Stereotypes, whiteness and a grain of salt

By David Boehnke

The other day I was sitting in a bathroom, and happened to overhear a conversation. And while bathroom walls are generally better opinion hooks, this bit of conversation got me thinking: it was about stereotypes and the grain of truth they supposedly contain. For after all, stereotypes come from somewhere, they arenƒ?TMt just made up, right? Donƒ?TMt they reveal the truth of someoneƒ?TMs experience or some collective experience? This position spiderwebs many people. As a reply I would like to share with you a passage from Zizek that has been important to me recently:

ƒ?oeLet us examine anti-Semitism. It is not enough to say that we must liberate ourselves of so-called ƒ?anti-Semitic prejudicesƒ?TM and learn to see Jews as they really are ƒ?” in this way we will certainly remain victims of these so-called prejudicesƒ?Ý. Let us suppose, for example, that an objective look would confirm ƒ?” why not? ƒ?” that Jews really do financially exploit the rest of the population, that they do sometimes seduce our young daughters, that some of them do not wash regularly. Is it not clear that this has nothing to do with the real roots of our anti-Semitism?

ƒ?Ý. Let us ask ourselves a simple question: In the Germany of the late 1930s,what would be the result of such a non-ideological, objective approach? Probably something like: ƒ?The Nazis are condemning the Jews too hastily, without proper argument, so let us take a cool, sober lookƒ?Ýlet us see if there is some truth in the accusations against them.ƒ?TM Is it really necessary to add that such an approach would merely confirm our so-called ƒ?unconscious prejudicesƒ?TM with additional rationalizations? The proper answer to anti-Semitism is therefore not ƒ?Jews are really not like thatƒ?TM but ƒ?the anti-Semitic idea of Jew has nothing to do with Jews; the ideological figure of a Jew is a way to stitch up the inconsistencies of our own ideological system.ƒ?TMƒ??

The same logic seems to apply to stereotypes, and present discussions of race. Stereotypes are not useful generalizations but an ideological way of explaining the world, a way of enforcing and justifying privilege and discrimination. And the fact that something is ideological doesnƒ?TMt mean it isnƒ?TMt real. The history of the United States is particularly invested in the privileging of whites through attacking the humanity and livelihood of minorities, particularly blacks. One example among many: between 1900 and 1950 intensive community, corporate, and government action was taken to make it nearly impossible for blacks to live outside ghettoes while at the same time new programs, particularly the New Deal, GI Bill, and corporate incentives, allowed whites (including ƒ?oedark-whiteƒ?? new immigrants) to buy housing at a previously unprecedented rate.

This is heavy shitƒ?Ý Often I find myself at a loss. Just sitting there, wondering: how can so much history be dealt with? Sometimes I find myself thinking in this way: ƒ?as I am privileged in so many overlapping ways I should not speak, or do anything on my own initiative in regards to race, for to do so would only reinforce my privilege.ƒ?TM

Yet we live in the present, right? So while I am in some ways responsible for the past, as I continue to benefit from the privilege of whiteness, I am beginning to think that what is important is not privilege itself but what we do with our privilege. Spivak says something about this:

ƒ?oeWhy not develop a certain degree of rage against the history that has written such an abject script for you that you are silenced? Then you begin to investigate what it is that silences you, rather than take this very deterministic position [that you cannot speak]ƒ?Ý. When you take the position of not doing your homeworkƒ?Ýthat is a much more pernicious positionƒ?Ý. On the other hand if you criticize having earned the right to do so, then you are indeed taking a risk and you will probably be made welcome, and can hope to be judged with respect.ƒ??

What does this mean, to ƒ?oeearn the right to criticizeƒ??? Clearly Spivak thinks it has something to do with understanding in a practical way historical and present exploitation. Maybe a lesson from restorative justice can help us better understand her thoughts: ƒ?oeTo resolve any type of wrongdoing, three things have to happen: 1) the wrong or injustice must be acknowledged, 2) equity needs to be restored, 3) future intentions need to be addressedƒ??. Can societal conflicts be dealt with in this manner? Iƒ?TMm not sure. But if we look at white privilege according to these steps it becomes clear that the first step of acknowledgement rarely occurs. Instead privilege/oppression remains a specter that haunts discussions of race, which still tend to focus on the ƒ?problem of raceƒ?TM, the rewriting of oppression as deviance.

Of course, I know we cannot all be professional activists. So I am struggling with the question of finding ways to include anti-racism in our daily lives, as well as in our interpersonal relations. Nevertheless, I know that we cannot surrender to the institutions and structures we inhabit, and therefore need to find new ways to communicate about this issue and successfully organize around it. Addressing this question touches on so-called ƒ?oereverse discriminationƒ?? which assumes that government or institutional support to whites isnƒ?TMt unfair or charity but support to marginalized groups is unfair to whites and demeaning to the marginalized.

While that will have to be left for another day, for now I encourage you to consider common sense truths with a grain of salt, to look for the power they obscure rather than the grain of truth they contain.

Contaact David Boehnke ƒ?TM07 at [email protected]