Tag Archives: racism

Myths about bigotry: respectful disagreement

“Over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed in the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negor's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice: who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” — Martin Luther King Jr, Letter From Birmingham City Jail (1963)
Quote from Martin Luther King Jr, Letter From Birmingham City Jail, 1963 (click to embiggen)
I always feel a little nervous posting anything on Martin Luther King Jr Day, as I don’t want to co-opt another marginalized community’s hero, day, or message. Especially after seeing several people of color on my various social media feeds caution against talking rather than listening. But during his life, King said more than once that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and I believe we have entered a very dark time in our nation’s history where all of us who believe in equality for everyone need to stand together. So while I may be a white guy, as a queer person I have some experience with oppression and believe that I have a responsibility to use whatever gifts, privilege, and platform I have to promote justice.

A lot of people, not just the moderates that Dr. King talked about in that quote from Letter From Birmingham City Jail, rationalize and deny the existence of bigotry by making appeals to certain fallacies. Academically, we often state those myths as five fallacies:

  • Individualistic Fallacy: racism/homophobia/antisemiticism/etc is perceived as being only interpersonal, ignoring the systemic structural realities (such as underfunded schools)
  • Legalistic Fallacy: the belief that abolishing racist/homophobic/religious laws automatically ends the bigotry.
  • Tokenistic Fallacy: the inference that the presence of members of the marginalized class in influential positions in society proves that all bigotry has ended.
  • Ahistoric Fallacy: the belief that the denial of basic rights in the past has no lasting effect on subsequent generations (“but slavery is over!”).
  • Fixed Fallacy: assumes there is one and only one kind of discrimination, not recognizing new forms that emerge in context of societal and legal changes.

There’s an academic paper that explains all of this: WHAT IS RACIAL DOMINATION?, by Matthew Desmond & Mustafa Emirbayer of the University of Wisconsin—Madison, if you want to get into it. It’s rather long and involved, but if you open the PDF at the link and search for Five Fallacies you can jump right to their discussion of the fallacies. The paper is focused on racism, but the fallacies apply to all kinds of bigotry.

All of those fallacies contribute to that preference for an absence of tension rather than a passion for justice that Dr. King talked about. It’s the classic “Can’t You Get Past it/Live and Let Live Fallacy.” Or maybe another name could be the “Respectful Disagreement Fallacy.” It’s the belief that as long as a person isn’t physically attacking you right this moment, and is framing their critiques in polite-sounding language, than it can’t possibly be racist/homophobic/antisemitic/misogynist/etc.

So the bigot talks in dog whistles (coded language that doesn’t sound overtly like bigotry to people who don’t know the code), claims to respect or even feel love for the community targeted by their language, and if we point out that they are being racist or misogynist or antisemetic or homophobic, we’re the ones causing a problem. And people who think of themselves as moderate or enlightened turn on us. They don’t just look the other way from the bigotry and bigoted policies that the community is enduring, they actually enable it.

Which means they’re part of the problem. They’re not being neutral. They’re not seeing things from both sides. They’re not being nuanced. They’re oppressing other people.

I wish there was a simple solution. I wish I had some words of wisdom. Instead, I’m just stuck with this regrettable conclusion, having to try to educate people who don’t think they’re being an enemy.

“Over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed in the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice: who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
— Martin Luther King Jr, Letter From Birmingham City Jail (1963)

Indigenous Peoples Day

native-american-quote-indianSeattle, where I have lived for thirty years, is one of many cities in the U.S. that have declared October 12 Indigenous Peoples Day. In Seattle the ordinance declaring the new name for the holiday was signed into law 364 days ago, which means that today is the first time we’re officially celebrating it here. There are a lot of good reasons we should consider getting rid of Columbus Day: Christopher Columbus was a lost sadist. There shouldn’t be a holiday in his name and Columbus a problematic historical character: unreliable navigator, relentless self-publicist, chaotic colonial administrator, and probable mass murderer. Which makes many ask Why is Columbus Day still a U.S. federal holiday?

When I was a kid, I don’t remember any of the school districts I attended giving us the day off. Columbus Day was a day we talked about the very white-washed version of his “discovery” of the Americas. I used to work with a man who was born on Columbus Day, and what he loved most about it was that where he went to school it was a day off, so he and his friends always got to go to the movies or something similar on his birthday.

94842cae33908dd208ad90a2a0b1df5fAny problematic figure can represent a teaching opportunity, of course: Ángel González: I’ll be raising a glass to the adventurer whose legacy shows how Hispanic culture and the United States are inseparable, in glory and in shame. And it must be noted that simply changing a holiday’s name doesn’t necessarily solve real problems: It’s been a year, but improvements for Native American services are off to a slow start.

And of course some people wonder Why Do We Celebrate Columbus Day and Not Leif Erikson Day?

I have neither a clever nor wise conclusion to this. I think it is sad that there are people who defend Columbus Day, and not at all surprising that many of them are the same ones who bitch about so-called illegal immigration with absolutely no self-awareness of the irony of what Columbus and other European colonists did to Native Americans. But I do believe that names matter, just as truth and understanding matter. So, count me as one of the people who thinks the federal holiday’s name, at the least, should be changed.

