Racism in an Elevator

I went stark raving mad after seeing this video posted in a module of my Ethics course at Felician University covering multicultural counseling. Irfan and I have long talks about how upside down things are not only in the media, but in the social sciences where the truth of what one has to say appears to relate more to the color of their skin than what the person actually says.

The effect of the type of “reasoning” engaged in not only in the two paragraphs below, but in the video as well as the article on “white privilege” (just click on the link to see that article) was going to send me to the psych ward on suspicion of homicidal ideation if I did not speak up. So, I felt it best to do so in the interests of everyone’s safety. I didn’t have a lot of time to write this response so it’s rough, but it makes the points I wanted to make in essence. I think Irfan will follow-up with more to say.

So, here’s a couple of paragraphs from the online lecture material that introduce the video and the article on privilege:

Do you assume or judge people? Remember what they say about ASSUMPTION, it makes an ASS out of U and ME (i.e., to assume). As counselors we should NEVER assume. For example, when I am working with a person of color I do not ASSUME (Feel free [and I encourage you to] post about this video in the Lounge) that s/he is African American or Black, and I do not just assume someone with an accent is not American. Our clients are the experts, ASK, ASK, ASK!

Before we move on, check out this video. Warning: this might make you uncomfortable, and that is the point. This is privilege as was defined by Peggy McIntosh in 1988 and is highlighted in this article!! While I do not want to just glance over these issues, these two resources and these four lines in this lecture are, in my opinion, the most important in a counselor’s career. I strongly encourage you all to post in the Lounge and discuss some reactions related to these videos and articles. 

Before you read my response below, note that I was asked to provide my internal dialogue on another page, and that this last paragraph specifically encourages students to post their reactions. So, I posted my reactions (see below). In case you can’t tell, I was so fucking angry, I could barely contain myself. I have had it. In New York City, one learns to keep one’s mouth shut about these issues because, typically, if a white person has views like this, one is not listened to, and the finger-pointing and accusations of racism start before anyone has bothered to listen to what you actually have to say, let alone discuss the issue. I am tired of moral relativism, and the notion that this type of thinking “solves” the problem of racism (rather than continuing it and creating an even more dangerous situation). We left New York City for many reasons, one of which was the daily aggression that a blond-haired, blue-eyed white woman experiences living in a minority neighborhood. It’s much safer to go after women, particularly for angry men of color like this who don’t feel threatened by a woman’s ability to fight back. I found this video to be despicable, and to illustrate, simply imagine that the roles were reversed, or that the woman here is not white but Hispanic or black, imagine that the man is white, and the woman black, any number of combinations other than the one you see. What you will see is that it appears rather convenient to now string up white women as if that’s some sort of solution. And, not only that, we are expected to be willing targets of this sort of despicable aggression, hostility, and misogyny.

I guess I could be wrong here like the “dumb bitch” that I am, but I don’t think so.

If Progressives want to understand why they’re giving Trump a very good chance at a second term, perhaps the dumbasses might want to watch this and read what I have to say. But then, they’d have to read, reason, discuss, and stop politicking, I mean pandering, for just a moment or two (like that’s going to happen).

My post:

Racism in an Elevator? Really?

I’ll say it right off the bat: I have many problems with how social science in general handles issues of race, culture, and ethnicity, and with how it is currently dominating public discourse and mainstream media. In essence, I find that race trumps sex, and women’s issues have been relegated, so to speak, to the back of the classroom. Our text displays little sensitivity to the reality of patriarchy, and at times, even suggests that we ought to be “sensitive” to patriarchy rather than challenge it. I understand that it is not my job as a counselor to change the values of my client; but it is not necessarily my job to collude with patriarchy anymore than I ought to collude with racism. Yes, this needs to be handled delicately, but I think we are only at the beginning of the work of addressing these topics correctly.

I realize that this is a complex topic, and multi-faceted and multi-layered and there simply is not room here to discuss it in full, but I will simply make a few observations about my reactions to the text, the video, and the article on white privilege.

As a white woman, I found the video “Racism in an Elevator – PSA ‘And Now You Know’” highly offensive and troubling. Not troubling because I’ve ever worried about my purse around a man of color. I have — and this statement is not going to be heard and taken well because it usually isn’t — been more concerned about my safety, at least in the United States and in particular, in two major cities, Los Angeles and New York. In these cities, when I was harassed on the street, and I was harassed often as most women are, it was primarily men of color who harassed me. This has been my experience; in stating this, I ought not to be expected to apologize for being victim to male harassment regardless of the color or culture or ethnicity of the offenders. My wide-hipped, small waisted body type simply did not attract white males.

To illustrate, when I first came to New York, a Dominican man in a bodega “kindly” offered me $3000 to spend the night with him. Honestly, he was being charming and sweet and he was rather enthusiastic, and I do not think he meant to be disrespectful. He was delighting in what he considered to be my beauty, but there was an ugly truth beneath that laughter.

Cultural competency in this context tells women to set aside their concerns about patriarchy and the oppression of women, and to be more concerned with the oppression of the oppressors of women from other countries. In fact, in Chapter Four, we have an example of such when Corey et al. (2019) present the case of Talib (p. 121). Perhaps this case ought to be considered from the perspective of questioning why any woman ought to be “sensitive” to, or perhaps more specifically, to collude with, patriarchal values. This is the problem we have when we assert that values are entirely subjective, and there are no universal truths. There is one I can think of right now, and that is that women have been subjugated from the beginning of time, and throughout the entire world.

As a Canadian woman, I find that my experience is not seen or heard by Americans. I am lumped into a class of white Americans. Americans simply do not understand that Canada does not have the horrific history of slavery that the United States has, and in fact, people escaped slavery by coming to my country. We are proud of that heritage. My personal life has always been diverse; I don’t need a textbook to tell me to have a diverse life. It has always been the case. My first boyfriend was black, and my best friend was Korean. This is not unusual for Canadians as our country embraces different cultures more than the United States ever has.

