The Privilege of Politeness

Posted by: Naamen Gobert Tilahun

One item that comes up over and over in discussions of racism is that of tone/attitude. People of Color (POC) are very often called on their tone when they bring up racism, the idea being that if POC were just more polite about the whole thing the offending person would have listened and apologized right away. This not only derails the discussion but also tries to turn the insults/race issues into the fault of POC and their tone. Many POC have come to the realization that the expectation of politeness when saying something insulting is a form of privilege. At the core of this expectation of politeness is the idea that the POC in question should teach the offender what was wrong with their statement. Because in my experience what is meant by “be polite” is “teach me”, teach me why you’re offended by this, teach me how to be racially sensitive and the bottom line is that it is no one’s responsibility to teach anyone else. And even when POC are as polite as possible there is still hostility read into the words because people are so afraid of being called racist that they would rather go on offending than deal with the hard road of confronting their own prejudices.

When someone is accused of racism/prejudice and they don’t want to address the concern or even think about it, well then the POC accusing is too loud, too angry. But that ignores the fact that we have every right to be loud and angry. If I were to say something sexist/classist/racist/ablist/etc. I would not expect my friends to say “Well I’m offended by what you said and let’s have a calm discussion of why.” (especially with my friends) I would expect their first and most visceral reaction to be “Listen up, what you just said is fucked up and you better research and correct yourself!” Hell, I’d expect the same response from strangers because I don’t expect them to teach me or help me work through my unconscious prejudices. If I have some fucked up unconscious thoughts it’s my job to break it down and deal with it, no one else’s. Sure there are friends I could turn to but I don’t expect people to help me. For clarifications sake in my mind asking friends for help is not the same as expecting people to teach you. A white friend coming up to me and saying ‘Hey I’m writing this story with a black main character can you read it over?’ is completely different from putting some prejudiced writing/thoughts/beliefs out there and expecting me to be nice and teach you when I run across it. It’s the expectation not the asking that is privilege.

So if you say something racist I may write a detailed reply pointing it out and teaching a bit. I may also go off. Or I may just ignore it. It all depends. Depends on if I just spent the whole day dealing with racism, if I know you, if I think you can learn, if it’s something that’s been repeated over and over and I’m tired of dealing with it and think that you as an (assumed) intelligent person should know better. But you know what they say “If if was a fifth we’d all be drunk.” The point is I should not be expected to respond to racism with a happy-go-lucky smile and a will to teach. I’m not saying it’s okay to say ‘You stupid shit how dare you write this!’ There is a difference between being angry when addressing racism (or sarcastic or “rude”) and insulting people.

See this post has been brewing a long time which is maybe why I seem so “angry” or “rude”. I’ve noticed that when discussions of racism happen online the posts that go up in the aftermath, even some of the ones that address and acknowledge the issues of racism in the incident still say “They didn’t have to be rude about it. There was no call for it.” or “If they had just been more polite the person would have listened.” or some other variation (they of course referring to POC). What these people fail to understand is that if you’ve said something racist and fucked up you’ve already been rude to me. You’ve already offended me and ignorance is no excuse because you are a grown person, you can read, you can research, you can figure out how to treat people with respect and equality.

The question I always ask in these situations and no one ever answers: Why do I (or anyone) have to be polite when we are offended? If someone offends me with racism (either unconscious or deliberate) why should I be nice while confronting them? No one has given an answer to me yet because the answer is for the accused’s comfort level, which brings me back around to the title of this post. It is a privilege to expect someone to confront you on any kind of prejudice politely! I go through every day knowing that I will be offended and there is no politeness when it happens but in return I have to be nice? I have to be polite? I have to be willing to teach you is what is really being said.

Naamen Gobert Tilahun is a creative writer and blogger based in San Francisco. You can visit him at Words From The Center, Words From The Edge, where he discusses writing, science-fiction, movies, and more.

80 Responses

  1. naamen, i agree with everything you said except that it is a privilege to expect politeness from people who are confronting you.

    i honestly, seriously, don’t think that ANYONE actually EXPECTS politeness from a stranger who’s confronting them. the lame demand for politeness (“well, you could have been nicer about it”) is a weak attempt at saving face and gaining back a little control in a confrontation you are losing, or are about to lose.

    i’ve been told that by people of every race, class, and age, with regard to me confronting them about things other than race. EVERYBODY says it when they know they’re wrong on some level but don’t want to admit it or are still angry about being called on it. it’s not privilege at all. it’s so common, i see jokes about it in comedies all the time, and not just comedies with white characters.

    it’s just that, when it comes to race, the ignorant might fight harder than with other issues, so you might hear people pushing this lame-ass excuse harder and more often.

    i agree that you should call people on this cheap tactic: it’s waaay too common in discussions of race. but calling it an item of privilege is, in my opinion, simply wrong.

  2. Good post, and very true. And not only is it unreasonable to ask someone who’s just been offended to always respond calmly and politely, it’s not true that doing so makes any difference anyway.

    This same subject has been discussed over on LJ recently, by a number of people. In particular, Witchqueen asked whether anyone had actually experienced a situation like this online, with a POC pointing out something racist very politely and where the person addressed (and their friends) responded in kind, politely and thoughtfully, and if so would folks please comment, hopefully with links or references or something. http://witchqueen.livejournal.com/429092.html

    She didn’t actually expect to get any examples of politeness causing everyone to sit down and have a friendly and meaningful discussion where everyone learns and grows and hugs at the end, and sure enough she didn’t. What she did get was a number of examples, including some that’d occurred pretty recently, where a POC had called someone out for a racist remark or attitude in an exquisitely polite and neutral tone, and people had flipped out anyway.

    Her conclusion, though, was pretty clear — that when people say “If they had just been more polite the person would have listened,” they’re lying. Maybe to themselves, but at any rate it’s not true.

    She posted a good wrap post here — http://witchqueen.livejournal.com/429727.html?format=light — after collecting comments from the first post.

    Angie

  3. I don’t know… I think it IS an item of privilege. I haven’t experienced it personally w/ regards to race, but I *have* experienced with regards to sexism. I feel constantly bombarded with the message that even if I’m angry about sexism, I have to be polite in pointing it out or questioning it, or else any resulting ill will or misunderstanding is all MY fault.

    I think the “be nice and polite about it” tactic is often used to shut women down. We have to be polite and submissive even when fighting patriarchy.

    So it doesn’t surprise me at all to see a similar situation in play w/ regard to race. It’s belittling.

  4. Whoops, sorry. Should have specified in my post. I was responding to Claire’s comment. :)

  5. Naamen, you’re right. Thanks for saying it.

    Claire, it’s unfair of you to posit that Naamen is just wrong about the privelage factor. Yes, sometimes it is just an excuse/defensiveness as you say. But does it have to be either/or? Isn’t it possible that sometimes it’s an excuse and sometimes it’s privelage? And maybe sometimes it’s a combination of the two.

  6. [...] have another post up at theangryblackwoman.com called The Privilege of Politeness, check it out. Visiting my family always makes me think of politics more and more because as much [...]

  7. Thanks for this.

  8. I can’t help but think of how often ABW gets attacked, directly or passive-aggressively, for being “angry”. So many people who come to this blog and otherwise seem intelligent and reasonable complain about her anger. I wonder if they realize how that makes them sound, to those of us who’ve heard it so many times before?

    Thanks, Naamen.

  9. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m thinking that for black women in particular, the attacking-for-not-being-polite-enough isn’t just reinforcing white privilege, but linking to that angry black woman stereotype. A kind of insidious attack that implies, “See? Black woman ARE rude and loud, and that’s why no one sympathizes with you” or something to that effect.

  10. Hellz yes!!!

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

    I can’t count how many times I’ve been called “mean”, “hostile”, “crazy”, and “rude” for calling out someone on a racial issue.

    Racism is “mean”, “hostile”, “crazy”, and “rude”. Why should any of us have to soften the blow, when nobody does the same for us?

    Claire:

    I believe that it definitely has something to do with privilege: Everytime a White person would repeat the same thing that I had said, that person was welcomed with open arms.

  11. hmmm, i think you guys are confusing (1) the act of attacking someone for not being polite enough or being too angry, and (2) getting away with accusing someone of not being polite enough or being too angry.

    (1) is something everyone does. sorry, i take that back, not every person, but rather people from every socioeconomic group in equal measure.

    (2) however, when a black person says it to a white person in a losing argument, s/he just sounds lame. when a white person says it to a black person, s/he often taps into a stereotype in the listener’s mind of angry blackness which makes the lame accusation sound like truth.

    there is, you’re right, a special component in race discussions where whites feel that they are automatically at a disadvantage. they have a vague, unarticulated sense that losing the argument means that they’re a racist. so any lame, childish tactic they can find gets pulled out of their asses. then, all the white people who overhear this argument, who also have the same racist?/not racist? issue at stake, support the lame, childish tactic because it means that THEY’RE not racist as well.

    up to this point, no privilege has been exercised. where the privilege comes in is in having a voice to express this lame, childish tactic in public and being listened to; having a certain, automatic authority in proclaiming a black person too angry, that the black person doesn’t have in being angry in the first place.

    it may sound like i’m splitting hairs, but i think the distinction is important. not every annoying or unworthy response is an expression of privilege. many of them are simply human responses. and attacking things that might be just plain human responses for being expressions of privilege accomplishes nothing and confuses the issue of privilege.

    Claire, it’s unfair of you to posit that Naamen is just wrong about the privelage factor. Yes, sometimes it is just an excuse/defensiveness as you say. But does it have to be either/or? Isn’t it possible that sometimes it’s an excuse and sometimes it’s privelage? And maybe sometimes it’s a combination of the two.

    aaminah, i’m puzzled by your use of the word “unfair.” how is my opinion “unfair”?

    and it’s very dangerous to say that sometimes something is just defensiveness and sometimes it’s race privilege. because then that puts the power of defining someone else’s actions into your own hands … and can you be sure that it won’t end up being defensiveness when black people do it but race privilege when white people do it? even if you yourself don’t make this mistake, can you be sure others won’t?

    and no, not everything stupid that people do in the course of a discussion about race is about race. that may sound contradictory, but isn’t.

  12. Thank you, thank you and thank you.

  13. Wow. This is all very odd to me because:

    1) I see absolutely no problem with teaching people what is incorrect or inappropriate about their actions and/or comments if they truly don’t know, since how are they supposed to know to educate themselves on something they don’t know is an issue;

    2) I am almost always polite to persons who offend me – not that I get offended easily, because it is my opinion that taking offense is, as indicated by the very phrase, an action or choice on your part, and I just choose not to be offended generally; and

    3) when I explain to someone why I’m offended, they almost always apologize and, while I may not have changed their mind, I’ve given them something to think about.