If everyone ignores it…

The not-terribly detailed sketch local police released of the possible suspect.
The not-terribly detailed sketch local police released of the possible suspect.
Last week someone set off some kind of explosive device outside the office of the Colorado Springs branch of the NAACP. This happened the day before news broke of the shootings in Paris, which completely overshadowed any reporting on the bombing, so you may not have heard of it. A week later, we still know very little about what happened. The FBI is investigating. Local law enforcement is searching for a person seen fleeing the scene.

At least some people are arguing that the NAACP bombing doesn’t deserve more extensive coverage because no one died. But the firebomb didn’t kill anyone only because the main gas can didn’t ignite. Yes, that means the attempted terrorist is incompetent at bomb making (or at least at deploying the bomb), but incompetence can still kill. The incompetent often kill more people than the competent, they’re just more likely to kill unintended targets.

The effort to which some rightwing groups are going to in an attempt to claim that the bombing didn’t actually happen doesn’t jibe with claims that the story isn’t being covered merely because no one died. When known racists start claiming that the people of color are making it up, that’s a pretty good indication that a lot of less obvious racist forces are also at work trying to sweep things under the rug.

Not to say that there is a vast conspiracy. There are several reasons this story doesn’t lend itself to the circus-like atmosphere of a good 24-hour news cycle story.

  • No one died. Because no one died, the networks can’t show you pictures of the victims. There are no images of grieving relatives to exploit. There are no images of bodies in body bags they can show you. There are no images of ambulances gathered around the site of the attack.
  • The amount of damage done was minimal. There are no dramatic images of a burnt-down building, or smashed windows, or collapsed walls that they can plaster on the screen again and again.
  • Authorities don’t have a specific suspect, yet. They especially don’t have any images of a suspect that falls into any of the usual categories we like to trot out as the perpetrators of such a crime. No mug shot-esque photos of swarthy-skinned men with middle eastern-sounding names that the talking heads can repeat over and over.
  • No hate groups have taken credit. There is no dramatic footage of protestors on the streets. They can’t dig up old stories of past incidents involving the group to repeat again and again to fill up time on their broadcast.

The media has certain narratives it knows how to exploit, and at the moment this one doesn’t neatly fit into their favorite terrorism narrative. While there are reasons to believe it is a race-motivated hate crime, we don’t yet have the details that fall into the media’s typical narratives for those, either.

Those things all contribute to the lack of coverage, but they aren’t the only reasons. Race-motivated crimes against people of color, when the perpetrator is believed to be a white guy, are always dismissed as the actions of a single, disturbed individual. Even when a bunch of people die. So in case like this, when, thankfully, there are no casualties, hardly anyone is going to give it a second thought.

But if we don’t give it a second thought, we’re just enabling the next incident.

How could they? How could we?


I was raised by a racist jerk.

My dad is such a stereotype that people didn’t always believe me when I described him. To this day he regularly throws around the n-word, refers to the latino men who work on his crews as “wetbacks” and “spicks,” refers to any eastern asian-looking person as a “gook” or a “chink,” and so on. He will go on and on about all of the bad qualities he believes each of those groups share, if you let him. It is simply toxic to talk to him. The fact that he also speaks with a pronounced Oklahoma drawl, and that his conversation is peppered with words and phrases people associate with the south is just icing on the redneck cake.

My dad is the kind of racist that is almost too easy to spot. Guys like him make it very easy for the rest of us to pat ourselves on the backs and congratulate ourselves on being more enlightened. Because compared to him we clearly are.

But that doesn’t mean we aren’t racist… Continue reading How could they? How could we?

The true face of who?

The true face of Santa Claus.
Face reconstructed from the saint’s skull, and five traditional icons (click to embiggen).
So, a Fox News person (Megyn Kelly) made the incredible claim, on a 10pm news show last week, that Santa Claus was white, and that African American children may feel uncomfortable with a white Santa, but the real Santa was white, because he was a Saint in Greece, just like Jesus was also a white man, and so people who write editorials about having Santa portrayed as a person of color need to just suck it up, because you can’t go changing historical facts because they make you uncomfortable.

If you go watch the video, you will see that I’ve actually made her argument slightly more coherently than she did.

Anyway, there are so, so many problems with that, and John Stewart on the Daily Show hit most of them in a far more funny and succinct way that I could. But there are some points John didn’t get to… Continue reading The true face of who?

Why do we need exemptions, exactly?

Boys painting homophobic slurs, but it's okay because it's their religion.
Religion excuses everything (http://brucegarrett.com)
So, the Senate passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, but everyone is certain that the Republican leadership in the House won’t let it come up for a vote.

And, actually, that’s a good thing. Because the Senate added more religious exemptions to this version of ENDA than it has had for the nineteen years it has been kicking around in the Congress. The religious exemptions it had were different than the religious exemptions granted to any other federal legislation, and they were crazy then. The additional ones essentially gut the law…

Continue reading Why do we need exemptions, exactly?