What was so offensive about "the blacks"?
October 3, 2004 11:07 AM   Subscribe

Oddball semantics question: Yesterday my wife and her mother were talking about chutney for some reason. Her mother remarked that she always thought that chutney was something that "the blacks" ate. Setting aside the fact that chutney is an Indian thing, what is so distasteful about mom-in-law's choice of words? [MI]

Now I've never known mom-in-law to espouse any particularly racist points of view before, and I don't think any were intended here. But the wife and I were both caught off guard by it, and are also finding ourselves pretty fascinated at the semantics at play here. For example, I don't think I would have given it a second thought if mom-in-law had said "the Greeks" or "the Swedes." But for some reason, hearing her say "the blacks" was very cringe-inducing.

So, what's the deal here? Why does saying "the blacks" sound so blunt and wrong? Or are we just reading too much into some colloquialism from yesteryear (mom-in-law grew up in rural Nebraska)?
posted by yalestar to Society & Culture (47 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Your mom-in-law was using a broad categorical to talk distantly about a group of people for which there exists some history of racial tension. In this case, she is using that same racial classification to make the reference.

Your mom-in-law may have been making an innocent statement but the phrase "The blacks..." has a bad history behind it and anyone not aware of this is either living in a cultural cave or simply insensitive.

Using "The Greeks.." I'd argue can sound bad too if used in an area where some tension exists. If I say "The Turks..." here in California nobody may think twice. But the same phrase used in European cities currently full of class-conflict and mild xenophobia, well, it may not be interpreted so well.
posted by vacapinta at 11:20 AM on October 3, 2004


Let me ask you this: what other expression would you have had her use to express the same idea?

Further, suppose you had been discussing gefilte fish and Mom-in-Law had offered the opinion that that's something "the Jews" eat. Viewed impartially, this is not an unreasonable opinion to hold, but I think a lot of people's "uh-oh" detectors would go off on something like that because we've become very sensitive to anything that even approaches anti-Semitism. But, as you observed, we wouldn't think twice about someone noting that sushi is something that "the Japanese" eat.

I'd give Mom-in-Law a pass on this one.
posted by SPrintF at 11:21 AM on October 3, 2004


Why is there a "the" in front of the nationality at all? "...something blacks/Japanese/Turks eat" seems to convey the same meaning perfectly well.
posted by casarkos at 11:33 AM on October 3, 2004


To me it has something to do with the "the"—it seems to block off very squarely a group of others as Other. It has an air of "those people" to it; it implies a monolithic block of Not Us.

For that reason, I wouldn't say "the Jews" either; I'd say gefilte fish is a Jewish food or Jews eat gefilte fish. Likewise I'd say sushi is eaten by Japanese people.

Does that make sense?
posted by dame at 11:34 AM on October 3, 2004


Well, she didn't use any other adjectives along with "the blacks", did she? I think you're just being a bit too paranoid. You yourself say that mum-in-law has never appeared to be racist before.

Consider the following remark: "Stir-fries... I always thought it was something the Chinese ate". :)

Doesn't seem too harmful, does it? Don't sweat it.

Does the term "black" itself sound racist to you, by any chance?


(As an Indian, btw, "chutney" is a generic name for a range of condiments that accompany the main food.)
posted by madman at 11:40 AM on October 3, 2004


My theory is that it would be arrogant to presume to speak for all Greeks everywhere. When you say "the Greeks" there's some implicit boundary to the generalization: maybe you mean "the Greeks" to be Greek citizens generally. In this case the boundary is people actually living in Greece. Maybe you mean the Greeks who live in the neighborhood up the street. Maybe you mean the ancient Greeks. In all cases there's an implicit limit to your generalization.

When your mother in law says "the blacks" there is no way for you to implicitly limit the generalization. It sounds as if she's speaking about all black people everywhere, or can't be bothered to make any finer distinction. To your ear it sounds as if she's implying that skin color determines taste. If that sounds racist to you, it should. Your mother-in-law may not actually be a racist but she's saying something that sounds that way.
posted by coelecanth at 11:42 AM on October 3, 2004 [1 favorite]


I agree with dame: it's the "The".
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:44 AM on October 3, 2004


Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that "blacks" doesn't mean, "residents of a specific country" or "practitioners of a specific religion" the way "Greeks" or "Jews" does. So we hear it as saying that anybody with dark skin, regardless of where he or she lives, eats chutney, and that comes off as a tad racist.