    I also feel that expecting people to know something but getting angry when they don’t yet refusing to explain the situation is very self-serving because it just feeds your anger while you stubbornly refuse to make things better. It’s an oxymoron.

    By your own admission, you wake up waiting to be offended, which implies that you are looking for ways to BE offended, and lash out at those who inadvertently cross your path, and then refuse to explain yourself which probably leaves you with a bewildered and less sympathetic individual in your wake.

    If you don’t care about anyone but yourself, your attitude is completely justified. But if you truly purport to care about the world you inhabit, you have to lead by example, and if this is how you act, you certainly are not doing it.

    Now, I have given you plenty of sound, calm, and useful answers for the question you pose in the last paragraph, but if you refuse to listen to my polite response (even though you didn’t offend me) then you are no better than the people you are complaining about.

  14. Claire, you have straight up said that Naamen is “wrong” to say it is privelage. That is what is unfair. Just because you see a different dynamic at play does not give you the right to say that the dynamic he (and others here) sees is non-existent and “wrong”. Your further argument is ridiculous. White people are privelaged. Maybe you don’t get that because maybe you are white? But privelage will ALWAYS be an issue. And no one else (any non-white) has that same privelage to be able to misuse it. As I said, it isn’t the only issue at play, but it is an issue and you denying it doesn’t change that. I have never known a PoC to use this tactic against a white person to begin with, so your argument is fallacious to begin with. I do however know that it is not just a black/white issue as white people also constantly use this same “your tone isn’t fair” argument against pretty much any PoC. I’ve experienced it personally as a Native woman, and in the company of Latino/a friends and family, as well as in relation to being Muslim. I experience it constantly. And NEVER ever is it coming from another person of color. Just go read Racialicious someday and see how often Arab/Muslim women in particular are constantly told that we are “rude” or wrote in the “wrong tone” while everyone else spewed stupid shit about us – on a blog that is specifically supposed to be about dealing with race issues.

  15. Paranoyd, it must be nice to live in a world where people aren’t constantly looking for opportunities to offend you. It must be nice to have no idea what it is like to have to listen to inappropriate jokes, comments, name-calling, catcalls, and so-called “I was just trying to be funny, I didn’t really mean it” type B.S. all day long. For alot of PoC it is really hard NOT to be offended because people say stupid shit constantly and being polite does no good. First of all, most people DO know better. Second, in most cases, there is no time to sit down and have a nice little educational conversation with the offender. And third, it ISN’T our responsibility to fix every jackass out there. I have rarely found stupid offensive crap to be coming from someone who really truly didn’t know any better. Oh, and it must be nice too to be such a sanctomonious perfect person who is able to deal with every bad situation in a wonderfully breezy and well-mannered method. Yes, you are a better person than the rest of us… whatev.

  16. Naamen (and Aaminah)– totally on point.

  17. YES and YES and YES! This post makes me laugh because it’s so true.

  18. Just because you see a different dynamic at play does not give you the right to say that the dynamic he (and others here) sees is non-existent and “wrong”. Your further argument is ridiculous. … so your argument is fallacious to begin with.

    aaminah, in case you weren’t sure what the word means, “fallacious” means “wrong.” so it’s okay for YOU to say my argument is wrong (and ridiculous), but it’s not okay for ME to say naamen’s argument is wrong? you’re a hypocrite.

    Claire, you have straight up said that Naamen is “wrong” to say it is privelage. That is what is unfair. … white people also constantly use this same “your tone isn’t fair” argument against pretty much any PoC.

    so it’s okay for YOU to say my argument isn’t fair, but it’s not okay for white people to say your tone isn’t fair. you’re a hypocrite.

    White people are privelaged. Maybe you don’t get that because maybe you are white?

    i guess this is your real problem with my argument: you think i’m white. i guess it wouldn’t matter what race i am: if i’m white, i’m privileged and therefore can’t see your point of view. if i’m poc, i’m a sellout, or have internalized racism. boy, you’re a hypocrite AND prejudiced.

    by the way, it’s really hard to argue in writing with someone about privilege when they insist on misspelling it over and over. it makes me think that you didn’t read this post or the comments very carefully (“privilege” is correctly spelled repeatedly on this page) and also haven’t much bothered to read what other people have written about privilege. go check ABW’s required reading section and inform yourself.

  19. Claire –
    You have the right to read any situation differently than I do, of course but that does not make my point invalid. It does not make me wrong. It’s obvious by the responses that I am not the only one who feels this way or sees things this way. It’s obvious that others have had this experience and just like I don’t have the right to invalidate your experiences you don’t have the right to invalidate mine and all the other people who have experienced similar situations and interpreted it the same way. There’s no way to know for sure if that’s an expression of privilege, true but you can say that about most interactions. You can never be completely sure, unless you are a mind reader. However if in my experience I see this tactic used over and over and over and over and over again by white people in discussions of race, when I start to see a pattern I interpret it as an expression of privilege. Especially when there was no tone involved in the conversation. You are free to disagree but calling me wrong means you’re just as guilty of being absolutely sure that the interactions mean what you interpret them as.

    And to call Aaminah on her misspelling privilege is a bit of a straw man argument that derails the discussion, misspelling does not make someone unintelligent or mean they are uneducated and those who care about such things could just as easily call you on your non-capitilization so why even point the conversation in that direction.

    And as for recommending reading I do recommend you read the links that Angie posted in the second comment for more examples of what I’m talking about.

  20. paranoyd-
    It is not my job to educate anyone, bottom line. If you feel like educated your friend kudos to you but that’s you. I expect people as intelligent beings to educate themselves. When I wanted to learn about sexism I did not offend people and wait for them to educate me I went out and bought books and taught myself. I expect others to do the same. It’s not about being self-serving and not educating out of spite it’s about haveing the same conversation year after year and it never getting better. Also It’s not about expecting to be offended it’s about day after day experiencing these situations and knowing I will be offended.

    but if you refuse to listen to my polite response (even though you didn’t offend me) then you are no better than the people you are complaining about.

    No, I’m not because what I actually talk about in the original post is using the excuse of the person being angry to not listen. If I said “oh your response was just full of anger” even though it wasn’t and focus on that instead of the issue at hand? Then yes I would be a hypocrite but I’ve read your reply and I respectfully and calmly disagree with your assessment. Everyone has that right. In fact I don’t even really disagree with you, those are your experiences and that’s great but they are not mine. That doesn’t make either of us wrong it just means we’ve had different types of interactions.

  21. paranoyd-
    An addendum, I would like to point out that you do one of the things I talk about in the original post, try to turn others racist situations into my fault because I

    wake up waiting to be offended, which implies that you are looking for ways to BE offended, and lash out at those who inadvertently cross your path, and then refuse to explain yourself

    That’s reinterpreting the post to fit your needs in an argument, you’ve decided that I lash out at people, that I refuse to explain myself none of that is stated above you’ve decided to infer those tidbits yourself. And even if that was true (which it is not), even if I did wake up wanting to lash out at people, who says I’m not having a valid reaction to a racist situation and that poor confused person didn’t deserve it for something they said? Bottom line the offense is on their side of the conversation and even if you don’t like how I respond to the situation it doesn’t make them right for what they said or did. Responding with anger doesn’t make my point any less valid or any less true and doesn’t amke the situation my fault.

  22. Ico-
    You’re so right the whole polite thing is just as often used in conversations of sexism to shut the person down and if they don’t shut up well then they’re just and angry man-hating feminist. And I do think there’s additional layer when it’s directed at black women because the stereotype is there.

  23. Nora –
    Exactly! We’ve heard this argument so many times before that it’s an automatic warning when someone comes in with that attitude. That’s why I see this blog as an act of resistance and indeed any POC who claims the title of angry (such as angryblackbitch & angryasianman) because it means we’ve moved past that automatic silencing that’s supposed to come with the accusation.

  24. Claire, I am not ignorant. I know what fallacious means, and that’s what I meant. Your second response was full of FALSEHOOD, which makes it wrong. You claim that “everyone” uses this tactic, and you claim this like it is a fact rather than just your own experience/opinion. But it’s not true. I’ve never known a PoC to use it. Which doesn’t mean they never do, but it means clearly they don’t do so often enough for me to have run across it in my entire life, i.e. not “everyone” does it. And if primarily white people do it, then chances are there is some amount of privelage attached to it. It’s not that you can’t hold a differing opinion, but because you believe that your opinion trumps everyone else’s and your opinion happens to be based on errors that you are claiming as facts, you are wrong.

    Yes, I asked if you are white. Because white people are privelaged, it is a fact. You are trying to deny that fact that is central to the conversation, so I can’t help but wonder if it is because you are white and therefore have a reason to deny it. I didn’t say that you are sell-out if you are actually PoC, so don’t put words in my mouth. I don’t care to posit what is wrong with you if you are actually a PoC and spouting such illogical conclusions that deny white privelage. My problem with your argument is that it is full of lies and convenient choice that DENIES anyone else’s experiences as being valid. DO NOT CALL ANOTHER PERSON A RACIST TO COVER YOUR OWN SHIT. That is the whole point of the post and you have just PROVEN exactly what Naamen was talking about.

    Thank you very much, I can read, I have read ABW’s required reading. Perhaps you haven’t or you wouldn’t even be trying to tell a black man that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or throwing up ridiculous arguments because I misspell one word.

    You can call me whatever you want. It only shows your own ignorance that you can’t make a decent argument without name calling.

  25. Paranoyd,

    It’s not clear whether you’re truly being polite, or staging a passive-aggressive attack here, but for the moment I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.

    I also feel that expecting people to know something but getting angry when they don’t yet refusing to explain the situation is very self-serving because it just feeds your anger while you stubbornly refuse to make things better. It’s an oxymoron.

    No, it’s not, you’re misusing “oxymoron”. But never mind that.

    The problem is this: in our society — in any society, we expect our fellow human beings to behave courteously and speak tactfully. When a person fails to behave courteously, or says something stupid, it’s appropriate for others to point this out to them. Rudely and/or angrily, if the error was bad enough, or if that’s the best way to drive the lesson home that You Screwed Up. And it’s also appropriate — expected, even — for the stupid/rude person to apologize and attempt to atone for their bad behavior.

