Scott Eric Kaufman asked this in one of the comments threads:
The real issue here, I think, is how to ask such a question in the first place. How does one scale that first wall which prevents the ignorant from acquiring much-needed information easily. What I always tell me students is that it’s a matter of presentation, plain and simple. Are you asking the question honestly and openly, in a way that communicates a desire not merely to acquire information but understand the individuality of the person from whom they acquire it. What I sense here is the questioner considered nubian a “representative,” communicated something like:
Well, any old black person will do, so why don’t I just choose–hey! You over there, with the nappy hair! What? Did I say something? Crap. Guess I’ll have to try again–hey you! Yeah, you! C’mon for a second. Could you generalize about every member of your race for me real quick? I have a burning but ephemeral desire to know something trivial about you…
That said, I’m an intensely curious person myself, interested in all aspects of the human experience in a personal, not sociological sense. So I’m always asking questions like this…and answering them for that matter. For example, I can now give people a taste of how deaf I am by saying “Check this site out and tell me which ones you can hear. Finished? Alright, I can’t hear a damn one of ‘em…” It may be that I feel more comfortable asking such questions because I’m more accumstomed to people asking them sans racist/racialist overtones. But I like to think I’ve concocted a system others can use. Try it and tell me what you think, or think about it and tell me if you’d be offended if I “used it” on you. (I say this seriously, since it’s worked for the crop of kids I’ve had so far, but there’s no knowing whether that’s success or some statistically improbable fantastic string o’ luck.)
And followed it up with this:
Under what conditions would you think it appropriate to answer questions about sexual/racial/gender differences? I say this because, for example, the LGBT community at UCI frequently has outreach seminars designed to inform the study body about issues important to LGBT community. Almost without fail, the first and most important is “tolerance.” They feel that its promotion comes best through structured events in which outsiders are soaked in an atmosphere of “difference,” an experience which is often as alienating as it is educating. (Esp. for people like me who are naturally uncomfortable in social settings.)
Outside of pre-planned and, frankly, inhumanly anti-septic events–not because of the participants, obviously, but because of the nature of all such events–how are ignorant folks to learn to be sympathetic with members of a community they may not even know the existence of? Or, if they do know of its existence, what if they have been raised such that they would never participate in, and may actively protest, a LGBT event?
There are some ignorant people out there who are ignorant by circumstance, not choice. Every year I teach more home-schooled kids who’ve never watched television, read books or seen movies which their parents haven’t vetted for content. All they “know” about the LGBT community is what they’ve been told, and there’s been no opportunity for them to humanize members of it. If one of them asked a sincere, non-judgmental question about homosexuality, how would you–general “you” here–answer? “Go online”? What would Google turn up and would you want that to be the first images of homosexuality this ignorant child encounters?
Over at nubian’s follow-up post to the “White people say the darndest things” post, James said this:
Nubian, you don’t have to suffer the indignity of White people’s passive racism. You don’t have to care.
Frankly, I shudder at the focus on “changing the White mind”; it’s just not that important what White people think. Somehow, anti-racist liberalism froze on the concept of educating and redeeming White people; with rampant unemployment, cyclical incarceration, dismal drug policy and ever-increasing STD infections plaguing the Black community, I do not see how the excessive emphasis on teaching White Americans to discover the racism they promote (but will never notice) helps anyone.
In any racist situation, especially those like the one you describe in that earlier post, the one constant is that your racist interlocutor has already racialized you. They’ve called out your melanin with negativity and derision, you can’t change that, and the only independent agency you have left is your response. So have fun with it: do whatever’s necessary to deal with the situation in the moment.
Sometimes, that means cursing the racist out. Sometimes that means walking away. Sometimes that means assault. Whatever. It’s all about what you can live with, so you don’t leave upset with yourself about the situation.
That way, situations like that don’t morph into White people pity-parties in reflection, where the fragile lily-White soul meets the pitying judgment of helpless, bruised Black folk desperate for White liberal messiah Jim Caviezel’s to deliver them from evil in a deleted scene from The Passion of the Democrats. I hear Trent Lott’s playing Pontius Pilate.
Maybe it’s cynical, but I don’t feel responsible for assuaging White ignorance or White guilt. Sure, White racism stings, but often the White liberal antidote proves just as acidic.
I appreciate this. Usually, these discussions–in any context, for any outsider-group–assume an independent value of education that trumps any humiliation involved in accepting the asker/educator dynamic.
I can only speak for myself here. Let me put it this way: In theory, I think that parents are obligated to start using correct pronouns in reference to their transitioning children, and that it is extremely disrespectful for them not to. In practice, I am overjoyed that my parents have stopped outing me at restaurants. As much.
In theory, I consider all of these questions to be extensions of a power disparity, and most of them to be invasions of privacy or violations of dignity. In practice, I have answered questions about my genitalia (form and function) politely and in detail while standing in front of a busy buffet table. In theory, I consider ignorance to be as much a manifestation of privilege as hatred. In practice, I am usually far more generous to people who seem ignorant rather than hateful. In theory, I think that everyone has the right to tell every interrogator to go suck off a capuchin monkey. In theory, I consider that kind of response to be an education in and of itself. In theory, I recognize the questioner/”educator” dynamic to reinscribe the very disparities it is attempting to dismantle. In practice, I know that it is not always voluntary. In practice, I would like to learn how to be more constructive, more diplomatic–more educational. In practice, I envy people who are.
On the one hand, I have an understanding of what this dynamic means and how it feels; on the other, I have the knowledge of how it plays out when I enter into it, as well as a few examples of arguably successful communication. I don’t have answers to Scott’s questions, honestly. For all of you who do negotiate similar problems, what are your conclusions? What are your solutions?