And yet, because I am white, I am supposed to feel this apologetic and collective “guilt” that Americans feel about their racism when I was not even born in this country. A small portion of Ms. McIntosh’s “I can” statements of privilege apply to me, the statements that can be universally applied to most white women. But, I have experienced poverty, homelessness, hunger, a broken home, and the loss of my entire extended family at ten years of age, both maternal and paternal members. I have experienced disability and isolation for over ten years of my adult life. For two to three years, I could not walk into the public environments Ms. McIntosh refers to. This was not “privilege” by any meaningful definition of the word.

I do not offer up these facts to elicit sympathy, but simply to illustrate why I find the phrase “white privilege” to be a useless concept, and ultimately, I believe it has been harmful not only to white women (who are now targets in the elevator for different reasons). America appears to have forgotten that half of white American women didn’t vote for a racist president. Perhaps they have forgotten themselves in all the confusion. I have more than once been called to account for my “sisters” who voted for Donald Trump. How is this cultural sensitivity? How is this not lumping me into a category of oppressors, a category I adamantly reject? The half of American women that did not vote for Donald Trump appear to have been forgotten. They have fallen into the same category as the “dumb bitch” the “gentleman” in the elevator is referring to, the dumb bitch he’d like to beat to the ground. This is why claiming a “collective guilt” is dangerous, and is only adding to the current climate that is becoming increasingly violent and threatening to us all.

As social scientists, we have to work much harder than this, and we have to be much more nuanced. It’s a start to try to address these issues, I acknowledge this. But we are doing a very poor job of it, and we’re not changing things for the better for anyone.

12 thoughts on “Racism in an Elevator

  1. Interesting. No doubt there are many reasons why my initial reaction to the video was quite different from yours, but one important one seems to be that I didn’t watch it in the context of that obnoxious online lecture material.

    For what it’s worth, my reading of the ‘dumb bitch’ bit and the general aggression of the response was that part of the point is supposed to be that being repeatedly subjected to this kind of racist stereotyping produces pathological anger; ‘dumb bitch’ reproduces in a different form the sort of generalized reduction to a stereotype that black men experience in this sort (and not only this sort) of scenario. In other words, I took it that it’s supposed to be extreme and disturbing. Perhaps that’s too charitable an interpretation, but it does seem to be part of the reality. Whatever the creators of the video intended, the parallels between the experiences you describe having as a woman and the experiences of black men that the video highlights are to the point.

    I’m not convinced that the concept of ‘white privilege’ is entirely bankrupt, though of course it’s put to all sorts of ridiculous uses. Case in point: as a white guy, I’ve never seen a woman clutch her purse when I got on an elevator (so too, I’ve never had store clerks keep an eye on me when I walk into the store, people don’t get nervous when I walk by them in the street, and so on — routine experiences for black men in the U.S.). In just the same way, I have not had, and could really never realistically be in a position to have, the sorts of experiences you describe as a woman — that’s why there’s a concept of ‘male privilege’ too. I’m not regularly reduced to the sexual aspects of my body or to some paranoid stereotype of my ‘race’; maybe ‘privilege’ isn’t the best word for it, but whatever we call it, there’s loads of bullshit that I am not subjected to in this country because I am white and male.

    It appears that there’s also loads of bullshit that I am not subjected to because I am not a student in your course.

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    • In class yesterday, yet another one where the concept of “privilege” was discussed, my black professor did acknowledge that there’s all kinds of privilege. I think the problem is the word itself is poorly chosen. Those who have not led what they consider a privileged life don’t particularly care for the label. And with all the criticisms of stereotyping out there, this “white privilege” phrase appears to me to be yet another type of stereotyping. Perhaps whoever came up with this might have used different language because there’s no one who is poverty-stricken and experienced homelessness and had to provide their own education who is going to feel “privileged.” So, when someone else tells me how privileged I am being white, I think it’s just stupid. Honestly, it’s a useless concept. I’m too sleepy to come up with a better one, David, but I wonder if anyone has considered that the language of this term is quite problematic and doesn’t tell us very much. I’m not going to walk around saying, “I know, I know (sigh), all this privilege I have …”, and I doubt many people do unless they’ve bought into this nonsense. Although my professor acknowledged there’s all types of privilege, we don’t hear about any type of privilege other than white privilege. And the way we hear about it is this constant insistence that all white MUST acknowledge their privilege, or they’re either ignorant or stupid or racist. So, her admission isn’t that helpful. And if we start throwing the notion that there are all kinds of privilege around, then you need to walk around acknowledging your white male privilege, Irfan has to admit his male highly educated privilege, those of us with good health insurance have to admit the “great health plan” privilege, those who are beautiful have to admit their “beauty” ?? privilege, those who have money have to admit their financial privilege, etc., etc. Honestly, I don’t see what the term does. What does it add to our knowledge? We already know that folks who are white, in all white environments, are treated better than those who are not white. Perhaps what we don’t “know” is that folks who are of color, in all color environments, are treated better than those who are white. Dirty little secret no one wants to admit (although my professor did so I have to give her credit for that). This professor I’m speaking of is teaching a different class than the one mentioned above. She hasn’t convinced me this is a useful concept that adds to our knowledge, and doesn’t do anything more than start fights. Teach students to be aware of the backgrounds of their clients to be (counseling students that is). I don’t see that we need the concept or the phrase of “white privilege” to do that.

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      • I’d say that the concept of white privilege, like any other, is helpful to the extent that it enables people to attend to and clearly grasp a feature of reality that they otherwise wouldn’t. I can’t take seriously the notion that there is no such reality that the concept of white privilege points toward, however confusedly; I’ve already given examples to illustrate it, and there’s no shortage of them. Nor can I take seriously the idea that very few white people fail to appreciate that reality; to the contrary, many white people in this country are able to avoid thinking about race most of the time precisely because our society does not treat us as belonging to some sort of racial category that plays an important role in determining our social identity — we, for the most part, get to be individuals — and many white people are in bald-faced denial about this and insist on telling themselves and others that their whiteness confers no advantages on them and spares them from no injustices that other people face. These ideas strike me as about as sensible as someone’s responding to your various descriptions of your experiences as a woman by denying that you face any distinctive challenges or obstacles that we men don’t face, or by saying that we face various other challenges that offset those, so that we come out even and you need to stop complaining. I’d imagine that if someone responded to your accounts of feeling unsafe or disrespected by telling you that men feel the same way or that we have to deal with other stuff that makes our lives every bit as hard, you’d say that whatever we deal with, the response misses the point because you have to deal with peculiar challenges that most men most of the time do not. I hope that’s how you’d respond, anyway; it certainly seems to me to be true.

