Greg Laden of Scienceblogs started an interesting discussion on Racism and Sexism in the Democratic Primary, and I don't want to leave an overly long reply in his comments, but I have some stuff to ponder, so... here's what I think. (All blockquotes are Greg's.)
To give some context, he had mentioned that both negative (Irish people are drunks) and positive (Irish people are great writers) stereotypes are both racial statements and, as such, Not A Good Thing. To which we'd all agree. He also says,
In Minnesota, our party rules require that representation be equal by sex. Among the delegates and alternates that go to the state convention, half are women, half are men. I think that may be nation wide for our party. When the democrats convene in Colorado, half of the delegates will be women, half men. One could argue that this is sexist (or racist as the case may be) because we are considering sex or race. And that would be correct.... with which I disagreed. I basically said that as far as I knew, the systematic racial and gender-based oppression has denied voices to women and persons of color (POC to those in the know) and rectifying this by giving voices to oppressed classes of people solely because they would otherwise not be heard at all is not racist/sexist. I think that Greg's response was to say that it would still be racism/sexism, but of the benevolent sort.
Greg's definition of racism: "Simply (too simply, but remember, this is a comment on a blog) racism is the belief that one can use a "racial" characteristic to identify a person's features aside from that characteristic," of course assuming that one believes in races as categories and that they correlate to some other trait. But races are categories (if only social ones) and they do correlate to some traits (if only by the way certain races have been historically treated). I would add to that simple definition that the association between the racial characteristic and whatever other traits is a prejudicial one (aka not backed up by evidence) and/or considered to be inherent (due to the fact that the person is of a certain race, not because of the racial categorization and subsequent treatment of that group). (As an aside, the Angry Black Woman has some interesting things to say about how ridiculous it is to try to be 'colorblind'. Race does affect people, in real ways.)
He gives two examples of benign racism:
Oh, look at the irish girl. she's probably a good writer. Oh, look at the pregnant Somali woman. As a doctor, I'm glad to know her race because there is this disease common among pregnant Somali that I need to take into account in diagnosing her symptoms."The first case is clearly benevolent racism. In the second case, I wouldn't consider it racism because being of a particular line of descent (not necessarily of a 'race') is an actual specifically delineated category and it does actually correlate with a specific trait. (Given the example, which I understand is made-up.) Saying that people of African descent are more prone to lactose intolerance than those of Northern European descent is not racist, because, well, it's true. Right?
In addition, I'd think that saying that American blacks have been systematically denied positions of power is not a racist thing to say, even though I'm basing the statement solely on racial generalizations, because it is in fact true due to the societal treatment of those who are categorized as black. I do not feel that 'black' or 'white' is anything but a superficial category imposed by our society (i.e. it's not necessarily a genetic category, seeing as the races are much more genetically similar than they are different). But the fact remains that people who are considered 'white' and people who are considered 'nonwhite' at first glance are treated differently in society as a whole.
Now, let's try the argument that racism is always obviously bad, and therefore anything that is obviously good can't be racism. Furthermore, if we assume that me thinking Muse is a great writer because she's Irish or Obama's election will lead the way towards a more enlightened society because he's "African" then those are good things. But if they are not racial thinking, then what are they?Those are good examples of what Greg and I both would both consider 'racist' thinking, as benevolent as both examples are. But what about the thought that perhaps having a black man in a powerful position in America would be a good thing simply because it would give a (very powerful) voice to a person of color, who have been traditionally under-represented in our country's history? Is it racist to think that a black President would be a good thing, just because black people and their opinions/experiences should be heard on a more national level?
If so, I suppose I'm more racist than I thought. ;)
Interesting discussions by intelligent people. My favorite thing! Anyway, go read the post and the comments; they are stimulating.