Monday, August 1, 2016

A Sad Exchange on Racism

I am unhappy with an exchange I had with someone regarding this video.

I tried to tell him that if you call every situation that could be explained by racism, racism, then you'll find racism everywhere. He challenged me on that point, but only by saying that any moral person can see that this is racism.

I then tried to explain that there is no moral difference between us, that anti-racism is common ground, it is in our difference in assessing whether racism is the best explanation for what happened to the woman in the video. I asked him to name something the cashier did that pointed specifically to a racist cause. He didn't answer.

I offered a specific scenario to try to clarify:

A white friend tell you a story about how he goes to Safeway and the cashier treats the cashier in front of him well. But when he gets to the front of the line the cashier checks his credentials with the "bad check list". How do you respond?

A) That's an unbelievable story because racism is the only possible explanation for what went on!
B) I don't know, some people are weird. Maybe you looked like someone who wrote a bad check recently?

The answer is obviously B. So why isn't that a reasonable explanation for the woman in the video?

I think a part of it may be a feedback loop between experience and priors. If you already think that racism is abundant, then racism may be the best explanation for the video. But if your priors are based on many events like the one in the video, then that's not really a great justification for believing in an abundant amount of racism in the first place.

These priors also lead into conspiracy about secret codes of racism, of which perhaps he thought he was cracking with me. Anybody who looks at a particular situation and says, "maybe that's not racism", is secretly just a racist trying to protect his white privilege or whatever. You don't even have to listen anymore. You're right, they're wrong. You're good, they're evil.

Even mentioning that that background existed would have satisfied me. Different assumptions about how racist people are generally will lead to different conclusions about a particular example that could be racism.

But instead he accused me of chest thumping, denying the problem, and re-affirmed that our difference was moral. His response was not very thoughtful, despite him being a philosopher. He dealt with me in a personal way when I just tried to explain my thinking. That makes me think that it wasn't just a difference in opinion, but a soft spot for him, where it's hard to deal with it in an objective way.

I almost feel like he was testing me. Like he really just wanted to see how I would deal with someone who wasn't dealing with the thoughts I was stating, but with the emotional impact of how my thoughts felt to him. I know it isn't true. I think maybe I should expect less from people.