    These are the rules that have governed civilized society since we stopped bonking each other on the head with clubs. That’s why most of us get taught proper behavior in childhood, by our parents or other caregivers. Not only do we learn the rules of civilized behavior, we also learn how to atone if we break those rules — the simplest method being a sincere “I’m sorry”. Most of us pick up on this by age 5 or 6.

    Racist behavior, in its simplest form, is rude and stupid. It’s a lot more than that, really — it’s part of a pattern of behavior designed to hurt and oppress an entire group of people. But on top of that it’s also discourteous, disrespectful, hurtful, and just plain obnoxious. It’s the kind of thing that no intelligent human being would do if s/he just thought about their behavior for two seconds.

    But instead, we get lots of otherwise intelligent human beings who don’t think. They just spew their stupidity and rudeness all over the place. And when other people point out how rude and stupid they’ve been, they don’t try to atone — they get more stupid, and point fingers at the very people they’ve offended and say, “Well, it’s your fault for getting mad!”

    I hope you can understand why this might be a problem.

    So no, it’s not an “oxymoron” to expect grown people to behave like grown people. It’s not stubbornness to demand a sincere expression of atonement, rather than finger-pointing and bullshit excuses. Quite frankly, you’re suggesting that total strangers should attempt to do the job that the stupid/rude person’s parents obviously failed to do, and teach them how to behave like intelligent grown-ups.

    Why? Why is it my job to raise you? I don’t even know you. I damn sure don’t like you, if you’ve just insulted me. If you can’t be bothered to think before you open your mouth, or to apologize when you’ve said/done something dumb, then why should I be bothered to try and smarten you up? What guarantee do I have that it won’t be a completely wasted effort? When you’ve shown no evidence of listening to your parents, or the bigass hints dropped by society about acceptable behavior, what realistic expectation should I have that you’ll listen to me — no matter how nicely I say it?

  26. Just de-lurking to say Yay! Nora – excellent summing up, and it applies in so so many places.

    I hope I’d prefer to be called on it when I say something inappropriate, instead of people glaring at me where I can’t see and me remaining clueless. (Of course, I say that now when I’m not bleeding from being called on anything.) The idiots I see who keep digging, yikes.

  27. and no, not everything stupid that people do in the course of a discussion about race is about race. that may sound contradictory, but isn’t.

    I don’t think it’s contradictory; I think it’s simplistic and that, like the rest of your argument against considering the tone/courtesy issue an item of privilege, it falls prey to the fallacy of intent.

    I’m going to argue by analogy, because stories work for me: Suppose Bill has a lousy day at work. He fucks up badly, his boss yells at him, he’s in a terrible mood. He goes home and his wife snaps at him and he calls her a bitch and a whore and punches her. His initial emotional impulse isn’t about sexism or domestic violence; he’s “really” angry about his job. But his initial emotional impulse is expressed through sexist words and verbal and physical abuse. He is enacting sexism, regardless of whether he started off thinking about his hatred of women or started out thinking about the damage to his self-esteem.

    When white people are challenged on racist assumptions or language and react with defensive words about tone, politeness, or education, the motivation may be self-protective rather than prejudicial — that is, they may be thinking more about protecting themselves from the self-image of being racist than about the effect they have on their challenger. Nevertheless, they are still enacting white privilege because they are responding with the tools of white supremacy — the hierarchical expectations that mean what they are ignorant of is not worth knowing and that they can disregard a criticism because of tone or of ignorance, and that they will often have those expectations honored, because these acts are taking place in a racist context. And those expectations and that context means that this defensiveness is offered disproportionately by those with power towards those with less power.

    not every annoying or unworthy response is an expression of privilege. many of them are simply human responses. and attacking things that might be just plain human responses for being expressions of privilege accomplishes nothing and confuses the issue of privilege.

    I am puzzled by this. Privilege is a social construct made up of plain human responses. It’s not an extra-special set of particular human responses; to the extent that anyone exercises a privilege (rather than having it extended to them), they are simply making plain human responses in a situation of inequal power, often without consciously realizing or acknowledging it.

    The expectation of deference is a privilege. It’s the same expectation and the same human reaction when a teacher makes it of a student, a boss makes it of a worker, and a white person makes it of a black person — but being the same human reaction doesn’t cause it to be or exclude it from being an exercise of privilege. The context does.

  28. wow, aaminah, just wow. you’re proving to be a brick wall: no ears, no eyes. i’m gonna try one more time, but if you don’t actually READ my comment and UNDERSTAND it this time, i’m giving up.

    Claire, I am not ignorant. I know what fallacious means, and that’s what I meant. Your second response was full of FALSEHOOD, which makes it wrong.

    i didn’t call you ignorant. i was pointing out that YOU called ME wrong in the same breath that you were calling me out for calling naamen wrong. i noticed that you didn’t actually respond to that. don’t worry, i don’t expect you to respond to it. you haven’t done anything rational so far so why would you start now?

    You claim that “everyone” uses this tactic,

    again, wow. you didn’t read the thing i wrote RIGHT AFTER i wrote ‘everyone” did you? did you read the rest of my comment? i doubt it. how can you expect me to respect your opinion when you won’t even actually read what i’m arguing?

    and you claim this like it is a fact rather than just your own experience/opinion. But it’s not true. I’ve never known a PoC to use it. Which doesn’t mean they never do, but it means clearly they don’t do so often enough for me to have run across it in my entire life, i.e. not “everyone” does it.

    do you have enough logic in your head to understand why what you wrote above is sad and ridiculous? what i wrote was that “everyone”, i.e. people from every group, not every single person, does it. just because YOUR experience has shown that no poc have ever done it ever ever ever in your experience ever not once never no, white bitch, never, doesn’t mean that it’s not done. in MY experience, someone from every group has done it and THAT MAKES IT A FACT.

    And if primarily white people do it,

    we’re finally getting to the heart of the matter here, aaminah. NO ONE has said so far that “primarily white people do it.” if you want to claim that “primarily white people do it, then you’ll have to prove that. and, unfortunately for you, you can’t do that.

    It’s not that you can’t hold a differing opinion, but because you believe that your opinion trumps everyone else’s and your opinion happens to be based on errors that you are claiming as facts, you are wrong.

    oh, aaminah! sweetness! you are so fucking funny!

    Yes, I asked if you are white.

    no, actually, you didn’t ask. go back up the comments and look at your own. you didn’t ask, you just ever so delicately suggested that i must be white because i’m wrong and you’re right and my being white would explain why i can’t see that. you still haven’t asked what race i am, and frankly, it’s too late to ask because i’m not going to tell you. give you a hint, though, naamen and ABW know. maybe if you ask them nicely they’ll tell you.

    Because white people are privelaged, it is a fact. You are trying to deny that fact that is central to the conversation,

    huh? seriously, now i KNOW you didn’t read my original comment. acknowledgement of white privilege is ALL OVER my comment, but you’re just not seeing it. why is that? are you incapable of reading my comment because of YOUR RACE?

    My problem with your argument is that it is full of lies

    huh? “lies?” so it’s okay for you to invalidate MY experience, call my conclusions drawn from my experience “fallacious” and “lies” but it’s not okay for me to say someone else is wrong? you still haven’t responded to this.

    and convenient choice that DENIES anyone else’s experiences as being valid.

    seriously? quote me. show me exactly where i invalidated anyone else’s experience. we’re talking about INTERPRETING experience here, not relayingg experience. you just hit all the hot button terms, don’t you, without actually considering what they mean?

    DO NOT CALL ANOTHER PERSON A RACIST TO COVER YOUR OWN SHIT.

    one of the items in ABW’s required reading, which you claim to have read, is a post about the difference between racism and prejudice. although i may disagree with ABW on some of this, i very clearly called what you did “prejudiced,” and not “racist.” boy are you dumb, aaminah.

    Thank you very much, I can read,

    and yet you prove over and over again that you DON’T.

    throwing up ridiculous arguments because I misspell one word.

    actually, that one last bit about the misspelling was deliberate: i was trying to get you angry enough to do everything that you just did above: contradict yourself so many times that you look like a child’s party balloon, play the hypocrite with regard to my accusing you of hypocrisy, and …

    You can call me whatever you want. It only shows your own ignorance that you can’t make a decent argument without name calling.

    … invalidating my argument because i wasn’t nice enough. there, NOW you’ve seen a poc do it.

  29. naamen, thanks for your measured response, and for pointing out that everyone is free to interpret their own experience as they see fit. i think that can be forgotten often, especially here.

    however, getting hung up on my calling you “wrong,” (and therefore “invalidating” you), is very, very similar to getting hung up on someone being “too angry” or “rude” in an argument.

    i can say “i disagree with you because” or i can say “in my opinion you’re wrong because” or i can say “you’re just plain wrong because.” the difference is a matter of style. anyone who’s ever been in an argument knows (or ought to know) that any opinion, no matter how expressed, is an opinion.

    obviously i think i’m right. just as obviously, you think YOU’RE right. that you might state your case more mildly than i do doesn’t make your argument more valid, or mine less.

    and this all just goes to support my assertion: that it’s not just white people who get defensive when they find themselves unexpectedly in an argument, and therefore quibble with their opponent’s style.

    let me repeat why i think this is important. the work you’re doing here on this blog is an essential piece of antiracism work. having a place to discuss these issues and find the borders between racial dynamics and human dynamics is critical in building a group of allies who share a common understanding of ideas, concepts, and vocabulary.

    but a safe space is not just about saying things and hearing agreement. there must be real disagreement and rational debate … because you’re not here to form other people’s opinions, you’re here to form your own, and take everyone with you while you do it. (or do you know how you feel about everything already?) if no one disagrees with you, then how will you ever progress?

    also, white privilege is such a hard thing even for poc to see. and you know it’s that much harder for whites who are not committed to seeing it. so finding the division between privileged behavior and human behavior that doesn’t stem from privilege is really important if you’re going to be defining privilege in public. you can’t just assume that all white behaviors in a race argument are privileged. that’s seriously unfair and thoughtless.

    so when you’re feeling around for that border, if someone says that you’ve stepped across that border, the proper response is not “you have your opinion and i have mine,” but rather to push the disagreement forward, to see if some new, finer border between the two can be drawn. that is, to get more specific with your arguments.

    maybe you could start by talking about what, in the behavior of white people during race arguments, you DON’T think stems from privilege, then work over from there.

    you said above that when you see the same group of people doing the same thing over and over and over, you see a pattern. that’s completely logical and i totally accept that. in fact, i recognized that that was what you were doing when i read your post.

    but my experience is necessarily different from yours. i’ve been both white and poc to blacks, to other poc, and to whites. so i’ve gotten to see race argument from a number of vantage points. and i’ve also gotten to see non-race argument from a number of vantage points. and i can tell you, definitively, that everyone (as in, people from all colors and walks, not every single person) does it.

    every group has people who get defensive when they’re losing an argument and call attention to the manners of their opponent rather than their opponent’s argument. you (arguably) just did it to me in your comment above. (and i know I’VE done it before myself.)

    and let me reiterate, something that isn’t, in itself, an expression of privilege, can look an awful lot like privilege because it takes advantage of privilege to make itself heard. this is, again, an important distinction, because you want to hound the racism, not the silliness of humanity.

