Thursday, November 22, 2007

It's Only Racism When I Say It Is




Sony Corp. got into trouble in Europe last year with these Dutch ads meant to announce the release of the PlayStation Portable (PSP) in two distinct colors: White and Black. Many gamers found the ads to be racist. Sony responded saying that the ads had "no other message or purpose" than to let people know about the launching of the new products:

"A variety of different treatments have been created as a campaign to either highlight the whiteness of the new model or contrast the black and the white models. Central to this campaign has been the creation of some stunningly photographed imagery, that has been used on large billboards throughout Holland."

Essentially, Sony's defense is that the ads are only about colors, there is no other way to understand these images, and anyone who reads them differently is imposing an interpretation that Sony did not intend (or, in other words, they are seeing something that is just not there). Thus, Sony cannot be racist because they did not mean this ad to be about race at all.

Sony's reponse here seems to confirm an argument made by UC Berkeley law professor Ian Haney-Lopez: In the coming years, as the U.S. confronts increasing numbers of minorities in the population, whites will assert an ideology that is meant to maintain white dominanence in most social, political, and economic institutions. This will be the ideology of colorblindness. It will hold that racism is a moral evil and the way to overcome it is to completely ignore race and racial classifications. Government policy should, in no way, take racial distinctions into account, even if the policy is meant to remedy past discrimination based on race.

Anti racism, then, means making sure that no one notices or mentions race. Thus, a racist will be someone who purposely or deliberately introduces race, with the intent to demean a group of people, into civic life.

The result of this kind of ideology is, in effect, the policing of racial justice discourse by whites. Haney Lopez hints at this in an interview:

"Let’s be clear, then, about its political and racial valences: colorblindness is strongly conservative, by which I mean that colorblindness as a current practice (rather than as a distant ideal) conserves the racial status quo. And in this, colorblindness takes on a racial cast, inasmuch as preserving the present works best for those currently racially dominant. In short, whatever its antiracist pretensions, colorblindness primarily serves the political and racial interests of whites."

Under this kind of colorblindness, whites get to define what is or is not racist. If someone didn't intend to demean a group of people based on skin color, then they are not racist, no matter what they did or said. Indeed, to call someone racist who didn't intend to be racist is usually to make race more of an issue than it merits in today's world in which things such as de jure segregation are relics of the past. If Blacks are offended by the Sony ads, they are being too sensitive. Sony didn't mean to be offensive and that's all that should count in the issue.

But it's not clear why intention should be the defining factor in deciding whether an ad, idea, or action is racist. It seems the idea is that since no harm is intended, no harm actually occurs. But that is not a valid conclusion. A person can unintentionally harm another quite easily. Accidents are quite common--you can turn around quickly in the grocery store and bump into someone. In such cases, we usually say "Oh, I'm sorry" not "Hey, get out of the way, its your problem", even when we know that we didn't intend to hit the person.

The law also recognizes many different kinds of crimes in which a clear intention to harm someone was not part of a person's action. These are crimes of negligence. A person who is impaired by drugs or alcohol and kills someone with their car is still culpable for the action even though they didn't intend to harm anyone. They are blameworthy because they should have known better than to operate a vehicle under the influence of intoxicants. If we follow Sony's logic, we should excuse drunk drivers because they didn't mean to do it.

I would contend that the burden of proof lies on those who think that intention is all that matters in terms of racism to explain why that is, given that it is quite common to imagine unintended harms in both everyday ethics and the law. Why should the harms of racism be different (unless or course, Sony's reasoning is a part of the ideology of colorblindness meant to discredit the harms of people of color and protect its "negligent" racism) ?

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20 Comments:

At 10:05 PM , Blogger Dennis said...

Why should the harms of racism be different ...?

Because if they weren't then we white folks would actually have to confront our internalized racism.

It's much easier this way.

Sorry - the 'giving of thanks' holiday always brings out the black humor in me.

Also, I'm tired of arguing this point in the context of blackface, the Barometer, etc.

 
At 10:46 PM , Blogger Michael Faris said...

