Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Racism without Racists

In the wake of #chapeltweets at Wheaton College, where a group of white students tweeted negative racial messages about the chapel of African American worship, we've heard a very familiar response:

The students who called the service "disorderly," "crazy," or "a joke," were not making any racial reference. They were just expressing preferences. Or It was joke gone too far. Or It didn't mean anything at all.

Whatever it was, this argument goes, these were generally nice kids who love people and do good in the world. They are not racists, therefore their actions cannot be racist.

But do we really need Klan members to have racism?

The title of this post comes from one of my favorite books about racism, linguist Jane Hill's The Everyday Language of White Racism. Her beautifully crafted argument is that U.S. Americans (particularly White Americans) use several strategies in interpreting language. One is "intentionalism," the idea that language gets its meaning from what the speaker wants to say. The second is "referentialism," the belief that language also gets meaning from the objects it references in the world. In much of our communication, this is exactly how language is working. But, she points out, language also has the feature of "indexicality." That is, when we tell jokes, they're often funny not because of what the language references, but because of the context in which it indexes something else. We can be inadvertently funny when we say something (intention) that references one thing, but indexes another. Like when we put our foot in our mouths with a "compliment": "Oh you look so nice! I didn't recognize you!" The intention and reference are clear, and complimentary, but the index (you don't usually look nice) is also clear. Thus, this is an insult, but without an insulter.

Racism can work like this. When someone listens to gospel music and declares it "disorganized," (true example from #chapeltweets), he may just be intending to say that he doesn't know where to look; there's a lot going on; he is confused. At the level of intention and reference, nothing racial there. But indexically there are some layers here. Mind you, the performance in question did not involve people forgetting the lyrics, bumping into each other, or not knowing who should step up to the mic. At that level it was orderly. But it was more complex than some other (European based) forms of music. To call it "disorderly" is to make a comparison. To what? To "orderly" worship. To "normal" worship. To "white" worship. The word "disorderly" indexes similar terms such as "irrational," "uncontrolled," "messy," and "dirty." It is part of a semantic range of terms.

Where is race? In the tweet in question, it was made explicit by saying the "craziness" of the African American worship should be replaced by "ChappyK," our white college chaplain who became a metonym of White "orderly" worship. But he didn't even need this comparison to make it clear to the reader that the "disorderly" worship of these black folks was being compared to "orderly" worship of traditional European musical forms.

I do not think for a minute that the boy who tweeted this is a white supremacist who avoids people of color and promotes racial hatred. He is a young guy who has not yet been encouraged (or allowed?) to question his cultural and racial assumptions, assumptions built into the language of American English where "slang" is for the "ghetto," and to sound sophisticated is to avoid any trace of urban dialect, no matter what you're saying. This boy is not a racist, but his easy indexing of a racial hierarchy, in which language and art forms associated with whiteness are intrinsically superior to those associated with blackness, is racism. This is the system into which he can tap to produce a 140 character judgement that classifies one group as "disorderly," and keeps Bach canatas on top.

Racism does not require racists. All it needs to thrive is people who deny the wider historical and cultural context in which their words and thoughts live.

32 comments:

Mandy said...

Excellent post, Brian! Disturbing (though not surprising) to hear about this at Wheaton. But your insights about our language and our white assumptions are relevant and helpful.

Yajaira De La Espada said...

I am not a Wheaton student, but I have a friend who goes to Wheaton and she has been telling me what has been happening about the situation. Mind you, I live in San Antonio which is a completely different world than the north. But as Mandy said this is disturbing yet not suprising to hear what is going on at Wheaton. I think you eloquently stated what is going on at Wheaton. As an Afro-latina, I have heard many racial indexes thrown at me, usually by my white counterparts. The defense is always, "I'm not a racist, I was only saying this or that" When clearly the comment had racist undertones. Yet, we are all broken in need of grace as my Wheaton friend put it. I am a fellow believer who has been in Euro-centric churches and non Euro-centric churches, I think it is beautiful when any person of whatever color can raise their hands and worship our Savior, but I also know that God is not happpy when our hearts are not in check. Despite what someone may think of their comments or tweets (being non-racist, and not hurting anyone) Christ sees our hearts and knows when we are lying on the inside. Anywho, I am praying for the Wheaton campus. Stay encouraged brother!

