Sunday, December 29, 2013

Follow-up to the post: Why do some white folks ask what we should do, to be an ally, when a Black woman is being abused in public by a Black man?

Hello readers.

I received a comment recently that has been published and responded to at the prior post *here*. You can click on the "comments" link at the bottom of the post to see the rest of the conversation to date.


Below is that most recent comment and my critique of it, revised for this new post. (A post-script has been added at the bottom, on 6 January 2014.)


On Thursday, December 26, 2013, enchantedghosts said...
It's been a few months, but I am interested in this question. With a background in psychology, my first reaction to the question of why no one stood up for the panelist is The Bystander Effect. With so many people in the audience, there is a general diffusion of responsibility. Everyone was just waiting for everyone else to take a stand. It's also interesting to note that the moderator (a position that comes with some sense of authority) was the only one who made any real verbal attempt to mediate the situation.  
I also think that this particular situation, where a Black man is threatening a Black woman, is one where many White people feel uncomfortable intervening, for fear of "not doing it right." I think the fear of looking like someone who is trying to play the White Hero overshadows the feeling of responsibility to help out a fellow human being.  
I will admit that I feel terribly out of place to offer any critique of feminism. So take this as an outsider's non-academic opinion, please. But it seems as though at least part of the problem is that people are so afraid of saying the wrong thing or making the wrong move. There is a fear of being labeled as racist or sexist-- so in defense of one's ego and sense of their own moral goodness-- people choose to not act at all.  
This seems to stem from a very closed, angry and unforgiving conversation about these topics. A lot of judgement is thrown around, with very few people willing to extend any understanding towards the fellow people they are supposed to be engaged with. Instead of conversation and dialogue, there is an attempt to prove oneself right at the expense of shaming someone else.  
I don't know how much of this is simply because the internet is a forum which tends to bring out the worst in people's ability to engage in dialogue. Again, this is not my academic field and I am more familiar with what is available via the internet, while acknowledging that this is in no way a forum which speaks for the entire discipline. However, I do believe that if real, social change is something that people want to see happen then there needs to be space for people to make mistakes.  
I don't mean that people engaging in White Hero behavior (or any sexist/racist behavior) should be ignored or encouraged, but that gentle critiques may be better than constant shaming and anger in certain situations. Human beings can only take so much. 


Hello enchantedghosts.

Your response reminds me of how privilege in some ways constructs not only our views and experiences but also what we believe the terms ought to be when engaging with one another.

I'll try and clarify this using portions of your comment, below.

With a background in psychology, my first reaction to the question of why no one stood up for the panelist is The Bystander Effect. With so many people in the audience, there is a general diffusion of responsibility. Everyone was just waiting for everyone else to take a stand.

I agree that The Bystander Effect is one layer of explanation. This layer would likely be operative regardless of race, at least in a country like the U.S. I'm not sure The Bystander Effect is a phenomenon across cultures, however. It's not clear to me whether being a person in an oppressor class fearing judgment from oppressed people is in any way universal and I suspect it's rare rather than routine.

There'd have to be a solid level of privilege-backed liberalism in place, I think. Because if this were a more flagrantly white supremacist context, whites in the audience would be cheering the abuse on, or shouting racist epithets at a Black man abusing a Black woman, and racist misogynist epithets at her. What is unowned if not also repressed, is whites desire to witness such violence occur, as it helps protect rather than interrupt white male supremacy.

But your point is well taken in the context in which this incident happened. And I think there's much more going on that is more controversial to speak about among 'good' whites and 'good' men.

It's also interesting to note that the moderator (a position that comes with some sense of authority) was the only one who made any real verbal attempt to mediate the situation.

One would hope anyone so positionally empowered would be quick to do so.

I also think that this particular situation, where a Black man is threatening a Black woman, is one where many White people feel uncomfortable intervening, for fear of "not doing it right." I think the fear of looking like someone who is trying to play the White Hero overshadows the feeling of responsibility to help out a fellow human being.

