Posts Tagged ‘race’

Sunday Morning Live, the BBC’s somewhat disorganised weekend discussion programme currently taking the place of The Big Questions, was less unbearable today than it sometimes has been. In fact, I made it through the whole hour.

The subjects discussed were no less contentious and potentially frustrating than ever, but the balance of opinions expressed seemed to veer nearer the sane this morning. Or maybe I was just more awake, and thus more able to articulate my complaints coherently, avoiding the need to simply make some angry noises and switch off.

The primary topic of conversation was John Terry’s recent court victory, in which he was cleared of “racially abusing” another player. Thanks to their commitment to delicacy, the BBC’s own news report on this is rather pleasing:

It was alleged he had insulted Mr Ferdinand in a Premier League match, describing him as “black” and using extreme sexual swear words.

The latter charge is added, as if accusing the man of being black weren’t already bad enough.

The Guardian are less restrained, but the circumstances of the court decision still seem a little convoluted. As far as I can tell, it was never in dispute that Terry uttered the epithet in question, and was addressing Ferdinand while he spoke – but Terry was apparently quoting back words spoken to him, not directing them in the form of an accusation. The context was something like:

What’s that you say? “Fucking black cunt”? No, I think you must be mistaken; I did not refer to you as a fucking black cunt.

At least, there was enough doubt as to the tone and context of the remark that a not guilty verdict had to be returned.

In any case, the debate around the issue has largely been dominated by two camps: those who think that hateful and demeaning language should be strictly policed (while fully supporting people’s right to free speech, of course, with only a minor caveat about “responsibility”), and those who herald free speech as the virtue in most vital need of protecting and refer to playground adages about sticks and stones in order to make their point.

I find myself in uncomfortable company on either side.

In this particular case, I’m not sure I see much point in bothering the magistrates in Westminster with it. There’s no evidence Terry said anything constituting incitement or harassment, so it doesn’t seem to me like it should be a legal matter.

The FA will be continuing their own inquiry, and it seems appropriate for the higher-ups in the field of professional football to come to their own decisions about Terry’s continued involvement. His behaviour was, after all, monumentally out of step with the traditions of camaraderie and mutual respect that typically characterise English football, so if it’s decided that his totally unprecedented expression of belligerence renders him unfit to participate further in the sport, he’s only got himself to blame.

But the free-speech and settle-it-privately arguments shouldn’t be the end of the conversation. The Sunday Morning Live show was still frustrating, because nobody seemed to be drawing the distinction between “unacceptable” and “should be illegal”. It seemed as if legal recrimination were to be considered a vital part of any response to offensive speech, if it should merit a response at all. On the other side of things, nobody legally defending Terry’s words seemed to want to condemn them morally.

Which you really can do, you know. It’s not even that hard. I don’t want John Terry to go to prison because of whatever he said to Anton Ferdinand, but I also don’t want to pass up the chance to point out that his actions make him seem like an obnoxious tit, who is doing far less than someone with his social influence could be doing to counteract the atmosphere of racial disharmony that continues to pervade this country.

The problem with pinning all the importance of the matter on free speech became clearer when one guest suggested we simply be more “mature” about childish things like name-calling – directing this suggestion to the people who make such a fuss about being called names, of course. Once you’ve blamed every victim of verbal abuse ever for having the weakness of will to get upset when dehumanising insults are hurled at them, it may be time to re-evaluate your priorities.

And the problem with leaping to the defence of the beleaguered by ensuring they may never be attacked in such a way again without criminal sanctions being imposed is… well, that you start having people taken to court for possibly referring to a colleague in a competitive game as a “black cunt”.

Which seems like something that’s half empirically true, half a matter of valid opinion.

Racism is an insidious evil. It needs to be watched for and guarded against, and its role in many crimes needs to be considered, as well as its corrosive effect on our attitudes to other human beings. Sometimes – often, in fact – invoking the coercive arm of the law is not the best way to respond to it, but on those occasions we need to respond to it ourselves.

Most racism doesn’t need to be forced out of the public arena by laws that stifle free speech; it needs to be made negligible and irrelevant by the rest of us shouting over it.

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(Reposted from my other blog, which I might just start doing as a matter of course.)

The release of the film The Hunger Games highlighted some worrying examples of othering recently.

Certain responses – from a very limited segment of the fan-base of the books and the film, no doubt – to the casting of black actors in major roles were disheartening, and actually quite shocking. You really don’t expect to hear things like this being said so brazenly in this day and age, except from devotedly hateful extremists.

