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Monday, June 24, 2019

Some Books on Racism

I will be  posting about pair of books that center upon racism in America. Because the books involve hot button social issues, and the stories behind me reading seem noteworthy, I wanted to put up an introductory post so as not to distract from commentary on the actual books. 

For the last couple of months, I had been planning on reading Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. The reason that I chose to read this book is that the work has influenced many people that I encounter on social media as well as articles, blogs and other commentary that I read. I will add that I usually find myself in disagreement with these folks. Obviously, this book gets to the heart of various contentious issues. It is at the center of the so - called culture war. From what I understood about this book, it strongly espoused what myself and others have been calling postmodernism or some variation on the term.  This particular set of principles, though not really new, seems to be gaining in popularity as of late. This is beside the fact that its principles are in direct conflict with a host of other belief systems. 

Though it did not really start out as such, what I am calling postmodernism, at least in terms of current social debates, involve classifying every single individual into one of two categories. Those categories are “privileged” or “marginalized”. According to what is coming from this belief system, almost everything in the world is based on power relationships with the privileged holding all of the power. When a group is considered privileged the basic rules of avoiding stereotypes, hearing diverging viewpoints, freedom of speech are turned off for them. "Whiteness studies” is now something that some academics are studying. "Whiteness" is viewed as a societal ill. I believe that whiteness studies is covered in DiAngelo’s book. Many postmodernists will argue that privileged people should not even have an opinion about issues that affect the marginalized. Therefore, certain groups should not even comment upon oppression, even in the developing world.  Furthermore, privileged people should not create art that depicts marginalized people. For instance, several writers have recently come under heavy criticism for depicting so called marginalized people in their books. The initial group that was most known for its privilege was white men. However, one can now find opinion pieces in major publicans arguing that white women, Jews, gay white men, light skinned African Americans, non – Transgender gay people, among other groups, are privileged. Many, but not all, postmodernists have also called for censorship of ideas and speakers.  Postmodernism also calls into questions the basic principles of science and reason itself. In all fairness I did not know for certain which, if any, of these arguments that D’Angelo supports. This is one reason why I decided to read her book. 

I have read arguments that the current crop of postmodernists have completely misinterpreted and distorted the belief system. I will be eventually reading Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida who helped to found postmodernism at which time I will have more to say about this. Either way, I think that I have described what is coming from the postmodernists at this time. Of course, it is difficult to talk about this without generalizing.   There are many people who agree with certain postmodernist principles without being dedicated postmodernists. A good example is the very popular term “white privilege”. Lots of people use and accept it while rejecting many other tenets of postmodernism. Also, it is important to remember that not everyone who does hold many postmodernist beliefs holds all of them. For instance, I think that many people who adhere to many of these views are against the censorship part. I have also only provided the barest hodgepodge summery above. It is based on what is coming out of late. This belief system also seems to be changing relatively quickly.

In general terms I identify with what I call the humanistic left. I am a liberal in the traditional American sense of the term. I also agree with the tenants of liberalism in the broad and more general sense of the term. Many of my beliefs are in direct  conflict with postmodernism. I believe that both racism and sexism are problems that need to be fought. In fact, combatting these ills is a great and noble endeavor.   However, classifying everyone as "privileged" or "oppressed" is simplistic and often distorts truth. I also believe in freedom of speech, the scientific method, the importance of not stereotyping individuals, that violence and oppression are harmful no matter who perpetuates them, etc. It is vital that we treat individuals equally. The  last trends in postmodernism are in conflict with these values.  “Humanistic left” may sound a bit fancy, but I have found that most people including classical liberals, moderate conservatives, moderate religious folks, people who do not like labels, etc. share similar values.

I will refrain from posting more detailed arguments in this post. I recently posted about several books whose subject involved postcolonialism. At least in part, postcolonialism is a postmodernist belief system (the conglomeration of postmodernist ideologies, such as postcolonialism, intersectionalism, queer theory, critical race studies, etc. is sometimes referred to as "Critical Theory" or “Theory”.)  I expressed my views in those posts. I also posted commentary on Russell Blackford’s The Tyranny of Opinion here. That book delved into some of the excesses of the postmodernist movement in some detail.  I will of course share more opinions when I read DiAngelo’s book and another book that I will mention below. 

On a very related topic, the other book that I will posting about, before DiAngelo’s work, is Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult. I had a disagreement with Jodi Picoult on Twitter over her use of the term “white privilege”. As I hinted above I do not agree the premise of the term or the ways that it is commonly used. She responded to a Tweet that I sent disagreeing with her. We had a Twitter conversation about the issue. I found her to be very polite and she attempted to make her points using reason. While we still did not agree on the use of the term, I found that we agreed on a lot of related topics and I found her to be very moderate. She suggested that I read her Small Great Things to better understand her views.  Thus, I decided to give it a go. 

