There is a great deal of consternation that gets kicked up over the terms “racist” and “misogynist” (I would also put “homophobic” in this category, but it is a special case). People who engage in racist or misogynistic behaviour, or who espouse racist or misogynistic attitudes, will furiously clutch their pearls and fan themselves feverishly whenever the dreaded “r word” or “m word” are applied to their behaviour. “But I’m not a racist!” they will cry “how dare you call me such a thing!”
Those who are thus rebuked have developed a fun new pattern of congregating to lick their collective wounds and lash out at those who have applies such ugly and hurtful labels to them. To them! Of all people! To be called such a hurtful thing! It’s beyond the pale!
It slaps pejorative labels—racist and sexist—on great segments of the population on the grounds of the skin colour and genitals they happened to be born with, and aims to radicalize other segments into a state of perpetual victimhood.
The above is sliced from a piece quoted by fellow FTBorg Avicenna. The original piece seeks to deny the existence of privilege by pointing out just how awful it is to be racialized as white, or gendered as male. It’s not an original argument, nor is it particularly well-argued – I will say that the writing is pretty good. Even so, I don’t recommend reading the whole piece (the original – not Avicenna’s; I assume you read everything he publishes) unless you have a lot of time to kill and some extra eyes to roll, but it’s the exerpted piece I want to expound upon a bit today.
This “pejorative label” meme has quite a bit of traction in conversations by aggrieved white men (although it is worthwhile to point out that the author of the original piece is not a man, and I have no idea what her racial identity is). To hear them tell it, there is no worse thing you can call a white person than “racist”; no worse thing you can call a man than “misogynist”. By throwing around these “labels”, you are causing such mental anguish and despair to white men who are “totally not racists“, and unfairly stigmatizing them. Not only that, but you take the ‘punch’ out of the “insult”, and drawing attention away from the “real racists”.
Let’s approach that last paragraph piece by piece, shall we?
“Racist” and “Misogynist” label behaviours, not people
Almost by definition, it is not “an insult” to describe someone’s behaviour. If someone has murdered someone else, it’s not “an insult” to call them a murderer. If someone has stolen or lied, it’s not an insult to call them a thief or a liar. The words “racist” and “misogynist” work in a similar fashion: if you engage in a racist behaviour, or you give voice to a misogynistic belief, then calling you “racist” and “misogynist” are not insults – they’re descriptions of the thing you are doing. You might feel insulted by the “label”, but that doesn’t make it “an insult”.
The “pejorative label” crowd usually chime in at this point with words like “slander” and “defamation”, showing at a stroke that they have only passing familiarity with the law. Slander and defamation are specific legal charges with a specific meaning, and pointing out that someone is doing racist shit does not meet the definition of either. It’s a good thing too, because otherwise the courts would be clogged by defamation suits filed by the likes of Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, seeking protection against the grievous harm being done to their otherwise-sterling reputations by such pejorative labeling. “Racist” and “misogynist” are subject to the same standard of proof that “ignorant” or “asshole” are: defined in the moment and, while undesirable and potentially damaging to one’s reputation, not defamation of character.
There are those who feverishly complain that their reputations have undergone irreparable damage as a result of being labeled as “a racist” or “a misogynist”. They offer no examples of such a case actually happening, and the only examples I can think of are cases where a person has said something racist or misogynistic and then either refused to apologize or worse, who have doubled down and confirmed the suspicion. Even then, there are always a chorus of fellow travellers who see the label “racist” as a badge of honour, because it is evidence of “political correctness gone mad”. Mitt Romney engaged in months of race-baiting, and still secured the majority of the white vote – I think your reputation will survive, random person on Twitter.
“Not a racist”
As I’ve said countless times before, the phrase “a racist” is meaningless, as is “a misogynist”. There is no standard, not even a colloquial one, by which someone goes from being “not a racist” to being “a racist”. In the moment that you are doing something racist, you are “a racist”; in the moment that you are doing something misogynistic, you are “a misogynist”. That moment ends the moment your behaviour ends; the alternative is that everyone who has ever said or done anything racist is “a racist” forever, which would include roughly 100% of the population, thus making the phrase useless as a descriptor.
The fact that you, as a white man, don’t believe that your behaviour is racist or misogynistic is similarly meaningless. By dint of your lived experience of race and gender, you are the worst possible judge of what is and isn’t racist or misogynistic**. You have had comparatively few experiences where you have had to adjudicate race- or gender-based prejudice, or where you’ve had to deal with the consequences of failing to notice. You have not spent your life awash in a constant tide of prejudicial judgments about you based on your race or gender, often at the hands of those who can deal serious damage to your life or livelihood. Put simply: the fact that you don’t personally think it’s racist/misogynistic is the least convincing evidence possible.