  30. Claire, you are just so full of it. Waste all the time you want, nothing you have said makes one lick of sense and I did respond over and over point by point to your previous comments. You prove everything in the post and then some. You are not worth my time because you are a hateful nasty person who just wants to call names, misquote, and backpedal for the sake of an argument I never intended to begin with. Grow up.

  31. Nora: These are the rules that have governed civilized society since we stopped bonking each other on the head with clubs.

    I think we should go back to this. I recommend we all take a trip to the nearest sporting goods department, buy Louisville sluggers, and inscribe CLUE STICK on them. Then, instead of talking, just crack heads. It doesn’t matter what it is. “I didn’t know I couldn’t say th-” WHACK! “But maybe if you changed your tone-” KA-POW! “I’m not racist! You’re ra-” CRACK!

    After a few years of this, I think we might actually make progress, if only because so many people will be comatose. At the very least, I hypertension would cease to be a problem for POCs.

  32. Claire-
    I honestly don’t think I got defensive in my response to you. What I was trying to do was to have a middle road that allowed us both our opinions because while yes sometimes I do see disargeement further discussion it can often derail discssions and simply become a back and forth “I’m right” “No, I’m right” which is what I could see happening here. When two individuals are sure of their opinion as I am and as you are we are obviously not going to change each others mind so I didn’t see the point in getting in some big comment war.
    Yes your experience has been different than mine, that does not necessarily make it more honest or correct which it seems like you’re implying. While also calling me unfair and thoughtless because of my beliefs.

    the proper response is not “you have your opinion and i have mine,” but rather to push the disagreement forward, to see if some new, finer border between the two can be drawn. that is, to get more specific with your arguments.

    I don’t think their is a “proper response”, perhaps there is a way you want me to respond but that doesn’t make it proper or mine improper. As you said there are many viewpoints in any discussion and many ways of seeing it. While disagreement can help a discussion I sometimes try and disengage because it’s does not seem conducive to the discussion or to my life to continue an argument that will simply be a constant back and forth.
    But to zone in my argument I often see the accusation of anger as connected to race because it plays on a lot of racial stereotypes in this particular argument, that POC are loud, angry, rude, have a chip on their shoulders. Because of that even if the comment is not meant as racial it gains those overtones and takes advantage of that privilege in the situation and they are using the tools of white supremacy and the racial context of the situation to attempt to silence or invalidate an opponent. Micole has a much better and longer response up above that gets at a lot of what I’m trying to say.

    Also let me reiterate sometimes something that looks an awful lot like privilege is privilege.

  33. Wow. I’m surprised at how heated this discussion has gotten.

    I’m going a bit off topic here, I’m afraid….

    Angel, I scanned through some of the threads on that link you posted, and… yeah. Uh… Some of those comments are pretty vicious. This one stood out to me:

    “Anyway, I’m sick of reading non-fem related things on this board.”

    Especially after the discussion on feminism here (and the recent Steinem article), I’m thinking it would be nice if we could just point some of these white feminists to an essay or something explaining why racism isn’t some unrelated “non-fem” thing. They probably wouldn’t listen anyway, but… seems like it would be good required reading for them.

  34. naamen, assuming that i’m not going to listen to/read what you have to say to further your argument is insulting. we’ve never had a debate before, but i had assumed that since you know me personally and know that i come from a place of thinking about and talking about these issues, you would give me the benefit of the doubt.

    i come to ABW because it’s one of the few places on the internet that i know of where discussions of race can get specific, and thoughtful, and disagreements can be respected. respecting disagreements doesn’t mean agreeing to disagree. that’s a last resort when you actually DO get down to “yes it is, no it isn’t.” we’re not there yet, and agreeing to disagree before we’ve even really begun to discuss the issue really ISN’T a very thoughtful response. in fact, it can be very dismissive.

    but to get back to the discussion at hand:

    to zone in my argument I often see the accusation of anger as connected to race because it plays on a lot of racial stereotypes in this particular argument, that POC are loud, angry, rude, have a chip on their shoulders. Because of that even if the comment is not meant as racial it gains those overtones and takes advantage of that privilege in the situation and they are using the tools of white supremacy and the racial context of the situation to attempt to silence or invalidate an opponent.

    i agree with what you say here (and have said so twice now) and very much with what micole laid out more specifically above UP TO this point:

    The expectation of deference is a privilege. It’s the same expectation and the same human reaction when a teacher makes it of a student, a boss makes it of a worker, and a white person makes it of a black person — but being the same human reaction doesn’t cause it to be or exclude it from being an exercise of privilege. The context does.

    what i was objecting to (and i said this above at the very beginning of my first comment) was that you were assuming that there’s an expectation of deference. probably in many situations there is, and in many there isn’t.

    i DO think that in a lot of situations you can tell when there is an expectation of deference: there’s a sort of arrogant surprise–not that you would object to what they said, but rather that you would dare to speak to them in such a tone at all. people can argue about this until the cows come home without being able to prove anything one way or another, but for those capable of recognizing this response, it’s pretty clear. and yes, i’ve seen it too. no doubt, i haven’t seen it nearly as much as you have.

    on the other hand, there’s an expectation on your side, a sort of bracing for impact, that might be prepared to see an expectation of deference where there is none. because you’ve been treated arrogantly before, anyone who says something racially questionable could behave in the same arrogant manner. anyone who speaks with such ignorance could potentially be drawing on the same privilege.

    but not all of them do. many people are just plain ignorant because they don’t know any better, because people have told them that this is the right way to be, because they haven’t come into contact with any people of color and don’t know how to behave. i’ve lived in a number of places where i was the first person of color in my school, or in my social circle, and people came to me because i was exotic and they were “curious” or maybe even had something to prove.

    they want to get to know me and they want me to get to know them. and they say things that are to me outrageous and insulting because they’ve never been outside their own communities and can’t imagine that there are any different ways of thinking. but they don’t expect DEFERENCE from me. they simply expect that i think the same way they do and will speak the same language.

    yes, i’m aware that this is different for me than it is for af ams and that is because of different histories and current social positions, so i imagine, again, that the expectation of deference might be more frequent for you.

    on the other hand, where is the expectation of deference coming from? most people my age or younger grew up in a world where you CAN’T expect deference from blacks. no amount of socioeconomic privilege will create an expectation of deference from people if every experience of your life teaches you that you’re not going to get it. so i’m really not sure, especially when it comes to younger adults, that a lack of deference is really their problem.

    i’ll admit that i usually put the worst construction on their intent in these situations. i either offer them a cold shoulder or a quick and often cutting answer. sometimes i take more time to explain to them what’s wrong with what they said, but not always. it certainly isn’t my JOB to instruct them or teach them or inform them … but then if they have no idea what i’m talking about, what basis do they have for interpreting my response?

    i said that i didn’t think that anyone actually expects a stranger to be polite when confronting them. but what people DO expect is that their friendly or neutral overtures be met with a friendly or neutral response, and NOT a confrontation. i’m certainly not saying you’re wrong for confronting anyone on their ignorance or racism. i’m just trying to tease out what’s actually happening inside their heads.

    and being blindsided (yes, blind–it’s their ignorance and blindness to the broader context of race that allows them to say these things) by the reality of how offensive their comment was is simply going to make them defensive. they’re on the spot. they don’t have time to think. their first reaction is going to be defensive.

    privilege is the blind, ignorant bubble that they live in. privilege is that when they get defensive and use their defensiveness to shut down any discussion, they have all the support of society and mainstream culture behind them. but i really don’t think privilege is the natural defensive response people have when they don’t understand that they’ve done something wrong.

    and i don’t think hounding people for natural defensive responses will do anything except make them resentful and less able to listen.

    i guess my question here, which, admittedly goes beyond the scope of your post, is: what do you want out of all of this? if all you’re doing is ranting, then go ahead and ignore everything i’ve said so far. all i’m doing is getting in the way of a rant.

    but if you’re looking to define privilege more closely, i don’t think you’re taking the right tack here.

  35. [...] The Privilege of Politeness – The Angry Black Woman “And even when POC are as polite as possible there is still hostility read into the words because people are so afraid of being called racist that they would rather go on offending than deal with the hard road of confronting their own prejudices.” (tags: racism language privilege) [...]

  36. on the other hand, where is the expectation of deference coming from? most people my age or younger grew up in a world where you CAN’T expect deference from blacks. no amount of socioeconomic privilege will create an expectation of deference from people if every experience of your life teaches you that you’re not going to get it. so i’m really not sure, especially when it comes to younger adults, that a lack of deference is really their problem.

    Seriously? Seriously? Are you seriously arguing this?

  37. I’ve got a different angle on this, I guess. I agree wholeheartedly about the racist (and sexist) ways accusations of anger or rudeness are tossed about in argument. And I agree that POC have no obligation of courtesy or ethics to be nicey-nicey to people spewing racist or sexist bile.

    But I also know that there is nothing quite so demoralizing to such bile-spewers as a POC or a woman who engages but does not let idiocy/bigotry/obnoxiousness discompose them. This is not about being nice to jerks for the jerks’ sake– it’s abuot the irreplacable unflappability that comes with knowing one is correct. Watching old footage of Malcolm X being grilled by patronizing or hostile white reporters, for instance, one sees him get excited, concerned, angry, etc. But always on his terms — not for one second do you have the impression that these bums have gotten under his skin. He never ceases to be civil. He’s just smirking at their brutishness most of the time. Of course such scornful stoicism’s not always possible — once in a while someone will always come out of left field with some truly mind-boggling shit that will make you scream. But as an ideal stance…

    On a related topic, I don’t think we’ve exactly stopped hitting each other on the head with clubs to get our points across. In fact, I doubt we’ve made much progress at all. As primates we probably always relied on a mix of bashing, caressing, chattering and grimacing to make our points. But the violence is more on an institutional level now. Which in some ways is scarier. Less personal accountability.

