Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Against Calin Brown

Whilst drinking my morning coffee the other day I came across this article at Ketagalan Media by Calin Brown. The ostensible subject of the article is racism in Taiwan, but... Ms Brown poses a particular definition of racism that is probably at odds with how most people, at least of my (Britpop) generation, think about it. The concept of racism which I acquired as a teenager during the mid 90's was that of prejudging a person's character on the basis of skin colour and engaging in spiteful discrimination against them on that basis. The point of reprehension was twofold in that (a) the prejudice is superficial and unwarranted, and (b) the discrimination was spiteful, or cruel.

Yet Calin Brown writes (and I quote the entire paragraph to keep everything in context)...
"All good explanations include some definitions, so I’ll begin with an important one: what is racism? Discussions revolving around race can often get confusing because we conflate terms like racism, prejudice and discrimination. Unlike the latter two terms that suggest a particular behavior, racism is both prejudice and power. Racism is a system through which certain racial groups maintain power over others. This is why in white-dominated societies such as the United States, minorities are not “racist” since they don’t have the institutional power to make white lives more difficult."
To say that discussions become confusing because the royal "we" conflate racism with prejudice and discrimination is to assume that racism actually is conceptually distinct, a priori, from prejudice and discrimination. But... says who? As I've just pointed out the concept of racism... I wouldn't say I was explicitly taught at school... but which I picked up from our politically correct readings and media commentary was in essence spiteful discrimination based on unwarranted prejudice. That was something everyone could agree was wrong. I personally don't find anything "confusing" about saying that racism is spiteful discrimination based on an unwarranted prejudice about skin colour. In summation what it basically meant was that a racist was, on the lowest rung of the ladder, a dickhead.

Yet Calin Brown asserts a contrary concept of racism; that it is a "system" by which large numbers of people of homogenous racial characteristics work in concert with one another to oppress other people of different racial characteristics. The large numbers are apparently requisite because they are required for the control of institutional power.

I think two things about this; first that it is wrong - not in the sense that I find it disagreeable but in the sense that I think it is totally inaccurate, or to put the point more forcibly, bullshit. The second thing I think about it is that, were it to become widespread, it would endanger the transmission to future generations of the moral importance of individual conduct.

On the first point, I think her "system" definition of racism is inaccurate because... large numbers. I can quite well believe there may be a few very small "holdout" groups of former KKK members and the like in the U.S. but I can't believe anything similar for a society like my native society of the UK or of my adopted society of Taiwan. I just don't believe you can get large numbers of people to actively and openly participate and contribute to a system organized toward the end of racial oppression. It's just not a credible proposition. However, I do think it is possible to have large numbers of people contribute to several institutional mechanisms (e.g. the U.S. government's so-called "war on drugs" via both Federal and State police agencies) that disproportionately affect members of one racial group. But that is a side-effect, and not the ostensible purpose of these institutional mechanisms.

On the second point, I think that Calin Brown's "system" concept of racism is potentially dangerous because it implies a double-standard (that racial or ethnic minorities can't be racist, no matter how badly behaved they may be toward members of other races or ethnic groups). Such a double standard would effectively be an excuse for bad behaviour reprehensible on account of the unwarranted prejudice and spiteful discrimination I described earlier. By excusing bad behaviour on account of membership of a supposedly "oppressed" racial group, the concept Calin Brown propounds thus denegrates the moral importance of individual conduct.

In sum: you can't pose as a critic of racism while pretending that the content of one's character is less important than the colour of one's skin.

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