BassPlayer82 said...

Without any further information, it looks as though these tweeters simply dislike the style of chapel and have nothing against the people involved and nothing against the race of people involved.
To prefer traditional worship isn't racist is it?
And let's clarify...racism itself isn't wrong - racial bigotry is. Without further information it sounds like you are convicting these tweeters without proof.
If you cry "racism" and there isn't any proof, that's called hate-mongering. It's bad when the news does it and it's bad when politicians do it.

Anonymous said...

So Bassplayer, what exactly is "traditional?" And do you know what racism is? Because it IS wrong. It is very, very wrong. And racial bigotry and racISM are both terms describing a hatred and prejudice against another person for the color of their skin. Justify that for me, please.
P.S. If you're really concerned about "proof", log on to twitter.

TrevortheTruthful said...

So, would the students who tweet about how much they hate the hymns Wheaton occasionally sings in chapel also be considered racist?

BassPlayer82 said...

In this case by "Traditional" I mean worship based in Christian tradition dating back thousands of years. This often, but not always, means hymns and robes and candles (smells and bells) but that's not really part of this discussion.
After doing some research, I wish to clarify my comment. "Racism" apparently does imply bigotry, I was unaware of that and apologize.
As far as I am concerned, racism is one of mankind's stupidest inventions - the idea that people are better or worse based on their ethnic background is ridiculous.
I have a feeling that if the Bishop of Ghana were to have visited that chapel, he might have agreed with the original tweeters' comments. But you wouldn't dare call the Bishop of Ghana racist would you? Why not? Because he's black? Now who's the racist?
To be a racist is, rightfully so, one of the the most hated things to be in our culture - almost at the same moral outrage level as a child molester. To imply that someone is a racist (whether you mean to say intentionally racist or not) without proof is the same as implying someone is a child molester without proof.

Brian Howell said...

Trevor the Truthful: the answer is NO, criticizing hymns is not racism b/c it does not reinforce a racial hierarchy. BassPlayer: You may notice that the title of my post is "Racism without Racists." I explicitly do NOT call individuals racists in this. The argument, to reiterate, is that our culture enforces racial hierarchies (it is systematic, hence the -ism), and when the criticism goes beyond "This is not my personal preference" to "This is inherently inferior" it reproduces the racial hierarchies, i.e., it reproduces racism. No racist required.

Anonymous said...

Brain, this is so well done. You rock. Tough for us to face the realities of white privilege/white normative behaviors.

And it's not just Wheaton College -- so please don't get defensive, people. This is reality period.

BassPlayer82 said...

Brian, I understand your point is not to call these tweeters racist but rather to point out a sort of underlying - perhaps even unintentional - racism. But even then you are implying that this person's reaction comes from (or at least with) a racist component.
So I ask you, what if the tweeter was black? Certainly many black Christians prefer traditional worship (I know some at my church). You probably don't mean to say this, but it sounds like you're saying that only white people can be racist.
So if I were to argue that "traditional" worship is superior, would that be racist?

Brian Howell said...

On what basis would you argue that traditional worship is superior? Are you saying it's more sophisticated? More truthful? More...what? What you CAN say is that you like one form of worship more. Saying you like something (or don't like something), regardless of your race, is not racist. Saying something is superior might be racist, regardless of your race, depending on the criteria you use. In fact, not only white people can be racist. I have heard black people argue that speaking in a black dialect is "ignorant," "stupid," and "incorrect." I would argue those people are also reproducing racism. RacISM, like other "isms" (communism, capitalism) is a system rooted in ideology. Individuals either reproduce it and support it, or they resist it and reject it. Sometimes people have so internalized their own oppression, they reproduce the system that puts them down, but that's less common than those on top trying to stay there.

BassPlayer82 said...