        Ultimately, though, I don’t think the problem is with this or that concept. I think it’s that any concept, however sophisticated or helpful, is liable to be turned into a bludgeon by people who see themselves as engaged in some sort of straightforward culture war in which the forces of enlightened (“woke”) righteousness fight against the forces of evil. In that context, concepts are weapons, and it’s no surprise if some people who find themselves on the receiving end of the attack don’t embrace them.

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        • Maybe something in the family of ‘advantage’ rather than ‘privilege’ would be better. And I think this is the way we used to talk, maybe 10-15 years ago. Why ‘advantage’ rather than ‘privilege’? Because a privilege is something that is bestowed (by an authority or system of rules), not something that might or might not be thus bestowed. The extent to which any given advantage is, at least in some extended but important sense, a privilege, is, in most of the cases in question, debatable – and should be debated, not assumed. Especially when, with this assumption, comes something like an accusation of complicity in active oppression (and worse, an accusation of racism) not simply insufficient awareness of or sensitivity to individuals/groups that are unfairly disadvantaged. I suspect that the progressive side of the debate here is right on some important points (systemic or institutional injustice is a real thing, stereotypes can perpetuate it; among other things). But wrong on many of the specifics of how institutional racial and sexual injustice goes, what it is responsible for, etc. More importantly, I think they are wrong about the type and degree of culpability that people “of advantage” have (insensitive white folks get confused with and condemned as anti-black racial bigots). The error here is, I take it, as much one of the temptations of tribal moral psychology and culture as it is of bad theory about how institutional racism or sexism goes (we need some good, neutral, curiosity-driven inquiry and theory on this topic, in my opinion).

          Here’s a personal experience that speaks to stereotyping (and to the elevator video). Maybe a couple of years ago, I was sitting in my car in a bad-ish section of town, having irrationally driven all the way across town for the sake of cheap, crappy pizza. Some young guy walking with his friend (both somewhat dark-skinned) made the overly-friendly (but perhaps aware of likely perceived threat as well) approach to my car from across the parking lot – sort of like I was an old friend he had recognized. Purely on the basis of stereotype, I perceived some threat (or at least inconvenience with “the threat of threat” implicitly rolled up into some request for money) – so I rolled up my window and took off. Disappointingly, I was stuck between acknowledging the guy from the safety of my moving car (in this position, I could safely assume the best not the worst) and not making eye contact at all (consistent with shame and probably a confused shame reaction on my part). I suspect that the relevant stereotype was accurate and that part, but only part, of the trigger features for the stereotyping was skin color. But change the scenario in the right ways and skin color could have been the difference-maker between low-level “flight” attitudes and behavior and a perhaps-reluctant willingness to engage (so as not to act on racial stereotyping when avoidable, intentionally living up to my values). Honestly, I don’t think what I did – or even having a stereotype of a certain kind of bad person that was inclusive of and partially triggered by skin tone (and probably some ethnic markers as well) – was seriously morally bad or morally incorrect. Just a bit morally fraught (and hard to deal with, since many of the important elements here are unconscious and automatic). (Aside: I’d love to dig into some detailed, unbiased literature on how stereotyping in general – not just the paradigmatic bad kind – works. Just from introspecting and observing others, the topic seems interesting and complicated, even when not embedded in moral thinking.)

          The elevator scenario in the video, by way of contrast, was clearly meant to show a “black male criminal” stereotype (and attendant protective behavior) triggered simply or mainly by racial characteristics. That, I think, clearly indicates a kind of moral failing (on the part of the white woman in the video). Some kind of rage response (on the part of the black man) is justified – for the same reason that rage at it being insinuated that one is literally a racist when one is not (perhaps on the part of the white viewer of the video!) is justified (or at least understandable, but I’d defend justified). In both cases, I prefer opening the discussion with something like “Hey, maybe you do not realize that what you are doing triggers an understandable, if not justified, rage response in others. It does and here – in minimalist, reasonable terms – is why the response is at least understandable. Now, in light of knowing this and without anything approaching accusing you of being literally-Hitler, might you considering behaving differently?” The video, among other things, presumes that people (white women) need to be “shocked” into realizing this kind of thing in this kind of case. Maybe. I wonder what shock without accusation would look like, though. Probably a typical black office worker expressing how pissed and sad he is when this happens – and how lonely and alienated it makes him feel when others do not understand (or do it and fail to understand). That could be powerful. And, I think, a better “shock” type approach.

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          • I don’t think I disagree with that, but I may see things a bit differently in terms of emphasis and the like. On the one hand, I don’t think the conflation of white people who don’t appreciate their privilege-or-whatever-we’re-going-to-call-it, or even of people who actively, though unwittingly, contribute to the social norms that enact that privilege-or-whatever-we’re-going-to-call-it, with volitional racists is anything more than peripheral to the question of how to understand the phenomena and what concepts we should use to understand it. It may be that some folks typically encounter the concept of racial privilege only in contexts in which it is being used to accuse them of the moral equivalent of racial bigotry, but that’s a contingent and purely rhetorical fact. I’ve no interest in denying that people put this concept to obnoxious uses; that doesn’t impugn the concept itself.

            I’ve been something close to stereotyped just often enough in my life to be able to imagine how infuriating it would be to be subjected to it on a nearly daily basis for my entire life; I was irritated enough to be stereotyped periodically in graduate school as a Catholic or a conservative (though I’ve never even been the latter!), and that’s really nothing in the grand scheme of things. In light of this, I’m inclined to think that responses like the one you sketch out as an alternative risk demanding a kind of patience and civility from stereotyped people that it isn’t fair to demand of them. I wouldn’t even call the sort of rage the fella in the video displays as justified; angry hostility directed against any particular random white lady clutching her purse really wouldn’t be. But the anger that the video as a whole expresses is completely understandable, and a nice, calm explanation wouldn’t do justice to it in the same way. Again, I might be over-charitably interpreting the video, but I take it that we’re supposed to see the anger as extreme and that we — well, white ladies, anyway, and perhaps white men too — are supposed to feel some irritation at the stereotyping and misogyny, but to notice that what we’re irritated about is just a variation on what he’s irritated about. It’s not that it’s ok to stereotype and demean white women because some white women stereotype and demean black men; it’s that the video — which is, we remember, a piece of parodic fiction — serves well to show us why this kind of thing pisses black people off by pissing some of us off.