On preview: Yeah, like what coelecanth said.
posted by JanetLand at 11:46 AM on October 3, 2004


I don't think there are many black people in Nebraska. I think that is relevant, and would explain the wording.

If she said it here where I live, it would be at least borderline racist, though.
posted by konolia at 11:53 AM on October 3, 2004


Agreed, the "The" for whatever reason is only used by people who see themselves as different from the group mentioned. The way you hear conservative christians talk about "the gays", etc.
posted by falconred at 12:28 PM on October 3, 2004


vacapinta -- Great explanation.

I don't think there are many black people in Nebraska.

There aren't. You'd be surprised what people can get away with when there isn't a large population to give a "The fuck you say?" response.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:36 PM on October 3, 2004


Speaking from the midwest here, I'd find it distateful because in my experience, if the information is racial and irrelevant to the subject, then it's putting up a divider between "us" and "them," indicating that there's some kind of novelty in what "they" do just based on the color of their skin, with the implication that it's not something "we" would do.

My mom is the one who taught me to respect all people, period, but she will occasionally tell a story she read in the newspaper and start with "This black guy..." I needle her because she never says "This white guy from Shipton won the lottery," but she'll always say, "This black guy from Shipton won the lottery." I've harrassed her enough that now she says, "This black guy- and his race has nothing to do with it!- won the lottery," so she at least knows it's a tic, but it's so ingrained into her that she can't get rid of it entirely. I chalk it up to her generation.
posted by headspace at 12:43 PM on October 3, 2004


I think it has to do with using one characteristic of a person [in this case race] to sort of stand in for the person or actually all people from the race. The lit. term for this is metonymy, or that's what I think of. So, instead of saying "black people" which is a noun followed preceded by a modifier, you are taking the modifier and using it to stand in for the noun, in a way saying "this noun can be reduced to one adjective". When I was going to college in the PC heydey one of the things that was put forward as a more appropriate way to discuss people from other races/cultures was to make sure that you noted somehow that they are people [general term that we all belong to] first, with the racial or cultural attribute also. So instead of saying "the blacks" you can say "black people" and it makes it a more human, personal and [in my opinion] appropriate way to discuss others, also less likely to be misconstrued. "Turkish people" and "Jewish people" as phrases do not have the barb potential that Turks or Jews do. Whether or not her assertion about chutney was or was not accurate, this is the crux of why it sounds weird to me.
posted by jessamyn at 12:57 PM on October 3, 2004


Okay after about the fifth time, is there a way to use the word black as one would use the word WASP. If a family moved in next to me and wore nothing but khakis, lacoste and drove an Acura --- I'd say "yeah we have a WASPy family next to us". If a family moved in that wore Phat Farm (or whatever it's called) and had all black Cadillacs with spinning rims, I'd say "yeah we got some real black neighbors". Now if a black family moved in that was more culturally "normal" I'd never say "that's a black family". I can't really think of a better way to put this, but is there a way to refer to someone's culture without applying underlying racist undertones? Or is this an impossibility with our current language restrictions? I mean this honestly as I've referred to things as "black" before without being racist but simply to specify a very specific culture. Really, I'd like to know so I don't accidently offend someone.
posted by geoff. at 1:48 PM on October 3, 2004


God bless AskMetafilter and all who sail with it. It's great to have a bunch of people who can succinctly explain what I often find so elusive.

I agree that it's defintely the "the". I like that thing that jessamyn laid out especially: there's something very subtle yet eminently less blunt about saying "black people" instead of "the blacks." Not that ascribing some trait to all people is ever really a good idea, but from a semantics standpoint, one is definitely better than the other.

It also occurs to me that the phrase "the blacks" kinda smacks of a time when most of the US referred to a whole race of people as if their presence amounted to some sort of national crisis, e.g. "the negro problem."
posted by yalestar at 1:57 PM on October 3, 2004


Unfortunately, since you're using both black here as shorthand to say "These folks are living up to the stereotype of X," there's no way you can use it and not sound like a jerk. I think the only time you can use it and not be offensive is if you're using it as a statement of fact, "She's the first black president of Whatever Co.," for example.
posted by headspace at 2:00 PM on October 3, 2004


if the information is racial and irrelevant to the subject

That's a very good distinction. Sometimes it has nothing to do with racist overtones, you're just trying to narrow the group so someone understands who you're talking about.

