Friday, September 23, 2016

Political correctness or dignity (and whiteness)?

If you listen or read anything remotely related to political matters in the United States (or probably elsewhere), you will have heard the term 'political correctness.'

The trend lately is to decry what is seen as overly politically correct speech, used by candidates or officials.

Recently in an Esquire interview, Clint Eastwood has praised Presidential candidate, Donald Trump and ranted about political correctness:

"Because secretly everybody's getting tired of political correctness, kissing up. That's the kiss-a-- generation we're in right now. We're really in a p---- generation."

"Everybody's walking on eggshells. We see people accusing people of being racist and all kinds of stuff. When I grew up, those things weren't called racist."
I'm not sure who 'everybody' is. More troubling though, I am not sure the use of 'political correctness' isn't meiotic, a stand-in for something more sinister--in this case I'm speaking specifically about race in response to Eastwood's comments, though the implications reverberate broadly (see note at the end).

In a way, push-back against political correctness definitely sounds better than push back against 'the Golden Rule.' The GR, in the words of Jesus (Matthew 7:12):

In everything, treat others as you would want them to treat you, for this fulfills the law and the prophets.
I want to be able to tell my own story, in my own terms--allowing that I am honest with myself, most people would agree to this plea because most desire it for themselves (the degree to which you are allowed that chance by others is directly related to how much they trust your version of things).

White people have always been able to frame discussions and terms used to describe White people--historically we've also been free to describe any other race and frame class discussions without fear of repercussion or consequence.

A side note to make this point: consider the picture you have in your mind of 'White people.' I immediately envision a White middle class family with a house and yard in the suburbs--a class specific image that doesn't paint the whole picture. It doesn't describe poor Whites in any number of locales, or the super rich either. The class we each come from and belong to frames the way we generalize about groups. Class provides enormous power when it comes to description--like it or not, the classes with more money (power) are afforded the privilege of enhanced perceived credibility (the same goes for level of education).

Going back to my point about who is allowed to frame discussions and terms: White people. Historically the locus of power has been with White people (slavery & reconstruction via Jim Crow, Native American reservations, Chinese laborer immigration restrictions, Japanese American internment camps) and non-Whites have paid the price (even the term non-White does this! It frames a White-centric perspective.).

The locus of power does not lie merely with martial or political power however. It lies with who is able to control dissemination of communication (look at how Republicans and Democrats have partisan language patterns--it's important!).

Lately you hear talk about how great things used to be. People describe wanting to go back to something that has apparently been changed.

I think I know what's changed. I don't think it's because violent crime is on the rise (it's on the decline) and I don't think it's because people are "race baiting," whatever you think that term means.

I think it's because White people are hearing Black voices (and of other people of color), and they don't like it, and they aren't used to it, and they want it to stop because it makes them uncomfortable (I had the same experience before I thought about why I felt that way). It's likely due to the expansion of social media platforms and coverage of the 24 hour news cycle. Black voices can be unsettling to the concept of whiteness (see reading resources below) particularly when we're used to information that has been sanitized in some way by Whites (how would a White person like it to sound?).

The #BlackLivesMatter movement and Civil Rights movement are prime examples of this.

Let's address the Civil Rights movement. Dr. King's Letter From a Birmingham Jail is a direct response to White clergy who were convinced that the ongoing demonstrations were "unwise and untimely" (let's wait for all the facts, don't be hasty). Black people were demonstrating and resisting and doing their own thing to advance justice. White clergy (and White Christianity) were threatened by this.

Today, when people make the statement that "Black lives matter," they are immediately met with resistance, in the form of "all lives matter"--as if that statement needed to be said. White people don't like the sound of "Black lives matter." It makes us uncomfortable, not because we don't think it's true, but because it is not a White-centric message. Sure, White voices like mine feel comfortable saying it, but many Whites don't feel comfortable hearing it.

A Black voice said it originally, and Black and White voices continue to echo it.

It's like Broderick Greer (an Episcopal priest I follow on Twitter) says repeatedly:

We Whites are used to treating others like WE want them to be treated, with OUR voices.

We Whites are seeing push-back by other groups, increasingly being able to define terms and rescue/create dignity by being called what they want to be called.

Some of the power being given up by Whites via the dismantling of 'whiteness' is the ability to, with comfort, ignore 'the Platinum Rule': treat others like THEY want to be treated. We don't like the loss--it feels like people of color are being overly sensitive, when really they just want the dignity of telling their own story with their own words.


If you want to tell me I'm racist for writing this, here are a couple steps:

1) Read the resources on 'whiteness' below.

2) It's not racist or 'race baiting' to talk about matters of race.
3) If you disagree with the concept of 'whiteness' the burden of proof is on you, because there is significant scholarship to support it.
4) Ok, having done that, describe how I'm racist, and give some support for your argument.
5) Cool. Thanks. I'm racist.


Constructing Whiteness by Judy Helfand
Trump Reflects White Male Fragility by Charles M. Blow
What is Whiteness by Nell Irvin Painter
Summary of Whiteness Theory by Audrey Thompson

Note: the idea of political correctness or dignity is directly applicable to how different groups frame the discussion around the rights of LGBTQ individuals as well.

I've heard descriptions such as "tranny, he-she, it, shemale, transvestite, man in a dress, hermaphrodite, or freak." Those slurs are meant to strip dignity and wound. There is no other reason for them.
For some, these might not be slurs, but for the people in the video, they are, and they hurt. The point is not which specific words can or can't, should or shouldn't be said, it's about treating people how they want to be treated.

It's a choice to use language that conveys dignity--when you choose to "not be politically correct," know that what you're doing is intentionally stripping dignity from a group or person, nothing more, nothing less.

Even if someone's identity makes you uncomfortable, you can still treat them as a person--you're the only one who needs to come to terms with your discomfort.

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