RoboTom is rereading Inga Muscio’s Cunt: a Declaration of Independence
and he’s disappointed. RoboTom is disappointed by what he feels are Inga Muscio’s offensive and off-putting tirades which he characterizes as “sexist”. Is Inga (“the Gringa”) Muscio being sexist?
I find more salient parallels for me personally in my day-to-day existence here. My lunch break is around the same time as when two secondary schools next to my office get out. Daily I walk through this gauntlet of adolescents who shout racial jeers at me; “accidentally” bump into me or knock their friends into me; or just point and laugh. Or at a concert I once attended, one of the headliners featured a clown in white-face. Actually, I don’t think I would have realized what it was if it weren’t for everyone sitting near me turning around to look at me and laugh. When I asked my friend if the dude was supposed to be a white guy, he says: “yeah, but it’s a joke.” This sorta stuff is the landscape of my days. It makes things uncomfortable and sometimes hurts my feelings, but can it be called “racism”?
Can racially-based negative attention white people receive here be characterized as “racism”? (Or, to address RoboTom’s disappointment, can a woman be characterized as sexist if she evokes The Man in a book about how to liberate oneself from the pervasive reach of patriarchy?)
Racism is not just about discrimination. I can discriminate between two brands of chocolate because one has a shinier label. Racism is about creating a hierarchy of humanity where the objects of racism are denigrated to lower levels of humanity. Now I am borrowing heavily from Nussbaum’s Hiding from Humanity
, but it seems to me, disgust plays a role in racist maligning. Nussbaum talks at length about the relationship between disgust and an emotional need for innate superiority: “Because disgust embodies a shrinking from contamination that is associated with the human desire to be nonanimal, it is frequently hooked up with various forms of shady social practice, in which the discomfort people feel over the fact of having an animal body is projected outwards onto vulnerable people and groups. These reactions are irrational, in the normative sense, both because they embody an aspiration to be a kind of being that one is not, and because, in the process of pursuing that aspiration, they target others for gross harms” (74-5). Think back on theoretical justifications of racism by its perpetrators – how often do you hear language about disgust and a racially-banded hierarchy?
Here’s what Merriam-Webster has to say about racism (as of 1997): “a belief that some races are by nature superior to others; also: discrimination based on such belief” – and discriminate: “distinguish, differentiate; to make a difference in treatment on a basis other than individual merit.” I think in the above scenarios we can agree there’s discrimination taking place, but is it based on the belief that white people (or men) are by nature inferior?
No. My skin conjures some pretty awful memories and associations. After years of living under a white regime which relegated everyone else to cordoned off (often uninhabitable) areas; policed their movements; and brutally tortured and killed innocent people – quite a few people (at least as many who make racial comments to me) harbor reasonable anger against white people – and anger, even if it is now misplaced, is not the same as racism. And maybe not every white person participated (although I would argue that it is hard not to be complicit in that sort of system when you are reaping the benefits of the privilege it bestows on you – I often feel I’m the unintentional beneficiary of residual privilege), but like any kind of conditioning: you get treated like crap by any one type of person enough times, you start to associate that type of person with crap. In this case, white people can evoke feelings of anger. Similarly, the racial jeers directed at me are expressions of anger and/or resentment. This treatment isn’t based on a perception of me as sub-human; it may be discrimination, but however misplaced, however myopic, however hurtful and unfair, it isn’t racist.
Besides, RoboTom, it’s funny