    I’m thinking of one situation I was in as a teenager where I was in the Detroit burbs with a few other men of color and got into a verbal…exchange with a group of white guys (‘They started it!’ I feel compelled to point out even twenty years later). I have no doubt that their vile, abusive, cocky behavior sprouted at least in part from knowing that if stuff went down and cops were called, the police clubs would be on THEIR side. In a ‘caveman’ society without such a police force, fear of receiving a righteous ass-kicking might have moderated their behavior toward my friends and I. Who knows?

  38. Saladin, I’ve been attempting to cultivate that attitude lately. But it’s hard, as you say, especially when you state something common sense (to myself) and have people challenge or refute it without a second thought. When worldviews clash, folks with privilege sometimes have no idea that just stating what they think they know is anger-inducing.

    At the same time, I feel no need to coddle most of them, which is what they seem to want. What i wish I could do is get to the point where I could maintain that air of unflappability and rightness (without righteousness) and cut them down in a way that isn’t particularly polite, but is neither betraying the CAULDRON OF RAGE I have inside me.

  39. Nora, I was attempting to be polite, but I may have been mildly defensive considering the attacks people generally receive for having an alternative opinion (all over the place, not specifically here). That was unconscious. I’ll strive to do better.

    If I used oxymoron incorrectly, at least give me props for spelling it right without using the spell checker! (OK, trying to be funny.) What would have been the correct term to use for what I was talking about? Perhaps I meant paradox, or paradoxical behavior? Anyway.

    I agree with everything you said – and it contradicts the article. I’m not saying people should be expected to raise others, but I don’t know how many true racists or ignorant people you know, so I’ll try to explain myself better.

    Some people don’t know they are wrong. They just don’t. Don’t ask me to explain it. I can’t. They truly believe what they believe – maybe they were raised that way, maybe they were hurt and cultivated the attitude, maybe they were co-opted at an early age by the wrong people. Who knows. My dad is a good example. He throws around the ‘n’ word as casually as one would order coffee. But he says things like “Man, that is one hot ‘n’ girl who works in that bar. I should ask her out.” Or the like.

    He obviously sees this person as a human being worth his time, he just has a speech pattern (very obnoxious and incorrect, obviously) that he’s always had. He doesn’t even think it is racist, since he is being complimentary. My point – he considers the intent to be the racism, not the word. While I can understand the point he’s making, I, and I daresay all of us here, consider him full of crap about that. I’ve confronted him, and he apologized, saying he’d watch his mouth around me. I’ve never heard him make one more racial epithet. Now, have I changed his mind? Maybe. Maybe not. But he’s thinking about something he never thought about before, and that’s a good thing.

    I don’t think for one second that being polite will change someone – but NOT being polite sure as hell won’t. At least one has a better chance to be instructive by being patient with idiots than by antagonizing them – I am pretty sure there are more of “them” than there are of “us”.

    As you said, they point their fingers and say “you are the problem for getting mad.” Well then, the solution seems obvious. Take that weapon out of their arsenal. Now they have NO excuse, and if they remain defensive, just walk away, knowing they are the problem not you.

    I AM insisting that we do the job of parents, when people act like children. Why is it wrong to take a moment and inform someone of something they obviously didn’t get some other time? For instance, if your parent’s couldn’t teach you about Physics, you take a class. An adult teaches you something you don’t know. But there are no required classes on socially acceptable behavior – so if one does not get the info from a parent, they have to get it from society, and honestly, most people are not that observant to even know they are doing something wrong.

    People are also very afraid of actually being wrong, so they defend themselves even when they don’t have to and it becomes a natural fall-back position. By being polite, you don’t immediately cause someone to dig in and duck all of your valid points. Consider how many times you’ve done that, personally, and how it all turned out. Have you ever thought about that? (That was an honest question. It’s hard not to sound rude, so if you could see my face when I asked that, you would know I was not trying to attack you or anything.) Most people probably have not. I have, but only in the last couple of years, and it has changed my behavior in a huge way.

    I think Saladin makes a valuable point about being serene in the face of the storm. Nothing quite deflates an overbearing idiot like the calm of secure knowledge of your position. (wow, that was a weird sentence. But I think I made the appropriate point.)

    Finally, Nora, I appreciate your calmly pointing out my tone, assuming the best, and politely presenting your case. You asked hard questions, were not defensive, did not waffle on your points, and were firm in your beliefs. I feel that, were you in a conversation with someone (other that myself) who was overly-defensive, that you would have gotten through to them with this tone. You didn’t pander to me but I got the feeling that you really wanted to impart some knowledge, and I appreciate that. This may sound, well, pretentious, but I know of no other way to put it – it was an “adult” response, as opposed to just getting angry, yelling, and acting like a petulant child, which is what I think of when I am confronted by the attitude the author promotes in this essay.

    And ABW, I certainly see no need to coddle anyone either, and occasionally I wish I could make that one withering comment that will turn them into little mewling kittens in the corner as well. I just don’t think that’s what will change the world. For the better, anyway.

  40. As annoying as it is to be told ‘Well, you could at least be polite about it’, I think it’s important to not swing the other way and not be polite simply out of spite.

    Being polite is a tactic one should keep in one’s arsenal, to be used when appropriate. For myself, it’s a tactic I find effective 95% of the time, but that has a lot to do with my base personality type and the type of people I get to interact with. And I have had at least one online conversation with a rather rude gentleman where I finally gave up and was rude back–and, wonder of wonders, it actually worked (for a time, at least).

    So yes: being polite or rude or aloof or piercing or sarcastic or whatever isn’t about them or their expectations. It’s about you. It’s about your goals and your personality. You have the right to any response you choose (I feel dumb saying something so self-evident.) Ideally, you’d adopt the most effective stance in each different situation, but that doesn’t happen all the time, and everyone will just have to deal.

  41. Nothing quite deflates an overbearing idiot like the calm of secure knowledge of your position.

    Its not just “overbearing idiots”. When people’s racist ignorance can affect any area of your life from the health care you receive to the way you are treated by the criminal justice system, it’s not about smugly copping emily post while treating people like they are merely recalcitrant children– not when they can literally have control over your life.

    But he says things like “Man, that is one hot ‘n’ girl who works in that bar. I should ask her out.” Or the like. He obviously sees this person as a human being worth his time,

    Maybe, but most black women have a very different perspective when it comes to white men approaching them because they are “hot.” Not very many black women I am familiar with would consider that statement an indication of being considered human being worth *their* time.

  42. Saladin, in reference to your point, after decades of being expected to ‘politely’ respond to all kinds of ridiculous bullshit, i’ve decided that a large part of it is expecting POC to prove they are “well spoken”/educated/intellectual enough to be taken seriously by whoever is spouting stupidity, with extra points for not being so overly ‘emotional’, and not merely about the content of what they are saying.

  43. Claire,

    on the other hand, where is the expectation of deference coming from? most people my age or younger grew up in a world where you CAN’T expect deference from blacks. no amount of socioeconomic privilege will create an expectation of deference from people if every experience of your life teaches you that you’re not going to get it. so i’m really not sure, especially when it comes to younger adults, that a lack of deference is really their problem.

    I think part of the problem here is that you’re arguing an issue of white privilege from the standpoint of a fellow PoC. There are a lot of ways in which the Asian American PoV dovetails with that of white Americans; the same applies to the African American PoV on some matters. But the assumption of deference is a uniquely white-on-PoC topic, in particular white-on-black due to the history of slavery and Jim Crow. I think it hits other racial groups too — these days, I expect Latinos/as get hit with it a lot, given the stereotype of the “hardworking” (i.e., exploited) undocumented Mexican willing to do all kinds of low-level crap jobs to survive. I’m frankly surprised you can’t see it in the Asian American context, since I’ve certainly noticed an assumption of deference from whites toward Asians, particularly women. I’m pretty sure that’s part of the stereotype of Asian Americans as being unassertive/meek/accommodating. But I digress. Jim Crow pretty much codified this deferent behavior into whites and PoC of all classes, and it hasn’t been that long since Jim Crow ended, so the vestiges of it remain — even for young people, from what I’ve observed. We still get bombarded with this shit, after all, in TV shows where the white hero has a Native American or black spiritual advisor; or movies in which the black character dies to save the white protagonist; or books in which the white heroine has a sassy black best friend to help guide her through life. Doesn’t help that the expectation of deference is all commingled with class and gender issues too.

    Anyhow, of course you’re not going to see deference from African Americans towards Asian Americans, any more than Af Ams expect to see it from As Ams — neither group has historically been conditioned to expect deference from the other. Fortunately (I guess I can call this a good thing…) we don’t have as much of a caste system as other countries; the hierarchy of skin colors was pretty much flattened here into “White People” and “Everybody Else”. So I haven’t seen much inter-PoC historical or conditioned power differentials that would lead to the expectation of deference — actually, I can’t think of any, period. YMMV.

    So if that’s what’s informing your perspective right now, then that may explain why you can’t see it. I sincerely hope that’s the problem, because otherwise you’re coming dangerously close to the kind of willful blindness that I usually only see from the most naive holders of white privilege, and I find this very disturbing. You’re compounding that by a) denying/downplaying others’ experiences of racism, and b) espousing a double standard. In particular you seem to be excusing the defensive/angry reaction of people who engage in racist behavior and are confronted about it; yet at the same time you’re condemning the defensive/angry reaction of people who’ve been hurt/offended by the racist behavior. Both defensive/angry reactions are equally natural, yet you seem to imply that one should be forgiven and the other should be suppressed.

    Which would be bad enough, but on top of that, you’re suggesting that the very people who’ve historically been silenced/discouraged from expressing their frustration should be the ones to hold it in, for fear of “hounding” the poor ignorant privileged people. In other words, you’re perpetuating the very same racist silencing tactics that Naamen is complaining about.

    I sincerely hope this is unintentional on your part. Really, I do.

  44. Paranoyd,

    I don’t know how many true racists or ignorant people you know

    I know plenty. I grew up in Alabama. And I’m a black woman on the internet.

    Some people don’t know they are wrong. They just don’t. Don’t ask me to explain it. I can’t.

