Recent Experiences

I’ve had some recent experiences in my apprentice ally-hood, some good, some disatrously bad. Let’s begin with the latter.

Just minutes ago, a colleague I’d earlier overheard having a conversation with a brown person who cleans here, commented on the smell in the air, and said it smelled of perfume. I said that I thought it was the smell of the cleaning of the floor. The colleague then went on to say they hoped so, but that “in many foreign countries cleaning the floor isn’t so important, but spraying the air is”. I said come on, that’s not what’s happening, and went outside for a break.

When I came back in, I said to my colleague that I thought that was a flat out racist remark. The conversation didn’t go well. At all. Perhaps the low-point, from my point of view, at any rate, was when they claimed that now it was I who was being racist, making assumptions about them.

What to learn from this? There have been so many times when I’ve not called out, and I am glad that I decided to do it this time. It feels like a move in the right direction, on the way to a firm policy of ‘if you see (hear) something, say something’. It’s an important resolve to have.

On the other hand, I’m shaken. The confrontation was utterly unpleasant, but more importantly, I think I really failed. I failed to have any kind of impact. I doubt that my colleague will go away and consider the issue (I asked them to, to no apparent avail). It seems reasonable to believe that anything further I say about racism will be diregarded by my colleague in the future, and perhaps, if they discuss the matter with others, that will spread.

Immediately before speaking to my colleague I considered writing an email instead. I can’t tell whether that would have been better. It might have allowed for more time for reflection, but on the other hand, words on paper or screen are more serious, more threatening than a conversation. It could harly have gone worse than in fact it did, though.

Here’s my current thought: I should have waited longer, perhaps until tomorrow. That would have given me a chance to formulate more carefully what I wanted to say, to find a good way to open the conversation in a non-confrontational manner, to anticipate reactions, and figure out how I wanted to respond to them. I was ill prepared.

Not that I’m sure about that either: there’s something to be said for addressing it when it happens. I’m flatly unsure what to learn.

To the positives, then!

Of which there have been a good few lately. In recent weeks I’ve had several occasions to tell colleagues and friends about the experiences my brown family had here in Norway, usually in response to the question of why we’re moving away. Overwhelmingly, it has been a positive experience. It feels good to answer these questions truthfully. A first reaction is in a significant proportion of the cases surprise. That is a symptom of part o the problem here. But colleagues and friends have all listened, and taken what I say seriously.

And not only that. Just on Friday I had a long, neuanced, thoughtful discussion with two colleagues on white privilege, particularly on the idea that when people from groups subject to discrimination tell about it one should just listen, about the idea that these people enjoy a significant epistemic privilege with respect to their discrimination, about limits to that idea–does it apply to religious groups, for example, and how should we think about cases where ethnicity, culture, and  religion overlap, as with Jews–and so on. It was good to experience three white people discussing this for hours.

That could sound terrible. I don’t mean that the discussion wouldn’t have been enriched by the viewpoints of the people who understand it best–of course it would have. But it was nice that it didn’t have to be prompted or sustained by a person telling about their own experiences, that it could occur without that. (No pats, just nice.)

Some steps forward, a step back.

Learning.

 

Just Listen.

I’m a philosopher. I argue for a living. My first, second, and third, instinct is to look for loopholes, and pick apart. It’s actually a horrible practice in a number of settings–it’s way better to assume that the person you’re listening to has something valuable to share, and to try to figure out what it is. But it’s especially bad when it comes to someone telling you about having been subjected to racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, or any other form of discrimination.

But why? What is wrong with asking a person relating an incidence of racism (sexism, ableism, …) whether they mightn’t have misunderstood or misclassified the event somehow? Exactly what is wrong with critically engaging with a person telling you about racism that they have experienced? What’s the problem with offering different interpretations of the situations they are relating? Why shouldn’t I do that? Why shouldn’t you? Shouldn’t we question everything?

Again, I don’t pretend to have this figured out. This is an attempt at getting closer.

First, questioning a person of colour’s testimony about an instance of racism misses a huge point about that person’s motivation: she would rather attribute her treatment to anything else at all than to her race. She can’t change her race. If racism is what it was, she is forced to conclude that she couldn’t have avoided it, and can’t avoid it, in similar situations in the future, except only by not being in such situations. That means, at best, limiting one’s life, but it’s often just not possible. You can’t not go to the doctor when you need it. You can’t not interact with your child’s kindergarten. You can’t not go to the store.