I try to read everything with an open mind, however,  I went into the reading expecting to mostly disagree with DiAngelo’s book. I expected to find it very interesting. I think that it is important to read things that we disagree with. Though Jodi Picoult’s book is a novel, I suspected that it contained lots of underlying ideas concerning race and similar topics.  From what I had heard, and based on my impression of Jodi Piccoult herself, I expected that I would mostly agree with the direction that she has taken in this book, but I would find that I disagreed with some of her ideas. 

More to come on both of these books and on these issues. 

My Blog editing and posting is a little behind. I wrote the above before I started reading these books but have since delved into both works. Except for spelling and grammar corrections and changes from future tense to past tense I have not changed anything above since I started reading. 

34 comments:

mudpuddle said...

wow! a courageous and ambitious endeavor... i agree with "no labeling" and probably would find myself in the same district as you insofar as social or political leanings are concerned... in general i feel categories of any sort are a step away from reality, which may or may not be advantageous... compromise would seem to be a laudable goal, but so difficult to achieve... i'll be looking forward to your posts... tx...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Muddpuddle - I wanted to prepare my blog, so to speak, for very controversial posts with my post on disagreement. I think most people believe in the no stereotyping and no labels on ethnic group thing.

Tracy Terry said...

Not one of the Jodi Picoult books I've read. I'm glad she at least engaged with you ... I'm sure you put up a great defence when it came down to her usage of the phrase '“white privilege”.

Another thought provoking post on what is currently a hot potato of an issue thank you.

Brian Joseph said...


Thanks Tracy. Twitter is not really the best medium for discussion. I will be posting more thoughts on the concept of privilege soon.

This is the first one of her novels that I have read.

Judy Krueger said...

I so admire your quest! I think we approach our reading selections from different perspectives but with similar goals: to understand what the heck is going on in our society and our world. Last week I finished rereading Dust Tracks on a Road by Zora Neale Hurston, her autobiography. She was a well known and successful writer during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s and 1940s, a woman of color and one of the few successful female black writers of the day, who fell into obscurity until Alice Walker (The Color Purple) pretty much single-handedly brought her back to fame, though posthumously. On my rereading I was struck by her humanist take on racism, privilege, colonialism and even war. I recommend that you take a look at that book and possibly add it to your list. She was not just ahead of her time, she was ahead of today!

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Brian,

You make some astute points and I agree that we need to see people as individuals not categories. What I find ironic or even hypocritical is that it seems to me that most of the people decrying "White privilege" and "cultural misappropriation" are in fact well-off white people who employ these terms to "virtue signal" as it's called.

To me it is arrogant and presumptuous to take it upon oneself to decide not only how to label others, but even your own race or gender.

I was reading an essay on writing by a black writer who said that black writers may only write from the perspective of coming out of slavery.

To me that's so bogus. How many Jewish, Irish, Asian, Italian, Eastern European, German peasants, etc... came here and endured poverty and discrimination? Or how about all the white people who are descended from indentured servants or suffered through serfdom under the feudal system?

I think the real motive behind all this virtue signaling and attacks is power and control. And it is hurting the very people they purport to help.

It does not tackle the real issues as to why so many black people live on government help (80% illegitimacy rate) or a growing number of white people are living on welfare (40% illegitimacy rate).

The number one cause of death for black men under 30 is murder, at the hands of other black men. The number one cause of death among black children is abortion.

It would be more constructive to study these issues and stop passing the blame around and acknowledge that all humans are free agents and cause their own effects through personal life style choices.

Unless we recognize that, we're just naval gazing.

CyberKitten said...

Brian, I applaud your courage at not only delving into such a difficult subject but 'going public' on your Blog about it. I look forward to the reasonable debates that will no doubt follow. I'll hold back just now on my views but I'll definitely be adding them later when things fully 'kick off'. I too think that most of the post-modern views on these subjects is questionable at best. We seem to be tying ourselves in knots and muddying the waters at the same time. No wonder the whole subject area is such a hot mess. Let's hope that, between us all, we can start making some sense of the whole thing!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Judy - I have read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. It was a great book. Thanks for the additional recommendation. I want to read her other books.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon- I agree that some of the extreme folks who push this stuff are virtue signaling. But there is also a lot of theory behind it all. There are also people who use the term “white privilege” in a moderate way. I still disagree with its use but I think it is more reasonable disagreement. But the extreme virtue signalers are unbearable. From my observation , that I will be posting more about, most advocates of these philosophies are white and very well off. Some of the most astute critics are people of color.

