Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Words, words, words ...

During the years I served the First Universalist Church of Yarmouth, Maine, I regularly had lunch with a colleague from the United Church of Christ congregation across the street.  I don't remember what prompted this particular exchange, but Peter once made the observation that Unitarian Universalists, as a whole, were the most literal people he'd ever seen.  This struck him as ironic, since we often rail against those who, for instance, insist on the literal truth of the Bible, or the traditional creeds.  There's a joke that makes this same point Peter was making:  

Why are Unitarian Universalist congregations such bad singers?  Because everyone is reading ahead to see whether they agree with the lyrics!

Right now the Unitarian Universalist Association -- and the member congregations that comprise it -- are being charged to take an unflinchingly honest look at the way(s) the systems and structures of the dominant racist culture are embedded in, and perpetuate themselves thorough, our own institutions.  It doesn't surprise me overly much, then, that so many of us -- and by "us" I mean, predominately, those who identify as, or are identified as white -- are arguing, instead, about words.

White supremacy.  Those two words, for many, are the problem that must be addressed.  As is true in the wider discourse about racism today, the words being used to describe those "systems and structures of racism" are "the white supremacy culture."  In a recent column  I noted that the analysis today is that the term "white supremacy" is a more accurate term than simple "racism."  I wrote:
Racism is defined as, "prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior."  Few would disagree with that.  Yet here's the problem with this definition, it doesn't specific which race is being considered "superior."  It speaks about this "prejudice, discrimination, [and] antagonism" in general, almost neutral terms. 
"White supremacy," on the other hand, is defined as "the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society."  This is certainly a more harsh definition, yet it is also more particular and specific -- the scourge we face as a nation is not "prejudice, discrimination, [and] antagonism" against any old race, by any old race believing itself to be "superior."  What has infected our nation since before its inception is, specifically, a culture that promotes the notion of white superiority and which generates "prejudice, discrimination, [and] antagonism" toward People of Color.  Racism is not generic; it is specific.  The phrase "white supremacy" captures and reveals that specificity with greater clarity.
Greater clarity, and greater accuracy.  Those who do anti-racist work have long noted that while everyone can have racial prejudices, only whites can be racist, because "racism = prejudice + power," and the systems and structures of racism in the dominant culture of the U.S. have historically give more power (and privilege) to people who identify as, or are identified as, white relative to People of Color.  (I'm talking about systems here -- yes, an African American Senator, for instance, has "more power" than, say, an out-of-work coal miner in Appalachia who is white.  Yet just last year South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott spoke on the floor of the Senate about his own experiences of having been racially profiled, something that that coal miner doesn't have to worry about.)

Even so, many white UUs are saying that the words "white supremacy" are too harsh, too inflammatory, too confrontational, and are inaccurate given that they have long been understood to refer to white supremacists like members of the KKK, or the people who held a torch-lit rally in my own city of Charlottesville a few days ago.  "We are not the KKK," many UUs are saying, "and to use the same words to describe us as we use to describe them is unacceptable."  Some say that it creates a false equivalence; others that it "waters down" the words so as to render them essentially meaningless.  Either way, these -- overwhelmingly white -- people are saying that those are the wrong words to use ... and a battle over words ensues.

In a post from April I offered the parable of a man who didn't want the serious diagnosis his doctor was giving him, asking that she instead give him a less serious one.  "[C]ancer is such a scary diagnosis.  I don't want to have cancer!  Can't we just say I have indigestion?"  Today I want to offer two more ways of looking at this issue of which words to use.

Define Your Terms

When I was in my second year of college I had the great good fortune to take several philosophy courses with the Dean of the department.  He told us that it is customary for philosophers to being their papers by saying, essentially, "for the sake of this paper I'm going to define this word to mean, precisely, this."  The reason, he said, is that it's so easy to argue over the words being used, rather than the ideas those words are being intended to convey.  By defining your terms at the beginning, you at least greatly lessen the chance that someone will come back to argue about the words you're using.  (I have often explained this with the quite ridiculous example that I could say, "for the purpose of this article I'm using the word "table" to mean, "'a red thing with three legs that hovers four feet off the ground.'"  That's pretty obviously not what "table" means, but there can be so many interpretations of the word "table," so many different ways it can be understood, that I'm asking you to bear with me and assume, for the moment, that my definition is the way to use the word so that we can then look at what I'm going to say about red things with three legs that hover four feet off the ground.)