            I’m pretty sure most white people would have a story like yours if they were being honest. I take it as unfortunate but true that some reactions of that sort might actually be justified – the stereotype can be accurate and the response can be justified in certain circumstances (though the sort depicted in the video seem not to be examples of that). I know there’s been a lot of work done on these questions that I’m not familiar with, so I won’t try to hold forth about it as though I really know what I’m talking about. But I take it that the potential accuracy of some stereotypes is part of what shows that these problems are not, at bottom, just problems about the culpably vicious attitudes of unenlightened people; they go along with real material inequities, and they’ll only really go away when and if those inequities do.

            One thing I’m fairly sure we can agree on is that these issues are sufficiently complex that a few blog posts or YouTube videos will not help most of us understand them much better.

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          • I think the point Michael makes in his first paragraph is conclusive: a privilege is something bestowed or conferred, but the things often described as instances of “white privilege” are not obviously bestowed or conferred. It’s particularly confusing to use the word “privilege” for something to which one also has a right. You have a right not to be frightened by people in an elevator, regardless of your race or theirs. But the video clearly implies that the woman’s wish not to be subjected to the “boo” at the end is part of her “privilege.”

            Contrary to Michael, I don’t think the rage response depicted in the video is even close to justified. It would be sufficiently unjustified if it were a reflexive internal reaction to the woman’s behavior, but it strikes me as frankly pathological if the speaker thinks that it’s the kind of thing he’s justified in verbalizing out loud and acting on. What’s particularly puzzling here is that the man is regarded as fully entitled to an entirely reflexive reaction, but the woman is depicted as completely unjustified in having an equally reflexive reaction. Even on the most uncharitable interpretation of the woman, she reflexively clutches her purse and moves over. But then, on a charitable interpretation of the man, he reflexively thinks of her as a dumb white bitch he’d like to beat up. We’re left to infer that the woman’s reaction is an instance of unjustifiable “privilege,” but the man’s reaction is something else entirely. Couldn’t the man’s reaction with equal justification be described as the privilege enjoyed by black men to wallow in self-pity and rage at the supposed appearance of racial micro-aggressions–especially when the target of the rage is a white woman?

            I could see going after “dumb white bitch privilege” if we also went after “angry asshole black man privilege.” Both things exist. But instead of going either route, why not try something more low key? The reason, I take it, is that the makers of this video would like us to pretend–with them–that there is no such thing as angry asshole black man privilege. Or they’d like us to pretend that its rate of frequency is so very low as compared with dumb white bitch privilege that we needn’t admit its reality. But this is just to suborn self-deception on a social scale. If PSAs should be shocking, and should exaggerate or play fast loose with the truth, we should all be happy to watch the right-wing version of the elevator video, in which we indulge our resentment for the angry black man who acts the wrong way and says the wrong things. But few of the people enamored of videos like this one have the stomach for stuff like that. Since they don’t, Michael’s advice is well-taken: don’t dish out medicine you lack the capacity to ingest in your own case.

            I would go farther than Michael does. Michael thinks that the speaker’s rage reaction is justified because the woman is depicted as being triggered by a stereotype. But why depict things that way? Is that how the typical encounter takes place? As someone who’s been on the receiving end of “I’m afraid of you” behavior for decades, I can assure you that the answer is no. Isn’t it tendentious of the video makers to turn the white woman into a stereotype of cringing, stupid affluence simply to hold her out for racialized derision? But that’s what they’re doing. Indeed, that’s what the bulk of the literature on “multicultural counseling” does, starting with the Peggy McIntosh paper cited in the material Alison mentions. I encourage you to read it:

            https://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/mcintosh.pdf

            It’s a devoutly, earnestly unrigorous piece of pseudo-science masquerading as social science. At a very broad level of generality, much of what she says is correct. But if you didn’t correct her handwaving claims by comparing and contrasting them with those of, say, Shelby Steele, you’d be locked into a very partial view of the world. One thing that doesn’t occur to her at all is that the privilege she enjoys is not a racial but a class privilege–a privilege she shares with black people of her class, but not with white people of a lower class.

            The white privilege/microaggressions literature is conspicuously missing two crucial things: a sense of imagination, and a sense of complexity. What it contains are one-note and one-eyed analyses, right off of some scholarly production line, of racialized phenomena, always taking the same form: people of color are aggrieved; white people did it; they’re complicitous and don’t care; but we have to make them care, or failing that, expose their indifference in the process of shaming them. It gets tiresome even if you’re somewhat receptive to the message. At this point, I think I’m more tired than receptive.

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  3. So I’m just getting around to this post. There’s a lot going on here, so I’m just going to focus on one thing: the content of the video itself. I guess I’m a little surprised at everyone’s reactions to it but Alison’s. If this video isn’t pathetically self-indulgent grandstanding, and blatant, idiotically transparent misogyny, I don’t know what is. There have to be limits to the amount of charity required of a viewer in coming to a verdict on something as all-out fucking stupid as this video.

    First of all, the alleged transgression strikes me as utterly trivial. Subtle purse clutching is a provocation to an assault? Come on. That’s a joke–a bad joke. I’ve had people display purse clutching etc. all my life. No one–no black man, and no one else–can get on his high horse with me about not having encountered it. But it simply defies credulity to think that behavior of this sort is particularly hurtful or scarring unless you’re so neurotic in the first place that you’re “scarred” at the first touch of something mildly discomfiting. Purse clutching isn’t scarring or wounding or anything. It can sometimes be a little irritating, but of the range of behaviors I’ve encountered in my life that could plausibly be regarded as racist, this one doesn’t even make it to the playing field. And I don’t just mean that it’s trivial by comparison with much worse things. I mean, absolutely speaking, that it’s trivial.