The person you are listening to is maximally motivated to find any reason at all other than racism to explain what happened. Then maybe she could avoid it in the future. Maybe she could dress differently. Maybe she could pick a different situation to raise a topic. Maybe she could speak in a different way, or use different words; maybe that would mean that she would get credit for her point, instead of her white male colleague getting the glory. Maybe she could stand closer to the counter next time, so that the person who didn’t serve her would see her and serve her, instead of ignoring her until her white husband came over. Maybe she’d get taken seriously by the administrator, have her problem or query actually looked into. She wants it to be anything but racism. She doesn’t want the world to be this way. Yet she has concluded that it was. And she’s telling you about it. So listen.

How obvious is this really? How could one miss this point? By not even trying to imagine what life is like for a person not in your position of privilege. I did miss it, until it was pointed out to me.

Second, if you don’t listen, but question and poke holes, this undervalues your interlocutor, implying that she’s either dim witted or uncharitable. A person who classifies an act as one of racism, sexism, ableism, …, instead of as a perfectly normal instance of being absent-minded, distracted, having a bad day, or whatever, when that is reasonable, has either not even realised these perfectly obvious possibilities, or has deliberately chosen to ignore them. And that’s a shitty thing to think, and to imply, about your interlocutor.

She has thought about it. She has judged those interpretations to be unreasonable. She’s not simply overlooking them. And she’s not being uncharitable.

Moreover, third, she’s judged those other interpretations to be unreasonable against a background of experience that you just don’t have.

Some white people think they can put themselves in the shoes of people of colour, and judge as well as them, or even better than them, about this. Sometimes they think that because they themselves have at times been disadvantaged. Perhaps they were always the shortest guy in class, and was picked on for that reason. Perhaps their parents made them wear uncool clothes. Perhaps their teeth stuck out.

It’s not the same. Some ways of being put into a category are incidental and transitory. Some you even choose. Race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age, they’re not like that. Prejudice against race is what Miranda Fricker calls a tracker prejudice: its impact tracks you accross all kinds of spheres: the personal, the professional, the economic, the educational, the recreational, etc. etc. And you get put into these categories all your life.

For a person of privilege to think that they can imagine what it’s like to be subject to discrimination in this way, one’s whole life, is supreme arrogance.

It’s also incredibly stupid. Even very well reflected people who are themselves in an oppressed group often overlook that their actions are hurtful to people in another such group. (See the previous post.)

This means two things. First, you can’t judge with anything approaching equal competence as your interlocutor whether this is an instance of racism. You should take their word for it.

Second, you can’t judge whether or not it is serious.

How bad a bad action is depends on many things, but among them is the harm to the victim. If a person of colour is telling you about an instance of racism, don’t forget that you don’t know how much it hurt them. They may not feel comfortable showing you that. And why should they? Here you are–here I am–questioning their account.

Fourthly, here’s another thing. Maybe what’s driving your judgement is your assessment of the intentions involved. It seems clear to you that the person intended no harm, they just didn’t think about how they’d come across, they didn’t mean it that way, they didn’t know … Maybe part of what’s driving your interlocutor’s judgement is the consideration that they should have thought about it, they should have known. And that’s quite likely a judgement that your interlocutor is in a way better position to make, because she’s been forced to think about the goddamn issue since she was two.

Finally (and fifth) suppose you’re right. Suppose this isn’t reasonably classified as an instance of racism, and the person you’re listening to is being oversensitive. Still, what the hell are you doing? What are you hoping to achieve? This person has been subjected to racism more times than you can ever know. She was hurt, this time, whether in some stupid, irrelevant sense she ‘should have been’, or not.

So listen. Just listen.

Hope

This post is about something that I find difficult to nail down, but which I think is important: hope. Before beginning, I’d like to remind you that a) I’m not trying to educate you here–I’m trying to educate me–and b) you don’t have to read this.

Now.

You know what it’s like to be overwhelmed. It could be anything, but often it’s everything: career, family, friendships, renovation, fitness. Different obligations that each seem to demand five more hours a day than you can give it.

To me, this feeling applies to the aspiration of being an ally. All that I don’t know, and how much I have to change, each feel overwhelming.

Let’s take them in turns.

I’ve spent a lot of time feeling that don’t have any ‘way in’ to understanding what it is like to be a person of colour. Like, I don’t know how to start. How do you begin to find out what it’s like to feel this constant pressure, every day of your life, when you haven’t even felt it once?

