This wasn’t the first time I felt unwelcome at the mutton stand. In fact, it was the second time this server had ignored me while serving other customers. Just like the first instance, I initially assumed it was an accident, or at least that she had some other reasons for avoiding me, but slowly I started to wonder if it was my color. White people were not entirely foreign to these markets, but the vast majority of folks frequenting these stands were certainly Navajo. And it was beginning to look increasingly like this particular woman had no intention of doing business with me at all.
…which really sucked, because these guys made the best roast mutton in Window Rock!
What to do about it? In my younger days, my social tool kit was long on hammers and short on other options. I had enough sense to realize vocal complaints about unfair treatment of a bilagáana might go down poorly, but not enough subtlety to think of alternative ways to address the matter. As it happens, I didn’t need to think of anything to say. The other customers did it for me. A chorus of “He’s next!” greeted the woman’s next efforts to pass me by, some of their voices tinged with a sense of real irritation. I got my roast mutton that day. More than that, I felt a sense of reassurance. Although resentment of whites could be found in many varieties out on the Navajo Nation, so could a certain sense of fairness. On this day that sense of fairness won out and I got my mutton.
Let me start by admitting up front that I could have been wrong about the motivations of the woman who didn’t seem to want to serve me. Perhaps I read the whole thing wrong, and maybe my own behavior had somehow triggered her actions. Hell, maybe I really shouldn’t have been eating there in the first place. All this is quite possible, but I am going to ask you, dear reader, to accept for purposes of argument, that this was an instance of a Navajo woman treating me different (a little bit badly) because of my ethnicity. I think it is also an instance in which the members of her own community found this to be unacceptable behavior.
So here is the question, did I experience racism?
No, that’s not the question.
My real question is how do you go about answering that first question?
It seems to me that at least two radically different approaches to answering that question have become rather common these days, and it is getting more and more difficult for people using these different approaches to talk to each other about the matter. One way of going about it, which I will call the conventional approach (perhaps for no better reason than that it is the approach I grew up with) would be to raise questions about the motives and attitude of the woman who didn’t seem to want to serve me. Granting a certain range of answers about what she had in mind, someone taking this approach would say ‘yes’ I had been subject to racism. Another approach (let’s call it the social constructivist approach) is more common these days in academia and left wing politics in general. From this standpoint, it is best to inquire into the social power of the parties involved and then see how they use that power in respect of one another. Those adopting this approach might also want to expand consideration beyond the mutton stand to the larger patterns of history and contemporary politics. In most cases this approach would lead to an answer of ‘no’ to my first question, or even a ‘hell no’, perhaps with an additional lecture on the privilege of living in a world where slow service at a mutton stand is a moral outrage worthy of remembering nearly two decades later.
Okay, so let’s do this…
In the conventional approach, racism is a question of personal judgement and motivation. Racism consists in treating someone different on account of their race, and since all manner of people can do this, anyone can clearly be racist. The possibility of ‘reverse racism’ as it is commonly called is obvious enough with the only real questions being about whether or not this or that particular event illustrates some variety of reverse discrimination. Using this approach (and assuming I wasn’t missing something important), it is quite possible to affirm that I was subjected to racism on that day.
On it’s face, the conventional approach seems a perfectly reasonable take on the subject. People often use it to advance a genuine sense of moral obligation regarding how one ought to treat others, and by people here I do mean all kinds of people. Folks from all sorts of different backgrounds can and do frequently advance the notion that one ought not to treat people differently (or at least badly) on account of their race. This does strike me as a good thing, but the question is whether or not this is an adequate response to the problem of racism.
First and I think foremost, the problem with this approach is that it flattens the significance of discriminatory behavior, putting the denial of a mutton sandwich in much the same boat with minstrel shows, segregated schools, legacy contracts, Japanese internment, involuntary sterilization, lynching. and even the Holocaust. Hell, I felt a little nausea myself putting my mutton-stand story in the same sentence with all those things, but the absurdity of that comparison is precisely my point. Addressing racism as an issue of personal motivation doesn’t do much to help us understand the difference between petty gestures and genuine atrocities. It isn’t that people can’t understand that there is a difference, but this approach to countering racism creates a fashion of speaking about them which tends to put them all on equal footing, at least for a moment. If we then want to talk about the differences between a simple affront and something that genuinely oppresses whole groups of people, then that talk falls somewhere over and above the problem of racism.
Unfortunately, there is ample evidence that large numbers of people never get out of that fashion of speaking about racism, that large numbers of people never really get the difference between a lynching and an expression of petty personal bias. Indeed, some folks seem prepared to recognize racism only if it is first prefaced with ‘reverse’. Time and again, advocates of social justice find their concerns drowned out by talk of reverse racism and stories in which the under-privileged prove themselves ironically capable of being the bad guys too.
…and in the ultimate poetic injustice, being discriminated against too, becomes the exclusive cultural capital of the privileged.
Don’t laugh. A few pundits have become filthy rich working that very angle.
It is no wonder that persons of color and their political allies often want to do away with this fashion of speaking about racism altogether. The conventional approach to racism is, as many seem to suggest, a well far too poisoned with all this talk of reverse discrimination to be of any real use for understanding the larger issues of oppression and injustice in the world today. So, many of those interested in such issues have chosen to define racism as something that requires not merely prejudice but the social capital to put that prejudice into play with real and devastating consequences. Racism is from this point of view an expression of power, not merely an individual act, whatever its motivation. This is what I mean by a Social Constructivist approach. It’s a clunky phrase, and a grad-school cliché, but what the hell!?! It works.
