Monday, February 08, 2010

The ****-ist battleground

It feels to me that since I started reading feminist blogs, I have read about 347,741 arguments about whether this thing is really sexist, racist, whatever-ist, or whether it is a defensible reflection of reality/different in our culture/actually about something else or whatever. The enormous range of things that have been accused of being ****-ist is enough to make a person feel that simply being white, male, able - a member of the locally dominant group - is ****-ist. It's easy to fall back on "PC gone mad". But I can't settle comfortably on any position in these arguments.

I'm going to use the KFC ad as my example - I think it's a perfect symptom of the problem. If you missed the kerfuffle over this, you can check out one of the conversations here. It had all the elements wrapped up in one. The initial outcry was based on a culturally specific racist meme. People in the US were horrified that a white man was offering black people fried chicken. People in Australia said "huh?". Racism is a global phenomenon, but its expression can be highly localised. Simple practicality says that we can't avoid all possible expressions of racism, and context matters.

However, that's not the only problem with the KFC ad. The other problem was depicting a white man surrounded by black people and looking decidedly uncomfortable. Furthermore, he needed to, and did, shut them all up. Again, in this particular case, context matters. This as was in a series of people being surrounded by "others" (the other team, non-cricket fans - definitely not all race-based "others"), and essentially getting their own way with a bucket of KFC.

The problem with this line of reasoning, which I think is entirely valid, is that it can be made in so, so many cases. You end up with the world being ****-ist, but nothing in particular within it is. I guess this is where people who declare that there is no ****-ism find their conclusions. So how to resolve it?

I think there is value in shifting blame. If we see ****-ism as embedded in the structure of our culture, then when something resonates with that ****-ism, like the white dude surrounded by black dudes, it's a reflection of our culture and not the racist heart of the maker. The makers of the KFC ad should have responded with "We forgot just how much racism is built into our society, we'll try to counter better next time." There needs to be positive action to overcome that structural inequality, and it's everyone's responsibility to do so. The only reason for shifting the blame is psychological - people are more willing to recognise that they failed to do something positive than that they have done something negative.

It's important to see that "failing to do something positive" still has a very real negative impact on people. I'm not minimising the inherent inequalities, just looking at how we can get more people to engage in overcoming them - and hopefully stopping the "is it ****-ist or isn't it?" argument. It's not about intent, it's about whether you've challenged the ****-ist structure or reinforced it.

One other thing - this post is about all the things that we, as people who don't hold ****-ist core beliefs, do that cause harm. It's not about the people who actually believe that white, male, able etc is inherently better. In my world, the former are a much larger group, and get very defensive if they think they are being portrayed as the latter. And by "they", I mean "I", too.

So what have you done to challenge the biased structure, and when have you inadvertently reinforced it?

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