Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Racism, sexism, etc.

So I'm cross-posting this from my blog. There's a bit of backstory to it, but all the links are there if you need them.

So the stuff I was writing about here has mainly been excused by the fans of that vile cartoon by the idea that it wasn't intentionally racist! Just like that New Yorker cartoon was excused because it was SATIRE, man! Satire!

This is the thing: most of us are not intentionally racist. Most of us are not intentionally sexist. Yet these things still exist. (Yes, some people are gleefully, openly racist and sexist, but we're not talking about them here. Don't derail me.)

M. LeBlanc at Bitch, Ph.D. wrote an excellent post about racism and sexism a while back that I think you should read. Really.

Racism isn't only about burning a cross on your lawn or about saying that you wouldn't vote for Obama because he wants to enslave white people. It can be as simple as locking your car door when you drive through a black neighborhood, or assuming in your head that the black woman you see walking down the street with her kid must be unmarried. Or saying that the men in that cartoon don't have the right hair texture to be black.

Sexism isn't only about telling your wife to quit her job and get back in the kitchen, or jerking off to really offensive porn (whatever your idea of that is). It's assuming that a woman who looks a certain way is stupid. It's perpetuating a false dichotomy between "male" and "female" characteristics and according only the male ones value. (Why do you really think you value not wearing makeup and not shaving? Is it because doing those things makes you less a tool of the patriarchy, or because not doing them makes you less feminine?)

We all do a million little racist and sexist things every day. I do. You do. Barack Obama does and Hillary Clinton does and Noam Chomsky does and Beth Ditto does.

I love to harp on the fact that people are not either good or evil. There is not a line between the good guys and the bad guys that we can see. This isn't a Batman movie (and hell, even that recent Batman movie played with those lines in a way that made me quite happy).

I'm not saying that there aren't people who cross lines that make me unwilling to forgive them. Dick Cheney? No matter how much he renounced, I don't think I'd ever be cool with Dick. Jesse Helms? Jerry Falwell? I did not cry or pronounce one word of regret when they died.

But having it pointed out that you unwittingly participated in something racist or sexist should not be a call for a huge defensive freakout designed to point out that you're one of the good ones and therefore what you did couldn't possibly be wrong or bad, because you didn't intend for it to be!

In literary criticism, we don't worry too much about the intent of the author. We look at the signs and signifiers, and interpret the message based on those.

This is a long-winded way of saying if someone calls you out on racism or sexism, the best thing to do maybe is give it a couple of seconds of thought, at least, and decide if they're right. Then, the proper response is, if the questioner appears to be even remotely in good faith, "I'm sorry I offended you. I didn't mean to be racist/sexist/ableist/whatever."

Then you learn from it and get over it. It doesn't make you the devil, or discount the good things you've done in the past, or even make most people hate you. It makes you human.