A place for new ideas to settle.

23 April 2013


DISCLAIMER: This is, to put it mildly, a sensitive issue. But I want to be clear about the theme of this post. I am not trying to deny anyone's lived experiences. My criticism is levied at descriptions of cultural issues that don't end up actually describe anything. The descriptions themselves are empty, not the experiences (in fact, I offer up descriptions that might be more on-target, but that's open to criticism as well). Now, on with the original post.

There was a bit of an outrage at Western Washington University a couple weeks ago, involving an event (originally) called "TRIBAL DISCO II." Feelings were hurt, the event was shut down, and now the conversation is mostly over, at least for this specific incident. I think it's time enough for a post mortem on what happened, what went wrong, and what people did to improve or destroy the conversation.

First, I'll plagiarize myself and present my own summary of what went down. This is by no means complete or authoritative, but I might as well present my own view:
1) Some club put on an event called "TRIBAL DISCO II" (because 'tribal' is a subgenre of dance music, I dunno)

2) Some people decided that that event name (and apparently some inappropriate behavior at TRIBAL DISCO I) was a case of cultural appropriation, racism, or (???) white supremacy, and decided to protest. Also to start massive Facebook arguments.

3) The Tribal Disco people changed the name to "THE DISCO."

4) The protest still happened. People got mad.

5) People are still mad.

6) I don't even know anymore.
To expand on myself, "some club" is the WWU Music Producers Club, "tribal house" really is a subgenre of music (part of the super-genre "music you don't have to think about"... god damn is it boring), and "some people" were students from the Ethnic Student Center (ESC). And boy, were they mad.

Now, last week (15 April 2013) the current AS President, Ethan Glemaker, took to the Internet and posted an official response from the AS President's Office, which I will be unpacking now. I saw this response as deeply problematic in the way it approaches the issue of cultural sensitivity and, more broadly, racism in American society. Strap yourselves in; this might take a while. In fact it might even take a couple parts, which will send me deeper into the churning waters of AS politics. Joy. Rapture.


In the first part of his post ("Summary of Events"), Glemaker offered a guiding metaphor for the rest of his thoughts, citing one Beverly Tatum ("an expert on race relations in the classroom") as its originator. Here it goes:
Racism is like a moving conveyor belt in an airport (or like an escalator for that matter). Because racism is pervasive and built into almost every aspect of the system in which we live, by simply standing on the conveyor belt, we are each passively contributing to racism because the belt is still moving forward. If we choose to walk with the belt, we are actively being racist and contributing to the system (for any number of reasons, including internalized racism for people of color or White privilege for White people), and are then traveling at a heightened speed. If we turn around and walk against it, we have acknowledged the privileges we have, or at least woken up to the system in which we are being subjected to simply by existing, and have taken small steps to address them, however, we are now just staying in the same spot because the speed at which we are walking against the conveyor belt is counteracted by the speed at which the conveyor belt is moving in the opposite direction. However, if we actively and aggressively walk against the direction of the conveyor belt, we will slowly begin to make progress in the direction of combating racism. This is what we all must commit to do.
One problem with metaphors is that you sort of have to construct the metaphor so it maps to reality. If racism is a conveyor belt, where's it going, for example? But here's the real meaty bit:
Because racism is pervasive and built into almost every aspect of the system in which we live, by simply standing on the conveyor belt, we are each passively contributing to racism because the belt is still moving forward.
To which I call massive bullshit. As awful as systematic discrimination is, we can't go around blaming anyone who does nothing as a "passive racist." (Though a main part of my contention is on the execrable definition of "racist" that Glemaker/Tatum provide... check below.) It's like saying that someone who passes a dying person on the street "passively contributed to their death." Bullshit; not everyone's a medic, and in fact there's a good chance you'll make that person worse off. Better to call for some EMTs, you know, people who are informed and trained in this sort of thing. Let's not strain that analogy past its breaking point, though.


Now we approach a thorny thicket of definitions straight out of a postmodernist nightmare.
Racism: A system of advantage based on race and supported by institutional structures, policies, and practices that create and sustain advantages for the dominant White group while systematically subordinating members of targeted racial groups.
When I read this, my jaw might have dropped. Apparently some sociologists actually decided to redefine racism in this "prejudice + power" way rather than, you know, make up another word. But I also find the specificity of "whites versus non-whites" both stupid and pernicious. As I've said elsewhere (and may say again), privilege is better seen as largely an elitist construct, and it just so happens that the elites across most of Anglo-American history were white, male, (Protestant) Christian, etc. If you swing your gaze elsewhere, to Imperial China or some central African dictatorship, you see that the privileges also fall along elitist lines. This should come as no surprise; the dominant societal form over most of recorded human history was that of inherited, hierarchical power. Lords and kings and emperors all.

