What Do You Mean?

In a powerful post about microagressions and casual racism at the dinner table, Nicole Chung discusses her troubling and conflicted feelings about how to respond when a guest asks her a racist question while at a dinner party with mostly friends and family. After reflecting on what to do, she poses the question:

Do I really want to force all the people at this table to choose sides in the ultimately unwinnable “was or wasn’t it racist” debate?

Ultimately she decides to do nothing but shrug off the question. Her response haunts her:

When I think about the relative size and scope of microaggressions, I can’t help but feel ashamed of my inadequate responses. If these are just small offenses, not meant to wound, why can’t I ever manage to shut them down effectively, ensure they aren’t wielded again and again against others?

The comments to this post were almost all positive and supportive. Many included discussions of how they struggled with similar experiences or strategies for handling future racist questions and comments. I was particularly struck by Loren_Ipsum’s technique of persistently asking, “What Do you Mean?”:

I wanted to share one satisfying method I’ve found to dealing with them: say, politely, “What do you mean?” and repeat it as necessary. Because, eventually, the person will have to articulate aloud those asshole beliefs — all Asian people look the same, all women are inherently dumber, etc. — that they’d only implied before. And once they do that, it’s much easier for you (and others) to respond with “what on earth is wrong with you?” without seeming like the bad guy. Or the person will give up in frustration, and that’s a win too?

What do you mean? I like this question. I think I’ll add it to my list of questions that one should ask on a regular basis, along with Why? and At whose expense?

Early Morning Encounters

For the past year or so, I’ve gotten in the habit of getting up at 6:15 AM, before anyone else in my house is awake. I make my extra strong coffee and sit on the couch, scrolling through my facebook and twitter feeds. Usually I’m looking for something that sparks my curiosity and inspires me to get into a critically reflective (troubling/troubled) space. Somedays I don’t find anything. But usually, there’s at least one item to read, watch or listen to. Today, on my first day back from winter break, I found two things. I’ve decided to archive them here.

The Selfish Side of Gratitude

Barbara Ehrenreich. New York TimesSunday Review. Ehrenreich is great. Over the years, I’ve really enjoyed her critiques of positive thinking. It’s difficult to pick out just a few passages from her brief essay to post here (it’s all good), but I was especially drawn to these two:

Gratitude to those who made your meal possible:

Yet there is a need for more gratitude, especially from those who have a roof over their heads and food on their table. Only it should be a more vigorous and inclusive sort of gratitude than what is being urged on us now. Who picked the lettuce in the fields, processed the standing rib roast, drove these products to the stores, stacked them on the supermarket shelves and, of course, prepared them and brought them to the table? Saying grace to an abstract God is an evasion; there are crowds, whole communities of actual people, many of them with aching backs and tenuous finances, who made the meal possible.

Not Gratitude but Solidarity:

The real challenge of gratitude lies in figuring out how to express our debt to them, whether through generous tips or, say, by supporting their demands for decent pay and better working conditions. But now we’re not talking about gratitude, we’re talking about a far more muscular impulse — and this is, to use the old-fashioned term, “solidarity” — which may involve getting up off the yoga mat.

Ehrenreich’s mention of debt reminds me of Eula Bliss and her discussion of White Debt in the NY Times last month.

The Unravelers

Stephanie Danler. Paris Review.

There are two kinds of women: those who knit and those who unravel. I am a great unraveler. I can undo years of careful stitching in fifteen gluttonous minutes. It isn’t even a decision, really. Once I see the loose thread, I am undone. It’s over before I have even asked myself the question: Do I actually want to destroy this?

I don’t unravel in the same way as the author, but I like thinking about my practices of undisciplining and unlearning as forms of unraveling bad habits and toxic/unhealthy narratives about myself and the world.


Mourning Becomes the Law

From J Butler’s Mourning Becomes the Law:

Mourning seems fully restricted within the national frame. The nearly 50 dead in Beirut from the day before are barely mentioned, and neither are the 111 in Palestine killed in the last weeks alone, or the scores in Ankara. Most people I know describe themseves as “at an impasse”, not able to think the situation through. One way to think about it may be to come up with a concept of transversal grief, to consider how the metrics of grievability work, why the cafe as target pulls at my heart in ways that other targets cannot. It seems that fear and rage may well turn into a fierce embrace of a police state. I suppose this is why I prefer those who find themselves at an impasse. That means that this will take some time to think through.  It is difficult to think when one is appalled. It requires time, and those who are willing to take it with you – something that has a chance of happening in an unauthorized “rassemblement.”

So it is Important to Think

Every so often I revisit the work of Michel Foucault. His theories on power, truth, ethics, problematization and care are central to my own vision of practicing an ethics of care on and offline. Today, I came across Foucault’s “So it is Important to Think.” Here are two passages that I want to ruminate on and remember:

Stupid Institutions think too.

There is always a little thought occurring even in the most stupid institutions; there is always thought even in silent habits. Criticism consists in uncovering that thought and trying to change it: showing that things are not as obvious as people believe, making it so that what is taken for granted is no longer taken for granted. To do criticism is to make harder those acts which are now too easy (456).

a fragment of autobiography:

Every time I have tried to do a piece of theoretical work it has been on the basis of elements of my own experience: always in connection with processes I saw unfolding around me. It was always because I thought I identified cracks, silent tremors, and dysfunctions in things I saw, institutions I was dealing with, or my relations with others, that I set out to do a piece of work, and each time was partly a fragment of autobiography (458).