I know how to do research in academia. I can’t remember the last time I felt like I didn’t have a way in to a topic there. I always know someone I can ask which paper to start reading, and the threshold for doing that is usually low. (Hey, sometimes I feel like an idiot for asking, especially if I’ve somehow already purported to be an expert. But I have friends from grad school, and I’ve seen most of them make an ass of themselves plenty of times. So it’s ok.) And then I follow the footnotes from there.

Not so about being a person of colour. How do I even begin?

Actually, this feeling was completely spurious. It was just an excuse to not do the work.

And it was cowardice.

The world feels too horrible. I am a wannabe activist, but I scroll fast past the really awful stuff all the same. I want to change the world, make it better, but I can’t handle it all. I can’t see it. I can’t see the bleeding, disoriented, frightened, lonely five year old boy in the back of the ambulance. He looks too much like my own kids. The injustice is too much.

It was a bit like that. Racism is so ugly, so fucking vile, and it’s everywhere. Including not least in myself, and in lots of people I care deeply about. I didn’t want to see it. I still don’t It’s too much. Did I mention that my wife is brown, that my children are brown, that half my family is brown? Nice stance, there, homie.

Had I been the least bit honest, all of this would have been clear to me all along. I do know plenty of people I can ask, and many of them are really close to me. In the end, I didn’t ask any of them, but instead some people I’ve never met. And they came through magnificently, even though they didn’t have to at all. It’s no person of colour’s job to educate me, but they chose to help anyway when I asked. Samir ChopraKristjiana Gong at the Get.

And then I had the material, and still didn’t read it.

I have to change so much. It feels impossible. Scroll scroll scroll scroll scroll.

Until I hear Ivy Onyeador and Rhiana Gunn-Wright, again, over at the Get,* talking about their privilege. How they had overlooked it. How they had been exclusionary. Two razor sharp, ‘woke’ (I’m nowhere near cool enough to use that word), women of colour.And they did it too.

This, finally, gave me hope. And courage.

It felt like if they can  make mistakes of this nature, then maybe I can learn to not make them too often, or at least to engage with them in a proper way. Hey, that’s almost a contradiction! But that’s how it felt.

Perhaps most importantly, it also made me feel what I can only describe as moral hope. Maybe it will be possible for me to overcome what I’ve perpetrated by being actively and militantly ignorant (Mills), by scroll scroll scrolling past my privilege again and again and again. Perhaps, if even these other people, who I admire so much, screw up good, then I can be an OK person too.

It sounds kind of nuts. It’s a bit embarrassing to reveal self-doubt about being, not even a good person, but an OK one. But for me it was a real shift.

I know that I have many times acted in ways that made others feel like I held no moral hope for them. Feeling the shift of getting this hope in myself, how it now feels possible to at least make a start, I’ll definitely try not to do that again.

 

*I promise that this blog won’t all be about the Get.

This is hard. I’m not complaining.

This blog’s been in my mind for a long time. For a long time it was called ‘becoming an ally’ — but I just couldn’t think of an url that didn’t make it seem like a different project altogether.

My experience at the moment is dominated by a very slow dawning of comprehension of how privileged I am. I was born in Norway, conveniently just under ten years after Norway struck black gold in the North Sea. My parents both have 6-year university education, and some of that inevitably rubbed off. These dimensions of privilege are ones of which I’ve been at least somewhat aware before; global poverty has been the one moral issue that has most grabbed me, and on which I’ve actually tried to do something.

But I’ve been almost entirely unaware of just how important it is that I’m male, and that I’m white.
I think a fair characterisation would say that I didn’t really care about gender issues at all until my daughter was born in 2012. That’s 34 years of life with a mother and two sisters. It’s 8 years of married life. But loving these (and other) women was not enough to make me want to really understand what it actually is like to be a woman.

Sure, I promoted ‘Boys against Barbie’ at my high school, and it did genuinely seem shit to me that women are subjected to body pressure all the time. I walked some women home after nights out, because it seemed a justice issue that women can’t walk safely home while men can. That sometimes took me an extra one or two hours on an already late night. Big deal.

But there’s a huge distance between doing one or two small things, at pretty much no cost to oneself, and a real effort to try to understand what it is like, what it is actually like, to live as a woman.

