Sunday, April 23, 2006

Review: Looking White People in the Eye

[Sherene H. Razack. Looking White People in the Eye: Gender, Race, and Culture in Courtrooms and Classrooms. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.]

One of the difficult things to convey to people with privilege who have been raised in the liberal individualist atmosphere of North America is the idea that we bring stuff with us into every encounter we have with other human beings. We tend to get upset at the suggestion that the presence of our body and/or our voice brings with it anything other than what we have explicitly defined to be "me" -- that we cannot, by individual fiat, escape history and the present.

I have written recently about one way in which the legacy of damage bestowed on each of us by our experiences of oppresson and privilege impacts our social change groups. But beyond that kind of socially derived individual damage, we also trigger by our presence certain scripts or narratives. To create and legitimate and justify and naturalize the interlocking systems of privilege and oppression that structure our society, a bunch of stories have evolved. These stories get internalized, and help shape our emotional and intellectual landscape, how we react to things in gut and head, especially those of us that are not forced to face experiences that contradict these stories every day. They define what is expected, what is assumed, in social and institutional settings. Each of our bodies/identities trigger particular stories in other individuals and in the operation of institutions when we are present in those spaces. The ways in which these scripts shape encounters and relationships between people are certainly not absolute and deterministic, but they are lot more powerful in setting the bounds of what can and can't happen than most of us would like to believe.

Looking White People in the Eye is a book about the ways in which some of those scripts shape encounters between members of dominant and subordinate groups in specific institutional locations, particularly within the legal system and in classrooms.

Looking examines the process and consequences of sharing stories in both settings, and particularly the ways in which different ways of knowing that are connected to experiences of dominance or subordination shape how stories are heard differently. Razack suggests a pedagogy that foregrounds not only differences in experience, but differences in the ways in which we learn about the world, so that there is greater space to understand, for example, how people of colour and white people might hear a shared experience of racism differently.

The book then goes on to look at scripts and material realities related to race and gender in court cases related to sexual violence; race, gender, and nation in refugee hearings related to sexual violence; and disability, race, and gender in sexual violence cases. It uses actual court cases to explore how the scripts linked to these various facets of identity shape the experiences of accuseds, victims, applicants, and others. Razack closes the book with a discussion of the ways in which some white feminists have responded to calls for complexification of analysis and practice along lines of class, race, and ability with a sophisticated, politically correct-sounding backlash that amounts to a refusal to seriously engage with their complicity in the oppression of other women.

Enough of this book challenged me to see things in new ways that I can't hold it all in my head at once. Because of that, I don't think I can try to respond to the ideas of the book as a unified whole. But also because of that I want to respond to a number of the ideas that drew my attention.

For one thing, I appreciated her critique of liberal ideas of "rights" and "autonomy." That's not completely new territory for me, but her insistence that under the liberal framework, any degree of heightened autonomy or choice enjoyed by one class of subjects is inherently (but covertly) connected to some denial of same for subjects elsewhere in the system took it to a new level for me. This is disguised by a framework that treats individuals as abstracted, isolated, and without context. Looking uses the example of the greater autonomy over the last several decades for middle-class white women to sell their labour for professional salaries. This hits home for me because of my own situation, though admittedly in most cases that autonomy has not been gained through middle-class white men agreeing not to access some of the privileges we have historically felt entitled to. Rather, it most often is made possible by both low-wage child care and broader structures in the economy which end up decreasing the autonomy and options of working-class women, particularly working-class women of colour. I would like to see the idea of zero sum autonomy under liberal capitalism explored more fully. Can exceptions be found? Does technological increase in productivity infuse greater overall potential for autonomy into the system, say, even if capital tries to squeeze it all into profits? More importantly, how can anarchist notions of autonomy be theorized in ways that do not fall into this pattern? A clue to some of this may be found in Razack's suggestion that theorizing choice and freedom should begin not with the abstract liberal subject but with attention to constraints -- who is constrained, to what extent are they/we constrained, in what ways are they/we constrained, who is complicit in the constraints of others, and that sort of thing.

Complicity is a big theme in Looking, and the idea that we need to foreground our complicity in domination in how we theorize ourselves and how we act in the world. It argues that we tend to mobilize narratives that construct our selves as innocent of complicity. A recurring example in the book is the way in which, through much of mainstream feminism, some white women theorize oppression as being solely or primarily a question of patriarchy. This means that violence against women, for example, becomes only something that men do to women, while the ways in which white, middle-class North American women are complicit in and benefit from the colonial violence against Aboriginal and Third World women gets erased. Another example: Encounters between white people and people of colour often get narrated by the former as opportunities to learn across flat difference, to assume a stance of liberal openness to diversity that bequeaths virtue and therefore innocence, and the ways in which domination and subordination structures all such interactions is erased. At its most extreme, the unitary category of "woman" and the theorization of innocence from complicity creates and is reinforced by white women attempting to "save" their sisters of colour. Often enough these efforts are connected in some way to real oppressions experienced by women of colour but these real experiences get built into symbols in North America in ways that distort them, make them oppressive, and put them to work for people other than the women whose experience they are supposedly about -- framing it all in narratives of "saving" vanishes white North American complicity in imperial, colonial, and racialized domination. Razack points out that one of the biggest barriers to people in dominant groups really hearing the experiences of those in subordinate groups is not necessarily because of the challenge to our prejudices about those in subordinate groups but because of the ways in which truly understanding what was being said would challenge how we understand ourselves.