The better definition of plain "racism," though, might be "a belief system that attributes differences across ethnic groups to skin color or other physiological factors, before any other explanation." More simply, the idea that some races as races are better than others. Notably, it was white-supremacist racism in Europe and the United States, but in China around that same time (18th - 19th c.) it was Han Chinese-supremacist racism. The above sociological definition might be better called "structural racism"... but then, two questions arise: (a) wasn't it called that before? and (b) why is it still specific to "the dominant White group"? There's also a question of scope, but that's perhaps an entirely different point.
Internalized Oppression: Internalized oppression is the manner in which members of an oppressed group come to internalize the oppressive attitudes of others toward themselves and those like them.
This definition is empty, circular, and utterly incomprehensible. There's simply nothing to comprehend. Try this: "In a system of structural racism, the tendency for members of the disadvantaged group to conform to racist societal norms without external reinforcement." There are a few key words from sociology and psychology ("reinforcement," "norm"), but nothing to outré, and more importantly, no mention of "internalized" or "oppression" in the definition itself.
Cultural Appropriation: The adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It describes acculturation or assimilation, and becomes at once problematic when a dominant group appropriates one or more aspect of a minority culture. It can include the introduction of forms of dress or personal adornment, music and art, religion, language, or social behavior. These elements, once removed from their indigenous cultural contexts, can take on meanings that are significantly divergent from, or merely less nuanced than, those they originally held. Appropriating aspects of another culture as members of the White dominant group is a racist act because it serves to further marginalize that culture by reducing their cultural elements to singular and simplistic representations of a much larger nuanced tradition.
This boils down to: "If thy group is dominant, thou shall not borrow." Which is both unmanageable and unimaginable. Moreover, it's overbroad: while wearing a war bonnet and "tomahawk chopping" your way around the dance floor is definitely cultural appropriation (and racist), notice that, for example, people don't usually get up in arms about culturally appropriating food. So clearly there's something deeper to cultural appropriation than just borrowing some cultural product... or even bastardizing it. In the context of Native American culture, especially, one usually hears about (for example) the Navajo people fighting against knock-off "Navajo" tat sold by outsiders. The problem is mostly in the retro-identification of the borrowed stuff with the original culture. It's not merely a change of meaning, but the backward application of that meaning to scrub away the original.
White Privilege: Peggy McIntosh, in her article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” describes White privilege as “an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day but about which I was meant to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack with special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.” McIntosh is eloquently describing the system of privilege that serves to benefit White people regardless of whether or not they are aware of it or choose to acknowledge it. Society is built to serve White people because of a long history of oppression.
Another empty runaround: white privilege is privilege that benefits white people. One interesting thing about McIntosh's analogy is that some of the provisions in the "invisible knapsack"—namely the "maps, passports, codebooks, visas,"—are what you might expect a tourist to have. A traveler, who wants to be able to accurately and easily move around. E. D. Hirsch, in his Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, describes cultural literacy in exactly these same terms. I wonder how much of what social justice activists and Tumblrites think of as "white privilege" isn't just evidence of a vast and still growing rift between class-cultures. However, gluing the fragmented cultures back together might smack of "cultural appropriation." That will be a tough sell.