    You’re going to have to. Because I simply don’t believe that people who say utterly stupid things — the kind of things that trigger fury on the part of PoC and others who are offended — do so out of doe-eyed ignorance. They may do so out of denial — they know it’s wrong, but they’ve either seen so many others get away with it, or they’ve heard so many excuses for it, that they’ve told themselves it’s really right. Or they may do so out of privilege — perhaps blithely assuming that it simply doesn’t matter if they say something hurtful, because nobody cares what Those People think. But deep down, I’m pretty sure they know they’re in the wrong, and they just don’t give a damn.

    My dad is a good example. He throws around the ‘n’ word as casually as one would order coffee. But he says things like “Man, that is one hot ‘n’ girl who works in that bar. I should ask her out.” Or the like. He obviously sees this person as a human being worth his time,

    Uh, no. He sees this person as a sexual object worth his dick. That’s a whole other animal.

    he just has a speech pattern (very obnoxious and incorrect, obviously) that he’s always had. He doesn’t even think it is racist, since he is being complimentary.

    And again, I don’t buy this. I’m assuming, since he’s your father and you seem more articulate than a child or teenager, that he’s been alive for at least the past 40 years or so. That means he’s heard, repeatedly, in the news and on TV and in the workplace and everywhere else, that the N-word is racist. He knows it’s racist. He just doesn’t give a damn.

    I’ve confronted him, and he apologized, saying he’d watch his mouth around me. I’ve never heard him make one more racial epithet. Now, have I changed his mind? Maybe. Maybe not. But he’s thinking about something he never thought about before, and that’s a good thing.

    Which was precisely my point. Your father says this rude, offensive stuff all the time because he doesn’t think about what he’s saying. He’s been bombarded with messages from society (polite and otherwise) telling him his behavior is unacceptable. He’s been bombarded with warnings about the consequences — people sued, fired, etc., for language like this. But he didn’t listen to any of that. He didn’t stop. Don’t make excuses for him; he willfully, intentionally, chose to keep behaving that way. And even when his own daughter asked him to stop, he didn’t react with horror or surprise at the revelation of his “unintentional” racism. He didn’t concede that he was in the wrong. He just said he’d stop doing it around you.

    This is NOT an example of someone who innocently knew no better. And if a polite request from a close relative made so little difference, why do you believe he would listen to a polite request from a total stranger?

    As you said, they point their fingers and say “you are the problem for getting mad.” Well then, the solution seems obvious. Take that weapon out of their arsenal. Now they have NO excuse, and if they remain defensive, just walk away, knowing they are the problem not you.

    They already know the problem isn’t me. As you said, it’s an excuse. It’s just a tactic in their ongoing and determined effort to protect/retain their own privilege. If they can’t use the other person’s anger as a weapon, they won’t suddenly capitulate and see the error of their ways, they’ll find another weapon. The arsenal is vast and well-established, and I’ve seen it deployed over and over again.

    So if they’re going to pull this tactic and all the rest, and they’re going to do it in defiance of 40+ years of politely-worded messages from the whole damn country, and they’re going to claim ignorance as an excuse when the only way they could possibly be ignorant about this is if they’ve been in a nuclear fallout shelter for a half-century or so… why should we bother holding in our anger? It isn’t going to make any difference whether we’re polite or not, so we might as well take the healthier option, and vent our frustration honestly.

    I’ve been a guest blogger here on ABW for several months now. In that time I’ve tried a variety of “tones” with people who spout racist garbage. If it seems like a minor slip and they genuinely don’t intend to be rude/offensive, I generally opt for politeness. But if their slip consists of tossing out some gross inaccuracy, stereotype, or other egregious example of racism — I’m sorry, that’s rudeness. It’s a rudeness partially rooted in stupidity (not that I’m inclined to forgive stupidity either), but it’s also deliberate and intentional, because it’s just not that hard to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and consider how XYZ statement will sound to them. It’s just not that hard to see the other person as a person, not a caricature of a human being, and treat them accordingly. The refusal to put any thought into one’s interactions with others, to allow knee-jerk stereotypes rather than reason to guide one’s actions, is not only a mark of privilege, it’s the height of crass, asinine behavior. And I see no reason to react to that kind of rudeness by being nice.

  45. nora,

    while you make a good point about the different experiences of different communities with regard to deference, i actually think the problem was that you and i (or micole and i) were defining “deference” differently.

    by “deference,” i meant an *outward show* of deference, actual primate behavior giving way to another: ducked head, lowered eyes, lowered voice, placating tone, etc. i wasn’t thinking about actual relative positions, but rather the expectation that the person in the lower social position will behave outwardly as if they accept their lower social position.

    again, this distinction is important because if you’re not behaving with the lowered eyes and placating voice to begin with, then losing that deferent attitude isn’t really the problem.

    i think the problem here is that the expectation is of an easy sort of camaraderie that no one has to do any work for (as depicted in movies where there’s always some black guy completely isolated from family and community who happens to be the protag’s best friend). perhaps you (and micole?) would define that as deference. i wouldn’t argue with that definition of deference. you’d be right, that’s another version of it. it’s just not the one i was working with above.

    I sincerely hope that’s the problem, because otherwise you’re coming dangerously close to the kind of willful blindness that I usually only see from the most naive holders of white privilege, and I find this very disturbing. You’re compounding that by a) denying/downplaying others’ experiences of racism, and b) espousing a double standard. In particular you seem to be excusing the defensive/angry reaction of people who engage in racist behavior and are confronted about it; yet at the same time you’re condemning the defensive/angry reaction of people who’ve been hurt/offended by the racist behavior. Both defensive/angry reactions are equally natural, yet you seem to imply that one should be forgiven and the other should be suppressed.

    Which would be bad enough, but on top of that, you’re suggesting that the very people who’ve historically been silenced/discouraged from expressing their frustration should be the ones to hold it in, for fear of “hounding” the poor ignorant privileged people. In other words, you’re perpetuating the very same racist silencing tactics that Naamen is complaining about.

    I sincerely hope this is unintentional on your part. Really, I do.

    no you don’t, nora. you don’t hope that at all. you really, really hope that someday i’ll prove myself beyond a shadow of a doubt to be as racist as you secretly think i am, because then you wouldn’t have to have all these uncomfortable arguments with me.

    seriously, it’s hard for me to avoid the conclusion that my real sin here is not blindness but rather daring to disagree. sound familiar?

    i’ll say this one more time, although i think i made it clear enough above. i’m not suggesting anyone “hold in” anything. i stated, quite clearly, that the accusation of privilege in this case is wrong, IN MY OPINION, and then clarified why i thought it was important to split hairs between the impulse that has nothing to do with privilege and the privileged impulse.

    and, although you and micole and naamen HAVE argued with what i was trying to discuss, you and naamen have spent equal time trying to tell me in various ways why i’m wrong to disagree with naamen on this issue in the first place, or else why the WAY I EXPRESSED my disagreement was wrong.

    this is a primarily poc forum, although white commenters do show up here. and the WHOLE POINT of putting stuff out there on a blog like this is so that people can discuss it and decide if it smells good or stinks. this stank to me, and not because it was cutting in on any privilege of mine. quite the opposite, in fact. i have to deal with accusations of anger and rudeness, too, and i’m very aware of how disruptive and tiresome it is.

    having to argue repeatedly that i have a right to disagree and that my disagreement isn’t in itself a sign of privilege is equally disruptive and tiresome, and it’s merely another version of the cheap excuse that “you don’t have to be so rude about it” is.

  46. One more in the chorus of thankyous.

  47. Claire,

    i actually think the problem was that you and i (or micole and i) were defining “deference” differently.

    I’m defining it by the terms that Naamen brought up in the article — politeness/tone, particularly in verbal/written communication. Politeness in most societies incorporates an expectation of deference; we all tend to be more polite to people who are of a perceived higher social status/power, and less polite to those who are lower. As Naamen, Micole, and others have pointed out, many of the protests about the impolite “tone” of angry offended PoC have more than a whiff of this assumed power differential to them — which in and of itself is a manifestation of racism, as I think you know. I didn’t realize you were suddenly trying to redirect the discussion to physical/visible/nonverbal forms of communication. (Not that PoC don’t get dinged on deference there too — but you’re right in that we were clearly talking about entirely different things.)

    no you don’t, nora. you don’t hope that at all. you really, really hope that someday i’ll prove myself beyond a shadow of a doubt to be as racist as you secretly think i am, because then you wouldn’t have to have all these uncomfortable arguments with me.

    Claire, please don’t try to read my mind via blog posting. If you have a question about what I’m thinking, just ask.

    I don’t think you’re a racist. I think you have a personal issue with me, for reasons I’ve never understood because something about me seems to instantly turn you irrational and semi-coherent. You’re right about it being uncomfortable; it’s certainly disturbing to see, and I sometimes feel embarassed on your behalf because I’m not sure you realize how it makes you look/sound. Regardless, I don’t have a personal issue with you, if you’re wondering. I believe that, personal issues aside, you’re mostly trying to be an ally. So maybe we can talk if you’re going to be at Wiscon again this year.

    Either way, this is not about you daring to disagree. I think you’re smart enough to realize that if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, people are probably going to break out the hoisin sauce. So I don’t understand why you would make the same kinds of arguments that holders of white privilege typically make, almost verbatim, and expect people to react to you differently. I also don’t understand why you appear to be coyly trying to hide the fact that you’re a PoC. If you want to have a clear, open discussion with other people, you probably shouldn’t play games with them — but whatever. Obviously I’m not the best person to try and figure out what you’re trying to do, or why.

  48. I am feeling you ABW, my mother stopped years ago and just goes off, articulately of course. Since I teach a Diversity course, I usually identify to them the offensive remark, give them background on its history and inundate them with so much information that I do not seem angry at all and then I tell them they should take my course. My biggest problem is living in the DC area and all the people who wear RED**** paraphernailia and being part Native, I am constantly telling people that the R-word means the same thing to Indians as the N-word does to Black people. whew!

  49. Claire, please don’t try to read my mind via blog posting. If you have a question about what I’m thinking, just ask.

    but nora, when your (barely) subtext is so blatant, why would i need to ask?

    I don’t think you’re a racist. I think you have a personal issue with me, for reasons I’ve never understood because something about me seems to instantly turn you irrational and semi-coherent. You’re right about it being uncomfortable; it’s certainly disturbing to see, and I sometimes feel embarassed on your behalf because I’m not sure you realize how it makes you look/sound. Regardless, I don’t have a personal issue with you, if you’re wondering. I believe that, personal issues aside, you’re mostly trying to be an ally. So maybe we can talk if you’re going to be at Wiscon again this year.

    that’s so funny! i feel almost EXACTLY the same way about you! especially the irrational and incoherent part.

    the part i don’t feel about you is that you’re trying to be an ally.

