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Fighting the Derail Since March 2009
How to Discuss Race and Racism Without Acting Like a Complete Jerk 
28th-Feb-2010 11:02 pm
wood cat

This essay is based on a talk I gave at Boskone 47 (2010) of the same title. It is a work in progress (last updated June 2011; see comments) and I welcome comments and critique, though I take final responsibility for all contents.

The intended audience is people who have not seriously and critically thought about race and racism before, or are just starting. It is split into two parts, steps to take and things to consider. It is fairly long—it took about thirty minutes for me to deliver live, and I've added a little here and there—but the steps are very short and simple.

First, an important disclaimer:

To borrow a phrase from oyceter, I am not the Magical Minority Fairy. In fact, there is no Magical Minority Fairy. First, anyone may screw up despite having an excellent anti-racist track record. I cannot bop you on the head with a wand and declare that you are A Good Person (TM) and therefore you never need to worry about screwing up and saying or doing something racist. Second, racial minorities (persons of color, non-whites, pick whichever term you find least problematic) are not monolithic: people have different knowledge, different perspectives, and just plain different opinions. "So-and-so said it was okay!" is not, and should not be, an automatic exemption from discussion and criticism. (It is possible that it is relevant, but that's not the same.)

The Steps

And now, here are the steps that I think will prevent the vast majority of complete jerkitude that I have witnessed in discussions of race and racism:

  1. Don't insult people in terms that you wouldn't use before your boss, your parent, your grown child, or the person whose good opinion you value most.
  2. Avoid the following very common red-flag statements:
    1. "I don't want to sound racist, but."

      If you find yourself wanting to say this, the odds approach certainty that what you are going to say is racist. Don't.

    2. "I'm not really sure what this is all about, but."

      If you find yourself wanting to say this, the odds are extremely high that you are about to say something unconsidered and, as a result, stupid. Ask yourself why you feel the need to speak about something you don't know about and why you can't inform yourself first.

    3. "Why can't you just enjoy (some work of art)? Why do you have to analyze it?" (Alternatively, and more broadly: "Why do you have to be so serious?")

      This boils down to a statement that other people shouldn't express their opinions, but that you get to express your own (by telling them what they should do). Don't.

      (See also Moff's Law, for an angrier and more thorough response to many such comments.)

  3. Link to ongoing discussions to provide context so your readers can judge for themselves.
  4. Don't lie.
  5. Don't delete evidence.
  6. Sit on your hands for several hours, preferably overnight, if you want to leap to the defense of someone or something.
  7. Don't, except in very rare circumstances, connect online happenings with someone's offline life (out a pseudonym, post home addresses and phone numbers, contact an employer, etc.). A possible guideline is that it should only be done to protect your safety or the safety of others, not to punish or as a debate tactic. In any event, it is an irrevocable step that demands thorough and calm consideration.
  8. Bonus: if you decide you were a complete jerk in the past, apologize. It's never too late, and it does matter.

The observant will note that these are, in part, restatements of vito_excalibur's excellent guidelines from a highly-relevant post that I recommend reading in full:

So to recap, you're saying that I can make stupid racist mistakes in front of God and everybody, and still probably avoid the naked conga line of fail, as long as

1) I don't respond to the people calling me out by insulting the shit out of them, and

2) If I must talk about what people are saying about me, I link to what they're actually saying, and don't lie about it?

Those steps, I hope, are pretty simple.

The Things to Consider

The things to consider are somewhat more complicated. This should not be surprising because thinking and talking about racism is not only complicated but outright hard on a whole lot of levels. For an excellent explanation of why, I very emphatically recommend reading "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?": And Other Conversations About Race, by Beverly Daniel Tatum. For Americans, I think this is the single best place to start your attempts to not act like a complete jerk when discussing race and racism. It is a general-audience book about the formation of racial identity, and it is clear, concise, compassionate, and illuminating.

(I suspect that much of this book is still valuable for non-Americans in "Western" society, but I would like to hear from any who have read it.)

For the rest, let me employ the handy list format again:

  1. People notice more when it's about something that matters to them.

    We've all experienced this phenomenon, from very trivial things like noticing all the cars on the road that are the same as the one you just bought, to emotionally painful things like suddenly finding yourself surrounded by stories of people dying of cancer. The same applies to racism (and other forms of marginalization): people who are subject to racism are much more likely to recognize it, especially because white people are taught that even noticing race is rude.

    Just because a person of color asserts that something is racist doesn't automatically mean it is. But you should seriously consider whether their perspective has shown them something that you have missed.

  2. Discussions of race and racism are usually long-running, repetitive conversations.

    Everyone knows that there are discussions in communities that come up over and over again. The examples I use in a fantasy-fannish context are "Who is Tom Bombadil?" and "Who killed Asmodean?"—if you've been discussing Lord of the Rings or The Wheel of Time for any length of time, you have seen these conversations before. And you also know that people will react differently when a new person comes in and wants to talk about them: some people will be thrilled to go over all the evidence again starting from primary sources, others will summarize, still others will say "Dude, read the FAQ," and the rest will simply stay away. And which category people fall into may vary from day to day.