    I wonder if anyone sees the double standard involved here. Apparently, behavior like that depicted in the video is OK if it comes from black men. But then why the fuss about Liam Neeson’s shame-laden, apologetic confession to having wanted to target black men after a friend was raped by a black man?

    https://www.vox.com/2019/2/8/18212117/liam-neesons-racist-comments-denial

    Are we really obliged to cut black men that much slack? The guy in the video valorizes his contemplated attack; Liam Neeson was retrospectively condemning his. The message here seems to be that black and white men are obliged to operate by radically different moral norms. Black men can wallow in rage over nothing in particular. White men are not permitted to mention their past moral transgressions even to condemn them. Purse clutching scars you for life. The rape of a close friend should be taken in stride. What, I wonder, justifies so radical a moral difference?

    Separate point: even if there was a transgression there, the response to it is psychotically disproportionate. It’s one thing if one privately has such a reaction, in which case, one has to admit to having had it, and one has to work it out, perhaps with a professional mental health practitioner. (No shame in admitting that you need one.) But this video transforms a neurotic private experience into an unapologetic expression of brutality in order to fetishize and valorize it. The reader is supposed to be left with the thought that it contained some profound moral message. What’s the message? That you can take a trivial incident and turn it into a re-enactment of the Civil War?

    Third, there is an enormous amount of epistemic fakery going on in this video, a transparent attempt to play on the guilty consciences (or pseudo-guilty consciences) of white people in order to claim knowledge that amounts to a series of bluffs. “Every 45 seconds a black man walks into an elevator and some dumb white bitch clutches her purse.”

    How could anyone conceivably know the frequency with which black men step into elevators? Or the frequency with which they step into elevators containing white women? Or the frequency with which those white women clutch purses? It’s not enough to say that the video is exaggerating for effect. The video gives ignorant people the impression of having a statistical knowledge that no one has, and no one could possibly have. Why mention “45 seconds” unless one wanted to give a fake sense of precision to a made-up pseudo-statistical claim?

    Unless you take the speaker’s claims on faith, there is no way to know any of the following:

    • How often does purse clutching really happen? How often is it confabulated by men expecting its occurrence?
    • When it happens, how uniquely are the clutchers white women? And how uniquely do they do it in response to black men (as opposed to men as such)?
    • What is the crime rate in elevators? What is the black male crime rate in elevators?

    Because we don’t know the answer to any of those questions–the video treats them all as dispensable–we actually have no idea whether the woman’s behavior, exactly as depicted, is actually culpable, much less racist. Consider how complex the motivational question is here, especially if we have no reliable evidence that it’s uniquely white women who clutch their purses vis-a-vis black men. (I’ve had women of every race I can think of, including black women, act this way with me. Should I now produce a video in which I ride an elevator with a black woman and fantasize out loud about wanting to beat the shit out of her?) Do women act this way on reflex? If so, where does the reflex come from? How could a given man know for certain that a given woman in an elevator had not previously been a crime victim, and was reacting to that trauma?

    The video gives the impression that black men in America are so traumatized that they have no obligation whatsoever to consider any factor in dealing with anyone but that single (dubious) fact: “We are traumatized.” It’s hard to think of a better recipe for infantilizing an entire population, and immersing them in self-deception. Not all black men are traumatized, and there is no reason to think that every black man, or even the modal black man, is obviously more traumatized than a white woman taken at random. And this is not to minimize the trauma that many of them encounter. It’s just to insist that the trauma that many encounter is not the trauma that all encounter, and that even the trauma that some encounter doesn’t get them off of every conceivable moral hook for any behavior they display, regardless of what it is.

    If the woman in this video had called the police and reported the guy for assault or at least harassment, she not only would prevail on the law but would deserve to prevail as a matter of moral fact. What conceivable excuse could he offer? “I was provoked”? “Well, at least I didn’t beat the shit out of her and rob her”? “But consider police brutality against African American men like me…” Those are rationalizations, not excuses. The guy makes a big show of not battering her, but the “boo!” is textbook assault. A saner PSA would have pointed that out, lest it incentivize the behavior in the video. As it stands, the video gives every aggrieved black male an incredibly stupid message: “As long as it’s just you and some dumb white bitch in an elevator, feel free to express your rage as you please, as long as you keep your hands off her.”

    I can’t help reflecting on some amazing double standards here. For all the pseudo-statistical precision in this video, the fact remains that only one set of relevant statistical facts has actually been borne out in the criminological literature: the fact of differential criminal offending by African American males. A video that takes so hard line an approach to the alleged behavior of dumb white bitches on elevators (citing fake statistics and half-assed anecdotes for the task) can’t complain–lacks the standing to complain–when the targets of the attack respond by fixating narrowly on a set of real statistics that dilute the video’s message a bit.

    Same double standard. A few years ago, that famous video came out of a woman being cat-called on the streets of New York.

    I show this video each semester in my ethics class. It’s telling that many of my male students and an alarming number of my female students make excuses for almost all of the cat-calling in the video. When the video came out, a concerted attempt was made to distract attention from what it showed by fixating on the fact that many of the cat-callers were “men of color.”

    https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/av4qjk/catcalling-viral-video-racist-twir-131

    Subsequent videos have shown that the behavior comes from all kinds of men, “of color” and not of color. But the inference I draw is that when it comes down to it, white women are at a decided disadvantage in staking claims to injustice in our culture. We’re so fixated on race that gender gets lost in the shuffle: the claims of white women have historically taken a back seat to the claims of black people as articulated by black men. This pattern has deep and undeniably real roots in American history, but there’s more of a taboo on talking about it than about most things.

    Another example of the double standard: we now have the spectacle of Justin Fairfax, accused of rape, telling us (as Clarence Thomas did in 1991) that he’s on the receiving end of a lynch mob.

    I thought Brett Kavanaugh was at fault for behavior of that kind. When it comes from Justin Fairfax, though, it’s OK. He’s a disempowered black man. Granted, he happens to be the Lieutenant Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, but if we took our charity far enough, we could overlook the power he actually wields, focus on nothing but his race, and excuse in Justin Fairfax the very behavior that was condemned in Brett Kavanaugh (for an allegation regarding the same crime). Considering the difference between the two cases–widespread bien pensant outcry over Kavanaugh, embarrassed silence over Fairfax–charity seems to be what’s required of us.