For example, I was helping facilitate a neighborhood meeting a couple weeks ago, and there was a single black couple there (welcome to Nebraska). They had some interesting things to say, and later when I was talking about it with my boss, I said, "the black couple had some good points."

When you're just trying to make a distinction in a large group, I don't think it's poor form to say, "the black guy" or "the black couple" -- in fact, I've seen people try and find semantical ways around saying those very words, when in fact it would be far easier and clearer if they just said "the black guy." Personally, I think it's more racist to try and talk around saying "black" or "jewish" or whatever than to just come out and say it. It shows you're systematically thinking about not trying to draw distinctions.

Occasionally when I say something like "the Hispanic couple" I'll get a wierd look from white people, as if I've crossed some PC-no-fly-zone. Look, it's OK, folks. Really. The more the terminology is used correctly, the faster our civilization can grow past these stupid distinctions.

There's a huge difference between using an all-inclusive group ("those jews all stick together," "those black people talk funny," etc.) and using it to try and be more specific when dealing with particular individuals. Connotation is important. Unless you've got an enormous chip on your shoulder, and there's nothing you can do about those people. :)
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:07 PM on October 3, 2004


Does restricting language makes people less racist?
posted by SpaceCadet at 2:20 PM on October 3, 2004


Well, see geoff., there's a number of big problems in that question right there. I assume your question was asked in good faith, so I'll try to answer it that way, but be assured the phrasing there includes a number of offenses. Of course, lots of people might disagree with me, but as you'll see that's rather the point.

1. WASP stands for a specific kind of white person, not all white people. So to say that a family is WASPy is less offensive because you are really pointing to a galaxy of traits in which the skin color is only a single (and not the most salient factor). But a number of people would still be offended to see you reduce you neighbors to a stereotype (see also: white trash).

2. Your assumption that wearing Phat Farm & driving Cadillacs with rims makes people "real blacks" is ignorant and rather insulting. Really, that is just the image *you* have of blacks, mostly through the media I'm guessing. But there is no one type of real black, just as there is no type of real white. Who is more white, someone from rural Minnesota or someone from San Francisco? That's seems like a stupid question, right? They are just different people with different traits based on differing community. Just so, there are poorer urban blacks (who seem to be the basis of your stereotype) and weathier suburban blacks who do things like Jack & Jill and uber-wealthy blacks who have been vacationing in tony enclaves on Martha's Vineyard for generations. Not one group is "really" black, just a different sort.

3. Now for the most ignorant comment: if a black family moved in that was more culturally "normal" I'd never say "that's a black family".

What is "normal" precisely? Like you? In many neighborhoods, you would be abnormal. To assume that someone who comes from a different, less culturally dominant community is abnormal is the height of rudeness and insesitivity and the foundation for a lot of racism. That person may be perfectly "normal" for their context. But here you apply your own context as though it were universal and "correct."

I hope that's an adequate beginning for your question. I'm really not the best person to speak to this but I'm here now.

If you are really interested in not being insulting, I would work on not assuming skin color equals particular traits on its own. I would also try learning something about the history and traditions of one of America's great minorities, or heck, all of them. Then, I might try traveling in order to experience different "normals."

On preview: Headspace says it so much better.

And no, Space Coyote, "restricting language" doesn't make people less racist. Seeing how particular phrases reflect racist assumptions, and then discussing those assumptions might.
posted by dame at 2:22 PM on October 3, 2004


SpaceCadet. Sorry, I always get the names mixed up even though the personalities are clear.
posted by dame at 2:30 PM on October 3, 2004


I can see some utility for "black" as a more or less descriptive term for someone of African ancestry, if only because otherwise, there's no convenient shorthand for the commonality between Lenny Henry and Nelson Mandela. (Whether there is a genuine commonality worth identiying is a good question, of course). It can't be an appearance thing, because frankly I'm probably darker than Colin Powell most of the time, and it can't be a cultural thing, for reasons well put above.

Searching for these descriptive terms is potentially offensive in that there are some categories that polite people are blind to. There is no good label for distinctions we're ashamed of making.

(PS: as a New Zealander, I'm aware that I could be deaf to a lot of nuances in this discussion, so bear that in mind).
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:39 PM on October 3, 2004


And no, Space[Cadet], "restricting language" doesn't make people less racist. Seeing how particular phrases reflect racist assumptions, and then discussing those assumptions might.