    The same applies to discussions of race and racism, except even more so because talking about race and racism is hard: it can be, in varying degrees and at different times, frustrating, draining, painful, and even dangerous. Further, the burden of explanation tends to fall disproportionately on persons of color because of the prior point.

    In short: when reading or engaging in a discussion of race or racism, do not be surprised if people's levels of engagement vary from lengthy conversations, to a link to a collection of bookmarks labeled "for clueless white people", to a suggestion that someone Google it.

  3. "Racism" and "privilege" are often used to mean very different things by different people.

    Generally speaking, those new to discussions of race and racism, especially white people, associate "racism" with conscious, deliberate, active malice. Anti-racism activists, on the other hand, most often use "racism" to talk about a pervasive system of race-based advantages, such as subconscious attitudes, institutional and structural characteristics, and active malice. To put it more bluntly, when someone says, "hey, that was a racist thing to say," they are not necessarily accusing the speaker of being A Bad Person (TM).

    "Privilege" is a term of art that means the automatic, unsought, often-unacknowledged, and unrejectable advantages that accrue to favored groups in society. People may have one kind of privilege while not receiving another. For instance, while I am not white, I am heterosexual, cisgendered, able-bodied, young-looking, upper-middle-class, and not overweight—all of which give me advantages over people who do not, or are not perceived to, share those characteristics. Again, since privilege is automatic and unsought, having it does not make someone A Bad Person (TM).

    "Your privilege is showing" generally means something like, "you have made the unconsidered and erroneous assumption that your advantages are shared by everyone else."

  4. You are not required to do all of your processing in public.

    People's understandings of and positions on race and racism can evolve very slowly. I know this personally, both from my own experience and from conversations with others (I had a friend who, literally two years later, said to me "hey, that thing you said before? I agree with you now. Thanks for discussing it with me."). It is often hard to recognize the pervasiveness of racism and the effects it can have on you. This is partly why Beverly Daniel Tatum wrote a whole book on the formation of racial identity.

    You are not required to go through all the steps of understanding racism and forming your racial identity in public. If you are still figuring things out, it is not wrong to think on your own, to lock or filter posts, to e-mail friends, to talk to people you know one-on-one. I am not suggesting that you ought to act like a complete jerk behind people's backs. I am suggesting that talking in non-public spaces will greatly reduce the odds of your thoughts becoming part of a wider discussion with strangers, which will greatly increase the odds of you feeling hostile, defensive, and/or angry, which will greatly increase the odds of your acting like a complete jerk.

    On the other hand, there are times when it's important to speak, when your silence contributes to an oppressive atmosphere. A very simple example is this open letter from the Carl Brandon Society, in response to Harlan Ellison's violation of steps 1 & 3. It is true that it's very easy to sign onto a statement saying that egregious behavior like Ellison's is wrong. But it's equally true that if such behavior isn't condemned, then the resulting message is that the community doesn't care enough about racism to bother. So the effect of cumulative silence is worth taking into account when you are considering whether to speak in public.

  5. The line between intersectionality and derailing can be very fine.

    Intersectionality: the overlapping, interaction, and interrelation of different oppressions.

    Derailing: wrenching the conversation away from its original topic to talk about something that, almost always, is more comfortable for the derailer, thereby diminishing the importance of the original topic. For more information, I highly recommend Derailing for Dummies; its tone is more sarcastic than this essay, but it is excellently precise and informative.

    I cannot give you any bright-line rule for when pointing out an aspect of intersectionality becomes derailing, because there is none. But, first, you should be aware that people often say "well, what about X?" because, whether they realize it or not, they are uncomfortable talking about racism. Think about whether this applies to you.

    Second, it may be useful to preface your discussion of X with an acknowledgment of its source in a discussion of racism, along the lines of, "This post springs out of a discussion of racism in Semi-Famous TV Show going on at link, link, and link. Those posts are very thought-provoking and I highly recommend reading them first. When it comes to TV Show's disabled characters of color, though, I think that ablism is also present along with the racism, and I want to talk about those stereotypes and the way they interact with the racism already being discusssed."

    (Note: as I am not the Magical Minority Fairy, this is not the Magical Always-Effective Disclaimer, because once again, there's no such thing.)

  6. Intentions aren't the only thing that matters.

    (Last one, and it's short.) Suppose I step on someone's foot. They say, "hey, ouch, you stepped on my foot."

    My proper response is, "Gosh, I'm sorry. I'll be more careful."

    My proper response is not, "Well, I didn't mean to step on your foot, so why are you angry?!"

    Note: I should also consider whether I was being irresponsibly careless in the way I was walking, or, to be less metaphorical, shooting my mouth off about things I didn't know enough about. But the bare minimum to avoid complete jerkitude is to recognize that if you hurt someone, then that hurt exists whether or not you meant to cause hurt.