Concern trolling about “real racism”
The people who raise this great hue and cry over being called “racists” are often, judging by the stereotyped simplicity of their reasoning, having the first conversation about race that they’ve ever had. They don’t understand what racism is or how it works, but they are convinced of two facts: 1) that whatever it is, they’re not doing it, and 2) that there is a real version of it out there that everyone should be focusing their attention on instead.
I cannot imagine a more dishonest and craven tactic, to be honest. There are, indeed, more dramatic examples of racist behaviour than what some asshole says on a Reddit comment thread. If you’ve never spoken up about those before (as evinced by your complete lack of knowledge on the relevant subject), spare us your faux concern about the “real racism”. The differences between programs like Stop and Frisk and statements like “black people have a culture of poverty” are differences of magnitude, not of kind. They share a common root: racist beliefs. Similarly, the differences between the young men who raped a drunk woman in Steubenville and those who insist that she “wanted it” are differences of magnitude, not of kind, that share a common root: misogyny. Describing them using the same term is not to divert attention from the “real” examples: it is to note that they are merely different symptoms of the same disease.
The worst thing you can be called?
I have led a relatively lucky life when it comes to racism. I have not, for example, been set on fire or dragged behind a truck or been presumed more deserving of the death penalty. I have been called some pretty awful things, sometimes to my face, based not on what I’ve done or who I am, but because the speaker has some fucked up ideas about black people. I would wager to guess that most people of colour have had this experience, many of whom are not nearly so lucky as I am. I have also been called “racist”, almost always in ways I disagree with (and some circumstances in which the accusation was just absurd). I know which kind of “insult” hurts the most.
I cannot speak about misogyny from personal experience (except as a guilty party), but I would imagine that, had I lived a life of being dismissed as merely a sex object or a goal to be “achieved”, having my accomplishments put down, not feeling safe walking down the street, and having to constantly be on guard against assault (either verbal or physical), there are a lot worse things you could call me (and probably have at one point or another) than “misogynist”.
If the worst possible “insult” you have faced, or can face, is to have your racist and misogynistic behaviour described for what it is, then you are living proof that we live in a male-dominated, white supremacist society. There is no race-based or gender-based insult that is capable of making you feel what it is that PoCs and women feel when they are targeted. That’s not an accident: it’s evidence that the deck is stacked in your favour to begin with.
To petulantly demand that others not call you out for the things you say and do because it makes you feel bad is to demonstrate a complete lack of self-awareness. And while it is conceivably possible that the person calling you “racist” or “misogynist” is incorrect, you are not the victim of a great injustice – you are being inaccurately described. In the vast majority of circumstances I have seen, the person being accused of racism or misogyny is actually doing something wrong, and needs to check their own behaviour rather than launching into a lengthy protest about how hurt their feelings are.
But that’s what all this comes down to: people want to say and do racist or misogynistic things, they just don’t want to have to deal with the social consequences. They rail against the label, without understanding its meaning, because it is not fair that they should have to examine their own actions. Because they don’t personally believe their behaviour to be bad, that’s all the proof they need to know that those who would accuse them (them! of all people!) are motivated by a slavish devotion to “political correctness”, or simply wishing to “slander” people for “merely dissenting”.
You’re not being slandered. You’re not being unfairly labeled. Your reputation is not under attack. You are just being made to face the consequences for your actions and beliefs; a price that that, up until then, only had to be paid by the people on the receiving end of your abuse.
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*Actually, this is not so clear-cut in law, but for the sake of simplicity I am happy to stipulate that someone who accused someone of being a murderer in public without proof could be subject to a law suit.
**At the aggregate level. There are certainly white people who have grown up in places where they are racialized on a day-to-day basis, and in some rarer cases where their skin colour puts them at a disadvantage. These exceptions do not disprove the rule, however. They merely add context to a conversation where the ‘aggrieved party’ has decided to throw context out of the window in the first place.
Remember folks – gendered, racial and homophobic slurs are “just words”.
“Racist” and “misogynist” are Serious Hurtful Unfair Business.
I’m curious – what are your thoughts on “homophobic” being a special case?
I would say there are layers to homophobia – revulsion, femmephobia, heteronormaitivity – that are not in play in the same way. Plus people like to quibble over the whole “phobia” suffix.