A lot of speech today is considered racist, when in fact it's simple ignorance innocently expressed. By policing speech so strictly, we become very conservative when talking about race. Just as some people avoid the topic of sex, and mumble away with bizarre euphamisms and metaphors to avoid direct language, now I see the same happening regarding the topic of race.

Anyway, much racism is expressed passive-agressively; it's not so obvious as "those blacks" or "nigger" or "chink"; racism is a stare, the tone of voice, body language. It's the same way people communicate hate for all the other reasons. You can get people to communicate "correctly" by policing their words, yet they can still communicate in a racist way.
posted by SpaceCadet at 4:21 PM on October 3, 2004


I have lived in the South for over 20 years, and I have constantly heard phrases along the lines of "that's something us blacks do", so I see nothing wrong in saying "that's something the blacks do".

You all are just being PC over-sensitive. Don't fret it.
posted by mischief at 4:31 PM on October 3, 2004


I am constantly annoyed when Koreans here in Korea say (as they so often do) things (generally unfavourable things, at that) about 'foreigners', as if all those not Korean can be lumped into a monolithic group.

Not 'as if', in fact. In the minds of most Koreans I meet, all those who are not Korean are lumped into a single group -- waeguk-in. This is, of course, as a result of the monoculture here, and the group-centred way in which people think about their own identity and social interaction -- yadda yadda -- but it is nonetheless still disconcerting and mildly annoying, even after all these years. It's changing, as more Koreans travel and learn more about the 'outside world', but it remains pretty prevalent, particularly outside Seoul.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:03 PM on October 3, 2004


I dunno, mischief, I'd be pretty uncomfortable if I were with someone and they marked a behavior as something "us blacks" do. Maybe it's the mixed thing, but I've been slammed for not being "black enough" by some blacks and then been just like others, so maybe I'm rather annoyed by those assumptions of monolithism and prefer to stop them.
posted by dame at 7:27 PM on October 3, 2004


I think it's the lack of inclusion and the extreme exclusion of the phrase that's causing the rub.

With the choice of phrase your grandmother used, it suggests that only a black person would eat chutney. Clearly, this would indicate that a white person that ate chutney would be considered a black person in her eyes. History does the rest to make this phrase a poor choice.

Taking out the "The" doesn't help it. "Blacks eat chutney!" is the shortest you can make it, and it still sounds terrible.

An alternate phrase, if you had, in fact, only seen black people eat chutney, would be "Chutney is preferred by black people." This would not mean a white person would be "black" by association should they enjoy chutney, but would mean that you had seen more black people eating chutney than white people.

I think an alternate phrase like that leaves the door open to a more scientific or cultural answer than skin colour determining your food preferences. For example, perhaps black people prefer chutney because, as a culture, they were exposed to it earlier in history than white people.

"The blacks eat chutney" makes it clear that by having black skin one automatically would want to eat chutney, which is clearly silly thinking.
posted by shepd at 8:51 PM on October 3, 2004


What jessamyn said. Fascinating thread.

[stav: I lived in Thailand for years, and now live in Hanoi. That same flagrant, unabashed us-and-other perspective pervades the lesser-educated classes everywhere I've been in Asia, and in the world. It's more obvious to me here because I'm the object of it. I'm the one who sees mothers pointing me out to their children, saying, "Look, a white ghost!" with a mixture of superiority and practical instruction. Whenever I begin to lose heart, I remind myself that my experience is very similar to that of non-whites in most suburban and rural areas of the US and Europe. Ignorance and xenophobia are rife the world over; I can't speak for you, but part of the reason I'm out here as an expat is to make some kind of difference in this area.]
posted by squirrel at 8:54 PM on October 3, 2004


Very nice story, headspace. This summer my 10-year-old son and I were listening to a famous jazz musician talking on the radio, and for some reason I said, "Does that sound like a white guy or a black guy?"

"A black guy," he said (correctly). Then he said, "I figure if it was a white guy, you wouldn’t ask me that question."
posted by LeLiLo at 11:48 PM on October 3, 2004


squirrel and stav, I agree and disagree with you. I agree that it gets damn annoying to be pointed out constantly as a foreigner. But let's face it, Asian countries are not multi-cultural societies - they are monocultures. They value their culture far more than western countries do. They don't want to "celebrate diversity". They have their own strong cultures. For example, Thai people really DO love their king (well, the ones I met) - they love their country. They identify themselves as being Thai. They are not being racist calling you "farang" (foreigner), but from their perspective, that's the first thing noticeable about a foreigner (they look like a foreigner!). Even when you know them a long time, they'll still see you as a foreigner - you still are. When you are 1% of the population, you most certainly are noticeable as a foreigner.

