Tuesday, February 06, 2007


Boy read The Cay recently, and, being basically lazy, I looked up a discussion guide to go with it. During the search I discover the book has been both lauded as an anti-racism teaching tool and a heap of racist dung. So I look into it a little further and got sucked into a whole alternate universe. Did you know To Kill A Mockingbird is racist? Do you know what's wrong with Snowy Day?

The Cay is racist because it is written from the perspective of the white boy, and the white boy didn't change enough. To Kill a Mockingbird has Negroes (I use this word here because the critique I read used it) whistling past graveyards, a maid who really is a "happy slave" character, and a phrase that goes something like "lies as black as that boy's skin". Snowy Day isn't culturally specific to African Americans, Africans, Caribbeans, or anybody else who's Black.

I was shocked.

Now I have to decide if I agree with these assessments, which brings up a whole mess of questions. I have to know what racism is to decide if I think something is racist. There seems to be no hard and fast definition or too much consensus on the topic. It has something to do with stereotype, and denial and power. The best I can come up with so far (after much reading online) is that racism is when
1) a person in a position of power says that
2) someone who isn't in power can or can't do something
3) on the basis of stereotypes for the race of the person in question.


Which brings me to the whole stereotype thing. Because stereotypes are a little like myths- dig deep enough and you find a truth that's been abused. I'll pick on the Irish, because they're white. The stereotype is that the Irish are drunkards, yes? It's a stereotype, and we know the truth is that all Irish people aren't drunkards. Some are, some aren't. And yet, I had a group of Irish friends when I was younger, and the amount of booze they consumed on a regular basis was astonishing. Simply amazing. They would go to bars full of other Irish people who were putting back amazing quantities of beer, and they would drink lots of beer and sing. You think I'm making this up, but I'm not. Now, if I write a fictional story that includes Irish folks in America who drink a lot and sing in bars, is that racist? If I was Irish and I wrote that story would it change things?

(Updated) I have been stewing on this and I think it depends on some things. It would make a difference if I was Irish. It would make a difference if I said or implied the Irish were drunk because they were Irish, not because they were young and going through a phase and also just happened to be Irish, as was the case with my real world friends. Although, honestly, I wouldn't go near that with a ten foot pole because it would be so damn easy to miss the mark and perpetuate the stereotype.
(End of Update)

Here's a real life dilemma: I read a blog where a parent asked for advice on introducing her kiddo to spicy food. I put in my two cents, then suggested a few sites where I thought people who may have the same issue might be found, namely Kimchi Mommas and Turbanhead. Am I a racist? I am a member of the majority, which means I meet the first condition. How about the second? I have suggested she go to the blog homes of Asian or Indian people to see what they think. So I'm saying that Asian and Indian people can give advice about hot food because they eat it, yes? So I meet condition two. But, I didn't say that she would definitely find the answer there, and I didn't say that everyone who is descended from Asian or Indian folk eats spicy food. But have I implied it? And if I did, does it matter, because what's so bad about spicy food? And why didn't I direct her to a blog run by Latinas (if that's even the right word to use)?
In truth, what I was thinking was that the yummiest, hottest chicken I have ever eaten what made by someone who was visiting from India. I was thinking that Indian food is known to be spicy, as is some Chinese and Thai food. I was thinking that it made more sense to ask the question in a forum run by people from these cultures than one frequented by people who think Wendy's spicy chicken sandwich is hot.I was thinking she mentioned her in-laws were Thai.
I wouldn't have done this if I thought it was racist, but in the end I guess it doesn't matter what I think, because I'm white. It matters what Asians and Indians and Mexicans and Filipinos think. Doesn't it?

Does it matter that I try not to be racist? That I read Kimchi Mommas and Turbanhead to broaden my own view? Does intent matter?

(More updating)
Rosie says she didn't intend to be racist, and basically asserts that she wasn't. She is wrong, I'm pretty sure. It feels like what she did was racist. When I apply my test she meets conditions one and three, but I don't know if she meets two. What was it that she said (or implied) that Chinese(?) people could or couldn't do? She doesn't speak Mandarin, or Cantonese, or any Asian tonal language, so she used poor judgement and executed a poor imitation of what she thought those languages sound like. Which sounds like I'm defending her, which I'm not. I'm not saying she should have done that, I'm saying I don't understand how it fits the definition of racism. Poor taste, rude, insensitive, stupid, trashy, yes, but what is it that she's saying Asian people can or can't do? Do I need to change my definition of racism? I suspect that I don't understand what she did. Or maybe racism is just the wrong word, and prejudice or the like is what I'm looking for.
Maybe I'll ask some of the people I read to help sort things out. People with better brains than mine, and perhaps browner skin.
(End of Updating)

Honestly I don't know what to make of all this. I am in the process of walking Boy through this mess, but I haven't found my own way through it yet, so it's hard.

I have found many interesting sites and discussions. I'll post them later, my real world life will suffer if I blog any longer.

going to pee,


Gwen said...

Racism: that's a tough one. I remember some grad school classes that defined racism as having to do with power. So, if you aren't in a position of power, or the race in power, any prejudices you have can't be construed as racist. I think this gives a lot of dangerous prejudices more of a free pass than they deserve, but then, I'm white, so my footing is shaky. Sometimes I think that insult and effrontery is felt where none is meant. For example, being offended because someone pointed someone else to my blog re: spicy foods; well, it seems like getting in a snit for nothing. Like the Irish thing. It reminds me of the brouhaha over The Sopranos from Italian Americans. Are many mobsters Italian Americans? Yes. Does that mean all Italian Americans are in the mob? No. Are we really so very dim that we can't differentiate that? NO. A lot of offense seems to be based on the mistaken assumption of ignorance. But then, lots of people ARE ignorant. So we all are punished for the flimsiness of the weakest link. It's so complicated .....

Oh, hi! I've been reading your blog for a few weeks, since I followed your comments on mine to here (yes, Xanga does suck!) and now I finally start commenting and look how rambly and unhelpful I am!

ephelba said...

Well Hi! And it's not unhelpful to hear what you're thinking- it's awesome!
I think that sometimes people think prejudice is somehow "nicer" than racism, when in fact it's more like an equally nasty cousin of racism. You can still hurt people even when you aren't a member of the majority that it is power. All of it needs to stop.
Also, I should clarify that no one has expressed that they are offended by what I've done. Yet. I just wondered after the fact if I'd been racist by accident.