Thanks for writing about this. I look forward to reading Haney-Lopez's paper you linked to.

I agree with Dennis that this seems especially relevant right now at OSU with the occurrence of blackface at football games and the arguments surround intent and effect.

 
At 12:27 AM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 6:35 PM , Blogger Richard said...

I take it most people reserve the term 'racist' to denote those who believe that some people are inherently superior/inferior in virtue of their race. Racist action is then understood derivatively, as an action that expresses such a racist belief. On this understanding, it makes perfect sense to refute a charge of racism by affirming one's good intentions. (For the evil of racism, on this view, lies not in any objective harm that is done, but in the viciousness of one's subjective attitudes. It is more like an insult than bumping into someone. If you didn't mean any ill will by your words, then they were not really an insult. It was just a misunderstanding.)

 
At 9:39 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Richard: I think that is probably the way people understand it, but I'm not sure why we should think that's the best way to think of racism. Why should the "evil" of racism be only the belief in another group's inferiority? It may be that this kind of analysis pays too much attention to the active agent (the racist) and not on the patient to understand the kind of harms that racism creates.

 
At 9:36 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rank wankerism!
You don't define "racism" to begin with. You assume that this undefined "racism" is a bad. You assume that anything which you might typify as "racism" on your definition should be .. stopped. Try thinking about this subject. And finally, you confuse "racism" with "bigotry." "white folks" -- sounds like the phrasing of a frat boy.

 
At 10:55 PM , Blogger AceConnors said...

Surely Richard's account doesn't come close to capturing all of what we consider to be racist. A person who declares that Asians are good at math or Jews with money needn't mean any ill will (somewhat perversely, he may even think that he's paying a compliment), but clearly racist attitudes underly his assumptions. This is just one example; it's by no means exceptional or hard to think up.

I think that what underlies most racist actions and attitudes is the presumption that individuals or groups must have certain attributes (regarding intelligence, personality, ability, etc.) simply in virtue of their race.

 
At 4:26 PM , Blogger Jared said...

I just want to point out the dynamic within these photographs, since you haven't mentioned it: it looks as if the two women are fighting. The top one has the black woman on top of the white woman, grasping her shirt with a clenched fist. And you'll notice in that picture, too, that the white woman's eyes are wide (in a fearful expression) and her left hand is open like a claw--another gesture denoting fear or aggression. Her right hand grasps the black woman's jaw.

In the bottom picture, the white woman again has the black woman's chin in her hand. The white woman frowns; the black woman is forced to look slightly upwards (even though the upper picture shows them to have almost the same height). The white woman's left hand is very strange; it's splayed out and bent at the wrist. No way that was unintentionally; I'd guess the photographer told the model to manipulate her hand like that rather than have a fist- or claw-like gesture. That would suggest to me the intention of showing domination, minus abuse.

My guess is that Sony Corp. did what all big-businesses do: they commissioned the photographer; had focus groups look at prints; and then went ahead with the ads not even thinking about any social impact beyond communicability. They just didn't know what exactly they were communicating...they should probably try a straight out apology.

 
At 8:29 PM , Blogger Michael Faris said...

This is my attempt to close off Joseph's un-closed italics tag

:) Good discussion here.

 
At 1:53 AM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Michael: Stupid tag removed! Thanks for pointing that out. ;)

Anon: I'd like to hear the definition you have between bigotry and racism. There may, indeed, be an important difference. "White folks" is hardly frat boy talk, unless you think the work of Du Bois is of this caliber too.

Jared: Thank you for making explicit some of the controversial parts of this imagery.

Ace: Nice point, as well. I think a helpful distinction to be made is Anthony Appiah's between racism and racialism: the latter involves segmenting the world into discrete racial groupings, the former involves categorizing people as such but then also putting them into an evaluative hierarchy. This seems to go a bit toward what you were explaining.

 
At 8:18 PM , Blogger God-Rousing Dog Pipes said...