Westerners can afford to acknowledge several different cultures since they they are not pre-occupied by a strong culture of their own.
posted by SpaceCadet at 1:57 AM on October 4, 2004


I probably overstated when I said 'annoyed', as I am wont to do. It's more wearisome than anything now, accustomed as I am, and having taken the time to think through and try and understand the reasons why it exists.

Whenever I begin to lose heart, I remind myself that my experience is very similar to that of non-whites in most suburban and rural areas of the US and Europe. Ignorance and xenophobia are rife the world over

Very true.

I mine a great deal from the rich vein of that fundamental difference between Korean and (for example) Canadian culture, actually. The fact that even in my tiny redneck northern town (you killed Kenny, you bastards!) diversity of family tradition, language and habit was blithely accepted is mindblowing to some of the people I talk to. It's also interesting to me that although as English speakers we are accustomed to people speaking English with difficulty, and take it for the most part in stride, at least in urban areas, Koreans are so unused to people speaking their language unfluently that making the attempt is daunting indeed. Even minor mistakes (incorrect aspiration on one of the consonant triplets, arrgh!) are such an unusual thing where the normal situation is that everyone speaks the same language with at most regional variation that the Korean learner (like me) can be put off by people's reactions when you don't get it exactly right. This, like everything else, though, is changing, particularly in the cities, as the wave of globalization rolls over the country and washes back.

[/derail]
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:16 AM on October 4, 2004


Not that there wasn't also racism and prejudice in my little frontier hometown. There was, oh dear me yes. But there always is, pretty much, unfortunately.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:19 AM on October 4, 2004


SpaceCadet, I think we're saying basically the same thing. But I think it's important to point out that nationalist xenophobia is, finally, still xenophobia; and that racism always has a cultural explanation, in Thailand or in Mississippi.

The monocultures that dominate Asia, with some exceptions (e.g. Malaysia), are succeptible to the same weaknesses of ignorance that the rest of us are. Let's not go bestowing a racism free-pass on those cultures unlike our own: doing so is a form of race-based arrogance, after all.
posted by squirrel at 3:07 AM on October 4, 2004


The phrase "the blacks" has *not* been used in a strongly oppressive way in the way other phrases have. Had these been the case "black" would not be a politically correct description today.

coelecanth's explanation seems spot on, to me. "The blacks" is such a ridiculously general phrase that any individual attribute assigned can only be ridiculously and offensively inaccurate.
posted by nthdegx at 4:04 AM on October 4, 2004


eh? "no blacks" "whites only".

it was reclaimed - that's why it's still not 100% easy to use (unless you're putting undue emphasis on the the).
posted by andrew cooke at 4:39 AM on October 4, 2004


Let's not go bestowing a racism free-pass on those cultures unlike our own: doing so is a form of race-based arrogance, after all.

Perhaps you are judging Asian countries by the western standards of what is racist and what is not. Each country has their own rules, their own culture, their own traditions, their own perceptions of other countries and the people who come from those other countries.
posted by SpaceCadet at 5:29 AM on October 4, 2004


each country has their own rules, but that does not mean that we need think them acceptable. many people felt apartheid was unacceptable, and many countries imposed sanctions - that seems to be morally ok to me. moral relativism and mutual respect doesn't mean no morals and no judgement.
posted by andrew cooke at 5:42 AM on October 4, 2004


Each country has their own rules, their own culture, their own traditions, their own perceptions of other countries and the people who come from those other countries.

Don't fall for the trap of thinking of "other" cultures as being culturally monolithic, Space. Just because they differ from Western cultures doesn't mean they don't break down into class and economic subgroups internally. Most educated people in Asia see racism similar to the way educated people in the West do.

The notion that there is some nationwide embracing of xenophobia in any Asian country (presumably under the protective umbrella of "tradition" or "nationalism") is out of synch with my experience and, as I suggested before, more than a little dismissive of the sophistication that exists within all cultures.