    Unlike Alison, I don’t dispute the legitimacy of the concept of white privilege. I think it has a place: there is such a thing as white privilege, and it’s a social problem. But the concept is grotesquely over-used and misused, especially in the mental health professions (though not just there). My own graduate level class in multicultural counseling happened to have been taught by a smart, open minded professor with a critical mind and a wide set of experiences. So I got a lot out of the class. But that isn’t always the norm. (I don’t mean that as a comment on Alison’s current instructor; I’m just saying that, as a general matter, it’s not always the norm.) And one of the things I got out of the class is the distinct sense that to a large extent, multicultural counseling has become a race-based excuse-making industry devoted to the manufacture of convoluted and implausible rationalizations for complete asshole behavior by “people of color.”

    One of the most offensive features of the video is the impression it gives that men of color generally believe (or would applaud) what the man in the video believes, and fantasize doing what he fantasized doing. Personally, I don’t even think that way of people who have called the police on me and accused me of real crimes–from aggravated assault to terrorism (from the age of seven). I also know my fair share of “men of color” besides myself. I can’t think of a single person I associate with who thinks anything remotely like “when you clutch your purse, you provoke a savage attack.” Everyone I know, no matter how angry about the ways of the world, would rather be caught dead than expressing anything that vile and idiotic.

    More than once, I’ve alluded here to my friend Izzeldine Aboueilash, whose daughters and niece were killed in an Israeli tank attack on his home in Gaza. Recently, the Israelis ruled that they will offer him no legal remedy for his losses. Yes, they blew up his house, and killed his family after he spent a lifetime working in Israeli hospitals responding to Israeli distress, but he just has to shut the fuck up and deal with it. Very, very few Americans can claim to have endured what Izzeldine has endured. But I think he’d be mortified and embarrassed to watch the elevator video, as would almost any of the black or brown men I know.

    We don’t have to hold everyone to Izzeldine’s saintly standards. But if you had to choose a moral model to keep in mind for your ordinary transactions in the world, I’d suggest forgetting the elevator video altogether, and letting Izzeldine supplant it. That, at any rate, is what I’ll keep in mind the next time I walk into an elevator and some “dumb white bitch” clutches her purse and moves to the other side. The real question, for me, is why the elevator video is widely regarded as a valuable teaching tool but Izzeldine’s TED talk is not. Maybe because it’s more comfortable to view “men of color” as a bunch of crazy, rage-driven assholes and excuse it, than to hold them to a higher standard and imagine that they might meet it.

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  4. Here’s a more balanced discussion of the issue. But even this writer makes some very questionable moves:

    https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/the-clutch-of-fear/Content?oid=903053

    How does he know that the two white women mentioned in the first paragraph were reacting to Anderson’s race rather than his gender? We’re hearing Anderson’s version of the story, not theirs. But there is no indication from the author that people exaggerate stories when they’re describing their own perceived victimization. “It was subtle, but it was clear.” If it was subtle, it probably wasn’t that clear. At least Lowe doesn’t pretend that purse clutching etc. is something that only white women do. What he doesn’t mention is that purse clutching etc. doesn’t just happen to black men, either.

    Now consider Susan Chandler’s reaction, described in the third paragraph. Is she culpable for being afraid for the next few weeks? Would we describe her as immoral if she found herself reflexively gripped with fear for quite awhile afterwards? There’s something bizarre about a society that will put a DSM-5 label on just about anything while failing to see PTSD when it stares them right in the face.

    Now look at the quotation from Dalmage, the sociologist. Doesn’t the word “when” as she uses it simply function to promote a stereotype about the racist hysteria of white women? How easily can we generalize about the behavior in question? And why would a sociologist speak about race in America (in Chicago) as though the only two ethnicities involved were black and white? Is it so hard to admit the possibility that non-white ethnicities indulge in racism?

    By the middle of the article, we get the admission that in cities at least, one faces a real practical problem demanding resolution: how to balance the need for safety with the need not to cause undue offense? A discussion of the topic that proceeds as though it could ignore the first issue is at least as irresponsible as one that proceeds as though it could ignore the second. But lots do.

    As for Bell’s claims about “deep psychological impact,” they are very, very dubious, and it’s telling that the deep impact is not even described as arising specifically from the purse snatching behavior that’s directly being discussed. Like Bell, I deal with the phenomena he describes every single day. Unlike him, I acknowledge that things are not as clear cut as one would wish to believe in one’s most aggrieved and angry moments. There is in fact no reliable way of inferring from the fact of someone’s cautious behavior to the supposed fact of a racist motivation behind it.

    And though racial profiling has been documented as a reason for vehicle stops, it’s a mistake to use such studies to infer that a given stop has a racial basis. I sometimes wonder where we’d be if the effort people spent on talking about racial profiling in police work was spent instead talking about the need to assert and safeguard constitutional rights in police work in a race-blind way. It’s easier to identify a violation of criminal procedure than it is to identify the motivation behind one (or the racist motivation behind a search or seizure that is procedurally correct). But people would rather talk race than procedure.

    Much of the rest of the article focuses on some legitimate things, but scroll down to the bottom and read the comment left by someone who describes herself as a black woman. What you’re seeing there is the anatomy of black-on-white racism plus the motivation to exaggerate or confabulate the sins of “dumb white bitches.” No one who deals with the real-life (as opposed to online) version of that commenter has the luxury of cutting her any slack. Sometimes, aggression has to be met with counter-aggression. Granted, her comments may represent some tiny fraction of the population. But come the day you have to deal with her, the numbers won’t matter. She will. Change her into a man, but leave the attitudes in place, and the problem becomes obvious.

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  5. David writes:

    In light of this, I’m inclined to think that responses like the one you sketch out as an alternative risk demanding a kind of patience and civility from stereotyped people that it isn’t fair to demand of them. I wouldn’t even call the sort of rage the fella in the video displays as justified; angry hostility directed against any particular random white lady clutching her purse really wouldn’t be. But the anger that the video as a whole expresses is completely understandable, and a nice, calm explanation wouldn’t do justice to it in the same way.