While I agree with you, I'm reluctant to let that point of analysis go without deeper examination.

Let's take the context of Nazi Germany, and non-Jewish white German, French, and many other nations' citizens not doing much to intervene on Jews being forcibly removed from neighborhoods, cities, and countries (after increasingly anti-Semitic propaganda and violence prior to removal and mass murder).

What some non-Jewish Germans have said is either, "I didn't know what was going on", or "If I'd tried to intervene, I'd have been shot on the spot."

In schools where bullying is a problem, the Bystander Effect often amounts to someone not wanting the stigma of the abused being attached to someone standing up for the bullied person. 

In situations where gang rape is horrifically occurring, some men on the sidelines might argue that they feared being seen as "not a man" if they verbally or violently intervened against the sexual terrorists/thugs/normal guys. And some of those not-so-innocent bystanders might also join in and become gang-rapists themselves to prove alliance with their more enthusiastically vicious peers.

Taken together, we see that The [Privileged] Bystander Effect has several functions: to allow someone to believe they alone have no particular responsibility to stop unjust violence is one. To allow someone the freedom to not be stigmatised and/or mistreated by the abuser/oppressor. To avoid death, including to the point of becoming one of the abusers/oppressors.

What also must be exposed is what oppressor-class people have to gain by not intervening. It's easy enough for us to think, "The whites did nothing because they didn't want to be misperceived as The White Hero", which sort of sounds like the position is rooted in an egocentric desire to always been seen as good and moral. The key there is "seen as". Because their actions are not good and are not moral, of course. And whites and men wanting to be seen as morally good people within a virulently white male supremacist society serves whom, exactly?

Do oppressor-class people REALLY give a shit what oppressed-class people think of them/us? Maybe that's the case for the few who are judged by other liberal oppressor-class people. The situation linked to in the post here demonstrates to me whites want to be seen as not-racist by other whites. And to the extent they don't want to be seen as not-racist by people of color, it is only to maintain a false appearance in order to maintain white power and position. Whites who did, really, intervene against white violence against people of color, and men who have, really, intervened against male violence against women, do face the real prospect of having that violence turned on them and, at least, losing status among those whites and men around them.

What we see is that whites will excuse each other not intervening. They will be very understanding and quick to defend such inaction. And that's white supremacy in action. Men will excuse each other not intervening. That's male supremacy at work. I offer all that as a foundation for the following challenges to what you offer by way of explanation.

... But it seems as though at least part of the problem is that people are so afraid of saying the wrong thing or making the wrong move.

What constitutes "the wrong thing" or "the wrong move"? As I already described, this is not universal. It is not even regionally or locally predictable.

The wrong thing/the wrong move is usually and overwhelmingly to allow oppressive violence to continue uninterrupted. That's our status quo. It's also status quo for whites and men to deny the violence is happening at all--or is far more rare than the oppressed claim it is. It is also status quo for whites and men to encourage it to happen and to commit it.

It's rare for whites/males to give a shit about what happens to Black people/women, historically and presently. What happens to Black women is especially disregarded by white men, or is consumed as entertainment. The pornography industry is one callous arena offering evidence of callous enjoyment. If we really cared, we'd work collectively to eradicate white male supremacy and the economic and social manifestations of it. We don't. Instead a small minority of us egocentrically care what others think about us when we don't do what we assume others think we should do, as described here:

There is a fear of being labeled as racist or sexist-- so in defense of one's ego and sense of their own moral goodness-- people choose to not act at all.

That's white/male supremacy at work, not just egocentric (im)moral action. Where you go from here is, for me, increasingly problematic and victim-blaming.

This seems to stem from a very closed, angry and unforgiving conversation about these topics.

Who is being "very closed, angry, and unforgiving"? Other whites or people of color?

A lot of judgement is thrown around, with very few people willing to extend any understanding towards the fellow people they are supposed to be engaged with.