I get tired of the ‘real racists’ dodge, as if the real racists we need to look out for are the KKK or the neo-Nazis. Not that those people aren’t blatantly racist, but I think the quieter, more low-key forms of prejudice probably do more damage these days just since outright hate and white supremacy groups have declined in numbers and influence somewhat (though they are still disturbingly popular.)
The other thing is you yourself don’t get to decide if you are racist, any more than you yourself get to decide if you are a jerk or not. Rare jerks will admit “I’m an ass” because if they were capable of that level of introspection and self-analysis, they would probably not be such a jerk. The same for the ‘how dare you say I’m a racist!” If you’re accused of saying or doing something racist, you should at least examine your behavior.
There seems to be this idea implicit in what you quoted that all white people or all males are being accused of being racist and misogynist. It really shows a lack of understanding of what those words mean and is a pretty serious distortion of why people and behaviors get labeled as ‘racist.’ I don’t recall any “PC Manifesto” that said “All white people are racists and all men are misogynists.” We’re all (even women and minorities) likely affected by racism and sexism, but typically, words like racist are reserved for people who are actually saying or doing something likely to cause damage.
There are some schools of thought in which all white people, by benefiting from a white supremacist system, passively engage in racist behaviour by simply being alive and failing to work against the system at every opportunity. There are similar schools of thought when it comes to men and patriarchy. There are also some who would claim that it is impossible for women to be sexist (not the same as misogynistic, in this case) and impossible for people of colour to be racist by definition, because they cannot participate in patriarchy and white supremacy by definition. These arguments are caveatted all to hell, and require more than a sentence or two to express accurately (which is all the original piece allots them). Needless to say, they are both quite far from mainstream and refer to specific types of interactions that are far removed from the complaint.
Yes. The problem is that we should reserve the word “racist” for “real racists”.
You know — the ones who give jobs to white people over people of color, but who aren’t “racist”.
The ones who make jokes about basketball players and NFL cornerbacks, but who aren’t “racist”.
The ones who move one seat over from a person of color at a bar, but who aren’t “racist”.
The ones who make fun of someone’s Spanish accent, but who aren’t “racist”.
The ones who laugh at racist jokes or look the other way, but who aren’t “racist”.
The ones who claim they have “lots of black friends” but when asked when was the last time they had dinner with one can’t remember, but who aren’t “racist”.
…. I suppose I’ll have to create a whole list for misogynists who aren’t misogynists, too. Because that crowd is just too dim to see how the analogy transfers. We could do this Jeff Foxworthy style I suppose.
If you tell dumb blonde jokes to a woman who happens to be blonde…you might be a misogynist.
If you think having a female boss is more difficult than having a male boss because female bosses are more arrogant…you might be a misogynist.
If you think a passed out girl who can’t consent to sex has, in fact, consented to being gangbanged by the football team…you’re a demented fuckwit misogynist.
I agree with that. I’ve heard people say that homophobia is grounded in misogyny, but I really don’t think it’s as simple as that, and as you said there are other layers involved. Also, homophobia as a word fails to really capture the prejudice against trans* and gender-fluid people the way heterosexism, cissexism, femmephobia and heteronormativity do. I appreciate you making this distinction.
The only word I can think of to capture the same meaning of “racist” and “misogynist” in the way you talk about them here is “bigot”. There are a lot of conservatives here in the States right now (with the SCOTUS cases) who are objecting to the use of the word “bigot”.
“Bigot” operates very similarly. People think that unless you are a raving hate-monger in all situations, you couldn’t possibly be a bigot. No, if you are saying or doing a bigoted thing, then you are being a bigot. It’s that easy.
I agree that everybody (white and not) are part of a racist system, and that racism influences us even when we don’t want it to and aren’t aware of it. Wish I could link, but I’ve encountered some interesting studies that more or less proves that. There’s evidence negative stereotypes have a negative impact on minorities even when they don’t consciously believe it.
For many people though, they dislike the notion that anything about their behavior or thinking is affected by broader social structures or that their thinking might be affected by unconscious biases. I think it shows a flaw in the belief in people as atomic individuals whose thoughts and actions are entirely under conscious control, and that people are fundamentally fair and rational and only the deliberately nasty are prejudiced. Part of the hostility is that it goes beyond just saying that a person who thinks of zir’s self as not racist might be racist, but that it’s an attack on the belief that their thinking isn’t totally in their own control.
Cool, I have to thank Rebecca Bradley for her awful post about privilege given its inspired Avi and Crommunist to write two great posts.
