Monday, August 20, 2012

White People Don't Understand

If there's one key truth about the modern world that many Westerners don't understand, it's this: white people do not understand racism. I know I don't! I know as much about racism as I do about what it's like to walk on the moon; I can read the accounts of people who know what it's like, but I have no personal experience with it. The problems come when white people, as white people are wont to do, assume that they are in tune with the world and its complexities.

First off: the $100 issue. There's been a flap across Canadian news outlets lately regarding the redesign of Canada's new $100 polymer bill. With its reverse bearing an image of a woman peering into a microscope, it's supposed to emphasize Canada's role in the sciences--after all, these designs were originally made back in 2009 or so, before certain recent events. However, the bill we're getting isn't the bill that was first designed. Originally the woman was depicted as Asian, but it seems that some focus groups thought an Asian scientist was "stereotypical" or that such an ethnicity "doesn't represent Canada."

So the Bank's designers redrew her, with the intention that it would not depict "a specific individual," and we end up with the bill we have today. A bill which, as the Bank of Canada's Mark Carney acknowledges, "appears to represent only one ethnic group."

I would theorize that it's because the woman does represent only one ethnic group. Specifically, the white ethnic group. I don't know who aside from the ultimate higher-ups at the Bank of Canada were responsible for approving it, but considering Canada's ethnic makeup I don't think I'm going out on a limb when I hypothesize that most of them were probably white. They may have been trying to go for something "non-ethnic," but that's a ridiculous mirage--there's no such thing as ethnic neutrality. What's more likely is that you perceive your own ethnicity as somehow "neutral," the same way a lot of North Americans insist that they don't have an accent or how people tend to perceive a stick figure as being of their own ethnicity in the absence of contradictory information.

Bears do not approve of people who think "non-ethnic" is a thing.

The other factor to this I just discovered today, but apparently it's been a thing for some time already. While Save the Pearls: Revealing Eden by Victoria Foyt dovetails with the whole "crapsack dystopia" thing that appears to be common in Young Adult novels lately, it takes a sharp turn away from the pack with the way it treats racism. See, Save the Pearls is set in a world where whites are the weak, oppressed lower class, known as "pearls," and society is dominated by black people, called "coals."

Are you beginning to see the issue already?

That doesn't even cover the use of blackface, references to black characters as "beastly," and so on. The book's reviews on Amazon are overwhelmingly negative, and as of this writing it has a two-star review due mainly to a handful of higher reviews... including that of Marvin Kaye, editor of Weird Tales magazine, who calls it "a thoroughly non-racist book." I, for one, am relieved by the assurances of this aging white man that it's non-racist. I mean, if you can't trust a white man who grew up in the mid-20th century as the final arbiter of whether or not something is racist, who can you trust?

For the record, I don't think that Save the Pearls was written to be racist, or that the $100 bill was redesigned for that reason. Instead, it's more of a problem that's endemic to white authors tackling racism--they don't understand it, but they think they do anyway, and they are incapable of recognizing how the unspoken assumptions of their upbringing affect their work. They are taking something they don't understand and filtering it through their own lens, a lens that does not see things in quite the same way as other people do.

I, for one, understand that I don't understand it at all. Still, that puts me ahead of folks who not only don't recognize their lack of understanding, but charge ahead nevertheless.


  1. Andrew! I like this essay, but you have to think very heavily about your first paragraph. I hope you withdraw it.

    "If there's one key truth about the modern world that a huge percentage of Westerners don't understand, it's this: white people do not understand racism."

    As an empirical fact, this may or may not be correct. But it is not the problem. Here is the problem:

    "An intellectual awareness of a thing is in no way equivalent to understanding."

    Bullshit, unless you want to nitpick and say that "intellecutal awareness" is not the same thing as empathy. But the drive of your paragraph is that empathy does not exist; moreover, you implicitly argue that it is impossible.

    And that is bullshit. Dangerous, simple-minded, empirically-incorrect, and somewhat offensive bullshit.

    The rest of the essay is quite good. But the denial of empathy with which is begins belies everything else. In fact, it contracts it.

    You need to rephrase this. I am trying hard not to be snarky ("Speak for yourself, white man") or angry ("Society exists because of empathy, you fool!") but the first paragraph is extraordinarily badly phrased.

  2. I have to add: if you really believe yourself to be unable to understand racism without having been on the receiving, then you are expressingly an astoundingly low opinion of yourself. Only someone incapable of empathy is incapable of understanding the Golden Rule or imagining the point of view of another person.

    My mind, it boggles.

  3. Then I'll nitpick, because nowhere in my mind was the conflation of "intellectual awareness" and "empathy," and even beyond that this is the first instance I've ever heard of someone conflating them. I can understand what I THINK it might be like, based on the experiences I have had. But there's no guarantee that my "understanding" will resemble reality in the slightest. That doesn't mean that I can't feel empathy for people who do experience it.

    Nevertheless, that sentence does seem to be superfluous superstructure. So I've taken it out. I think it flows better now.

    What a twist--usually when you comment here it's because the post is completely terrible.

  4. Hahahahahah! I apologize for that. I'll try to make more positive comments! There's a lot of stuff I like.

    But to clarify: you're not correct when you say that there's "no guarantee that my 'understanding' will resemble reality in the slightest." People are very good at putting themselves in the place of others, even when the experience is brand new. I've done it, as have you ... and I'm sure you've even tested it simply by dint of having things happen to you that you had previously heard happen to others.

    That is isn't an absolute guarantee, of course, but it's a hella far far far far far far way away from "no guarantee."

  5. All you Whities who contradict this author,
    just shut your fucking mouths.