Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Is there a new word to add the sociological dictionary?

Discussions of racism and sexism (or any *ism, really) in mixed company can easily become heated, especially if some people in the discussion try to combat the notion that we are “all in the same boat.” I don’t think the emotional charge of the discussion comes so much from what is being described as how it’s being described.

Usually, people trying to combat the notion of us “all being in the same boat” will use one or more of the following words: power, privilege, oppression. The “all in the same boat” or “reverse *ism” people will usually counter by using words such as victim mentality or whining.

Gender and race relations aren’t that difficult to understand. I think most people understand sociological phenomenon quite well, as examples are usually not argued with—it usually the meaning made of the examples that is cause for debate, offense, and possibly denial.

The problem, as I see it, is the lack of a proper word to describe a sociological problem that can’t be accurately described with the phrases “It goes both ways” or “We’re all in the same boat.” The word power isn’t exactly accurate to describe race or gender relations, nor is privilege. To say “you have power” with the implication “I don’t have power” makes the sociological problem too simplistic. To counter this claim, all the person who “has power” has to do is give an example of how the “powerless” has some kind of beneft the “powerful” doesn’t. The same limitation of the word privilege applies as well. The word oppression also makes it sound as if the “oppressor” is doing something deliberately malicious and invites the “oppressor” to accuse the “oppressed” of having a victim mentality.

I don’t know what this new word is, but I’ll try to explain why I think we need one, lest the status quo remain, wherein many Whites and males in America (the same may apply to other countries as well, but I can speak only for the US) feel hedged in by “political correctness” and accusations of “power,” “privilege,” and “oppression”; while many non-Whites and females in America (same disclaimer) feel frustrated by what they perceive as apathy, denial, and ignorance. Clearly, there are problems (again, at least in America) with regard to gender and race. Almost everyone knows there are problems. But we need a vocabulary to talk about these problems without making it personal.

I will say, as someone who has seen both sides of this debate (as a male “oppressor” and as a non-White “oppressed person”), that no one should take anything personally in these discussions. When feminists talk about the patriarchy, they are talking about a culture that both men and women perpetuate that is more than a collection of sexist actions by individuals. Likewise, when antiracists talk about systematic racism, they are talking about a culture that both Whites and non-Whites perpetuate that is more than a collection of racist actions by individuals.

Let’s take a break from race and sex for a moment, though. I can already anticipate the blood boiling of some of my readers. I know Hari is dying to talk about dowry harassment again.

I’ve always worked in schools. I’ve worked in many schools, and I know that not everyone in a school is equal. There are students. There are younger students and older students. There are students making good grades. There are students about to fail out. There are faculty members. Some faculty have been teaching for years. Others are new. Some faculty are prized by the community. Others are on the brink of being fired. There are staff members. Some staff have a higher position than other staff. Some staff get paid more than other staff, even though they work the same hours. There’s a principal or head of school. And there may be a board of trustees or some kind of school board. Maybe a superintendent.

In a school, I wouldn’t exactly say that the teachers are more privileged than the students. Yes, the teachers can come and go without getting a hall pass. They don’t have to have “senior privileges” to go off-campus. They get paid to be in school, whereas the students have to pay (through taxes, tuition, or both) to go to school. Nevertheless, you could argue, I guess, that faculty don’t have the same privileges students have. If a faculty member’s performance is poor, she may get a warning and a little support, but basically she’ll end up fired if it continues. It’s not difficult to be fired if you’re a teacher, even if you’re trying your best.

It is, however, quite difficult to fail out as a student if you’re putting in any kind of effort. When you’re a student, everything revolves around you. You do what interests you. If you aren’t doing all your work well, you are the only one who suffers. If you’re a teacher and aren’t doing all your work well, all your students suffer.

Do teachers have more power than students? Ostensibly so. If a teacher tells an administrator or another teacher “Jenny was cheating on her final exam,” most likely the administrator or other teacher will believe that Jenny has cheated. Teachers can make arbitrary rules students have to follow. Teachers decide how much work students have to do. On the other hand, if a student tells an administrator, “Mr. Neruda touched me inappropriately and tried to have sex with me,” that student has pretty much ruined Mr. Neruda’s teaching career, whether the charges are true or not. A student can fail out of school or get kicked out of school and still get an education at another school. Once a teacher has been accused of sexual misconduct with a student, that teacher is very likely not to get a job teaching again… anywhere.

Are students oppressed? Not really. They can’t make the rules. They’re often considered less credible than the teachers. But the school is really all about them. If the students’ needs aren’t getting met, the staff and faculty are expendible and can be replaced.

Of course, there are limitations to this analogy as it applies to race and gender relations. After all, one could easily sum up what the teachers have that the students don’t have with the word authority. You can argue with power and privilege, but ultimately teachers have authority, and students don’t. Even when a student accuses a teacher of sexual misconduct, the student has to be believed by other adults, not by peers alone. You can’t say White people have authority and non-Whites don’t. Nor can you say men have authority and women don’t. Or if you do, that would be only one small part of the problem.

I don’t know what the solution is. All I know is that we aren’t all in the same boat, and I don’t really know how to convey that without people accusing me of having a victim mentality or of misusing the words power and privilege. I do know that it’s important to realize that we are all dependent on each other and that sociological phenomena is not a zero-sum game. White people were not better or happier people in 1850 in America than they are in 2008 in America. Men were not better or happier people in 1900 in America than they are in 2008 in America. But you would think they would have been if the words power and privilege applied. After all, if you consider me to have power and want me to give up that power, then I have less power. If you consider me to have privilege and want me to give up that privilege, I have less privilege.