This labelling thing is just weird, the pittizens whine about how being labelled a misogynist will damage their careers while blithely ignoring that being on the pit is far more damaging. Just surreal.
Then there are the UKIP’ers here “disagreeing” about immigration. I had one complain I was infringing his free speech by calling him racist and trying to stop discussion and “disagreement” about immigration policies. Much like the pit his “disagreement” was not very cogent after being pushed it involved describing the infestation of “our” schools by “alien children”. Then went off on a rant about the “tyranny of abusive labelling” by us “leftists” after I said that was racist, which was rather amusing. Unfortunately it seems this “labelling” thing is a big part of their argument so thanks for a good link to refer to.
I’ll throw out something that I think you missed a bit. The whole thing about being “unfairly” labeled is that calling someone a racist or misogynist isn’t just a descriptor of behavior. It’s also a moral term. Maybe it should not be, but it is, just like “rapist” or “murderer” has serious moral implication.
I’m sure a lot of this all comes from the Protestant tradition we’re all steeped in that tends to privilege motive over action. But there it is.
It’s one reason why sometimes my own reaction is what you allude to when you say that if you describe a person as racist it means it logically applies to the whole population. I think a lot of people when they hear “that was racist to say” or whatever have trouble separating themselves from the action. So part of what goes through my head, certainly, is “is there anything anyone can do, anytime anywhere that isn’t racist?” and I want to throw up my hands and say screw it, I can no longer be bothered to care. Especially since it’s not like I asked to be born where I was and to whom. That was just blind, stupid, unfair luck.
That’s the kind of reaction you get, though, when someone like Dworkin says that all heterosexual sex is rape no matter what. Yeah I know, she’s not necessarily super-representative. But remember: if you say that, you’ve defined every male as a rapist, and then the males in question are likely to say “well, if I can’t ever be ‘good’ in your eyes, why bother?” Simply put most people aren’t thinking like cultural critics.
I guess I am thinking that while you or I might agree that “racist” describes a behavior, most people won’t react to it that way. And I admit it’s a bit to me like the “dictionary defense” that some sexist commenters use (or the endless “correction” people try to give in the use of the word “theory.”) “Racist” has colloquially become an adjective ascribed to people, and we’re sort of stuck with that. Just like “theory” has morphed from “model to describe phenomena” to “my best guess” in popular usage.
Fine, but if you actually do stop caring, then you’re no longer allowed to claim that you care, or that you want to help, or that you’re an ally. If you just simply do not care, then be up-front an honest about it. But that’s not what people do. They blame everyone else for making it not easy enough on them. They say that they’re being treated “unfairly”, when the actual truth of the matter is that they just gave up. This whole conversation is conditional. Nobody has a legal obligation to care about other people, but you do have an obligation (I would say) not to lie to others, or to yourself. And if you don’t care, then you’re invited to stay out of the conversation rather than trying to make the story about how you totally would have been the awesomest ally ever, except for all the mean things people said about privilege.
The other point here is that I think the truth matters. Things are or are not racist – they have disproportionate effects that fall along racial lines or they don’t. I am not a fan of calling them something else or pretending they’re not problems simply because some people lack the maturity and self-reflection required to see criticism of ideas as being separate from global evaluations of a person’s worth. This goes for “both sides” – if you think that someone fucking up once, or someone having a problematic attitude, forever stains them (whereas you are perfect and never make mistakes), then I have little use for you. All that means is that when you fuck up (and you will), your cognitive dissonance will not allow you to accept that you’re not pure, and you’ll engage in the same outward, radiating blame that you find problematic in others.
And if you’re doing things so that you will be perceived as “one of the good ones” among a minority group that your majority is oppressing, then I have similarly little use for your contribution. There are no cookies, there are no glittering prizes; there is only justice. That has to be its own reward.
EDIT: I say “you” a lot in the preceding paragraphs. I don’t necessarily mean “you jesse”, I mean a non-specific person who does these things.
Here’s Dworkin’s response to that comment about all heterosexual sex being rape:
Here’s a link to an essay that provides some context for that pervasive misquotation:
Not homosexual males.
That’s an option, of course. For you.
@Crommunist — just be aware, I was trying to describe what I know intellectually is not the way I or other people should react, just trying to acknowledge that my hindbrain isn’t always in accordance with the frontal lobes. I think personally we should all acknowledge that more. Especially self-described skeptics. 🙂
“And if you’re doing things so that you will be perceived as “one of the good ones” among a minority group that your majority is oppressing, then I have similarly little use for your contribution. There are no cookies, there are no glittering prizes; there is only justice. That has to be its own reward.”