I'm sure that my pastors would say that "traditional" worship is superior - and they'd probably give you evidence (but, of course, there's no way to prove such a thing). Personally, I would say I prefer traditional but I wouldn't say I find non-traditional worship to be "inferior".
Considering that traditional worship draws from 2000 years of history and is performed all over the world, I still fail to see how there can possibly be a racial component to me or anyone's preference in this regard. I'm sure there are isolated incidences here and there, but you certainly aren't suggesting that the traditional worship movement as a whole has racial undertones are you?

Brian Howell said...

You've said this 2000 years of history thing a couple times, but I don't know what you mean. There is no Christian worship that is NOT connected to 2000 years of history. Organ music is a couple hundred years old, but so are gospel spirituals. Gregorian chants are pretty old, but I don't think you're talking about those. I've never been to a church that uses whatever music might have been heard in the first century church. Even the Catholic and Orthodox traditions have changed a lot. Gospel music has MUCH more history than the typical CCM worship band that the original #chapeltweets seemed to think was superior. No, there is no way to argue that one form of worship is intrinsically superior to another without specifying the criteria, and nowhere in the Bible does it say "old is better." The only criteria available to the tweeters (implied, never stated) are actually rooted in unstated assumptions of racial/cultural superiority. That is why the tweets were racist (but not, necessarily, the tweeters.)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your words! your blog is so spot on about the kind of racism that goes on in our society at large and in Wheaton particularly. I could never put my finger on it when I was there but you are spot on. It's so unfortunate that white privilege is the sin that binds so many people at Wheaton. And the comments that follow your post only go to further prove your point of the article. Thanks for the work you do at Wheaton Dr. Howell!!

Anonymous said...

claiming a service is disorderly ≠ claiming a worship style is inferior. Surely you have thought that a service, regardless of its style, was disorderly or not well put together. It seems like a bit of a jump to assume these tweets mean more than that. What is your evidence for thinking they mean more?

James said...

I'm not sure how you make the jump from "A is associated with white culture, B is associated with non-white culture, and A is considered superior to B" to "A is considered superior to B because it is associated with white culture."

For instance, suppose some non-white culture endorses, say, pouring acid on a woman's eyes as a method of criminal punishment. It is true that this is not associated with white culture, but would I be engaging in what you consider unintentional racism if I expressed the belief that traditional western European values regarding criminal punishment are superior to pouring acid in a criminal's eyes?

Isn't that obviously a bad conclusion to draw? Is it really a form of racism to ever express criticism or disapproval of anything associated with any non-white culture?



Also, how do you know that the authors are comparing this worship service to "white" worship services? Maybe he disapproves of both, and is comparing all worship services to some alternative non-racially-affiliated standard of "orderliness". Are you assuming that because the author was white, any comparison he makes must be with regard to white culture?

Brian Howell said...

James, Let's remember that we're not talking about differences in "values" here. We're talking about how a form of Christian worship was judged in the context of a multicultural/multiracial community. Having moral standards, based on a principle of, say, restorative justice vs. penal justice, is different from having a hierarchy of value in worship style. I hate to keep picking on the same example from #chapeltweets, so I'll go with a new one. When a White student sits in the only chapel of the year given to Gospel music and unambiguously African American aesthetics and tweets "Is this a joke?", followed by numerous other tweets from other students tweeting dismissive and negative remarks, the message is very clear; this is a trivial, substandard, contemptible art form ("This takes no talent in any way." "Is this whole chapel a prank?"). This is not mere preference. No, it doesn't really matter the race of the tweeters (although every single one, in this case was white.) And, as I say here, it doesn't matter the intention of the tweeters. (Most were, I believe, trying to be funny, not hurtful.) But the context is one in which the superiority of White worship forms is reinforced through the context in myriad ways (too many to list here). These black students and their allies were already in a vulnerable position by going up to lead this worship. Why would/should students of a minority race feel insecure in a Christian community? Why would they START chapel worried that people will mock, dismiss, or ridicule their worship? Because they know that many people have become very comfortable in a culture that teaches them (and many black people are complicit in this!) that black culture is a joke, less dignified, less organized, less rational, and less worthy of respect than other cultural forms. And all that was very clearly communicated on Friday.

