's just useless.
Another problem I have with generalizations is that they fit way too well in the classic conservative strategy of defining the "Other." For every issue, the conservatives draw a line between "Us" and "Them" and then further define "Us" as those who believe/do/say the Right (hehe) thing and "Them" as those who believe/say/do the Wrong (Left?) thing. It boils down to essentialism, which is the problem with racism, and is the exact problem Jay Smooth identifies as problematic in labeling someone a racist. It doesn't help the argument. Especially in politics, where there is no Us and Them--just Us and More Us.
But the most irritating aspect of racism, of sexism, of generalities, of essentialist arguments is this: they're unnecessary, they're unhelpful, and they're avoidable. There's no sense in even invoking them.
I'm pretty sure I forgot some of what I meant to write here, but this is a blog post, not a dissertation. If more needs to be said (or refined, or corrected) we'll get to it.
*I love how the internet spreads this stuff. I'd never heard of postbourgie or Ill Doctrine before today, but a quick perusal of each tells me that I'll probably return to both.