If George Soros gave your favorite anti-racist group $1 million, would you care why? I wouldn’t. I ‘m not saying people should get “cookies.” But we are all hairless social chimps, you know? There are rewards given and punishments given whether we like to acknowledge it or not.
I’ll also say my bias is from my own family’s history of labor activism (which I didn’t take part in). But my dad was always rock-solid focused on what worked to get the votes needed, to get people out on strike, to get people to support various things. He did a lot of anti-racism work too, and I remember mostly his focusing (when talking to white workers) about what was in it for them. It was easier to just tell people that if you let the company pay black workers less for the same job it will be 5 seconds before the white dudes get less too. But maybe labor stuff requires a different set of questions and answers.
I think what I get concerned about is conversations that leave me, sometimes, thinking, “OK, now what?” Sometimes I feel it is like going to your doctor who says “you have cancer” and and you say “Oh wow, doc, should I get chemo? Drugs? Am I gonna die?” and his response is “cancer was caused by your smoking habit” and while that’s great, it doesn’t deal with the problem at hand.
Anyhow, the point I was making was that while the reaction you’re describing is not right it’s understandable given most people not thinking like you or I would. Just like I know that most people’s misunderstanding of how magnets work isn’t right but I understand why it happens.
I was raised by a family of Socialists, so that colors my view of these things a lot, and the fact that most Socialist countries were not places that people wanted to stay in (example: if the system in Cuba was so wonderful, why aren’t millions of people trying to get into the country?). it’s the conflict I have between what I idealize, what I want to believe is right, and real world effects. In other areas I try hard to make sure that I won’t be in a “be careful what you wish for” position.
This is especially true in cases where I agree with someone. If I agree with you I want to pick apart why I do and make sure it’s as rock solid logically consistent as I can make it. Maybe that’s a fool’s errand, born of too much time exposed to the “hard” sciences.
And I will further say that maybe the problem is just despair and a dose of cynicism. Maybe everyone else here has always been 100 percent behind the cause and never had any doubts about anything ever. If admitting to these thoughts makes me a weak and horrible person, a non-ally, well, so be it.
Maybe my reaction is not unlike a deeply religiously-raised person who has lost their faith –or at least has doubts. I’ll cop to that.
@mythbri — thanks for the clarification. The problem I think, though, even seeing its context, is that you still run into problems at a theoretical level but that’s kind of a different discussion.
I don’t agree with anything that Andrea Dworkin has ever said or ever will say, but I tire of that misquotation (it comes up a lot among anti-feminists).
It’s not perfect, by any means, but I don’t want to see it misrepresented.
@mythbri – i hear you.
Sheesh. I just noticed that I said “anything” in my #14 when I meant “everything” – as in:
Apologies for any confusion.
Ooh! I love this bit; it resolves any disagreement I’ve had with you over the use of phrases like “a racist” (context: Ian has claimed it’s mostly a poorly-reasoned use of language because it essentializes a description of behavior as an intrinsic characteristic of the person in question, while I’ve argued it can be useful in the same way as other essentialized descriptors, such as calling someone who routinely practices science “a scientist” or someone who advocates a system of communism – but perhaps can’t actually practice it – “a communist”). I’m 100% on board with the idea of it only describing someone accurately in a transient sense, while such person is actively engaged in racist behavior. Thanks very much for coming up with a solution (or phrasing I can wrap my head around, if this is what you’ve been intending to communicate all along; sometimes it just takes saying something in a slightly different way for one – in this case me – to get it).
Actually, it’s all great, but that part in particular is directly relevant to me, and as a straight White man, everything is always about me. 😛
@13: Quick note – people weren’t flocking to Cuba because, in part, it’s a totalitarian regime. Democratic socialism and anarcho-socialism are things. I think you might be ascribing causality to the wrong ideological tenet here.
Actually, the ones I looked at have pretty strict measures against immigrating.
It’s embargo’d to hell and you have to ask? I don’t even think Cuba’s great, but the system can’t be that bad if, in spite of a totalitarian dictatorship, being a very small nation geographically, and the active antagonization of the western world, they manage to match the USA in an eerie number of standards of living.
Considering privileged people refuse to understand the difference and insist that they weren’t BEING RACIST EVER THAT IS A HORRIBLE THING TO SAY, I’m not convinced it’s a very relevant distinction. I prefer ‘more’ or ‘less’, or other adverbs, but that doesn’t really get privileged people paying attention either.