Who is throwing judgment? Who is not willing to extend understanding? And who can afford to see their oppressors as "fellow people they are supposed to be engaged with"?

Those who have been systematically and chronically sexually or racially discriminated against, harassed, ignored, and terrorised? The people with severe PTSD developed over years from enduring daily racism and misogyny?

As I read it, you're speaking of people of color being too angry, too unforgiving, too closed, too judgmental, too shaming, and too stingy with understanding and compassion.

Instead of conversation and dialogue, there is an attempt to prove oneself right at the expense of shaming someone else.

Among men and among whites, I've seen this occur. Many times. Whites wanting to demonstrate who is the better ally to POC; men fighting over who is the better feminist. And so on. But we're talking about minority populations of whites and men, of course. The places I've observed this are very few and far between. Very few men interrupt misogynist violence; very few non-Jewish Germans interrupted anti-Semitic Nazi violence in the 1930s and '40s; most whites were privately disdainful of Martin Luther King, Jr., or were publicly hostile when discussing his efforts through the '50s and '60s. Many privately or publicly were relieved when he was assassinated, as they were when Malcolm X was murdered. Consciously or not, whites felt: "Whew! Thank God that attempt to challenge my white power is now without its most public leader." 

Most whites are still hostile to or disdainful of any efforts to weaken white power. And most whites in the U.S. reluctantly endure "Martin Luther King, Jr. Day". Just YESTERDAY--no joke--I heard two whites being irritated that he has "a Day" at all. These two people also agreed Abraham Lincoln was far greater for freeing the slaves, which shows how whites rewrite history to rewrite and rewhite his/story. Lincoln's role in freeing slaves was far less arduous and brave than was Harriet Tubman's. Or the other hundreds of slaves who resisted and fought for freedom.

I don't know how much of this is simply because the internet is a forum which tends to bring out the worst in people's ability to engage in dialogue.

The anonymity factor is likely operating on the internet, but that, too, is a very partial explanation, and misses the politics of what is going down in favor of a psychological perspective. I say this to you as in order to recommend that you offer such a critique to your Psych professors. 

People's ability to engage in dialogue about racism and sexism is far more impaired by racism and sexism among whites and men than it is by anything else. Our reluctance and resistance is evident ubiquitously, in white families, majority-white places of worship, in the white-ruled educational system, and among white psychotherapists, to name but a few spheres of white power-protection. 

When I see conversations between whites and POC online, what I see time and again is whites wanting always to be seen as earnestly intending to be good, and becoming defensive or hostile when they are called out--appropriately--for being racist. I've seen how some POC will far too calmly and patiently attempt to get some white person to see things from their point of view, identifying some interaction or statement by the white person as racist, only to have the white person claim the person of color is wrongfully judging them, as if the white person's character was ever the issue. The same with men. Having their behavior called "sexist" or "misogynistic" becomes something they pretend is a personal attack. A grievous "attack". And they don't see their own defensiveness and/or hostility as any form of attack at all. 

...I am more familiar with what is available via the internet, while acknowledging that this is in no way a forum which speaks for the entire discipline. However, I do believe that if real, social change is something that people want to see happen then there needs to be space for people to make mistakes.

Systematic oppression and flagrant, violent resistance to change, to accountability, to responsibility, ought not be termed "people making mistakes". Whites don't make mistakes, nor do men. What whites and men do is protect our power, privileges, entitlements, and status. There's no mistake about it. When you narrow the lens down to a few internet interactions, it may be too easy to lose sight of the larger political picture, the broader social context for those few interactions.

I don't mean that people engaging in White Hero behavior (or any sexist/racist behavior) should be ignored or encouraged, but that gentle critiques may be better than constant shaming and anger in certain situations. Human beings can only take so much.

