Wednesday, February 3, 2010

In which white folks get to decide what's racist.

I never thought I'd be siding with Sarah Palin against Matt Taibbi, but, well...

Here's what she said:

The Obama Administration’s Chief of Staff scolded participants, calling them, “F---ing retarded,” according to several participants, as reported in the Wall Street Journal.

Just as we’d be appalled if any public figure of Rahm’s stature ever used the “N-word” or other such inappropriate language, Rahm’s slur on all God’s children with cognitive and developmental disabilities – and the people who love them – is unacceptable, and it’s heartbreaking.

Here's what he said:

[W]e’re going to have to get another soap opera over somebody using a naughty word.

I think we ought to get it over with once and for all and ask all the people who are interested in banning words to get together and form their inevitable committee on word propriety. I think it would be a great thing if we could just get the list together ahead of time, along with what the committee feels the appropriate sanction is for each word. “Ho” we know is a fireable word, as is “niggardly,” but what about “snapper”? How about “curry muncher”? What is the appropriate punishment for a “What’s wrong, do you have sand in your vagina?” joke? I mean there are so many unknowns right now, nobody knows where he or she stands.

One of the first, most obvious problems here is the “naughty-words” argument – that, since the objections are to use of language, objections to slurs based on race, sexual orientation, disability status, etc., must be the same sort of thing as objections to obscenity. This, of course, denies the cultural context of these words – they're not objected to on a puritanical basis, but on the basis of their position in a tradition of intimidation and oppression. Hate speech has a performative component, in that it serves to further marginalize oppressed groups.

There's also a weird element where Taibbi seems not to be able to tell the difference between objecting to something and wanting it banned. I obviously can't (and wouldn't want to) speak for Sarah Palin here, but it seems like what she's doing is objecting to someone's use of a word that serves to further the marginalization of disenfranchised communities – and arguing that we shouldn't give more power to people who use those opportunities to do this. There's all the difference in the world between that and saying that ordinary people should be punished for using such words, or that the machinery of law and order should get involved in such a case.

More fundamentally, though, the “They're just words, people” attitude reflects Taibbi's belief that this isn't really a serious problem – and implied in this is the belief that he gets to decide whether it's a serious problem. This idea that rich, white, cisgendered, straight, able-bodied men should be able to decide when and how we should worry about classism, racism, sexism and gender oppression, heterosexism, and ableism is, of course, preposterous, but it seems remarkably prevalent.

Look at Chris Matthews. Most aspects of this have been covered well by others. One thing I haven't seen many people talk about, though, is that Chris Matthews implicitly admitted that his primary experience of racism was his inability to listen to a black person talk without constantly thinking about race. But yet, somehow, when he stops getting that “uh-oh, there's a Negro talking” feeling – even for a moment – that qualifies him to usher in the post-racial era in American history.

I really shouldn't have to say this, guys. When you're talking about any kind of oppression, the oppressors don't get to decide when it's over.

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