Friday, June 7, 2013

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

A dozen years ago I took a public speaking class where the instructor told us not to use "sexist" language in speeches. By this she meant gendered terms like "waitress" and "waiter" or "mailman," not language that trivializes a person based on accidents of birth.

Prejudice is so reviled today that talentless political hacks know they can score cheap points by twisting something an enemy said into a vestigial organ of racism or sexism.

This week we were treated to two beautiful examples. One was MSNBC's Martin Bashir who is claiming that Republicans trying to tie President Barack Obama to the ongoing IRS scandal makes the word "IRS" a secret code for "nigger." The other is a brainless post from a gender studies graduate who is accusing a gay rights advocate of being a racist when she didn't like First Lady Michelle Obama's response when she tried to steal the stage from her.

When interviewed after being escorted out of the fundraiser, Sturtz said of the First Lady, “She came right down in my face. I was taken aback.” 
...Notice the language Sturtz uses to describe the encounter. Rutgers Anthropology Ph.D student Donna Auston emphasizes that Sturtz’s word choice of “taken aback” is one of distinct privilege; Sturtz sees herself as above reproach in this situation. As Auston inquires, why was Sturtz surprised at Obama’s response? “Is it because you did not expect her to exercise agency? Did you not expect her to assert that she is your equal?” Auston asks. Either black women are supposed to tacitly accept maltreatment and disrespect, or when they do exercise their agency, they are branded as the “Angry Black Woman.”

Issues like this are obvious examples of false flags, where racism is invoked for a situation just because one of the participants was black. What I find more troubling is the expanded definition of words like racism and sexism for issues of insensitivity.

For example, it's insensitive to assume that all black people like hot sauce. There is a stereotype that most black people enjoy putting hot sauce on food. There's nothing degrading or unworthy about enjoying food with a little kick to it, but it's still a stereotype.

Say I had a few people over and we were eating French fries and one of them was black. It would be insensitive for me to ask only the black person if he would like some Sriracha sauce. It would also be somewhat insensitive if I only thought  to get the Sriracha bottle out for everyone to use because there's a black person present.

Both of those are examples of acting on stereotype, but there's nothing hostile or malicious about it. While we still need to address those issues, it's deceitful to compare a host who wants to make their guests feel welcome with a KKK member who wants to harm other people and thinks of them as inferior.

This could be part of a vast spectrum, as a host who offers fried chicken to a guest is clearly acting on a stereotype in a way, but there is also a different context here. Taunts about fried chicken and watermelon have been used maliciously for years. That's not true for hot sauce.

By blurring the line between acts of malice and hate and insensitive acts that may even be kind, we are watering down the term "racism" to the point it is useless. This vague use of language allows some progressives to declare that no major advances have been made in terms of race relations over the past 50 years because "racism" is still alive, even though things are clearly better. We no longer tolerate rhetoric and attitudes that were socially acceptable two generations ago.

But notice how quickly the rhetoric snaps back to the original definition when needed. Suddenly, "racism" means the old definition again and anyone guilty of the modern definition of racism  is going to hate rallies and burning crosses on lawns. It's just like how anyone critical of third-wave feminism is painted as opposing the first-wave.

We have two reasonable choices here. Either use new terms such as "racial insensitivity" or declare that racism isn't that bad.

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