All I know is that with all the fighting, backlash, more fighting, concessions, denial, arguments, and semantics debates, sociological problems are staying just the way they are. I don’t want America to be a place where politicians and celebrities make racist and sexist remarks or “jokes,” get protested by various activist groups, and then give a token apology or retraction.

Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

Race Relations: Is Progress Impossible?

Sometimes it seems impossible. Sometimes the riffs and tensions go untalked about. That’s why I like movies like White Men Can’t Jump that have characters who aren’t afraid to reveal the stereotypes they hold about one another, that have white characters who can talk explicitly about their whiteness. I know someone doing a research project about Samuel L. Jackson. In all of his interviews either he or the interviewer somehow brings up Blackness—is it hard being a Black actor? What about this Black/white scene? But how often do you read interviews with white actors where their race becomes the central focus of their identity? And some white people have the gall to say there’s no such thing as white privilege.

Hold on. I’m going to take a step back, because I wanted to talk about progress in race relations, and even though I am speaking the truth, some white person reading this is already thinking, “An angry, white-hating reverse-racist Asian bastard mouthing off. I’ve heard it before.” The point I was trying to make is that sometimes we need to just say what’s on our minds. I know white people, behind closed doors, with no people of color around, talk about how “The Chinese really are…” or “Not that I’m a racist, but have you noticed most Black people…” And people of color do the same thing. Most people of color in America, not just African-Americans, have a fear of white people, and most, for most of their lives, are (rank-wise) underneath some white person, if not many… bosses, patrons, teachers, supervisors, the media, whoever it is, watching them… they can’t be too radical, too political, too angry… I’ve tried it, believe me! When you’re a person of color in this country, you can’t say what’s really on your mind.

And I’ll take the other side of the coin, too… I know white people can’t say what’s really on their minds either. Everybody harps on political correctness, not because it’s a bad idea, being sensitive, being progressive… it’s just that you can’t force it on people without explaining the reasoning behind it. Some of the most bitter people in America are 20-30-something white, straight male protestants. All of a sudden they can’t be ignorant or insensitive—they have to watch everything they say.

So we have white people bitter and repressed and people of color bitter and repressed. And then Newsweek and Time act all surprised when there are race riots. Why? I’m amazed the riots are not all over the place.

One interesting instance of the explosion of racial tension is the impetus for my writing this article: an incident at a prestigious liberal arts college in America known for its activism. Every April there’s an Asian Awareness Month, and to kick off the month there is a convocation.

The school newspaper covered the convocation using a Jewish-American reporter, who probably had three term papers hanging over her head plus a deadline. A convocation doesn’t seem a serious event: she can take a few notes, talk to a couple of people and write her article in a half-hour (all of this is my assumption of her situation). Then the angry letters came in from Asian-Americans on campus, primarily those heavily involved with the campus group sponsoring the convocation but also some others. The outrage seemed to be directed specifically at the writer of the article. They called her journalism shoddy, called her ignorant, told her she was perpetuating racism and misunderstanding.

Then, floods of letters from (I assume, white) friends of hers vouched for her efforts, saying that she is the nicest person and that she means well and really tries to research her articles as best as she can and doesn’t appreciate the personal attacks.

But the attacks kept coming. The school newspaper, a mostly Jewish-American-run paper, definitely kept out a lot of anti-reporter sentiment, because, as is the natural human instinct, they were protecting their own (in more than one sense). Then the Asian-American organization on campus published their own supplementary pamphlet to the school newspaper, with previously edited or non-published material, expressing due outrage at the offending article.

In the midst of all this, I was wondering, “What does this all solve? Will the writer of the article really be enlightened? Will the campus? Does this make the Asian-American community appear any better in the eyes of the campus at large?” I read the critiques of the article. They made a number of valid points, about the continued exoticization of Asians or those of Asian descent, the perpetuated image of angry minorities with strange concerns, among others. Then I thought, “Why was it when I read the article, it didn’t shock me… it didn’t stand out to me as being weird?” It’s not that I don’t have the critical skills to tear apart a piece of writing, analyzing all the sociological implications, etc.

Then, a new light on the whole situation dawned on me. There’s so much repressed, usually unexpressed, anger and misunderstanding between white people and people of color that the minute a certain key incident sparks one or both parties, they’re out for blood. Nobody wants to enlighten anyone. Nobody wants to understand. I can sympathize with the Asian-American group’s objectives, being an Asian-American myself. But I did not see as productive the singling out of this one writer. This is counterproductive. For one thing, all the attacks on this one person further perpetuate this image of people of color as angry minorities who just want to bitch and gripe. Secondly, direct attacks on one person end up demonizing that one person and making her responsible for a racist system. That’s why the article, with all its faults, didn’t strike me as odd. It’s the journalistic and racist quality one can expect from almost any white-run publication but specifically from that particular school newspaper. If anything, the school newspaper and the general white American mentality should have been the object of attack. After all, what produced this white reporter’s ignorance? I do believe her friends that she was well-intentioned and worked hard. I also believe she is a racist and ill-informed about minority issues. I don’t believe it is just her, and I don’t believe it is her choice.

We need to stop jumping down each other’s individual throats, and we need to start expressing our offensive beliefs more explicitly. When we look at the big picture, and we talk when we are not fighting… maybe then, there can be racial progress in America.