    Either way, this is not about you daring to disagree. I think you’re smart enough to realize that if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, people are probably going to break out the hoisin sauce.

    really? you don’t eat your duck with plum sauce? no wonder you’re so angry.

    what if it looks like a slug, but a bunch of people keep insisting it’s a duck? would YOU break out the hoisin sauce then?

    So I don’t understand why you would make the same kinds of arguments that holders of white privilege typically make, almost verbatim, and expect people to react to you differently.

    i’m very clear on the fact that that’s what you’re HEARING from me, but those aren’t the arguments i’m actually MAKING. that’s why i put to you that the problem here is that i dared to disagree. the moment anyone disagrees here, they automatically sound to you like holders of white privilege. but i’ve stopped believing that you’re capable of hearing subtle (as well as blatant) differences. so i’ll drop it.

    I also don’t understand why you appear to be coyly trying to hide the fact that you’re a PoC. If you want to have a clear, open discussion with other people, you probably shouldn’t play games with them — but whatever.

    huh? what part of me putting a link to my blog with every single comment is me being coy? all you have to do is click once, then look at the tags to figure out what race i am.

    wow, nora. you’ve REALLY never gone over to my blog, have you? you know, every time i engage in a lengthy discussion on the web with someone, the FIRST thing i do is go over to their blog, if they link to it, and try to figure out where they’re coming from. this is just common sense. how can you have a discussion with someone if you have no context for them?

    plus, think about it: if a person has to be poc to get a hearing around here, what does that say about this blog? i’m trying to get past that in my life. i don’t think people should listen to me because of my race. i think people should listen to me because i have a point. if my having a point depends on what race i am … dude …

    Obviously I’m not the best person to try and figure out what you’re trying to do, or why.

    now THERE’S something we can totally agree on.

    since the argument seems to have come to a standstill, and since no one really seems interested in investigating how an “ally” (your quotes, nora) could possibly disagree, or possibly have a point in doing so, then i’m dropping it: i.e. i’m not gonna come back and look for further comments.

  50. *tiptoes away, mumbling about we-sha-sha*

  51. Naamen,

    I am a white man in my early 30’s who occasionally posts on this forum. After reading your article and reflecting a little…I am forced to agree with you.

    It is one thing to “politely disagree” on some fine point of academics or philosophy, but when someone makes a statement or writes an article that shows a blatant disregard (and disrespect) for the history, culture, and experiences of our black citizens (or other POC), then what we are dealing with may require a lot more than a “polite” response…or perhaps it is not worthy of a response at all.

    Sadly, many whites I have known equate discussions of racism with many other theoretical matters (that may or may not be true) and then do not understand why people (especially POC) become angry or impatient during those discussions. It is often equated with arguments of religion, sports, or politics. Many whites will also relegate these dicussions to the academic sector (social sciences).

    My wife, who is a woman of color, works with many “polite” people. After 12 years of marriage, she will stay say to me, “Adam, I appreciate my coworkers, but I hate it when white people ______________ “.
    It is tiring dealing with people whose statements, beliefs, or the posture of their lives assume a certain social reality. I have called it many things but I will use the term: “Aggressive Indifference”.

    The truth is…this is real life for real people. There are entire sectors of our nation’s population who have the experience daily of being ignored, having their experiences disrgarded, and having their faults (real or imagined) overmagnified.

    You are right, Naamen. It is not your job to assume the role of the polite professor when one of my white counterparts utters something that is rooted in a skewed and twisted understanding of reality.

    Obviously, nothing I have written is a revelation to you (or many of the members of this forum), and whether your intention was to teach or not, I learned from you today.

    All The Best,

    Adam

  52. Claire,

    i’m dropping it: i.e. i’m not gonna come back and look for further comments.

    Since it’s clear you’ve become more interested in bemoaning your unjust persecution/martyrdom than you are in actually discussing the topic at hand… I’m really glad to hear this.

  53. I agree with you on this. I live in Canada and this form of racist behavior is really prevalent here. I had a research project which examined demographic factors (like race, religion, gender etc.) amongst other things in the context of the justice system and it didn’t get approval until I threatened to sue. One of the reasons the department gave for denial was that it might upset participants needlessly as there was (according to them) no problems with racism in Canada, and it might be upsetting to some people to discuss, so therefore it was not an appropriate research topic and shouldn’t be discussed. My reply was that people should be concerned about the victims of racist behavior and how they feel. As everyone is supposed to politely ignore racism here this reply did not go down well and both my motivations and character were questioned. The policy at this particular school if someone says or does something racist or demeaning to you, you are supposed to go and discuss it politely with them, if they decide not to change their behavior to bad for you. Personally I don’t really want to talk to, or even see again, someone who has treated me badly, and to be told that I am just being oversensitive, lying and/or imagining things makes it worse. Here if you are subject to discrimination the burden is laid on you and only you. Canadians will say there are no problems with racism, but what they do is make things intolerable for people who complain so that they leave, and then there are no ‘problems’.

  54. Kaya, I would love to see that report.

  55. Well, I can give you a short summary. The official title of the project was ‘Weapons effect, demographic factors and judgment. We wanted to find out if weapons effect in combination with particular demographic characteristics would affect sentence length. The 114 participants were undergraduate students in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Weapons effect is a little known psychological effect whereby exposure to aggressive stimuli such as a weapon, or sometimes even a ‘threatening’ person or even a description or picture, causes a persons affect (eg emotion) to become more aggressive. If a person has had weapons effect induced and is given the chance to punish someone (it can be anyone) they tend to do so more harshly. We got people to pretend to be judges, imagine the defendant when no demographic information was given, and to sentence them for shoplifting. In one scenario a knife was found on the defendant (though not used in any way) and in the other energy bars. Participants tended to imagine that the defendant was male, an atheist, nominally employed or unemployed, from a visible minority (particularly Native), and psychologically, developmentally, or learning disabled, far more often than you would find in the general population of Alberta and also imagined the defendant to be generally a few years older than them. We didn’t have enough participants to get significant results for sentencing except for age (older = longer sentence) but the general trends were as follows. Visible minorities always received at least a slightly longer sentence (averaged overall) than their European counterparts. Males were always sentenced more harshly than females particularly when weapons weren’t found. People from minority faiths received harsher sentences. Having a disability did not lessen sentence length. If you have a general belief about the characteristics of who is criminal and a person matching your belief appears in front of you how are you likely to judge them? Negative stereotypes lead to profiling, which then lead to more stops and arrests, more court appearances and more people go to jail. The number of people from particular groups seen in jail then reinforces the notion that some people are more criminal than others which then reinforces the stereotype. Negative media portrayals do not help either. Its a vicious circle. Problem is for it to stop people have to admit that they may hold unconscious negative stereotypes about others and work to change them. If you can’t provide positive proof there is no impetus for change.

    I can send you or someone else a copy of this and one other prospective paper I wrote plus what the ethics committee made me read aloud to every participant (its laughable in its extremity) but I need somewhere to send it.

  56. Kaya, that sounds really interesting. I think these kinds of studies are extremely important in showing how biased our justice systems are, and the subtle ways in which they accomplish it.

    It reminds me of a presentation I recently heard from a woman researching language of court clerks in divorce cases, and the way words with negative connotations (alleged, claimed, admitted) were used more frequently to describe women’s testimony to judges, while words with positive connotations (observed, stated, indicated) were used to describe men’s testimony. So while women “claim” or “admit” (implying falseness or guilt in their testimony), men “state” or “observe” (implying truth). These subtle variations are important because the judges never really hear the testimony of the men/women themselves; they just read the summaries typed up by these clerks. So the language sways their opinions.

    This study was on gender, but I suspect that if it had been on race it would have produced similar results. I don’t know if a similar analysis has been done on the media’s or the court system’s use of language in descriptions of race, but I bet it would also show the same kind of subtle discrimination disguised as objectivity.

    I hope you get your paper published somewhere. These kinds of things are important, especially in societies that are so in denial about the existence of racism; it helps to be able to point to actual evidence.

  57. [...] 21, 2008 at 10:15 pm (Feminism, Random) Great post. This not only derails the discussion but also tries to turn the insults/race issues into the fault [...]

  58. [...] The Privilege of Politeness « The Angry Black Woman [...]

  59. This post triggered some thoughts about politeness and respect in my own situation. I teach high school in an economically, socially, culturally, and racially diverse suburban area. I love my job (most days), including working with some of the more challenging students in the school who have been told since birth that they’re too dumb/poor/different to learn the same material as the smarter/richer/better-looking students.

    What I don’t like is the minority of students who think that they are entitled to be rude and disrespectful without being called on their behavior. Usually, this takes the form of walking loudly through the halls during class time and giving me attitude when I step outside of my classroom to tell them to get to class quickly and quietly. Can a fifteen year old really not understand that they’re being rude by yelling in the hallways while classes are going on? Do these kids properly belong in the category of ignorant innocents or in the same category as racists who want everyone else to be “polite”?

  60. jsb16,

    I think they fall in the category of obnoxious teenagers who need to be taught how to behave — like many kids of that age, regardless of race. If their parents didn’t teach them how to do it, then unfortunately it’s up to you and the school to enforce a basic standard of discipline to prevent disruption, so everyone can learn. Aren’t teachers trained in how to do this, in most teacher-ed programs?

    Race is certainly a part of that — it always is. But sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a smartass brat is just a smartass brat, and you deal with both accordingly.

  61. jsb16 & nojojojo, I would add: sometimes it’s frankly the schools’ fault that kids act that way. If you don’t care enough to connect personally and individually with these students, to give them a reason to believe that you have anything to offer them, why are you surprised that they are disruptive? Alot of youth of color behave that way because they know nothing better is expected of them anyway and that they aren’t going to get the attention they need to thrive in an appropriate manner in the school. The current education system still overlooks kids of color in many ways, it still overlooks kids who are struggling, and teachers today don’t put in the same level of effort that they used to in order to ensure that each of their students is getting what they need.