Anonymous said...

I think perhaps the issue was also that there was a African American man in black face on stage who seemed to be telling students that they see him as a character not a human. For the students I talked with that was the real issue for them. That skit had nothing to do with praise and worship and brought back an old and very condemned racist symbol that was then projected onto white students.

Chapel is a place where we all have to be three days a week and if you are going to label something as R&P then you need to make sure that agendas and forced stereotypes don't make their was on stage.

Brian Howell said...

That is very interesting! I have not heard anyone say this before, so thank you for putting this out there. I think, of course, the interpretation you're conveying misunderstands what that guy was trying to do, but much more to the point than whether you and I agree about that part of chapel, interacting with the particular content of a particular aspect of the chapel in terms of how successfully or unsuccessfully it communicated (or even what it communicated) is important and helpful. I, myself, did not see anything among the tweets that brought up these points, but perhaps they were there and I missed them. Being critical, or critically engaged, is never a problem nor is it wrong. Even disliking something is fine! Mostly, this sort of specific critique is not what happened last Friday, but thank you for a thoughtful contribution and a demonstration of how someone can engage in critique that does not diminish anyone or reproduce cultural hierarchies around racial categories.

James said...

But the context is one in which the superiority of White worship forms is reinforced through the context in myriad ways (too many to list here). These black students and their allies were already in a vulnerable position by going up to lead this worship. Why would/should students of a minority race feel insecure in a Christian community? Why would they START chapel worried that people will mock, dismiss, or ridicule their worship? Because they know that many people have become very comfortable in a culture that teaches them (and many black people are complicit in this!) that black culture is a joke, less dignified, less organized, less rational, and less worthy of respect than other cultural forms. And all that was very clearly communicated on Friday.

Is there necessarily something racial about disliking a singing style? I can find the way Justin Bieber or Mariah Carey sings ridiculous, and make a joke about it; the same goes for worship leaders, whatever their race may be. How does this promote conformity to "white" culture?

I find a lot of singing styles associated with "white" culture ridiculous, too. If someone got up and sang "Come thou fount" in an operatic style, I'd crack wise about it, because I think that kind of vocalizing sounds ridiculous. If I weren't white, would I have to refrain from these comments in order not to engage in racism?

I don't see how this promotes "white" culture. These people apparently thought that this style of singing is ridiculous and that the performance didn't require a great deal of skill. These assertions seems a lot closer to something like "musical taste" than racial superiority.

I guess my main problem is understanding how you infer that the standard these tweeters are appealing to is "white culture". How do you know that they approve of it? How do you know that they don't think that, say, hip hop is the highest and best form of musical expression? Or Tuvan throat singing?

Does any criticism of a musical style associated with non-white culture imply that the critic holds white culture as being superior? That seems clearly wrong, so I must be misunderstanding something.

Wendy said...

Dr. Howell, thanks so much for this post. I think it articulates well many of the complexities and misunderstandings of the language being used at Wheaton, a big point of tension right now. I think there is also another important point to consider for those unsure if it's valid to critique the #chapeltweets from last Friday: the deep pain and rejection that minority students at Wheaton, and especially those students involved in last week's chapel, are experiencing right now. As the white majority, we can choose to walk away from this issue. These minority students cannot.

Brian Howell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian Howell said...

"Does any criticism of a musical style associated with non-white culture imply that the critic holds white culture as being superior? That seems clearly wrong, so I must be misunderstanding something."

Your implication is correct. Not every criticism of non-white music holds white culture as being superior. I would turn the question around and ask "Does any criticism of non-white music ever imply the superiority of white culture?" What matters is the nature and context of the criticism. If I hear someone say, "I don't really like gospel music. It's hard for me to worship with all the hand clapping and rhythm and so forth" it is reasonable to think, "This person does not like gospel music." It would be quite a leap to say, "This person thinks black culture is inferior." If, however, in the context of a chapel service in which many different traditional and contemporary art forms (drama, drumming, mime, several kinds of gospel, and rap) strongly, if not exclusively, associated with African American culture someone says, "Is this a joke?" or "This should be called chapel of random and incoherent art" or "Is this whole chapel a chapel prank?" then you have to do some mental gymnastics (of a disingenuous sort) to say this is merely people expressing an opinion with no implication as to the relative worth of black art and music to white forms (which were explicitly invoked in several tweets. You're right, these could have been Mongolian reindeer herders who mock everything outside throat singing, but not surprisingly, it wasn't.)

