Sunday, June 1, 2008

Your Racism Makes You Anxious? Awww, Poor Baby!

From NPR:
A new study from Northwestern University's Department of Social Psychology finds that many whites worry about inadvertently getting into trouble for seeming biased. As a result, says study author Jennifer Richeson, Caucasians seek to avoid situations where bias might be revealed, such as in the company of black people...

How to make interracial interactions less anxious? "We need to get out of the business of giving the scarlet letter brand of 'bigot,' " Richeson says. That type of label is really not useful, she says, citing the example of Don Imus drawing fire for racially charged comments about the Rutgers women's basketball team in 2007. Imus later met with the Rev. Al Sharpton, one of his most vocal critics, and insisted he's not a racist.
Whoa! NPR and Prof. Richeson, I'm going to have to just stop you right there. Are you really willing to say that white people's insecurities about exposing their own racists attitudes should be handled more delicately? And Don Imus is your example? The man called the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos" - this wasn't a joke between friends gone wrong, he wanted to insult these women and framed his insult in racially and sexually demeaning terms. If people are going around saying that sort of thing, they need to know that it is absolutely not okay.

Perhaps, rather than encouraging people of color to say nothing in the face of racist comments, we might instead focus on teaching all people to respond more productively when we are made to acknowledge our prejudices. In particular, it seems like Prof. Richeson, her interviewers, and the people she defends might all need to go over rules 2 and 3 again, as laid out in Alas, A Blog's useful guide, "How Not To Be Insane When Accused of Racism":

2) Take the criticism seriously - do not dismiss it without thinking about it. Especially if the criticism comes from a person of color - people of color in our society tend by necessity to be more aware of racism than most Whites are, and pick up on things most Whites overlook. (On the other hand, don’t put the people of color in the room in the position of being your advocate or judge.)

3) Don’t make it about you. Usually the thing to do is apologize for what you said ... resist your desire to turn the [conversation] into a seminar on How Against Racism You Are. The subject of the conversation is probably not “your many close Black friends, and your sincere longstanding and deep abhorrence of racism.”

Unfortunately, the whole NPR interview with Prof. Richeson is pretty shallow and insulting. At its best, it suggests that we perhaps need to think about the way we apply the terms prejudice, bias, and bigotry. At worst, it is a ridiculous ploy to shame people into silence. As for the "study" that prompted the interview - there is no link to the actual data, but it reportedly involved only 30 people. The methods are not described.


FeministGal said...

I'm disappointed by NPR. They usually impress me but this is not good, at all. I'd love to read the "research" they cited (or didn't really site based on your post). Methodology aside, the whole idea is a bit ridiculous:

"Caucasians seek to avoid situations where bias might be revealed, such as in the company of black people..."

Um... Wha Wha WHAT?!

Avoiding POC, in itself, is racist.

The researchers' "advice" (and i have a HARD time calling it that) is to "get out of the business of giving the scarlet letter brand of 'bigot,'" Um... NOOOOOO. Calling out racism when we see it is the ONLY way to go about it. Ignoring it or silencing each other teaches absolutely NOTHING. Oh my gosh, this really made my blood boil...

On a positive note, i especially like your advice: "Don’t make it about you."

I think this is super important. When you (not necessarily you, but you as in all of us) are questioned about something you say that reveals prejudice it's really important not to make it about you. Because it's not. Clearly it offended someone and clearly you were in the wrong, even if you didn't mean it the way it came out or you truly aren't racist/sexist/homophobic/ageist/etc. The point is you should stop, listen, and learn rather than try to defend yourself.

And really, they couldn't find a better example than Don Imus?! REALLY?! That hurt their already illegitimate point even further.

La Pobre Habladora said...

Usually NPR is really thoughtful, but based on this interview it seems like the 'Bryant Park Project' is meant to appeal to a differnt radio audience. Perhaps that's why the interviewers were so appalled by Don Imus's fate, they'd like to emulate the success of his content-free show. (Clearly, this dumb piece made my blood boil as well).

As for the advice on how people should react when confronted with their own racist attitudes, I wish I could take credit, but it comes from Alas, a blog. I really recommend the whole post on how white people should respond to allegations of racism, it is a far more thoughtful conversation than that based on the 'study' covered on NPR.

Imus, of course, broke both rules... he dismissed the criticism without considering them (if he had considered them, he would have seen how gross they were), and immediately tried to make Rev. Sharpton vouch for how 'not a racist' he really is. Ugh. As if Rev. Sharpton were in the business of passing out 'free to be a racist' vouchers.

Casmall said...

I listened to that NPR show and I could help feeling that the people doing the interview were the ones who identified with this fear.

La Pobre Habladora said...

You are right, these kids are looking for a reason to shut up anyone who might tell them not to say something. But they could have had enough 'fear' to have thought about what they were saying before getting on the air, and it would have been a good thing. This idea that the 'fear' of being judged is anything like the fear that comes from living in a society that is permitted to be hostile against your racial or ethnic group is simply idiotic.