The emphasis on white women at points in the above paragraphs, by the way, flows from the book itself. Much of the text is intended as intervention in debates around feminist law reform, so Razack often addresses white feminist women and mainstream feminism (in a critically supportive way, while never losing sight of the fact that the spaces in question tend to be dominated by, both materially and at the level of discourse, able-bodied middle- and owning-class white men). An obvious question for me as the specific person who is ingesting this text through my eyes and activating it in my brain, is what does it mean for me, as a middle-class white man?

Well, for one thing, the strategies that middle-class white men have for avoiding dealing with our complicity overlap with but are not the same as those open to middle-class white women. A subject position that provides a basis for false or exaggerated claims of unity of experience of oppression, like "woman" when used simplistically, is less open to us. It isn't unopen to us, however -- the identity of "activist," for example, is something we can easily use to delude ourselves into believing we are in unity with oppressed peoples, including our middle-class white sisters, when we are really off on our own somewhere, feeling righteous anger while enjoying the fruits (and wounds) of domination uninterrupted. That isn't the same thing, though: However common its use might be, it requires considerably more self-delusion because it does not (generally) carry for us the same ubiquitous experiences of oppression (and the concomitant resistance) in the everyday as being a woman in our misogynistic society, even a women with class and racial privilege.

Historically, of course, middle-class white men have adopted a pseudo-worker identity and emphasized the primacy of class struggle, despite our own class privilege. This has often been quite sincere, and the contribution to workers' struggles real, but it has often served as a vantage from which to ignore the claims of white women, women and men of colour, and others (who have frequently been workers as well, of course).

A more interesting-to-me strategy -- interesting largely because it is the one that I fall into most easily -- is that some of us might develop an intellectualized understanding of race and class and gender and disability, one that admits to being a work in progress and that seemingly takes responsibility for complicity, but that somehow manages to make us as actual, embodied individuals who exist in a web of interpersonal and institutional relationships, disappear. We (middle-class white men) are trained from birth to see ourselves as universal, to see "objectivity" as a mantle of authority to which we have a right, so as strange as it may sound it really isn't that hard to be talking explicitly about power relations which deeply implicate us but to totally lose (gut level) sight of our own complicity. And of course this isn't an easy either/or kind of situation. I know how easy it is in the course of just one conversation to waver back and forth from a position of grounding what I say in at least some rudimentary acceptance of privilege and complicity that is rooted in my head and in my gut, to completely intellectualized and abstracted blether that has a real potential to do harm despite (because of?) its radical veneer.

Strangely enough, one sort of question towards which this book has drawn me is about how best, as a middle-class white man, to be a friend and partner and ally to middle-class white women. Which may sound like I'm making race/racism disappear, not a cool thing to do at any time and particularly not in a review of a book such as this, but I think it is quite consistent with examining how we keep our complicity invisible in various settings.

Looking doesn't deal directly with this issue, but one of the things it got me thinking about is the ways in which we narrate our everydays, the ways we theorize our lives in incremental and partial ways all the time in our internal monologue and in conversation with others. Even though most of the time, most of us don't think of what we do in quite these terms, we all do it. Of course it is much easier to theorize in this way from the ways in which we are innocent and the ways in which we are oppressed, than it is to make visible to ourselves and those around us the ways in which our positions of privilege and domination shape our lives. Now, without making any claims about how thoroughly I do it or how successfully I turn it into action, to a certain extent my everyday theorizing of my life involves making visible to myself (when I can) and to others (when I'm not a big chicken) this kind of complicity. Yes, I do manage to abstractify myself out of it at times, and sometimes the "virtue" attached to being politically active and/or engaging in analysis of this sort lets innocence crowd out the attention that complicity should get, but I really don't have much except complicity as a basis for narrating my own life if such narration is to have any political content at all.

White women that I know have, of course, a broad range of patterns of engaging in such self-theorizing, just like any other group. What I have noticed is that in my relationships with middle-class white women, most of whom in my life are feminist, I tend to follow their lead. If they engage in everyday theorizing that makes visible the race and class privileges we both (in gendered ways) experience, I do too. But if they theorize solely from their gender oppression, my own conversational theorizing while with them often tends to go along -- gender is foregrounded, race and class toned down. I don't totally erase the latter two, but when in the course of chatting I say something to do with race and it gets blanked by my companion, or about class and it is met with the kind of display of guilt that makes further discussion very difficult, I often tend to go along with that without really thinking about it. Which is messed up, of course. The trick, as with most of life, is to find balance. I'm very conscious that it can be a nasty and very effective lefty boy trick (sometimes used without realizing it) to avoid having to really listen to and deal with being called on our gender stuff by countering with an experience of privilege shared with the challenger that obscures the relation of domination and subordination between the two that is actually in question -- if you can't invoke innocence, then distract with complicitly shared, or something like that. On the other hand, alliance is not at all the same as reflexively avoiding what might be difficult for both of you in some unconscious deference to or compensation for privilege you have along one particular axis -- that's just bad politics, bad ally work with everyone concerned, and illogical. And it's not that I think this matters because I have some inflated notion of the wisdom of what I might say -- the biggest part of the political significance of speaking in that context isn't the details of the content but the act of taking the risk to not let the complicity stay invisible.

Anyway. I have wandered a bit from the book, I guess. As I hope is obvious, though, I liked it. The best books about this stuff aren't just about the bad things that happen, they say challenging and interesting things about how it happens. Looking is such a book. I'm sure I've missed a ton of crucial content in this review, but it joins that part of my bookshelf that holds books I will dip into again at random moments, in search of challenge, accountability, enlightenment.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]


Annamarie said...

Yours is an intellectual, indepth review of a book that sounds challenging and enlightening.

Very well done!

Scott said...

Thanks, Annamarie!

Annamarie said...

You're welcome, Scott!

It was so erudite and well written that I just had to let you know. :-)