BassPlayer82 said...

I was a Wheaton student a few years ago, graduated in '05. I remember that, coming from the liturgical background that I came from, I had a rather...negative...reaction to almost all of the chapel services. Not often to the message, but almost always to the music. I wouldn't have said back then, and I wouldn't say now, that the aesthetics I come from are in any way superior. However, having had to sit through 4 years of chapels, 90% of which I spent praying for the music to stop, I can understand the frustration in the original tweeters. I suspect, had twitter existed back then, I would have posted far snarkier comments.
Let's flip things around. What if we forced a gospel-music-loving Christian into my "stuffy liturgical" church for 4 years? I bet they'd have some negative opinions. Would I suggest that such a person was doing so out of a racial bias? Not at all, I guess I don't think that way.
I don't pretend that racism is completely gone, but I hate it when people suggest that it lurks behind every tree and under every rock.

Brian Howell said...

Bassplayer: Let me reiterate. I am NOT making ANY assumption or claim about the motives or intentions of those making tweets. I do NOT think they are racists. I do NOT think they are motivated by racial hatred. What I am saying is that their words enter a world they themselves did not create. They gain their meaning not merely from intention, but from context. In the context of the United States, Wheaton College, and this particular chapel, their words connected to an already existing hierarchy of race and served to reproduce racism. Do you see this is not about what music you prefer, or what you're used to, or what you want? It is about how you speak, what you say, and where & when you say it.

Anonymous said...

1. Your posting "Racism without Racists" looks like a sophisticated attempt to rationalize racism.

2. You are in fact defending those students by ASSERTING that "they are not racist". I would not say that all these students are racists, which does not mean that they are not.

3. I know for sure that one of them is racist. Take a look at this posting,
"She might as well paint the whole thing black and call it sin" ".

That comment is racist and the person who twitted it is racist.

Brian Howell said...

Anonymous: Thank you for calling my post "sophisticated." :-) However, I am not rationalizing racism; I am explaining its dynamics in contemporary society. It is possible that some of the individuals who tweeted are racists, but in my mind that is rather beside the point. I have actually corresponded with the author of the tweet you name, and I do not believe that she is personally bigoted. My greater point is that we can spend all day trying to root out particular individuals we think are racist, but until we address the cultural context in which we all live and speak, racism can continue uninterrupted.

Andrew said...

Dr. Howell,

I've really enjoyed this conversation and think you make some good points. I don't wish to enter the debate, but I do have a question.

Is there a way by which these students could have voiced (or tweeted) their confusion/distaste for this chapel without their comments being contextually racist?

I agree that we have to consider how others will interpret our words and actions, but at some point are we simply restricting dialogue on a particular subject?

Brian Howell said...

Andrew: Great question. I can imagine a lot of possible ways it could be done, but the twitter format is a pretty difficult one to express subtlety and care. When living in community, there is nothing inherently wrong with some self-imposed limits on our speech (you know, the old "If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all.") I'm not sure it is as important for someone to express their dislike of any particular musical style as it is to affirm one another in our community. Is that phony? Are we being more "real" when we just say what we think without regard for others? I'm sure you would say no, that there is a legitimate place for self-control in our speech (James 3, I believe). There can and should be settings in which we can discuss worship forms, theologies, philosophies, and so forth. And as I've said, having preferences is absolutely fine. Let's just agree that loving one another, and expressing care and concern is a higher value than sharing our preferences.

Anonymous said...