I take you're rejecting Sony's defense. But instead of focusing on whether what they say is true or false, you focus on whether it could be fits an ideology that could be used to maintain white dominance. But surely the main question should be whether what they say is true or false.

Your discussion of unintentional harms seems irrelevant, because harming others and being a racist are such different kinds of moral lapses.

'Racism', as the term is commonly used, is primarily a flaw in one's psychology. The thing about a racist is that a racist has flawed beliefs or flawed character or flawed attitudes. Racism is, after all, a kind of bigotry. So if someone's psycholgy is free from these flaws, s/he is not a racist. (To be sure, Sony's defense isn't entirely successful -- if the billboard came from subconscious and therefore unintended racism, then that's still a racist billboard. But they're on the right track)

An example: suppose the billboard said "BLACK PEOPLE ARE INFERIOR TO WHITES", but that it was totally unintended, because it was actually written in Dutch, bearing a completely harmless message ("We love our customers" or something) and by a wacky coincidence, it perfectly matches a nasty English sentence, and the Dutch people responsible for the billboard had no idea. They would clearly be off the hook when it comes to racism. And this is true even if lots of people were offended by the billboard, even if it was lots of totally reasonable people who thought the billboard was written in English.

 
At 11:48 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

God: Why is that the main question? That is the approach that Haney-Lopez argues underlies the Supreme Court's understanding of racism--something is racist if and only if it is intentional. But the point is to ask: why stipulate this as the definition of racism. Haney-Lopez argues for a different understanding of racism that he calls "common sense racism" which involves acting out "scripts" of racist action that exist embedded in society. That is, there are racialized concepts, racist categories, and other frameworks that exist in our language and we sometimes can enact these scripts "unintentionally". We may not intend to be racist but in social interaction, others might take them as such, given that history of the scripts. Others might take it as a slight to their dignity.

Is it a misunderstanding? Perhaps. But is the right response to say "Get over it. Don't be so sensitive!"? Or can we react in such a way to understand the nature of the slight and why it might not be appropriate?

 
At 12:44 PM , Blogger God-Rousing Dog Pipes said...

Joseph, when I say that the main focus should be on truth/falsehood, I don't mean to presuppose that the 'racism must be intentional' view is correct. All I mean to say is that Sony's defense should be addressed on its own merits (which might include rejecting the 'racism must be intentional' view). It shouldn't be dismissed simply because it fits some ideology that might be used to maintain white dominance.

In other words: if people say that p, step one is to see whether p is true, it's not to see whether dark forces may have led them to say p. After all, there's no argument from "Dark forces led them to say p" to "p is false".

 
At 1:14 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

God: I don't know what "truth content" there is to sort out here. Sony says this is not racist because they didn't intend it to be about race in any way but about creating dramatic images using black and white as a theme. The issue, it seems to me, is how images are interpreted and whether one can safely assume that some images will evoke certain scripts about our social history about race. Racism is not a "dark force" but a very real part of the history of Europe. As Jared points out in his comment above, this imagery evokes ideas about violence, domination, and control between black and white. To say that this imagery could in no legitimate way be taken to be about race seems to me either incredibly naive or about a nefarious kind of corporate manipulation (Let's make something so shocking that people will be talking about it and remember our logo.) If people are so naive about race, then we need some better education about this history.

 
At 3:32 PM , Blogger God-Rousing Dog Pipes said...

1. First you wonder what claim to assess for truth/falsehood. But then you state exactly the claim worth assessing: "this is not racist because they didn't intend it to be about race in any way but about creating dramatic images using black and white as a theme". That's what should come first -- finding out whether this defense is any good. But instead you start by relating the defense to white domination, even though this is completely irrelevant to whether the defense is any good. In other words, it looks like you're committing such well-known fallacies as the genetic fallacy and poisoning the well.

2. When I mentioned 'dark forces', I didn't mean to deny their reality. Racism is real, and that's obvious. My point was just that the origin of a claim is irrelevant to its truth-value.

3. I would never "say that this imagery could in no legitimate way be taken to be about race". It wouldn't surprise me if it indeed turned out to be racist. All I was saying was that fitting Sony's defense into an ideology maintaining white domination is no substitute for critically examining the defense itself, and also that intention is pretty clearly a major factor in racism.