    The demand of patience and civility would be unfair if the existence of the phenomenon in question were entirely uncontroversial. But impatience and incivility are out of place if the phenomenon in question is completely ambiguous. The video proceeds as though the self-reports of aggrieved black men were always to be taken at face value: if a black man says that “a black man walks into an elevator every 45 seconds,” and encounters a dumb white bitch triggered by racial stereotypes about black men, well then, that settles it. That must be exactly what’s happening!

    But that’s utterly ridiculous. The claim is not just underdetermined by evidence, though it’s certainly that, but a transparent attempt to bullshit or railroad the viewer into accepting a factoid by exploiting white guilt. The salient feature of encounters of this variety is not that it’s patently obvious what’s going on in them, but that it’s often not obvious what’s going on.

    Ever since moving to Readington from Bloomfield, I’ve noticed people staring at me in public in ways they didn’t in Bloomfield–sometimes with what seems like hostility, sometimes with something more elusive or furtive. I just took the car into town to get some work done on it, and while there, walked to the public library, then walked back home. I got six stares in less than a mile of walking, something that wouldn’t have happened when I lived on the eastern, urban side of the state.

    It would be easy and convenient to infer that racism was at work, and in some cases, it may be. But it would be irresponsible of me to make the inference to racism while ignoring other, less culpable hypotheses for what’s going on. It could be that people stare at me because my ethnicity stands out around here. But it doesn’t follow that they’re staring at me out of racism. They might be staring out of curiosity. Or they might be staring because their attention is drawn to the unfamiliar. Or the explanation may have nothing at all to do with ethnicity. They could be staring because, steeped in car culture, they’re flummoxed by the existence of a lone pedestrian. It could also be that I’m confabulating the stares altogether. The general point is that one can’t condemn people before exhausting the plausible, non-culpable explanations for their behavior.

    With all due respect, the same considerations apply to black men in elevators, or anywhere else. There is a lot of racism in the United States, but that doesn’t absolve anyone from the burdens of judgment. Microaggressions are by definition subtle, ambiguous matters. Barring genuinely obvious, unambiguous cases (like calling the cops on someone for a non-crime or an unserious “crime”), no one has the moral or epistemic right to get on a high horse about subtle microaggressions that may or may not be happening as the putatively aggressed-upon person interprets them. As I see it, womens’ fear-motivated reactions to men are a paradigm of ambiguity: some are justified, some are unjustified, some lie in-between the two poles. But they’re not a legitimate object of derision or minimization, whether on racial grounds or any other, by black men or anyone else. There are many oppressed black men in this country, but there are also plenty of men, black and otherwise, who will find any excuse to express misogyny–including racialized ones. An attempt to deal with race that fails to do justice to both facts strikes me as a wholesale failure.

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  6. Irfan, your response made me think about a conversation we had yesterday about the predominantly white neighborhood that we live in now. We talked about the people in this neighborhood most likely to be treated impolitely when they walk into a store (or anywhere else). They are not of color; they are poor whites who are housed by the state in small motels along Highway 22. It’s evident who they are when we see them (as they are clearly poor, their clothing reflects this as well as general lack of grooming), but I’ve yet to see any of them behaving in a manner I would object to.

    And, in fact, two minorities I’ve spoken to in this neighborhood are Trump supporters (I found that surprising because I do think he is racist but that’s another conversation). You want to know why they support him? Because they’re terrified of Communist China, and he’s tough on China (these are Vietnamese people). They’re not worried about his whiteness or his racism. Perhaps they ought to be, but they’re not.

    In fact, you (Irfan) seemed to believe that minorities are treated well out here, and I can’t say that I’ve seen otherwise when I think about it. We had an African-American fellow install our cable. He told me he’s from Newark, and he loves it out here. He finds it peaceful and quiet. If he felt unsafe or abused by whites here, I doubt he’d like it. We had a Hispanic lady cleaning our house who makes $50 an hour and drives a BMW. She’s not complaining about living in rural Hampton (where my grandparents’ house was built and still stands). In fact, her husband also told me they love it out here. And this is a predominantly white neighborhood. So, where’s the “white privilege” in this neck of the woods? If what Ms. McIntosh says exists everywhere — and it ought to based upon what she’s claiming — then it seems to me that people of color and other minorities would not like living here. They’d be treated badly all the time.

    To your point about people staring at you, I remember that when I was a little girl in the late 60s, there weren’t a lot of blacks in the predominantly Jewish neighborhood I lived in. When I first saw two little black girls, I stared at them. I didn’t stare because I didn’t like blacks, but because I’m not sure I’d seen blacks before. This quickly changed because by the 70s, we were living in a neighborhood that had everything and anything, and the only racism I saw was directed at the newest immigrants (I’m sorry to say that it was Pakistanis, Irfan). So, some racism was evident in Toronto. But that said, us kids had friends that were Pakistani and Indian, and we didn’t think any less of them because of that. We were used to people being from all over the world in that neighborhood. No one there was treated badly when they went to the store (the only ones that weren’t were those who didn’t have money). Or people like me who shoplifted. Yes, I was a juvenile delinquent. That’s also another story!

    I went into that to say that it is quite possible people are not used to seeing that many Pakistanis around here, and they may also be trying to identify your ethnicity as you can pass for many different types of people. I guess some could be racist, but we haven’t any evidence to suggest that, do we?

    If white privilege is to be effective or useful, it has to describe a phenomenon that is universal — otherwise how can it claim to apply universally to whites? And it just doesn’t. The most that can be said is that white people, by and large as a group, have not been as discriminated against as blacks particularly in the United States (and perhaps elsewhere). But we can’t speak to each person’s individual experience, and so this long list that Ms. McIntosh elaborates upon, well, let me just say this about that list: she’s much more privileged than I am and so perhaps she ought to be apologizing to me about that. 😉

    I’d also like to point out that if one is white in a predominantly black working environment, for example, the opposite may be true. I experienced little privilege in such an environment in the city (and what privilege I might have experienced, as it’s used, was far outweighed by the hostility and aggression directed my way). Trust me, there are places where a very Aryan look (blond hair, blue eyes, pale skin) is not going to go over well. I’ve come to wonder if I should bleach my hair (and it’s pretty fucked up that one ought to even consider such a thing).