White/Male Hero and White/Male Abuser behavior is both ignored (passively allowed) and encouraged (actively allowed) by whites and men. So we have to start there. "Gentle critiques" as defined by whom? Probably only by whites and men, right? "Constant shaming" as defined by whom? Probably only by whites and men, right? This request for the oppressed to offer only "gentle critiques" is, in and of itself, a form of oppressive white/male supremacist behavior. As is someone privileged being calling out by those he oppresses being called "constant shaming". The only constant shaming I'm aware of is the institutional shaming done to oppressed people, actively and passively supported by whites and men. 

Oppressors are always trying to control the behavior of those we oppress, including by telling them how we might best be able to learn from them--if they'd only speak the way we demand they do. But however gentle it is to our ears, we don't hear it because we don't want to or don't have to; so what usually happens is the behavior becomes a tad less gentle. But the behavior I'm talking about isn't that of the oppressed; it's that of the oppressor, who is behaving violently all along but is denying it at every turn. Telling someone you're oppressing to challenge you in a more gentle way is a verbal version of a batterer telling the person being battered to resist in a less aggressive way. Making the oppressed person's allegedly ceaselessly shaming behavior or apparent aggression appear to be "the problem", as you do at times, is a form of violence never called violent by those who do it.

6 January 2014 post-script:
I am thinking now of how any interruption in collective silence may serve to empower others to speak out as well. In the auditorium in which the abuse happened (in the story linked to initially in the last post), just one white man speaking out in any way, even in problematic ways, would likely serve, at the very least, to make space for others to speak out, perhaps more responsibly.

Breaking silence when abuse is happening in front of us, in other words, is often useful in and of itself. That may be so even if it isn't done using the most appropriate or useful language. This is to say, "too little" might be just enough for more to happen. Any individual's action opposing and interrupting abuse in a social space can at least open that space to more challenges of that violence. I think part of the 'white/male hero' phenomenon has to do with the alleged hero wanting all the credit for rescuing the abused person, ignoring how historically and inherently collectivist anti-oppression and anti-abuse work is. There's never a lone hero in such work and any attempts to narratively manufacture or highlight one is usually done to mis- and over-represent the work of one or a few whites and men.


 

4 comments:

Christina said...

Hi Julian,

I would just like to add something. First though I need to clearly state that in no way am I trying to justify a black man who abuses a woman or child or another man. As far as I am concerned when a black man abuses someone else the law must deal with him and he must face the consequences of his crime.

However, with that in mind we must not forget that black men are living under white male supremacy. They have been emasculated by white males and their systems for far too long. These black men as the oppressed often become extremely frustrated with their lot in life.

This can lead them to taking their frustrations out on black women and children as they know that these victims are in a weak position and often can't fight back.

At the same time black men desire to have the power and privilege of white males, this can also lead them to mimicking the white males in that they see how these WHMs mistreat and oppress their white women and girls and thus black men play copy cat in how they treat black women and girls.

White women and white men who oppose white male supremacy should work towards the total destruction of this cancer. Racist, sexist and homophobic white males should be removed from potions of power and made to pay for their crimes. (Please note that my idea of making white males pay for their crimes is not about revenge but rather ensuring true justice.)

This will both liberate black men which means they will no longer feel angry and frustrated and by seeing what happens to white males who oppress women and girls will make them realises that there are some serious consequences for trying to cause harm.

If white male supremacy had been destroyed I think this scene may have played out a bit differently.

Julian Real said...

Hi Christina,

I agree with your analysis. It is heartbreaking to see groups with one foot in privilege and the other in oppression side with the privileged over and against the oppressed.

I've seen it so much. Sad.

Christina said...

There is a lot of anger and frustration amongst the oppressed black youth of today especially in countries completely dominated by WHM such as the US.

We need to look at exploring ways where young black boys and black teenage boys can be trained at school level to focus their anger at white male supremacy and not at women and those in a weaker position then them.

Julian Real said...

I agree, Christina. Oppressed people are too well supported by dominant culture to take out aggression and frustration on one another.