 
At 4:40 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

God: So what if it is true that Sony did not intend to be racist? Is the conclusion: Nothing offensive happened?

My point is still: why stipulate that racism only occurs whent here is an intent to act as racist? I don't agree with you that this is the only relevant issue.

We assign moral and legal responsibility to many different kinds of actions that do not hinge on intentions--my examples of bumping into someone, and in terms of negligence. Why should this case NOT be thought of in those terms?

Another example: my grandmother once called an African American man "boy". He was offended and told her she had done something wrong. She said she was not racist and did not intend to display that remark. She said she called every man younger than her "boy".

In this case, I would say that even though she did not intend to be racist and may not have known about the history of "boy", she had done something wrong. She had tapped into a script that offended someone's dignity. Obviously, she does not have the same intentions as an ardent white supremacist and should not be morally condemned to the same extent. But we recognize this even in law--negligence is not punished to the extent of intentional harm, but we do not excuse it entirely.

Your analysis of the truth condition of Sony's defense is in line with current Supreme Court standards for assessing racism, but I (and Haney-Lopez) are pointing out that its not clear WHY this is the most appropriate way to judge such issues, especially if the effects are to discount the perceptions of those offended as "over sensitivity".

 
At 5:27 PM , Anonymous FinanceBuzz said...

I would contend that the burden of proof lies on those who think that intention is all that matters in terms of racism to explain why that is, given that it is quite common to imagine unintended harms in both everyday ethics and the law.

Quite the opposite. The burden of proof should be on the party that is making a non-obvious, often tenuous, connection between two apparently unrelated things aside from a superficial similarity. In America, if you level a legal charge, you have the burden of proof. Why should this be any different? When people have such hair-trigger sensitivity that their radars go off at the mere mention of the words black or white, then proving that something is racist lies with them. I see this as a case of crying wolf - so many things that do not have a racial context but are claimed to be racist when seen through a racial prism are called racist, that actual instances of racism are not diminished in their impact.

The bottom line is that you do not have a right to not be offended. However, I do have a right to express myself. Your non-right cannot trump my right. I am not suggesting that we not be sensitive to others' feelings, especially when something can reasonably be taken in a racial context. But for people who manage to see racism almost everywhere, we cannot wrap the world around their racially-tinged perspective.

 
At 5:49 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

FB: Your post stikes me as the very example of the phenomena that I hint at in the title :"Its only racist if I say it is." I think there is a fair amount of evidence that has been given in Jared's post above to suggest that a quite reasonable interpretation of these photos is one of violence and domination between people of different racial groups.

Who gets to decide who is "crying wolf" anyway? That implies that there is something that counts as "real racism"--what would that be such that these images do not count?

I also make a distinction between legal claims and moral ones. One may be permitted to say racist things (actually this is very contextual--the right to expression is not absolute and does not trump all other interests), but these would still count as morally impermissible (i.e. because they are affronts to human dignity but not necessarily to legal codes per se). So one's right to say something is not something that trumps all other concerns legally or morally speaking.

 
At 3:14 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

This may be too late, but I think it should be noted that the conscious/subconscious distinction and intentional/unintentional distinction are not coextensive. There are cases when I act or think consciously in a sexist or racist manner, but unintentionally so. E.g, sometimes I passively experience thoughts that I immediately recognize as racist or sexist. Any definition of racism that aims to include unintentional racism should pay attention to such a distinction, in my opinion.

Also, not all racism is truth-apt. Just as "open that window" is meaningful, yet not truth-apt, so too can meaningful actions or words be racist, yet fail to be analyzable in terms of truth or falsity.

Galen

 
At 12:01 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

It doesn't look like they're fighting, it looks like they're having hot lesbian sex!!!

That aside, I think racism will end regardless because of free market forces, somebody who chooses who to employ people with a greater emphasis on race won't do as good a job as somebody who employs people based purely on skills.

 

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