But the comments listed on that post, and this tumblr compilation, seem to be more lazily thoughtless and tribalistic than actively racist.

Awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not the little blonde innocent girl you picture

I’m still a bit lost for words at this. I can’t quite get my head around the necessary sequence of events. First, this person must have experienced a feeling of crushing disappointment at realising that a character she’d read about had dark skin (even though, I’m told, this character’s skin colour is explicitly described as such in the book). Further, it must have entirely failed to occur to them that the qualities she originally admired or appreciated in Rue might still be present – that the colour of her skin might be no hindrance whatever to this young girl being innocent, or likeable, or courageous, or charming, or quick-witted, or whatever she’s like.

And then they must have decided that publicly expressing all these unfiltered prejudices was a perfectly fine thing to do.

Some black girl.

Absent but strongly implied, of course, is the word “just”. Just some black girl.

Not, like, a girl girl. Just some black girl.

However you might have told the story to yourself while reading it, I don’t understand how you can have this reaction to encountering an entirely irrelevant racial disparity, and believe that it’s an acceptable reaction to have.

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– I support men’s rights. This is not what I mean by that.

– It’s not a Cracked list, but this summary of the 7 Worst International Aid Ideas is still pretty tragically funny in places. Where it isn’t just tragic.

– Turns out Facebook aren’t too thrilled about employers demanding your passwords either. You know it has to be pretty fucked up for Facebook to be unequivocally on the right side of a privacy issue.

– Man, some white people really love to get racially offended.

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From the “I forgot to find time to write about this when it was topical” file:

There was an article on Forbes recently, which missed the point in some interesting and angry-making ways.


Pictured: the article's actual target audience.

In it, the author – a successful, prosperous white guy, despite having less of a grasp on subjunctives than his subeditor – notes the increasingly problematic class divide in the US. He then offers some advice to those from a less privileged background – in particular, “poor black kids” – about working hard and making the most of the opportunities available to them, just like he did.

A lot of the things he suggests are things which would genuinely help the people he’s talking about improve their lives. He has some good ideas on the kinds of things that can affect your success in life, and the skills that can make a huge difference to your life if you learn them early on.

Where he goes wrong is in the implicit fundamental attribution of the problem. Here’s perhaps the most striking example (emphasis mine):

If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible. I would make it my #1 priority to be able to read sufficiently. I wouldn’t care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city… If you do poorly in school, particularly in a lousy school, you’re severely limiting the limited opportunities you have.

Now, I went to some great schools. Most of what I know about the kind of schools he’s talking about here I learned from season 4 of The Wire. But based on that, I feel entirely justified in calling total bullshit on his “I wouldn’t care”. You don’t get to pretend you know that for a fact, when you’ve never been to a school where being seen as a smart-ass by your peers can get you stabbed.

There’s a constant theme through the article that these poor black kids would be okay if they just applied themselves. If they committed themselves to self-improvement, the way some white folks he knows have done. The way he would do, if he were a poor black kid.

But of course there’s no way he can know what he’d be doing if he were a poor black kid, because he wouldn’t be him. A lifetime of entirely different peer pressures and privations and societal norms would have turned him into an entirely different person. Life might have taught him that striving for better only leads to you getting knocked down and feeling foolish. Maybe, while he imagines he’d have been on the internet researching local scholarship programmes and studying hard, he’d actually have been looking after his baby sister while his sole parent worked their second job – a situation he acknowledges as a problem for some, but doesn’t seem to put much stock in.

It’s not that all poor people from deprived communities are helpless, or that their behaviours don’t have any effect on their situation. Getting good grades at school is something that will generally have a positive effect on someone’s career prospects. The problem is when you decide that their failure to behave in ways that seem obvious to you is the main thing wrong with their situation. If the only reason poor black kids were faring poorly was that it hadn’t occurred to them to try working hard, then you might have a point. But it’s simply thoughtless to stress most heavily the ways they could be improving themselves to help them succeed, without considering the extent to which they’ve already been failed.

See also:

Greg Laden
Greta Christina
Sadly, No!
Womanist Musings
The Crommunist Manifesto

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I should warn you up front that if you don’t agree with everything I’m about to say then I’m going to call you a racist.

Why yes, it is quite unusual to have planned in advance to deflect any criticism against me by ignoring the facts and bringing up irrelevancies in the hope of turning the mood of the debate against you. But apparently that’s just how some people roll.

In particular, homeopaths.