So, while it is true that in common usage, the words "white supremacy" are understood to refer to the beliefs and actions of those who profess the unquestionable superiority of whites and all things white, we could agree that, for the purposes of our current discussion as an Association, we will accept the assertion that "white supremacy" refers to the same things that the term "systemic and institutional racism" does.  If we were all to make this semantic agreement, we could stop arguing over words and focus, instead, on the things those words are trying to convey: the systems and structures inherent in the dominant culture -- and in our own institutions -- that perpetuate the supremacy of white experience, white perspective, white norms.  And that is the problem that we need to address, not what words we should use to describe it.

Who Gets to Define Them?
"Okay," I can imagine some (white) people saying, "if we're going to agree on a common term for the purpose of facilitating a more meaningful dialog, why not use the terms we're suggesting?  Who says that we should have to use the definitions that they want us to?"

Well, besides the hopefully obvious division of we/they, us/them inherent in those questions, I have two responses.  First, one of the ways that the systems and structures that perpetuate the culture of white supremacy works is to make central -- and to consider more important -- the thoughts of whites as opposed to People of Color.  For hundreds of years, it's been the words white people have wanted to use to describe reality that have been used to describe reality.  The words People of Color want to use have been ignored or denied.  For we who identify as white to once again insist that our choice of words must be the ones used is itself -- however unconscious and unintentionally -- a perpetuation of the culture of white supremacy.  More than a little ironic.  I find myself returning often to words attributed to Albert Einstein about the impossibility of changing anything using the mindset that created the thing in the first place.  For whites to insist on the words to use for describing the condition of white being able to call all the shots is, at the very least, incredibly ironic.  More than that, though, I would say that it is incredibly counter-productive -- a reinforcement of the thing all agree needs to be rejected.

My second response is in the form of an analogy.  In what is often called the "first wave" of feminism, women noted that much of the language in common usage was, in itself, an example of patriarchy and sexism.  However well-meaning, when a man asserted that the word "mankind" was generic, women insisted that they could say from their own lived experience that it was not, in fact, generic and did, in fact, exclude them.  There are countless other examples, but that one should suffice as a specific, and the more general notion here is that men were not the appropriate people to determine what language women should use to accurately describe their experience.  Women, whose voices had been so long silenced, demanded that they be the ones to define the terms of the discussion, because they were the ones who had to most intimate experience of the thing being discussed.

Many men, of course, resisted strenuously.  They said -- and some still do -- that the language women were demanding was "anti-male," and that the discourse of feminists amounted to man-hating.  And many well-meaning, large-hearted liberal men felt hurt that they were seemingly being lumped together by language to those who were seriously misogynist.  While by no means universally accepted even now, there is a large portion of men who recognize the ways the words they had been using limited and dis-empowered women, and that the words women had said more accurately expressed their experience are the words we should use.

I would suggest that there is a similar situation at play here.  People of Color, who have the most intimate experience with the way racism effects their lives, are saying that the phrase white supremacy more accurately describes the realities they experience than the "softer" word, racism.  As a cisgender, white man, I feel no more entitled to disagree with them than I am to disagree with the way(s) women describe their experiences.  I mean, of course, I do feel more entitled to disagree, because I am also swimming in the sea of white supremacy, but I have learned how that feeling is not the same thing as a fact.  I may feel more entitled -- consciously or not -- but I am not in fact more entitled.  Actually, I have come to recognize that no matter what I may feel is true, the truth is that I am less entitled to define the terms of the discussion because I am less directly effected by the thing we're discussing.

I've now used a lot of words to talk about words, so I will end here.  Yet there is another argument that is often made when the words white supremacy are being resisted or rejected.  "But I'm not a white supremacist!"  I'll try to address that in my next post.

Until then, one last thought.  While writing earlier about the way(s) that the definition of "racism" is too vague and generic, I was thinking about how this lack of specificity opens up the seeming importance of the concept of "reverse racism."  "Reverse Racism" appears to be a possibility within the definition of "racism," while no one would ever think of talking about "reverse white supremacy."  The comedian Aamer Rahman address the issue of "reverse racism" in a most brilliant monologue (while also giving an incredibly concise history of how the historic roots of racism have grown into what we live with today).

Pax tecum,


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Jay McNeal said...

Thanks for taking the time to lay this all out.