Thai people really DO love their king (well, the ones I met) - they love their country. They identify themselves as being Thai. They are not being racist calling you "farang" (foreigner), but from their perspective, that's the first thing noticeable about a foreigner (they look like a foreigner!)

Reread this with "German" in place of "Thai," and you'll see you're giving a free pass to certain racist Thais. Nationalist xenophobia is no less a problem for the uneducated Thai classes than it is for the uneducated German classes.

And remember, Rawandans had their own culturally-specific reasons for auto-genocide.

I don't want to get into a PC hosefest over this issue, Space; it's my pet peve. As an expat living in Asia, I see a steady stream of milkfed suburban newbies popping in for their three month stint, brimming with sweet vanilla racism that they mistake for culturally enlightened magnanimity.

I'm not saying that's you, but it behooves us all to continually examine our perspectives on these tricky matters.
posted by squirrel at 6:07 AM on October 4, 2004


eh? "no blacks" "whites only".

There it's the concept not the actual term that's offensive. Black has never been offensive in the way darkie, coloured and nigger are - which is why I find fault with vacapinta's explanation. That is to say the word "black" in itself doesn't represent oppression in the way these other words do. I don't think the word black has been reclaimed by black folks in the way the n word has. I don't accept there's anything to reclaim as the word was never offensive (in itself) to begin with.

coelecanth nailed it.
posted by nthdegx at 8:03 AM on October 4, 2004


nthdegx, I wasn't saying that the word "blacks" is inherently offensive but that the construct "The blacks..[insert generalization]" sits in most American minds (this may be different in the UK or across the world) as the template for an offensive statement.

I'm not arguing its the only force at work here but it does explain why I cringe when someone in California begins a sentence with "The Mexicans..." but dont cringe when I am in France and someone begins a sentence the same way (its usually followed by e.g. some praise for mexican food unlike the former which usually expresses some vague anti-immigrant sentiment)
posted by vacapinta at 9:53 AM on October 4, 2004


squirrel: Reread this with "German" in place of "Thai," and you'll see you're giving a free pass to certain racist Thais.

That's a bit of a leap - a bold attempt at invoking Godwin? :-). Seriously, not every country descends into Nazism just because they have a strong national pride. History tells me Thailand has had a far more peaceful record than practically any western country you wish to compare it to.

Don't fall for the trap of thinking of "other" cultures as being culturally monolithic, Space. Just because they differ from Western cultures doesn't mean they don't break down into class and economic subgroups internally

I did say culturally monolothic, but that doesn't mean I assumed they don't break down into class and economic subgroups. However, I believe many people in monocultural societies identify themselves with their country first, and status/class second.

I'm not sure what you're after - a kind of western cultural imperialism? All countries to be indoctrinated in political correctness? One of the things I love about travelling is experiencing other cultures, warts and all. Vive le difference - thank goodness for a culturally diverse world. Hey....I do believe I'm celebrating diversity here.

many people felt apartheid was unacceptable, and many countries imposed sanctions - that seems to be morally ok to me

OK, Nazism and apartheid have been mentioned - I'm not really referring to anything so extreme - many countries that have a rich monoculture aren't so blood-thirsty or wanting to take over the entire planet.

As an expat living in Asia, I see a steady stream of milkfed suburban newbies popping in for their three month stint, brimming with sweet vanilla racism that they mistake for culturally enlightened magnanimity

I'm glad that statement wasn't really referring to me, coz I'm not sure what it means :-).
posted by SpaceCadet at 10:24 AM on October 4, 2004


apartheid wasn't "taking over the planet" - it was explicit racism. i chose it rather than nazism because it seemed a more appropriate example.

any modern (relativist, cross-cultural) moral judgement has to be a compromise. saying that there should be no judgement (which seems to be your position) is just as extreme as declaring them equivalent to nazis. neither position is correct. instead, we have to make as fair an attempt as possible at guessing where the fuzzy line lies. i was simply providing an example from the opposite extreme and hoping you could join up the dots yourself.
posted by andrew cooke at 12:51 PM on October 4, 2004


apartheid wasn't "taking over the planet" - it was explicit racism. i chose it rather than nazism because it seemed a more appropriate example.

Andrew, I think you're trying to polarise my point of view to make it easy to criticise. I didn't actually compare apartheid to "taking over the world", it was the "blood thirsty" bit - ahh well, maybe I should have made the comparisons in order of each other.

