Thursday, May 18, 2006

Bad definitions
A number of libertarian leaning writers (here, here, and here) have noticed some silliness from my neck of the woods. The "Definitions of Racism" page on the Seattle Public Schools website contains the following definition for "Cultural Racism."
Those aspects of society that overtly and covertly attribute value and normality to white people and Whiteness, and devalue, stereotype, and label people of color as “other”, different, less than, or render them invisible. Examples of these norms include defining white skin tones as nude or flesh colored, having a future time orientation, emphasizing individualism as opposed to a more collective ideology, defining one form of English as standard, and identifying only Whites as great writers or composers.

As libertarians, the other bloggers were most offended at the ideas that valuing individualism and supporting a standard form of English were racist activities. They missed the point that this definition is just one sub-definition within larger definitional context.

The list Seattle Public Schools list of definitions includes five different types of racism and a sixth overall definition of plain racism. All of these definitions are drawn from the 1997 book Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice edited by Maurianne Adams, Lee Anne Bell, and Pat Griffin. The book appears to be a facilitator's manual for giving diversity seminars. The same editors have also produced a book of readings for the same purpose. I'm not familiar with the book or its editors, so my comments are based entirely on this set of definitions.

The whole set of definitions seems to be based on the questionable assumption that the exercise of prejudice is only possible by a power-holding group toward a powerless group. The generic definition of racism reads:
The systematic subordination of members of targeted racial groups who have relatively little social power in the United States (Blacks, Latino/as, Native Americans, and Asians), by the members of the agent racial group who have relatively more social power (Whites). The subordination is supported by the actions of individuals, cultural norms and values, and the institutional structures and practices of society.

This definition clearly argues that only White folk can be racist; all other races are exempt from this attitude. You can see why this definition pushed the buttons of the libertarians by living up to cartoon-like stereotypes of white liberal guilt and the privileged position of victims. As a self-defined bleeding-heart liberal, it pushes quite a few of my buttons.

The standard definition of racism, as most people use the word, is prejudice based on race. Their definition is one of oppression based on race. Presumably the motive for this oppression is prejudice, but that is not necessary for the logical function of the definition nor is it in any way stated. Practically speaking, any oppressing group will come to be prejudiced toward the objects of their oppression, but, again, this is not necessary for their definition nor is it stated.

Most of the examples given in the sub-definition for cultural racism, which originally provoked the libertarians, go beyond being peculiar and debatable and are just plain wrong. If racism is synonomous with oppession and only Whites can practice racism, then "having a future time orientation, emphasizing individualism as opposed to a more collective ideology, [and] defining one form of English as standard" should be acts oppression by a White majority that lead to "systematic subordination of members of targeted racial groups."

"[H]aving a future time orientation"--by which I think they mean planning for the future--is neither an exclusively Caucasian trait nor even particularly characteristic of Whites. Some whites do plan and some don't, but, in any case how does the planning by some Whites oppress non-Whites? "[E]mphasizing individualism as opposed to a more collective ideology" is a characteristic of urbanization and post-Enlightenment Western civilization but most non-Whites in the United States are urbanized part of post-Enlightenment Western civilization. As acts of oppression or prejudice, these two might arguably be true in relation to the United States in its relations with other cultures--at least to the extent that we insist all relations be conducted on our terms of time and individual sovereignty. However, it is not true with regard to relations between Whites and non-Whites in the United States.*

"[D]efining one form of English as standard" as an act of oppression by Whites against non-Whites is an even more ridiculous statement. Of all the dialects of North American English, only one is defined primarily by race, and that one is Ebonics. The others are all primarily defined by region. Saying that dangled prepositions are incorrect American English might be an act of Northern aggression against the South, but it is not an act of aggression by the White Northern race against the non-White Southern race.

As I mentioned, I know nothing about this book beyond this set of definitions. I'm surprised that it has a publication date as late as 1997. It reads more like the result of some kind of school of social/literary criticism from the late seventies or eighties. This kind of theory was already old and subject to ridicule when I was in graduate school in the early nineties.

I'm also not sure how significant these definitions are for policy in the Seattle Public School system. It could be that this page is nothing more than the result of some low level web designer searching for content to fill a page. At least I hope that's the case, but I have my fears. Seattle is a very touchy-feely city and we do love our multi-culturalism--even when it is embarrassing and badly thought out propaganda.

* There are two partial exceptions to this statement. Sovereign Native American nations and unassimilated immigrants do not always function within the same post-Enlightenment Western concepts of time and individualism as does the American mainstream. However, the cleavage between the two groups is not defined by race. The American mainstream is composed of members of most races.

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