I agree that personal agency is important, but I also think that social policy will lead more individuals out of a life of poverty, violence and other bad choices. I also think that racism has played a part in the difference in statistics between groups that you point out. Thus, I think attacking the problem with various solutions based on reason, ethics and a dose of moderation is important.

I agree about different individuals all have ancestors who experienced various levels of disadvantages and oppression. We all are a mix of advantages and disadvantages. Racism is in the mix and has effected some people greatly. Other things have also. I favor society taking steps to level the playing field for folks who are disadvantaged for various reasons.

Have a great day!

Laurie @ RelevantObscurity said...

Brian, I admire what you are doing. I will be reading all your posts, because I don't know where to start myself. I disagree with so much on this topic, because I do not believe in painting groups of any type with a broad brush. And I think that is a big problem these days. So thanks for taking us along on this very important ride.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks CyberKitten. I plan to post two more entries. One on each of the above books so we will have plenty to mull over. I think discussion and debate about these issues is good. Unfortunately the mess is on social media where people, including academics and other prominent people, are literarily at war.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Laurie. I’ll be posting on these two books soon. But in general terms, I find the thinker that makes the most sense on general social issues is Steven Pinker. I highly recommend The Better Angels of our Nature, The Blank Slate as well as Enlightenment Now.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, I am really enjoying your posts in which you tackle these hot button issues that are so much in the news right now and its getting crazy. Young Adult authors withdrawing their books from publication because they weren't the same race, gender, religion, sexual orientation as their main character and thus ran afoul of the twitter mob. And the transgender movement is getting extreme as well. I'm wondering when it comes to books on black/white relations if maybe instead of all this post modern stuff we might want to go back to the classic texts on race such as The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. Wow what a book and what a writer and its way past time for a reread. Jodi Piccoult is an author I have never gotten around to but I understand she has talent and she is not afraid to wade into controversy in her novels.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - As we have seen on Twitter, what we are calling Postmodernism has gone off in all kinds of unprecedented directions.The Trans movement has become a major part of the problem. I must give The Fire Next Time a read.

baili said...

this is huge pleasure to meet you dear Brain through the blogging land as your passion for digging the facts and figures and bringing out the truth is OUTSTANDING and WORTH ADMIRATION !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


i am far behind to know these new terms though i am grateful that i can find about them through your place which is privilege indeed!

living in a society which is quite behind to reach such complications makes me little at peace sometimes ,or you can call me lazy or old fashioned who feels frightened when things get entangled for no good reason

i agree that labels can be destroying for individuals who live among their circle but are not part of belief system but speaking mind is right for all ,we can be differ in opinions and it is so natural

what is most important that we should have courage to listen EVERYONE WITH SAME RESPECT
i will be looking forward to your next thrilling post my friend!

Whispering Gums said...

I'll add to the group that say they applaud your courage in doing this. I'll do my best to follow along though I must say that a lot of theoretical talk makes my head spin. I don't much like the throwing around of labels and the like - white privilege, virtue signalling, identity politics, etc. All these terms tend to, as some others have said here, divert us from looking at the real facts. I understand that academia likes to put what's happening into theoretical frameworks, and I understand that there's some value in that - but the trouble is that too many people latch onto terms and words and take them in directions that obfuscate rather than clarify.

I hate, for example, the term "identity politics" and will never use it myself to criticise extremes of behaviour because as soon as we thrown around terms like that we also deny the truths they also contain. As you say, for example, the term "white privilege" can be used in a real and meaningful way but it's been hi-jacked but those who use it to avoid discussing the real issues. (Or, so it seems to me.)

Have I got off the track a bit!!

PS I'm sorry if I've missed a couple of your posts - I fear I have - I have two elderly parents (90 and 99) here, and a grandchild in another city - and sometimes feel pulled in multiple directions. I appreciate the attention you always pay to my posts.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Baili These are controversies that have sprung up around American and European societies. One way to put it is to say that non - white people have faced discrimination and bias in our societies for a long time. The situation is Improving but racism and problems that it caused Persist. The Postmodernist movement wants to make fundamental changes in society in order to rectify it. These changes would reach down into the very ways that we reason, treat each other, and converse.

I agree that treating one another with respect is key.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi WG - No rush on commenting on posts. Life gets terribly busy.

I agree about hijacking of obfuscating. There are very real problems and theorists have allowed some of their ideas to get in the way of finding solutions. I am OK with labels. “Identity politics” for instance. I think it describes something real. I also think that it is a valid way to engage in politics and in social advocacy. However an extreme form, driven by theory, is counterproductive. I think that the use of the term is helpful. The words privilege and marginalized have indeed been hijacked.