My point of view is rather moderate - I just accept there are different ways people live on this planet. Now, if we remove the extremes of genocide and world wars, and concentrate on the day-to-day living of those in what I would call a "strong cultured" (monocultured) society - who is to say one culture is better than another? Isn't that how supremists think?

Through our own unique moral filters, of course we can (and do) judge and criticise each culture according to our own moral codes. However, what you consider to be racist, other people may not. That's a very important distinction to make.
posted by SpaceCadet at 1:14 PM on October 4, 2004


Thanks for following-up, SpaceCadet.

However, what you consider to be racist, other people may not.

I think this is the crux of our disagreement. Germany was a bad example, since it's liable to be taken too far. My point in bringing up Germany (and I never said Nazi, btw) was not to compare Thais to murderers, but to show that one doesn't have to consider himself a racist to be one. There is a strong nationalist movement in Germany today, and they don't see their Germany-ubber-alles attitude as racist, either. And, like the Thais, nationalism is part of their culture. You and I are more likely to see German nationalists as racist because they are white and western. You give Thai xenophobes a free pass because they have their own culture. Tell me, who doesn't have their own culture?!

Finally, my Rwanda reference was not to create a Thai parallel to genocide, but a reminder that even the most horrible human behaviors have culturally-embedded explanations. Giving Thai racism a free pass because the culture is exotic to you is a way of dismissing the culture's sophistication under the guise of accepting diversity.

The vanilla racism I refer to is when people subconsciously think of their own culture as being without distinctive character, the default culture around which all other cultures orbit. In the west, racism is racism, but in the east, well, that's just their culture. Post-imperialist bullshit.
posted by squirrel at 9:51 PM on October 4, 2004


Giving Thai racism a free pass because the culture is exotic to you is a way of dismissing the culture's sophistication under the guise of accepting diversity.

You are making assumptions about my point of view.

I didn't call Thai culture "exotic", and therefore good/free pass to racism. I just said they are a monoculture. I've spent many years in the east too, but I didn't feel this is even necessary to mention - I was kind of hoping people will take my opinion at face value.

I specifically point to monocultures because the thread was about racism, and a lot of such countries are often accused of racism, by those who apply their own standards of what they consider racism to be. As I mentioned before, Thailand has had a peaceful history, so I'm not sure why you are drawing parallels to Germany (which is not a monoculture anyway). Thailand has more influence from Buddhism than it does from (neo)-Nazism. You seem to be painting a negative picture here.

In the west, racism is racism, but in the east, well, that's just their culture. Post-imperialist bullshit.

It's a little more nuanced than that. We all have different moral codes, different perceptions on what is offensive or not. What is considered racist or not. As you no doubt know, many shrines in Thailand have 2 prices for entry: one for foreigners, one for Thais. Sometimes they close the shrines to foreigners altogether on certain days. Is this racist to you? I can understand it if you think so.

Some cultures in this world find it extremely offensive when a woman walks around in public revealing her face. Now, many people find such a rule of covering up the female face as ridiculous and completely sexist. You may describe this as sexism, but the country who follows such a rule may describe it as pious acknowledgement of their religion.

Who is right? Who decides who is right? Are you denying that moral relativism exists?
posted by SpaceCadet at 1:03 AM on October 5, 2004


You make some good points in your last paragraphs, SpaceCadet, but...

Thailand has had a peaceful history, so I'm not sure why you are drawing parallels to Germany (which is not a monoculture anyway). Thailand has more influence from Buddhism than it does from (neo)-Nazism. You seem to be painting a negative picture here.

... I think we're not connecting. So it goes. Thanks for kicking around this interesting issue for a while. We'll probably meet on this point again. Onward. :^)
posted by squirrel at 2:04 AM on October 5, 2004


That's OK squirrel......regarding my comment on Germany, well I just wondered why you specifically mentioned this country. It has a well-known history and even today there is a strong neo-Nazi movement, particularly antipathetic against the large Turkish population living there. Are you referring to the neo-Nazis as the "strong nationlist movement"? (sorry, not trying to nit-pick, just want clarification)
posted by SpaceCadet at 2:49 AM on October 5, 2004


Not the neo-Nazis, but rather those among the nationalists who are racist. I meant to point out that A) one's racism can be a natural part of one's particular culture and still be racism; and B) one can be a racist even if he thinks he's not.

And I should know, I was a racist for years. I still am in some ways.
posted by squirrel at 4:58 AM on October 5, 2004


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