  62. Sorry, what I meant to add was:

    You cannot expect respect and politeness from kids that haven’t ever had any respect or politeness extended to them. And the school system tends to be downright disrespectful to youth, and moreso to youth of color. Most teachers and administrators that I’ve dealt with have been all about how students need to respect their authority. But they are nasty to those students. They shame them when they get an answer wrong, they make racially charged comments that they swear aren’t racial (“nappy heads” is a common used teacher phrase), they talk about kids’ parents (“your welfare mama didn’t teach you to respect authority?”). And they don’t show youth of color any hope for the future, that they have a RIGHT to think about college, that they should be working towards that goal, that they have a RIGHT to find what they enjoy and excel at. They don’t make education real and show youth how their natural talents and ideas can be turned into a legitimate livelyhood with the application of some education. Kids disrupt, in large part, because there is nothing there for them to get connected to.

  63. . Can a fifteen year old really not understand that they’re being rude by yelling in the hallways while classes are going on?

    I have to admit that, digging through my memories of being fifteen, my answer is “no, this particular white fifteen-year-old really didn’t.” Or at least, didn’t remember it five minutes later. Or didn’t really have a sense of how loud she was being because she didn’t really have a sense of her relatively new adult body/volume.

  64. Good point Veronica. I’m pretty sure that I was considered an obnoxious person as a teenager and didn’t even realize how obnoxious I was being and didn’t always intend to be. Some of it is just part of being a teen.

  65. Veronica,
    Likewise. It doesn’t necessarily wear off either. When I was a kid I didn’t say much, because I didn’t have anything to say (people may have thought I had a problem with language, which is so not the case). Then when I did have something to say, I wouldn’t shut up. I don’t know if I was regarded as obnoxious, but I can’t have had any control over my voice volume, because I still mostly don’t, *ahem* years later – I keep being told not to shout when as far as I’m concerned I’m just not whispering.
    Off topic a bit, sorry.

  66. Aaminah,

    I agree with you; there are plenty of reasons why kids of color would not necessarily respect or trust a school authority in our society. And American schools have been the most insidious, deadly, and destructive agents of racism, IMO, since the clergy stopped claiming that Native American genocide and the slave trade were all committed to save our souls.

    That said, fifteen year olds are developing an identity — and one of the ways they do this is by testing the boundaries of acceptable behavior. The kids who are being loud are feeling their way through elements of identity associated with status and social hierarchy. They’re usually VERY aware of what’s expected of them, Veronica, and though I agree that they might not realize how loud they’re being, they know full well they’re being disruptive. We teach toddlers to “use their inside voice” (and usually toddlers’ voices are much more piercing than even a teenager’s can be), and they usually learn that lesson just fine by the age of seven or eight. These kids didn’t just forget all that at puberty. They’re just pushing on the rules a bit to see how much things might have changed now that they’ve got a new adult body.

    And sometimes the appropriate response is to push back, to let them know where the new boundary lines lie. Once that’s done, everyone’s happy. Well, OK, the teenager is sullen and moody and angsty. But s/he’ll get over it. =P

  67. Agreed 100% about schools and racism. And sexism, and classism, and homophobia. The “history” that is taught to our kids is a joke (a tragic, and not a very funny one) from the “discovery” of America by Columbus onwards. Colorblind rhetoric is drilled into our heads at the same time that we are taught of the great contributions to history by white men. Think of them all! There are countless great white men who founded our civilization, conquered the west, made and won world wars, wrote novels and history books about it, etc.

    Nobody else did anything really interesting, apparently.

    And English classes — urgh. English classes are in some respects the most liberal of them all (or should be), given that you have some teachers pushing the boundaries a bit. Adding women and writers of color to the curriculum. Even maybe a bit of homosexuality (oh, horrors!). But then, the traditional canon remains to let us know who the real writers are. What’s more, because English classes focus on works only written in English (and generally do not study anything in translation), they are set up to expose us to only that which is British or American.

    But apparently we can read ancient Greek/Roman works in English, and that is okay. Huh. Just not anything Asian/African/South American/from any of the many countries of these many continents!

    Then of course you have teachers reinforcing all kinds of cultural norms themselves… investing more time and effort in the white kids than in the kids of color, instilling gender norms that limit girls and privilege boys, reinforcing homophobia and consistently creating a hostile and even dangerous environment for LGBT youth, the list goes on…

  68. They’re usually VERY aware of what’s expected of them, Veronica, and though I agree that they might not realize how loud they’re being, they know full well they’re being disruptive.

    I’m sure that’s true for some–many–teens. All I’m telling you, Nora, is that I remember being 15, and I remember hanging out in the hallways with my friends between classes because there was nowhere else to go during free periods, and I remember for a fact that not only did we really not have a sense of being disruptive or how disruptive we were being, we had no idea what else we were expected to do.

  69. I think teenagers and young adults are at least somewhat aware that their behavior may be annoying to others. What most lack is an understanding of their own behavior and good control of it and this is mostly age related. I think that sometimes they do it on purpose as an unconscious challenge to social status/social hierarchy. Annoying a teacher or others may be a way of saying that a person (or class of person) does not have power over them.

    It sounds like your students have been denied a lot of opportunities due to structural inequality. Maybe some of them resent that and lack other outlets. Having nowhere to go and nothing to do doesn’t help.

    There have been many studies which have looked at interactions between teachers and students of various ethnicities, genders, abilities, SES, etc., and it has been found that there are differences in how people interact and that these interactions are not unbiased. Expectations can shape behavior in both directions…

    It is important to look at behavior in context:

    Is it possible that certain students (or those close to them) are being treated differently and that they may have noticed this?

    What else is going on in their lives?

    Is an expectation of quiet behavior from this age group in this situation realistic?

    Could there be some behavioral misattribution going on?

    Is it possible that most teenagers just don’t like being called on their behavior at all and some are just more vocal?

    Could they be doing this just to annoy you because they know they can get a reaction?

    Because of age I would say that this rudeness, if it is that, is most likely simple ignorance, which doesn’t make it excusable necessarily, but maybe go easy even if it’s hard. Teachers don’t know everything.

    Everyone is difficult sometimes…
    I know I am.

    There is a difference between the general defensiveness of the teen years and of racism. The difference between saying, “You can’t talk to me like that” and “You are not allowed to feel like that”. The difference between not liking what someone says and expressing disagreement, and denying that person’s experience, their human rights, and access to resources. One is expression, the other repression and control.

  70. At the risk of being called “rude”…I’m going to say this loud…

    THERE IS NO POLITE WAY TO DISCUSS RACISM IN AMERICA. IT IS NOT POLITE TO BE A RACIST, NOR IS IT POLITE TO CONTRIBUTE TO RACISM!

    Whew!!

    I attended a nice little club in Harlem a couple of months ago. Because this a very popular place, patrons are often asked to share a table. My two girlfriends and I were having a nice conversation, when along came the hostess, who asked if we’d mind sharing our table, which we didn’t….and seated a white couple at our table. We exchanged greetings, names, etc…anyway, at this point I was discussing my aunt, who has done very well financially, and her ex husband, who are the very best of friends…a rarity. One of my friends had traveled with me on a weekend trip to MD, and she met my aunt and her ex…and she’d mentioned that he didn’t look AA (because he is very, very fair…do you know this white dude took that comment as the perfect opportunity to ask why we call ourselves African American, that we’re all Americans, that we shouldn’t hypenate because it promotes division amongst the races. My two friends looked dumbfounded; I politely told him it was none of his business what we call ourselves, and politely excused myself, and asked the hostess to ask this clown and his date to leave, lest they’d lose me as a customer. She did ask them to move, and we were able to continue with our meal.

  71. [...] “crazy” things whenever I post about bigotry in the field. Also that if I would just moderate my tone a bit, people would listen to me.  The person in question was white, Ashok is a POC.  So [...]

  72. [...] contrast that to the outside-of-the-job-description responsibilities added on top of POC’s plate…  Seriously, think about the “race relations” [...]

  73. I do think it is possible to be simultaneously angry and polite, or at least civil.

  74. Keliexandra –
    I don’t doubt that for some it is.
    But why should you be polite or civil to someone who’s just insulted you? who was not polite or civil or intelligent enough to avoid saying something offensive? why do the oppressors or those indoctrinated with their beliefs, consciously or unconsciously, deserve our subservience?

  75. [...] The Angry Black Women, Naamen writes The Privilege of Politeness. It’s [...]

  76. [...] taught the whole “you’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” line, but “politeness” isn’t a neutral concept. Praising someone who said something bigoted for phrasing it and/or the ensuing discussion [...]

  77. THANK YOU. Beautifully spot on.

  78. IMO what Claire wrote in the first comment adds an important dimension even if I disagree other parts of it.

    Naamen wrote in the post:

    At the core of this expectation of politeness is the idea that the POC in question should teach the offender what was wrong with their statement. Because in my experience what is meant by “be polite” is “teach me”, teach me why you’re offended by this, teach me how to be racially sensitive and the bottom line is that it is no one’s responsibility to teach anyone else.

    And Claire’s first comment included this — I am only quoting the part that aI feel adds a dimension, and am in no way saying Claire will agree with me on any of this:

    … [the] demand for politeness (”well, you could have been nicer about it”) is a weak attempt at saving face and gaining back a little control in a confrontation you are losing, or are about to lose.

    I actually agree that the core issue when white people demand politeness and teaching is usually control. And I see the push for control as part of the dynamics of the European cultural system that culturally (and incorrectly) locates white people as superior.

    The European cultural ego is motivated by a quest for power and control. Interactions are about maintaining dominance/control.

    In this cultural context when white people do this (there are other contexts, but am talking about this one) the culturally specific goal of “saving face” is to protect the association of whiteness and goodness.

    I see the “expectation of learning” dynamic as serving this push for control over the communication, and also over the image of self that the person seeks to project.

    The reason I feel this as important is because if this is correct, then the actual act of teaching or learning is not the point in these interactions in any way at any time.

    Stripped down to the core, the demand to be taught is a demand for submission to the white person’s control in the communication, and also a demand for an acceptance of the “good white” image.

    To me this has implications for action. For example: let’s say someone chooses to teach in one of these situations. If the underlying dynamic is that the white person wants to be in control and maintain the “good white person” image, then there will be no actual learning beyond what can maintain the control (sometimes pretty subtly) and the good person image. The focus is not on learning at all, it is on control and image.

    A learner (including one who expects to be treated as a learner) is a different kind of thing to deal with than a white cultural ego interested in control and image. Control and image focus has interaction dangers that learner does not. There will be more subtle violence flowing in the control/image dynamic — and not by accident but because it is part of the dynamic at its core, because the dynamic itself comes from and perpetuates white supremacy.

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