It isn’t that people advocating the social constructivist approach don’t think minorities can be jerks; but they don’t see the myriad stories minority jerkitry as a meaningful part of the story of racism. From this standpoint, my mutton-stand story is simple a non-starter. The problem isn’t just the scale of harm (or the lack thereof); such stories are from this point of view a genuine distraction from the central issues of oppression that should be the focus of concerns about racism. It’s easy enough to get the problem with such stories in this kind of loose narrative; the problem comes in when people start trying to explain why such stories are as a matter of principle unimportant to the issue of racism.
Often folks taking the constructivist approach will say something to the effect that racism is about power and since minorities don’t have the power, they can’t be racist. This has always struck me as a terrible oversimplification, and I could only wish it were a straw man, or that its use were limited to less educated circles. But it isn’t.
To me, the core problem here is that the argument uses an awfully ham-handed sense of social power. We can talk of people having more or less power, but the notion that whites have all the power and minorities absolutely none of it is bordering caricature. For one thing, it doesn’t take a lot of power to hurt someone, and it is one of the perversities of racism that it may from time to time offer those whom it keeps from real opportunity the consolation of petty revenge against some unlucky fellow. Whether it is a personal punch in the mouth, a petty decision by a boss, or a politician playing to his own base, there are plenty of persons of color quite capable of harming those of another ethnicity. One must also consider the possibilities of scape-goating other minorities, or even minority groups within their own community. And finally, there is no reason to expect that racism must always mean hurting those belonging to the race that someone hates. Often as not resentments directed at whole groups of other people precedes a shot to one’s own foot, so to speak. The kind of social power which makes racism a problem simply doesn’t rest only at one end of the spectrum, even if acknowledging that fact let’s an unwelcome foot in the door. Acknowledging the possibility that someone other than a white person might have the means to hurt people on the basis of race should not be difficult, but in short-hand politics, it seems many are happy to simply discount that possibility.
…which is definitely taking liberties with the facts.
It isn’t that an emphasis on social power means abrogation of minority responsibility to others, and I don’t think many people mean to suggest that; it’s that one of the aims of an emphasis on the social construction of power is to put harm to the underprivileged back in the center-spot of opposition to racism.
All of this leaves us with one very big problem as I see it. Speaking of racism as something that is by definition an expression of the privileged cuts so far against conventional approaches to the subject that it amounts to quitting the field in a sense, abandoning the larger public discourse. Unless I am underestimating the extent to which social construction has reached the popular consciousness, that approach (with its complete disclaimer of the possibilities of minority racism) is a bit too foreign for most people to comprehend. The reasons for such an approach are well known in academia, and in many circles of left-wing politics, but they aren’t sufficiently well known to guide public perceptions. So while those adopting a social constructivist approach can talk in limited circles as though only the ignorant or malicious would even think of describing racism as something a minority could do, large parts of the public take it for granted that it most certainly is, and that lunacy or at least dishonesty are the only reasons anyone would deny it.
The notion that minorities simply cannot be racist leaves a silence in the space where one would normally raise questions about rude, cruel, or even genuinely harmful actions by minorities. Often, advocates of the social constructivist approach will concede that sundry examples of such behavior are terrible; they might even suggest alternative words to describe them. I hear it time and again, the notion that racism just isn’t the right word for it, but what that word would be isn’t so clear. So, the more reasonable folks taking the social constructivist approach are not really trying to insulate minorities from criticism, but they are working hard to ensure that criticism is divorced from an important source of moral value, opposition to racism. Arguably, what is lost in this approach is simply too valuable, and like it or not, there are legitimate reasons for addressing questions about racially motivated behavior by minorities, reasons that cannot be reduced to the effort to drown pro-minority politics in a deluge of petty complaints by the well privileged.
In the end, denying the possibility of minority racism does not just silence those milking the reverse-racism angle for more than its worth, it also silences people with real concerns and sincere questions about ethnic relations. All too often, the right wing pundits are happy to fill that silence with the suggestion that lefties are just bigots in their on right and that this whole fashion of speaking is just another attack on white people. That may seem a cop-out to many advocates of the constructivist approach, but unfortunately the cop-out is mutual. An awful lot of folks are finding more and more ways to avoid talk to each other about this subject, and even to find ways of speaking really loudly while not really talking to each other about it.
It is extremely important to make a strong case for the significance of social power in the history and politics of racism, but that case poorly served by word games. As certain voices work very hard to ensure the public can’t tell the difference between affirmative action and Jim Crow, a large part of the public is unsure what to make of the issues. The difference must be explained, and yes, perhaps explained again, because those working reverse-racism molehills into great mountains will go right on doing so. They aren’t the least bit phased to find that lefty scholars have adopted a way of speaking about the issue that side-steps their own gambit.
Far from it.
So, was I exposed to racism on that day so many years ago? Meh, …who cares? My real point is that I hear and read people talking about such questions in two very different ways, and more and more I meet people who seem completely incapable of bridging the gap between those ways of speaking.
It’s a problem.
Roast Mutton provided by a review of Sacred Hogan.