I have no idea, still. This blog in part constitutes an opportunity for me to write about parts of my attempt to change that. It’s pretty overwhelming. One thing that’s had a profound impact on me is simply observing children’s TV on the state broadcaster (the BBC equivalent) in Norway. I haven’t counted (yet), so I don’t have precise numbers. But the proportion of shows that portray the male characters as the heroes, the actors, those that go out and change the world, and the female ones as applauding / supporting / serving tea / being rescued is absolutely staggering. That women manage to get out of bed in the morning — that many get an education, and even become leaders of various kinds — when the message they’re hammered with from they’re one or two years old through state-sponsored television is that their proper role is what I just mentioned, blows my mind.

Another thing that’s had a big impact is reading the blog ‘what is it like to be a woman in philosophy‘. I haven’t read it for a while now, but I read many hundreds of posts. This is your reality. This is what you live through. Being undermined, laughed at, derisively sent on your way by students when you’re in tears, having your points hijacked, being offered something you desperately need only if you take your clothes off and are photographed, being in other ways sexually assaulted, being left without childcare and thereby barred from participation, the list goes on, and on, and on. That’s what you’re dealing with. Many of you, at least. And that’s just a glimpse, into one aspect of life, and in one profession that’s still highly privileged.

What is it like to be a person of colour?* The truth is, I have no idea. Like, I really have no clue. A big paper in my corner of philosophy a while back was Tom Nagel’s ‘what is it like to be a bat’. One point of that paper is that there are experiences we just cannot imagine, for they are too alien from our own. I don’t want to overstate the issue. People of colour are people, and since I’m a person, a vast amount of our experience will overlap. Obviously. But I really think I just cannot imagine what it is like to live with the constant (in the best case scenario) drip drip drip, or (for many and often) drip drip BUCKET drip drip, of racism and denigration every day of your lives. I know it’s not like this for everyone. But for many, a day when it didn’t happen is still a day that it easily could’ve, and where that fact still impacts your day. I just cannot. imagine. it. I cannot feel the pressure that constitutes. I cannot go there in my mind. I cannot evaluate it.

And I sure as fuck cannot say, ‘but why don’t you just …’, about any instance of it whatever, nomatter how trivial-seeming to my white eyes, where you fill out the ellipsis with anything at all.

I cannot even go there at all. And my wife is brown. My kids are brown. Half my extended family is brown. And I have no idea.

One very shameful part of the explanation of this is that I have actively resisted learning about it. I know some ways that I can move forward, at least a little. And I don’t do it. I have a book I have started on, but I haven’t read much of it at all. And yet these are the experiences of some of the people I care about in the world.

It’s no person of colour’s job to educate white people, but boy is it helpful when it happens anyway. Recently I read about a blog post, now infamous, in which a white woman reflects on what to do when, surprise!, the person about to marry your daughter is black, and not white, as you’ve imagined. The discussion of the post on a friend’s facebook wall was to me really helpful. And that’s something I’m ashamed to admit, too, for how is this stuff still not obvious to me? Why do I not see it immediately? I’ve had four years with brown children, and more than ten with a brown family, and I still don’t know? Ffs, I’ve had my whole life, and I have been aware for most of it that, yes, there are people of colour, and they are subject to bad treatment because of their skin. How do I still not get it?

I’ve just started to listen to ‘the Get‘. It’s a podcast. It’s pretty rambly. It’s really funny. It’s serious, and important, too. It’s by two women of colour. And it’s another thing that I feel helps me, just a tiny bit, to begin to understand. And you know what? When I wrote to them on facebook they answered me within hours. Wow.

I’m not writing this blog to get pats on the back. As many people of colour have with such justice noted, you don’t get pats on the back for being a fucking human being. Not being a racist is just being a human being. Understanding, as much as you can, the experience of people you love, is just being a human being. So not pats.

I’m writing this blog because I’m an academic, and because my main way of trying to really deal with issues is to try to write about them. I usually spend ages, often literally years, working on material before I send it to anyone. This is a very different kettle of fish. I hope it’ll help me be better. It’s a way of finally really attempting to become an ally. At least I hope it’ll be that.

If it annoys you, that’s fine; nobody’s twisting your arm to read it. Please spare me the hate. But if you have anything to say that’s constructive, do bring it on. Even if it’s harsh. I fully expect to unwittingly display a bunch of stuff that merits harsh responses. I probably have already.

You made it this far. Thanks for reading.

*I know that no term is unproblematic. I know that white, or more accurately, pink, is a colour. But I need some term, this one is in wide usage, at least in the US, I think, and I feel that constantly writing ‘person of another colour than pink’ is not right either.