    I have had clients in the community mental health setting say to me, “You’re white and you’re smarter than we are.” I’ve also had clients express hatred of me, and tell me how ignorant and fucked up I am. I’ve also had neo-Nazis think I side with them, and they were quickly disabused of that notion.

    It’s just not a useful term, and the manner in which it is being used feels dangerous to me. It doesn’t help our country to turn the tables and say, okay, now let’s just beat up all the whites and set lynch mobs on them because that’s going to make blacks feel better (will they really feel better? And if so, what will it actually DO for them?).

    That has happened in African countries where the white minority got really fucked up — perhaps justifiably so considering those countries’ circumstances — but if you think it can’t happen here, then I’d ask why anyone would think that it couldn’t while we’re being told that misogyny and an inclination towards violence against women is something that is “understandable” since white women are such racist and thus “dumb bitches”?

    My reaction is partly influenced because I have been victimized — in the United States and primarily in urban environments — by people of color precisely because of my skin color. How many men here have been victims of aggression on the streets of their city, and how often has it happened to you? I wonder just how often you walk around having to worry about some guy following you down the street, or the guy who lurks over your shoulder whispering in your ear what a “fine ass” you have in the grocery store. Or do you worry about the one who puts his arm around you, and starts to try to pull you towards him in the middle of the street? Or the one who comes on to you, and then starts yelling at you for not responding to him? Or the one that breaks into your home and steals all your underclothes? Do you worry about those men? Do you have these experiences? I can tell you these things have happened to me HUNDREDS of times throughout my lifetime, and it would probably be rather traumatizing to try to remember them all. But there may come a day where I will write them ALL down just for the fucking hell of it.

    And have that happen to you repeatedly, and then watch a video like this with you in that fucking corner. I wonder just how tolerant you’d be of this type of video if you had experienced that amount of aggression.

    I like what Jordan Peterson said about it recently; I think he summarizes why it’s dangerous: https://youtu.be/aZK9h_Mzmu8

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    • I can’t respond to all of that, because I’m trying to put up my bookshelves, and at this rate, they will never go up.

      As for our neighborhood (meaning Readington), I agree with you. The biases here are mostly class biases, not racial biases. The people who use Section 8 housing around here are predominantly white, and looked down upon. There are also class biases expressed whenever the topic of affordable housing comes up in conversation or the local press. I wouldn’t put racial biases past people here (or anywhere in New Jersey), but class bias happens to explain more of what I actually see. I haven’t seen anyone (white or black) mistreated in a face to face encounter. But you hear the attitudes in the way people talk about affordable housing mandates.

      I’m inclined to think that minorities who are Trump supporters don’t know what they’re talking about, including the specific ones you’re referring to.

      About being stared at, I probably should have mentioned that one reason for being stared at is simply being new to a relatively tight-knit neighborhood. If you move to a place where everybody knows everybody, but few people know you, you’ll stand out for entirely non-racial reasons.

      I am shocked that anyone in Toronto was biased against Pakistanis. Pakistanis are some of the sweetest people on Earth, at least when you deprive them of nuclear weapons.

      Yes, our cable guy said what you said, and I have no reason to doubt him. But I think it’s worth remembering that a black cable guy installing cable in a household like ours, in a neighborhood like ours, would not necessarily have told us that he had encountered racism here even if he had. People in his position are trained to say “the right thing,” and get fired if they don’t. It’s certainly more pleasant living here than it was living in Bloomfield or Lodi, but the price for doing so is living among people steeped in class privilege, devoted to their “rural” way of life, and hostile to anyone critical of it. And in this context, the term “privilege” fits exactly, since the rural character of our neighborhood is maintained by special favors gotten from the state (meaning the State of New Jersey). Farmland Preservation is not just an advantage, but a legal privilege. Read this book for details:

      https://www.amazon.com/Illusions-rural-character-Hunterdon-County/dp/B0006FDCO0

      About shoplifting: it is a little disheartening when a husband teaches criminal procedure, and makes a big deal about the importance of not incriminating oneself under police interrogation, and his wife then up and uses his blog to admit to shoplifting without even having the excuse of being interrogated. Recall, honey, that our Big Plan is to retire in Canada? The last thing we want is for the Canadian immigration authorities to use the blog against us (“the policy of truth”).

      What you say about mixed race environments of the kind you’re discussing is true and important, and generally not acknowledged by people who would prefer not to acknowledge it. I’ve never subscribed to the view that white people are the only racists in the world. That said, I still disagree with you (and agree with David) about this:

      If white privilege is to be effective or useful, it has to describe a phenomenon that is universal — otherwise how can it claim to apply universally to whites? And it just doesn’t. The most that can be said is that white people, by and large as a group, have not been as discriminated against as blacks particularly in the United States (and perhaps elsewhere).

      I take Michael’s point that “advantage” is a better word than “privilege,” but a concept doesn’t have to have universal applicability to be legitimate: it just has to have some applicability. And whatever we call it, white privilege/advantage does have real applicability. There are many clueless white people in the world who have no idea that their whiteness gives them a huge practical advantage in life, and that many black people’s being black gives them a huge disadvantage in life. I think this has been documented about as thoroughly as anything can be, but consider one small example of it:

      https://newsone.com/3847507/mark-meadows-white-men-racism/

      Mark Meadows really is the poster child for white male privilege, or advantage, or whatever you want to call it, and proof of the fact that we need the concept. Not all white men are Mark Meadows, and some black men are as bad in their own way as Mark Meadows. But the fact remains: Mark Meadows is the walking (or sitting) embodiment of white privilege. I thought Rashida Tlaib gave him exactly what he had coming.

      That said, I was a little depressed to discover that the elevator video was the creation of some half-assed, fly-by-night operation called “Reckless Tortuga,” which is itself the brain child of some publicity hound named Eric Pumphrey:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reckless_Tortuga#cite_note-15

      https://www.instagram.com/epumphrey/?hl=en

      One question is why a graduate level counseling class would take this guy so seriously. A closely related question is why we are taking him so seriously.

      I am going to continue my policy of not listening to Jordan Peterson while I have bookshelves to put together. Frustratingly, the left upper frame of my recently acquired bookshelf does not fit the left lower frame–a problem I am currently trying to resolve. So Jordan Peterson will have to wait while I clean up my room.

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