Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Crystal Fleming Schools Me

Somehow, until recently I’ve missed Professor Crystal Fleming on Twitter. But suddenly she’s being retweeted in my timeline and I’m seeing her.

The following thread of hers has been occupying my thoughts since yesterday. In it, she's discussing a book called Two-Faced Racism by Leslie Houts Picca and Joe Feagin, in which they analyzed 600 journals kept by white college students:
One of the most interesting findings in Picca and Feagin's Two-Faced Racism is whites' reaction when other whites criticize their racism. While the authors note that the vast majority of whites don't criticize other whites' racism (they typically ignore, tolerate or encourage), Picca and Feagin show that on the rare occasions when whites do call out white racism, they are frequently censured and socially "punished.”

White racists frequently accuse whites who criticize their racism of being "offensive" or ridicule their "sensitivity" or lack of "humor.” When whites respond to white critique of their racism with apologies, they also typically issue denials (e.g. "I didn't mean anything by it.")

Picca and Feagin show that the small minority of whites who call out white racism "behind closed doors" report having to "work up the courage,” as they know their critique will disrupt the "white comfort" their peers are accustomed to maintaining in the absence of people of color. The prevailing need to maintain white comfort in all-white (or predominately white) spaces is a recurring theme in the text.

The authors also show that virtually none of their 600+ white respondents connect the racism they routinely witness to systemic racism.

Picca and Feagin show that *college-educated* whites fail to exercise basic logic and inference with regard to their observations of racism. That is, when college-educated whites aren't failing to recognize racist comments and discriminatory behavior in their everyday lives they are failing to generalize from their own observations of racism *even when they recognize racism*.

What makes Picca and Feagin's data all the more compelling and devastating is that they are analyzing whites' own self-reported behavior. By their own accounts, college-educated whites are frequently unable to deploy basic reasoning skills to recognize white racism. As most of their racial cognitive energy is concerned with proving they're "not racist," they routinely unsee racism even when they see it.

A similar argument is made by Shannon Sullivan in her book Good White People: The Problem With Middle Class White Anti-Racism. The main lesson most whites absorbed from the Civil Rights Movement wasn't that they have a personal responsibility to fight systemic racism but rather, that they have a responsibility to maintain a public appearance of being "non-racist" even as racism pervades their lives. That's what Feagin, Picca, Sullivan, Myers, Williamson and many other scholars have repeatedly shown through whites' own accounts.

Significantly, when whites censure other whites for racism, Picca and Feagin show that they often criticize whites for *public* racism. It's the *public* nature of the racist performance that's framed (by whites) as a problem: not white racism itself or systemic dominance. The same racist comments/behavior whites tolerate or participate in themselves behind closed doors become "problematic" in public. Thus, the problem, for many whites, isn't white racism or dominance — the problem is a failed public performance of being "non-racist."

Frankly, I think the data in this book demonstrate multiple reasons why whites' opposition to racism is unlikely to dismantle white racism. Obviously, great social pressure for whites to maintain comfortable relations with white peers, family members, colleagues and friends means that even those whites who hold anti-racist views must weigh social, psychological and material costs for opposing whites' racism.

I'm not aware of any case in human history of domination being dismantled by dominant group members "calling out" other members' behavior.

As long as whites continue to live highly segregated lives, they will have no personal incentive to "challenge" their own dominance. Picca and Feagin show that those few whites who do challenge white racism often have significant, serious relationships with people of color. (We're not talking about those "I have a black friend" white racists who use those same "friends" to prove they're not racist.)

While intimate bonds with people of color *can* play a role in promoting white anti-racism, just as often, white racism survives these bonds. That's why "interracial intimacy" is not a cure for racism: racial "intermixture" itself neither promotes nor ensures systemic anti-racism. But certain kinds of interracial friendships and relationships *can* promote anti-racism when parties involved can honestly confront racism.

That said, for the time being, whites have an overwhelming interest in maintaining dominance and power through segregation and group protection. Very few whites (indeed members of any dominant group) are willing to lose many of their family or friends for the "cause of justice.”

Jane Elliot [creator of the blue-eye/brown-eye experiment] has discussed how her opposition to white racism has cost her most of her white family and a lifetime of white exclusion. As most whites are not willing to pay this price, white supremacy persists as whites protect their material resources and intimate bonds.

One of the most depressing findings in Picca and Feagin’s study is the fact that those very few whites who call out other whites’ racism are heavily invested in seeing their white friends and family as “non-racist” even in the act of committing racism. In other words, even habitually behaving in a racist manner is not enough for most whites to label another white person “a racist.”

The layers of white racial denial are as hypocritical and illogical as they are absurd.
There are so many truths in this passage that I recognize and that resonate with my experience. From before I even knew there was a word like "anti-racist," I remember being told I couldn't "take a joke" by a relative whom I criticized for telling a racist story.

And that part about not disrupting white comfort is powerfully true. Let me say Fleming's words again: “Very few whites (indeed members of any dominant group) are willing to lose many of their family or friends for the ‘cause of justice.’” It's a lot easier to keep racism and white supremacy from coming up in your conversations than it is to deal with them and know it means being estranged from your family.

The performative aspect of being "non-racist" is something I have to think about more. This relates to virtue-signaling, I think, but it's more than that.

Fleming’s pinned tweet is the book's cover with these words: “My new hobby is reading this book in predominately white settings.” How brave would I have to be to do the same?


Crystal Fleming has a book coming out in 2018 called How to Be Less Stupid about Race. Sounds like a must-read. 

1 comment:

Michael Leddy said...

Someone near and dear to me has been endlessly frustrated online when trying to call people on their racism. The reply, always: I treat everyone the same; I’ve never discriminated. Total unwillingness to entertain the thought that they’ve benefited in countless ways from *systemic* racism. Yet they’d be the first to acknowledge that they’ve benefited from, say, being born in the U.S.

Jane Elliot’s question for white adults — How many of you would rather be black? — is a powerful one. I didn’t realize that her work has had such a great personal cost.