The other odd thing about McIntosh's description is that white people "are meant to remain oblivious" to their privilege. Meant by whom? If my lens is accurate, the white-&c. elites who promulgated notions of privilege (not, mind, out of any camaraderie with their fellow whites, males, Christians... but as a way of justifying their power-grabs and inherited wealth!) wanted these notions to be explicit. I think it's only become invisible lately because social-justice movements actually made some headway and drove once-explicit privileging norms underground. Back in the day, people owned their racist memes.
“Reverse Racism”: I put this term in quotes because reverse racism does not exist. Operating under the definition of racism I have listed above, one can see that without systemic and institutional backing and without the power associated with the dominant perspective, one cannot be racist against someone who is White. The system won’t allow it. Certainly, there are people of color who are prejudiced against White people just as there are White people who are prejudiced against people of color, but this is simply prejudice (which is also problematic) and not racism.
Simply put: This is stupid. Even operating under the above (flawed) sociological definition of racism, I think it's quite possible, though difficult and rare, to observe "reverse racism." Imagine the following scene:
Mr. X, of group A (or appearing to be such) walks through a neighborhood of mostly ethnic group B (but certainly no A's... this is "that kind of neighborhood"). A gang, or maybe posse, of men of group B spot him, yell out "get that fuckin' A!" give chase, and beat Mr. X within an inch of his life, or maybe to death. All because he was an A.
You can substitute many, many groups in for A and B. Not just A = "black American," B = "white American." But, if there really is a cultural rift, any politically correct notions of "dominant culture" may get flip-flopped at the local level. This shouldn't be overlooked or denied, because (importantly) it doesn't in any sense defeat the claim that there's a system of advantage in American society that disproportionately benefits white people! In any hierarchy there are sub-hierarchies, and the worst offenders/oppressors in such a system are those caught in the middle. My point is that we shouldn't turn a blind eye to prejudice and racist thinking wherever it rears its putrid head. Even if it's (supposedly) justified by decades or centuries of oppression. We need to be better than that, if we want to move forward.
Tribe: A term used by European colonialists to describe groupings of native peoples. The term was reflective of the European perception that native peoples had a primitive and inferior position in society in relation to the White Europeans.
Finally, this is disingenuous. "Tribe" has a long etymology tracing back to the founding of Rome (and originally referred to the patriarch-houses of the Latins, Etruscans, and Sabines... or squadrons of equites... but it definitely was Latin). Now, there's a strain of teleological thinking in the Western tradition, in which civilizations follow something like the Great Chain of Being (a hierarchy that, no surprise, puts kings and nobles above everyone else, as an immutable natural law) from clans to tribes to cities to empires. I'd call it "quaint" if I felt euphemistic. So it's an oversimplification to say only that "European colonialists" decided to call the native peoples of other lands "tribes." They already acknowledged their own civilization's "tribal" past, and thought that (for various reasons) the natives of other lands hadn't "achieved" civilization yet. (Reasonable if you're playing Age of Empires, not so much if you're playing the game of real life.) The problematic associations of "tribe" are largely because of long-outdated colonialist notions... though they've not been fully scoured, what with the "noble savage" trope still poking around. That said, words change their meaning, and I think we've moved on. Better to focus on actual "savage" imagery than mere words in this case.


The most problematic part of this whole Disco fiasco was the emphatic and very emotional calls for the event to be canceled, on the basis of last year's event alone (which was much more in the red zone of cultural appropriation, if not outright "hipster racism"). There was no evidence presented, other than the event title and the presence of some pictures from last year's event, to suggest that the appropriation would continue this year. Yet the protesters insisted that people "might decide to dress inappropriately." They showed up chanting racist! racist! and that word was slung around with relative impunity on Facebook. How productive do they think that is? What's the end goal?

I ask the same question with respect to the proffered definitions. What are they meant to achieve? These are activist definitions, not merely forged to further understanding. I want to know the trajectory of this activism.

Again, I'm not unsympathetic to social-justice crusaders. How could I be? I don't want to live in a society where some groups get undue advantage and some groups labor under arbitrary burdens. But this sort of Tumblr crap is mostly politics, and politics is the mind-killer. Look no further than the trench warfare between Internet-feminists and Internet-MRAs. They've burned down whole forests to preclude even the possibility of a bridge.

But at the same time, I'm leery of offense being the final arbiter of who gets to speak. I think it's instructive to look at the blowback against someone who wanted to start a "White Student Association" (to do everything the Latin American Student Association does, but for European cultures). Most people thought prima facie that he was racist, a troll, or a racist troll. That's dumb. If you feel uncomfortable because somewhere someone is doing something you don't like... I think you might be over the line.

It's disturbing how readily the protesters jumped at the chance to exert populist muscle against the AS, and planned to mob an upcoming "Club Town Hall Meeting" (originally having nothing to do with the Disco) with their outrage. Now, AS Clubs really does need a robust mechanism for handling complaints about clubs and club programming, but in my humble opinion the only answer to speech is more speech. (When the Music Producers Club asks for funding later, then other strings might be attached, but that's a separate issue.) We want a marketplace of ideas, not guided allocation of ideas. That's just orthodoxy. I'm sad that Ethan Glemaker didn't assert anything about free speech in his official statement, amid all these definition games.

It's an important point, not to be missed, and he seems to have missed it: this talk of cultural appropriation gives a sense that some cultural products are sacred, imbued with special meaning, and removed from criticism or outside influence. That strikes me as utter bull, even as I sympathize with wanting to keep something, anything, in-house and away from the larger world. There probably aren't easy answers, and more pain yet to come, but I really think that dogmatically asserting the untouchability of culture—by definition fuzzy-bordered and mercurial—is the wrong way. We need to keep talking, keep poking, and find a way to keep borrowing while staying respectful.

I'll be keenly interested to see how this year's candidates for President and the VPs handle questions on this matter, because, in the words of Ned Stark... questions are coming.