A few years ago I went to see “Avenue Q” on Broadway, mostly because I’d heard its funniest song used in a World of Warcraft machinima vid and thought any play that makes a song out of internet porn was a must-see.
(…Yes, I’m a geek. If you didn’t know, now you know.)
There was another song in the play, called “Everyone’s a little bit racist”. This one wasn’t funny — not to me, anyway, though lots of people in the audience laughed. A sample of the lyrics:
Everyone’s a little bit racist
But everyone is just about
As racist as you!
If we all could just admit
That we are racist a little bit,
And everyone stopped being
Maybe we could live in -
The core flaw of the song lies in its unquestioned flattening of the power structure of racism. It equates racist jokes with acts of historical discrimination; the attitudes of an oppressed group with the attitudes of its oppressors; and doesn’t address the continuing systemic aspects of racism at all. Racism, this song suggests, is just about people’s ordinary dislike for others who are different from them, and if we’d all just relax and let it all hang out, we’d get over it.
So yeah. ‘Bout as funny as a fart in a crowded room, or so it seemed to me. Needless to say, I was silent and uncomfortable during that song, while the theater full of white people laughed around me and had a grand old time.
I cite this admittedly old incident because I keep seeing the chorus of that song in the apparently-spontaneous mass-spewage of racist stupidity across multiple media formats that’s taken place over the past few months, and the debates that have resulted therefrom.
It’s probably not a new iteration; it’s probably just that I’m only now noticing this particular response pattern. But you can see several examples of it in this, one of the later conversations in the “RaceFail 2009″ debate that occurred on science fiction author John Scalzi’s blog. This particular convo was hosted by our very own ABW in her Srius Authar guise, with some peanut-gallery chiming in by Yours Truly in her Srius Authar guise. It was all terribly serious. Now, you should really take this conversation in context, if you can, though RaceFail was massive; here’s yet another summary and two preceding conversations that may help you understand what was going on. My own interpretation: for the previous two months, the speculative fictional blogosphere had been afire with conversations about race which incorporated some healthy helpings of racist behavior by noted authors, editors, and so on. An ongoing complaint in this debate had been that if it was only nicer, politer, less angry, then maybe some real conversation could take place. …Yeah. I know. So, the Scalzi conversations were an effort to generate this nice polite discussion. You’ll notice that in all three examples, the PoC in the conversation gradually just stopped talking.
Anyway, the thing that I kept seeing in these discussions was a refusal on the part of some white-identified folks to accept the “authority” that people of color have in discussions of racism. (Using scare quotes because I’m not sure authority is the right word. The earned wisdom of experience. Moral superiority, maybe. Agency? I dunno. I’ll go with authority for now.) PoC aren’t always right about what is racist, goes the refrain; sometimes they’re too angry to be reasonable, or too emotional to see the big picture, or too personally-involved to have the necessary detachment when they’re evaluating a situation. (Not like those always-rational white folks.) Some of them have hidden agendas which require them to make a racist mountain out of an innocuous molehill because their finances or their egos or whatever depend on holding a position of moral superiority. Or sometimes the problem is White Guilt, which leads white people to anxiously accept everything a brown person says as truth. We should all just talk as equals, these authority-resisters insist, rather than having PoC lecture whites about right and wrong in the case of race. Because after all, Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist ™.
There’s some truth in this. (No, really.) We’ve all seen the Al Sharptons of the world profit from others’ misfortune, and we’ve all seen white people who go overboard, seeking expiation of their sins rather than dialogue. The problem with this denial of PoC authority in matters of racism, however, is that like the Avenue Q song, it flattens the power structure of racism, again suggesting that everyone’s experiences are equal and therefore we all have important things to bring to the conversation.
This just isn’t true. Everyone’s experience of racism is not equal. And too often white people bring defensiveness, fetishization, exotification, implicit associations, and their own hidden agendas to the conversation, which just fraks things up on both sides. To be fair, some PoC bring these things to the table too; unfortunately we’ve all been hit with the racism stick. But one of the commonalities of the PoC experience in colonized/white-dominant countries is that eventually, most of us look around and notice the system, because its negative effects become impossible to deny. And in noticing the system, we do assume some moral authority. The system discourages acknowledgment, after all. It works best if it remains semi-visible, “silent but deadly”; even to notice it is a challenging act. The white experience has the opposite commonality — denial of the system’s existence, and of its beneficial effect on their lives. So even when whites begin to acknowledge the system, the habit of denial is hard to break. Denial of PoC authority is just another manifestation of it.
So the next time you encounter someone who cites the Avenue Q chorus in a discussion of racism, I suggest the following refrain:
Everyone’s a little bit racist
But some are still more so than others
(Yeah, OK, I’m not a musician, shuddup.)