I hope these steps and considerations help you as you try to avoid acting like a complete jerk in discussions of race and racism. There's lots of further reading out there: for online things, I recommend sparkymonster's resource lists at Scribd as a concise starting point and the copious links collected at ibarw's delicious account for breadth and depth. (ETA: in June 2011, after WisCon, I posted a set of panel reports on modes and methods of discussion, which may also be of interest: Vigorous Debate, or Verbal Harassment?; The Body Language of Online Interaction; FAIL!; general thoughts.)

1st-Mar-2010 04:14 am (UTC)
I'm bookmarking this entry, I think it's a pretty thorough introduction to things I've tried to explain to people new to racism discussions but couldn't articulate myself enough. So, thanks :)
1st-Mar-2010 06:02 pm (UTC)
You're welcome, and thanks for letting me know you found it useful!
(Deleted comment)
1st-Mar-2010 06:02 pm (UTC)
Hope you got some sleep, and you're welcome!
1st-Mar-2010 06:56 am (UTC)
In addition to #4, I'd actually suggest that you don't do your processing in public. This doesn't mean you shouldn't talk about race in public, or that you should contribute to an oppressive environment. It just means that the unfiltered Internet may not be the best place to do your processing, particularly if you don't feel ready to make a statement, or if your processing involves a lot of personal incidents you may not want to expose to the greater public just yet.
1st-Mar-2010 06:09 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I think so.
(Deleted comment)
1st-Mar-2010 06:09 pm (UTC)
1st-Mar-2010 02:11 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much for this.

Oh, and for this section: I very emphatically recommend reading "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?": And Other Conversations About Race, by Beverly Daniel Tatum. For Americans, I think this is the single best place to start your attempts to not act like a complete jerk when discussing race and racism. It is a general-audience book about the formation of racial identity, and it is clear, concise, compassionate, and illuminating.

(I suspect that much of this book is still valuable for non-Americans in "Western" society, but I would like to hear from any who have read it.)

I kiss your feet and will buy the book. I'm not American: thank you thank you for remembering that some of us are not American.
1st-Mar-2010 06:10 pm (UTC)
I don't always do as well as I should on that, but I am trying. Thanks for commenting!
1st-Mar-2010 06:24 pm (UTC)
You made my day, quite seriously.
1st-Mar-2010 05:24 pm (UTC)
Brilliant and very useful. Practical. Sensible. Accessible. Doesn't pour oil on the flames. Gets the point across.

I may use this when teaching my Feminist Ethics course when some of my students will say things like "but I have enough to deal with in my own life; I don't want to think about all this other stuff."

I will give credit.

Thank you.
1st-Mar-2010 06:10 pm (UTC)
Thank _you_! Glad you found it useful.
1st-Mar-2010 07:33 pm (UTC)
I love this. The links are awesome, and you've done an excellent job of breaking something complicated down into a few simple rules which, really, are such slight extensions of common sense. Thank you.
1st-Mar-2010 09:26 pm (UTC)
You're welcome, and thanks for commenting!
2nd-Mar-2010 06:28 am (UTC)
Oh, excellent. Will bookmark this for distributing in any Racism and Privilege 101 conversations I have in future.
4th-Mar-2010 03:34 am (UTC)
2nd-Mar-2010 06:22 pm (UTC)
The Tatum book was definitely good to me, I’ve absorbed enough American culture by osmosis that it wasn’t difficult for me to understand the context.
4th-Mar-2010 03:34 am (UTC)
I'm very glad to hear it. Thanks for the information.
3rd-Mar-2010 01:48 am (UTC)
This is awesome. Thank you so much!
4th-Mar-2010 03:37 am (UTC)
You're welcome, and thank you!
3rd-Mar-2010 12:46 pm (UTC)
Adding to memories so I can use it FOREVER. Thanks!
4th-Mar-2010 03:37 am (UTC)
Glad you found it useful!
3rd-Mar-2010 08:11 pm (UTC)
Thanks. Mostly this was stuff I already know (though I think you're the first person I've personally seen discuss the fine line between intersectionality and derailing), but it's still helpful to go over it again and again, sanding the rough edges down a little more each time.
4th-Mar-2010 03:37 am (UTC)
You're welcome, and yes, you're probably not the target audience, but I'm glad it was helpful all the same.
(Deleted comment)
7th-Mar-2010 04:24 pm (UTC)
willshetterly, I do not want you to speak to me. The only reason you have not been banned here before is because it never occurred me that you would have the arrogance to show your face in a community that was created in large part because of your hateful and harmful derailing. Goodbye.

Edited at 2010-03-07 04:25 pm (UTC)
17th-Mar-2010 12:49 am (UTC)
Thank you for compiling this essay. I particularly like Intentions aren't the only thing that matters. The example given makes it so clear.
17th-Mar-2010 07:46 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you found it useful, though I should say that I'm sure I didn't come up with it on my own.
5th-Jun-2011 02:15 am (UTC)
June 2011 updates: added don't delete evidence and offline life to steps section (#5, #7); slightly expanded #2c. Rephrased intentions under considerations section (#6) principally to add new last paragraph.

Edited at 2011-06-05 02:30 am (UTC)
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