Well, yes, I am concerned about precision, particularly when it comes to attributing particular motives or beliefs to other people. That’s not something we should just casually do if our goal is to enhance understanding between people from different groups/backgrounds.
It’s not that Marley’s feelings (or those of others with similar experiences/feelings) don’t matter. Of course they do, and they should be listened to. However, they should also be taken in context. How people feel is where the conversation starts, not where it ends. And if we’re really concerned with perceptions and feelings there is also the question of how Marley’s feelings and her reliance upon them to make her arguments make others feel — what is my personal and/or our collective response to her feelings and arguments? In her original article she effectively said my feelings don’t matter. Interestingly, that’s the exact opposite approach MLK took in his fight for equality but I digress.
My objection isn’t to Marley’s feelings. I have neither any control over her feelings nor any interest in invalidating them. My objection is to the presumption that BECAUSE she and/or others feel a certain way about certain people’s actions (in this case white people) that’s sufficient for her and the rest of us to reach certain conclusions about why the people she is referring to are acting the way they are. So, for example, I recently read another article by Marley in which she lists behaviours she states “a lot of white people do” that she finds “insulting”. Now, if I wrote an article about a lot of the things I’ve seen black people do that I found insulting, I’d probably be reported to Medium’s editors for printing racist BS and I would have a hard time defending my article from that sort of criticism. For the record, I’m not the least bit tempted to write such an article and my experiences with members of every race have been far more positive than negative.
The list of insulting behaviours Marley lists that “a lot of white people” engage in includes things like blocking aisles in the grocery store and not moving when she/others say “excuse me.” Two points: 1) these are things members of every race has been guilty of and I’m aware of no study that indicates white people engage in these types of behaviours any more or less than any other group of people; and, 2) how these actions by white people make Marley or others feel does not lead us even close to accepting her assertion that these types of behaviours are, when she encounters them, evidence of racism.
The bar is actually pretty high, as it should be, when it comes to making generalizations about groups of people. Everyone should be outraged if someone asserts that they encountered a Native-American in their workplace that they perceived to be “lazy” and therefore all/most Native-Americans are “lazy”, or they had a black person in their class they thought had “poor language skills” and therefore, based upon their perception of this person we should agree that all/most black people must be “inarticulate”. Well, I’m sorry but the same problems that exist with those arguments exist when we apply them to white people. You won’t teach a child not to hit by spanking them and you won’t teach white people to stop stereotyping by stereotyping them. It’s precisely because I’m sure Marley has had very real and harmful experiences with racism as a black person living in America that she should know better than to use the same flawed reasoning racists use to also make her case.
Other behaviours she cites in the same article linked to above, like clutching a purse when a black person is approaching or locking the car door when a black person is passing by, especially if experienced repeatedly, are behaviours that are at least consistent with the sort of reactions we would expect to see from someone harbouring either implicit or explicit biases toward blacks. As such, they are certainly harder to simply explain away as having no basis in racist beliefs or attitudes, be they conscious or not. Had she stuck to those types of examples instead of resorting to experiences everybody has had, to say nothing of guilty of at some time or another, I probably wouldn’t have felt any need to raise any objections. Unfortunately, by including trivial examples she also trivializes the argument against racism. As the increasing references to the concept of microaggressions make clear, she’s hardly the only one. That should trouble anyone, black or white, who claims to be worried about the historic and ongoing impact of racism. I know that’s not what Marley intends but that’s precisely what’s happening. Of course some white person is going to say “come on, I’ve gone to the supermarket and had a black person block the aisle or ignore me when I said ‘excuse me’ and didn’t assume this was some inherent problem with black people.” She’s stereotyping in order to make a point about racism when what racism amounts to is the worst kind of stereotyping.
Any successful argument against racism must be built upon the premise that our individual experiences, particularly unpleasant ones or ones involving us being victimized in some way, are not generalizable — in other words, the misdeeds of one black, brown, red, or white person are not representative of the group as a whole. That doesn’t mean we can’t document statistically and via other means the actual extent of racism and its impact upon minorities. Nor does it mean we must necessarily discard ideas like white privilege, though we also need to be careful not to over apply the concept. However, that’s not what’s going on here.
My beef with Marley isn’t with her or with her goal of bringing more attention to racism, it’s with her argument. She is using her personal perception of some pretty innocuous (if annoying) and frankly universal human behaviours to allege racism. She’s not focusing on job discrimination, the disproportionate rate of incarceration or the lack of educational opportunities in minority communities, at least not in the articles I’ve read/responded to. She’s talking about people that don’t move when she says “excuse me.” This is just about the weakest example you could possibly pick if your goal is to draw more attention to the impact of racism. If she’s right that rude people are probably motivated by racism, then a not insignificant number of people from every race and background must be racists. Indeed, we’ve all been racist at one time or another. There’s simply no other conclusion we can reasonably reach. Given there is so much behaviour out there that causes so much more suffering than being blocked in the grocery store aisle, I simply don’t understand why the store aisle is where she’s choosing to take her stand. Nor do I understand why anyone concerned with racism would argue that’s where she and other advocates for equality should take their stand.