The original link to where this all kicked off is broken, as the post itself has apparently been deleted, but it’s been saved for posterity in various places. On May 12th, someone called Sue Trotter posted on a homeopathy message board, outlining a cunning strategy.

We can play the race discrimination card if we get this right. Please bear with me whilst I explain.

If we can find some British Indians/ Pakistanis or Bangladeshi’s they can complain to the ASA explaining that homeopathy is a prefered system of medicine in their countries of origin, used to treat a wide range of illnesses. The current wave of complaints against homeopaths would therefore seem to be an attack on their culture and beliefs and therefore discriminatory.

Wow. Let’s see if I can translate the subtext here:

These skeptics keep demanding evidence that we can’t provide, and complaining to the Advertising Standards Authority when we make unsubstantiated medical claims. But dodging the facts is getting tiring, so let’s find some brown people to throw at them and call them racist if they dare to keep criticising us.

I think I captured the essence of it there.

I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but this strikes me as being perhaps most offensive to the Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis themselves. The most useful thing Sue Trotter seems to think they can contribute to the discussion is simply whatever controversy can be manufactured from their skin colour and ethnic background.

And QueenGoriana said to me on Twitter: “I’m sure my scientist Indian cousins missed the memo which told them evidence-free magic is a defining part of their culture.”.

Sue admits that her plan isn’t necessarily foolproof, and that they “would need to get a smart lawyer to draft the letter”, tacitly confessing that the whole point is to be sneaky and manipulative, and to discourage any sort of honest discussion of the evidence.

It’s not an unprecedented tactic, either. British MP David Tredinnick has previously complained that scientists who criticised healthcare systems that use astrology or phases of the moon were “racially prejudiced“.

Because if you ever say that something lots of Chinese people believe is incorrect, you must hate foreigners.

Read more on this from le canard noir, Sceptical Letter Writer, Brian Hughes’s Storify, Skepticat, and Skepchick.

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An episode of Penn & Teller: Bullshit! from a couple of seasons back dealt with “Sensitivity Training“.

They laid into those office seminars and such, which expect participants to make awkward conversation in circumstances contrived to help everyone understand the difficulties faced by minorities in everyday life. It’s well intentioned stuff designed to counteract prejudice and discrimination, primarily in the workplace.

It’s true that insensitivity and cruelty can be a real problem, and that even someone who doesn’t hold any actively discriminatory views might have a few things to learn about moderating their behaviour in order to avoid making things uncomfortable or difficult for the people they interact with. But this kind of “training” rarely seems like a good way to achieve any worthwhile goals.

The main problem is that, rather than helping people see past their superficial differences, these sessions tend to focus on the aspects of a person that makes them part of a “minority”. If I talk to a black person for the purposes of sensitivity training, I’m talking to them as a black person, not just as a person. If I’m talking to someone Asian, the implicit message is that the sensitive thing to do is to talk to them exclusively about Asian-y things.

Our chances of interacting as fellow humans, with a rich variety of thoughts and feelings and passions that don’t depend on our background or genetic make-up, is actually diminished by this fixation on our differences.

Here’s something which came to mind while I was watching Penn and Teller talk about this.

I know very little about, say, Sikhs. Almost nothing, in fact. I just barely know how to spell them. I’m aware that Sikhism is a significant global religion, I’d guess it’s been around a good few centuries, and that it’s probably mostly something you’d find in Asia. I may have met a Sikh, but I honestly couldn’t tell you.

Here’s something I’m pretty sure I know about Sikhs though, at least at a basic-to-moderate level, and don’t need any training in sensitivity to learn:

I know how not to be a dick to someone just because they’re a Sikh.

I don’t need to understand anyone’s cultural background, or be intimately acquainted with their historical hardships and travails, to know that. Not being a dick is quite an adaptable approach.

So perhaps, while in conversation with my new Sikh friend, it comes up that they don’t want to join me in my puppy-kicking afternoon in the park, because puppies are sacred to their religion. I can then learn about this at the time, and bring into play my moderate skills of not being a dick to someone just because they have some different ideas from me. I can respect that, once they’ve explained it.

And maybe I can also extend this to, say, not being a dick to someone just because they’re black, or a woman. It’s the same basic skill. Ideally, I’d put it into blanket effect and have it active all the time, but part of the knack involves listening when someone suggests that you’re not employing it as thoroughly as perhaps you should.

If any Sikhs are reading this, let me know if you were offended by the crass Western assumptions this article makes about the role that gratuitous violence to small animals plays in your faith.

