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.