I saw this post by Donna over at The Silence of Our Friendsand was about ready to launch into a spirited defense of Elvis when I followed on of her links back to Theriomorph’s and read this comment by Kai:
More importantly, however, I just want to note that POC and/or anti-racists hear this kind of misdirection, evasion, and white-recentering and reframing all the time. The basic pattern never changes: when anti-racist arguments start cutting too close to the bone, defenders of white privilege simply shift the subject, move the goalposts, pivot the grounds of argumentation, assign new categories and labels, open up broad cushy areas of tangential discourse, then put on completely straight faces and pretend that this new conversation is the one which was taking place all along. When we respond with, “What the hell are you talking about?”, they usually say something along the lines of, “I am sorry that people like you get upset when you cannot grasp my true and noble words.”
I do that all the time!
I suppose you’ve noticed. Not deliberately about anti-racism, but I do very deliberately “pivot the grounds of argumentation” when it suits my needs. Sometimes, it’s an overtly political act. I want men, for instance, to think about how our gender roles hurt both of us and so I’ll take an issue, one I know they expect me to be all feminist about, and I’ll talk about how it screws over men. Sometimes it means, “Yeah, I agree with everything you’re saying, except this.” (Which was about to be the core of my Elvis argument.) Sometimes, it’s a defensive thing, when you get too close to something that hurts me, I’m off on some other tangent. And sometimes, it’s a thing I do to be an asshole.
I bring me up because, if Kai can see it and articulate it and I can, upon hearing her articulate it, recognize it in myself, it means it’s there. So, there it is, this tendency.
Which, clearly, as a rhetorical strategy, we’re taught.
Why? What purpose does it serve?
Like I said, it’s broader than just being a racist strategy. I find myself employing it for all kinds of reasons. But it is for sure about keeping people out.
But Kai says something else here too that made me think–about how it recenters the discussion on whiteness. The thought I ended up with doesn’t clearly follow from that, but that’s the idea that sparked it, so anyway…
Okay, here’s what I realized. This is also about establishing, or in some cases, reestablishing who gets the prime real estate in people’s heads.
To use an exaggerated example, if I were to say, “I’m the smartest person here. Here are my grades to prove it,” we’re having a conversation based on evidence and can argue about the merits of using grades as a measure of smarts or even what constitutes smarts in a group as large as the one I’m speaking with.
But, if we were then having a heated discussion and I was suddenly “Yeah, well, I so jump over the lazy dog.” and half the room makes some acknowledgement that they get it–that I’m referencing “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” and, in calling myself a fox, am calling attention to how clever I am–and the other half never took a typing course so they have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sending another message.
And I think that message isn’t just “If you want to have discussions with me, you must share this basic knowledge,” but is also “It’s your job to imagine what’s going on in my head and anticipate the mental leaps I might make. I, of course, don’t do that for you.”
Anyone who’s been in an abusive relationship is familiar with that tactic. Refusing to speak plainly to someone, to acknowledge that you hear and understand what they’re saying, and then forcing them to guess what logical leaps you might make, and punishing them if they don’t guess correctly (or sometimes, even when they do guess correctly, because you don’t like being so easy to figure out) is a kind of violence.
We can do violence in self-defense. I’ve got no problem with that.
But violence just for the sake of violence, just so you can feel like you “won”? Just so you can feel the abuser’s rush?
That is a problem.
And frankly, it is about racism, and it is also about the system(s).
And I feel like we’re skirting around something large here that I don’t quite know how to articulate.
So, I got nothing else right now. Just that feeling.
And Elvis singing in the background.