You should write a new blog post providing Biblical support for the encouragement of diversity? I feel true Biblical support that is contextually accurate is hard to come by at Wheaton.
As much as I enjoyed your post [sarcasm], I don't pay $45,000 a year so that I can read what some Professor of a completely worthless subject thinks about some stupid Tweet.
I pay $45,000 to be taught a Biblical understanding of topics that today's liberal media blows out of proportion (read: diversity).
I am sorry if this post comes off as brash, but I felt the tone was necessary in order to command a response. Wheaton "community" members often back down from challenges (yes, I do believe this will be a challenge for you Dr. Howell) such as this.
So Dr. (?) Howell where do you find your Biblical support for the encouragement of diversity to the extent where we need a week devoted to the glorification of the black community.

Brian Howell said...

Dear Anonymous: Your post makes me sad. You are angry and your post does come off as "brash," but there's clearly something else going on. I'm going to respond, even though I don't believe you really want my response, because I do think there's a legitimate question in here and perhaps some others might benefit from an answer.

The reason we should celebrate one another, including in our ethnic and cultural diversity, is because God did it first. The narrative of scripture places the source of diversity at Babel, when God fulfills God's purposes through the creation of cultural and linguistic diversity. God then plucks one people from among the nations to make them a blessing to all the nations around them. For thousands of years, God works with those people, often drawing others into the circle of grace, until the moment in which God performs the reversal of Babel in Pentecost. There, in the creation of the church, God does not bring all humanity back to one culture, but allows the assembled nations to hear the Gospel of Jesus in their own languages. Finally, in the eschatological vision of John in the book of Revelation, we see "every tribe, language, tongue, and people" gather before the throne. You're going to have black people in heaven. I don't know what we're going to be singing, but it's going to be in the languages of the earth, and presumably in the cultures as well. We're going to have eternity in Heaven together; we might as well learn to love one another now.

I wish you peace, brother.

NB: John Piper just published a book, _Bloodlines_, that spends several hundred pages giving the biblical support for diversity and the importance of working against racism. I have not read all of it, but it might be something that you would find more compelling than my 100 word blog comment.

Wilgus said...

First, a basic music history lesson.

African forms --> Gospel (including "Give Me Jesus", "There is a Balm in Gilead", "Swing Low") --> Blues (Muddy Waters etc.) --> Rock and Roll (Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and their imitators: Buddy Holly, Elvis, the Beatles, Rolling Stones) --> Motown --> Disco --> Dance rock (Joy Division) --> U2 --> CCM (Tomlin, Crowder, Hillsong, Chris Rice, Fernando Ortega etc.)

So there's that (to say nothing of Jazz).

Next: You don't need to subscribe to Dr. Howell's (very cogent and well articulated) position on anthropology to realize these very plain facts:

1. We live in a society with a history of severe racial tension and wrongdoing.

2. Whites, by every form of reasonable moral judgment were usually on the wrong side of this divide. In general: blacks were oppressed. Whites were oppressors. Blacks became used to being put down. Whites became used to putting them down.

3. ALL interaction between races in America happen within the context of this shared history.

4. ALL speech, whether intended maliciously or not, will always be evaluated within this shared history, and will affect it one way or the other. Or put another way, intentions don't matter. How we respond to our shared history is what matters.

I admit, I think that it's often unhelpful to posit 'social structures' as the cause of all social behavior, but I also think that the chapel tweets and discussions about 'superior worship forms' are all kinds of racist for this reason: they disrespect history. I may respectfully disagree with Dr. Howell and others that latent social structures subconsciously worked into our psychology to keep our society homogeneous produced those tweets. BUT I do think that those tweets have to be evaluated in terms of race, whether we like it or not, because of their lack of respect for history. We as people do not live in metaphysical vacuums where our speech is judged by our inner, individual intentions. That is a fantasy world, and in any case there is no way to ever prove one's intentions, since the speaker is the only one who has access to them. The Christian way of life is community, and communities have a shared history, and the American one has a deep and troubled racial past that extends into the present. We should be mindful of this common history and not pretend our speech has no effect on it. Instead we should always ask whether we are hurting or healing that history. From other posts I've read, it appears a lot of the tweeters now realize this, have repented and have learned a lot about our common history from it. It's a lesson to all of us, no matter what we 'meant by it'.

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