Marian H said...

Great post, Brian! I've been learning so much from your reviews on these topics and eagerly looking forward to more. It is not easy to do, but you give each book a real, detailed analysis and make right-leaning independents like me interested. Hopefully reviewers like you can keep the conversation alive, because where I live (in a very blue state) it feels like postmodernism has taken a stance which dictates that mere dialogue, or questioning its message, is unacceptable. It really discourages even moderates from participating, as we fear being instantly vilified (by the vocal, extreme left) without being heard.

Susan Kane said...

Your blog post is thought provoking. Give me much to process.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Marion. Though many people who embrace Postmodern ideas do not subscribe to intolerance of all contradictory ideas, there is a core of people who have decided that even slight disagreement is bigotry. This needs to be challenged.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Susan. I love to play in the world of ideas.

Whispering Gums said...

Oh, perhaps I wasn't really clear. I agree that "identity politics" describes something real. It's just the way many people use it to, in fact, deny the reality that gave rise to the politics. Gay people, women, indigenous people etc are political because they are discriminated against because of these identities BUT people then throw this term "identity politics" around in a way that then undermines the real issues, because of what they see as the extreme fringes. This is what I dislike.

James said...

Thanks for another thought-provoking post. I fundamentally agree with your opposition to labels and stereotyping. My own views are more classically liberal and so I value freedom and liberty highly. Along with that is a personal reverence for the value of each individual person in their own right - not as a member of a group.
I really appreciate your review of books (including Picoult's novel) that I will likely never read.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I think most people who are fairly logical and ethical oppose stereotyping. However, this stuff is on the rise. I do think we should occasionally read things that we disagree with. At the very least, it helps is to combat ideas that we do not agree with.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi WG - Indeed, it is when identity politics becomes extreme and gets tied to unethical and irrational theories that it becomes a problem.

Susan Kane said...

It is far too easy for many to lump sum society problems on white men & women, gays, Jews, light skinned blacks, smart Asians... It reduces the need to take responsibility themselves and analyze history written accurately. It is definitely a ""Unless we recognize that, we're just naval gazing" problem.

Living in a very liberal CA as a conservative gives one a broad perspective of all issues mentioned. I am most distressed by the closed-door feeling given to me when walking into a room of younger people. Here I am, product of the 1950 & 60s. Automatically, I am seen as a white semi-old woman who has no understanding of current issues of racism whose opinions are suspect.

I am part of the Vietnam era, having lost many friends and family to that time. I am part of the MLK, Jr. time period. I am part of Rodney King era. My generation was at the cusp of many many social and political changes. My generation was at a breakthrough of inter-racial marriages.

Given this, my opinion and freedom of speech provides a view of history, not the recreation of such. Grrrrr.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - Thanks for pointing out the enormous change and gains that we have seen over the last few decades. One of my criticisms of this segment of the left is that sometimes people do not see the progress that has been already made.

I deal with a lot of young people. I am in a bit of an unusual area. I am on Long Island. To the east it is relatively conservative, to the west very liberal. With that I find a lot of diversity of thought when it comes to young people and open mindedness from all sides. I wonder how I would fare with the folks that you have encountered.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi Brian! I’ll be interested to see how this pans out for you. As a writer, I wish I could get the balance between not doing appropriation and the need for diverse books. I can’t write a novel, say, seen from the viewpoint of an African American. I really can’t write one set in, say, the world of Chinese mythology, though a lot of people do, without being Chinese. I do see the need for people to see themselves in books, but I think that it works better in “own voices.” No wonder most of my stories are set in a vaguely mediaeval secondary world!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sue - I am good with the Own Voices concept of encouraging people to write about their own backgrounds. I am strongly against criticizing writers for appropriation. I that the anti - cultural appropriation movement gets us into cultural segregation and benefits no one. I tend to believe in universalism.

JaneGS said...

Not only do you read challenging books, but you post about them. I think posts like this are an important part of our national and world dialogue.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jane. I think that it is important that we talk about these issues. Doing it through the medium of books seems like a good way to do it.

James said...

Brian,
I did not mean to say that I never read books that I disagree with. Over the years I've read many, including much of Karl Marx and Hegel. However, there are books that I am not likely to spend time reading primarily because they espouse theories that I find objectionable. There is only so much time and more books than I will ever be able to read.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I didn’t mean to imply that you were implying not to read such books. Actually, the thinkers that you mention are clearly well worth reading. After reading both, one can question if Picoult and DiAngelo are worth reading. The most compelling reason is that they seem to be very influential.