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So I’ve been thinking about the whole racial (and other) discrimination thing some more today, partially prompted by some of the things my brother said in response to yesterday’s post.

One of the things that always comes up in discussions about prejudice, and what makes some folk more tolerant than others of people who are in some way different, is the way children learn to discriminate. It’s generally assumed that one of the biggest factors in whether, say, a white person is going to grow up to be bigoted against black people, is the extent to which they encountered black people when they were growing up.

Similarly, actually knowing some gay people is sometimes said to be the best antidote to homophobia. It’s harder to hate an entire demographic when you’ve hung out drinking beer with people from there and they’ve seemed to be basically Just Like You.

And I imagine that this is an influential part of developing prejudices. But I wonder if there aren’t more important ways that children learn about the world, which are more influential on the prejudices they may or may not learn as they grow up.

I grew up in a small village in the English countryside, and went to some middle-class schools. There weren’t a whole load of black people around. Probably not a lot of gay people, either – and the way that terms relating to homosexuality were thrown around as casual epithets at my secondary school, there’s no way it could be considered a natural breeding ground for tolerance and open-mindedness.

But I don’t think I was ever really in danger of turning out seriously bigoted against any of these types of people who I didn’t particularly encounter while growing up.

I have a particular flash-bulb memory, the accuracy of which I can’t really speculate on, but I’ll assume it’s not too far from the mark. Way, way back in my early childhood, there was a kid about my age in the village who didn’t have a forearm on one of his arms – it just stopped at around the elbow in something it might not be entirely appropriate to call a stump. I remarked to my parents at some point (or so I recall) that this kid with his arm was “weird”. And one or both of my parents explained to me gently that this wasn’t really a fair or kind thing to say about him, that he’d just been unfortunately born this way which made things a little more difficult for him, but we all have our differences and this was just one of those things. I don’t remember much about what I made of this at the time, but I don’t think I had much trouble taking this on board. It’s not like I’d already committed to fearing and despising the guy as a freak of nature. I just thought his arm looked kinda weird.

The general state of my upbringing was such that being naturally suspicious or mistrustful or resentful or hostile towards some other group of people I newly encountered – blacks, gays, Jews, the disabled, whoever – would never really have occurred to me. That wasn’t how I learned to approach the world. It didn’t really matter that homosexuality only became something I gained any awareness of at an all-boys boarding school, about as sexually fraught and insecure an environment as you could ask for – it was always unlikely that any serious homophobia was going to stick.

And for some people, I imagine, it doesn’t matter how diverse a cross-section of the population they get to hang out with, they’re always going to be suspicious and mistrustful of most of the rest of the world, and in particular anyone who they can place in a box with a label marked “Them”, because that’s just the way they learned to see the world.

Everyone’s been linking to this video on this blog today, and you can see why. I’ll embed the video below. This kid clearly hasn’t encountered this particular concept before, but has no trouble assimilating it into his easy-going, friendly, accepting approach to the world. He’s got the right idea somehow. And now he’s going to go play ping-pong.

Edit: Aww, no embedding because the video’s been made private. It’s a shame if you missed it, but I’m going to nab the transcript from here (hope that’s not a problem for anyone):

Text onscreen: Thanksgiving.

[Calen, a little boy, is standing in a bathroom next to a sink, looking up into the camera.]

Calen: A husband’s a boy.

Adult male voice from behind camera: Right.

Calen: A wife is a girl and a husband’s a boy. Then you two are husbands! [He hold up two fingers on both hands.] Wifes are girls; husbands are boys.

Voice from behind camera: Right.

Second adult male voice, from next to camera: That’s right. So, if you’re a boy—

Calen: You’ll be a husband.

Second Voice: Right.

First Voice: Yeah, we’re both husbands.

Calen: [puts his head in his hand] You’re both husbands?

Second Voice: Is that confusing—

Calen: You married each other?! That’s funny! [slaps hand to head]

Second Voice: That’s funny, right?

Calen: Yeah. [looks thoughtful] I usually see husbands and wives, but this is the VERY FIRST TIME I saw husbands and husbands! [grins excitedly]

[The two men laugh; Second Voice peers around and grins into camera.]

Calen: So funny. [edit] So that means you LOVE EACH OTHER!

First Voice: Yeah.

Calen: Yeah. Yeah, they’re much alike. You’re much alike. Hey, I’m going to play ping-pong now.

First Voice: Okay.

[Camera follows Calen out into the hallway; he turns back and looks at the two men.]

Calen: You can play if you want to.

Text onscreen: You’re much alike.

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