November 8, 2013

Flowers, soup, and racism

Another’s experience does not invalidate your own.

I’m here to talk about flowers, soup, and racism.

Imagine that you and a friend are walking outside, and you see a big flower. “Look at that big blue flower,” you say. Your friend replies, “It’s not blue; it’s purple.” You don’t think it looks purple at all; rather, you experience it as blue. The flower has some inherent hue that you and your friend are experiencing in different ways, and neither of you knows who is right. By experiencing the flower as blue, you are not changing the intrinsic properties of the flower, and by experiencing it as purple, your friend is not changing the properties of the flower, either. If someone comes up to you and asks you what color the flower is, you can state your experience while appreciating your friend’s experience by saying, “It looks blue to me, but my friend thinks it’s purple.”

Now imagine you’re at a restaurant, eating some soup. Your friend asks you how it is. You say, “It’s pretty good.” Your friend tastes it and cries, “This is disgusting!” How “good” or “bad” something tastes is relative: The soup doesn’t necessarily have an intrinsic quality of goodness or badness. By experiencing the soup as moderately good, you didn’t make it inherently good, and by experiencing it as very bad, your friend didn’t make it inherently bad. However, you can accept your friend’s experience and use that to make decisions. You’re having a dinner party in a few weeks, and you were thinking about getting a big vat of this soup for the party, but now you’re reconsidering. Even though the soup isn’t inherently bad, and your experience is that the soup is actually pretty good, your friend’s experience was so much more extreme than yours that you decide it isn’t worth the risk: You don’t want half the people at your party to think the soup is pretty good, and the other half to be vomiting. Note, however, that the fact that your friend had a more extreme experience does not change the soup’s inherent goodness or badness—it just alters the choices that you make.

I argue that racism is just the same. Just as my experiencing that the soup is good doesn’t delegitimize your experience that the soup is bad, my experience that something seems racist doesn’t delegitimize your experience that it doesn’t seem racist—and vice versa. Whether “racistness” is something inherent in an action or object—like the color of a flower—or whether it is completely relative—like the goodness/badness of soup—is a matter for another essay. In both cases, the act of perceiving that an object has a certain quality does not imbue it with that quality.

Racistness, however, is often treated differently, as though it is different from any other property of things.

There was recently an argument amongst my housemates about a potential house T-shirt design. An artist friend of mine had drawn a typical old Western–style movie poster, and it included a Hispanic-looking cowboy in the desert. One of my housemates posted on Facebook (that most excellent forum for political discourse) that this shirt was patently racist. Many soon jumped on board, while others countered, arguing that the shirt was not racist, and that the artist certainly did not intend it to be racist. A firefight broke out. At one point, I was told, as I often have been, that it is morally wrong to tell someone that what they think is racist is not racist; if a single person declares that a thing is racist, then it becomes racist, and any opinion to the contrary is itself racist and delegitimizes the experience of those who experience it as racist.

And yet, we do not apply these criteria to any other qualities; rather, we accept that different people have different experiences—and that there may be no “right” perception. Just as soup does not become bad because somebody thinks it’s bad, something does not become racist just because somebody thinks it’s racist. If one were to argue that racistness is not relative, but is inherent in an object, like the color of a flower, the same still holds: the flower does not become purple because someone says that it is purple. It may have been purple all along, and we can test this by examining physical properties of the flower. We can’t do this with racism; there’s no agreed-upon metric to test what is racist. We can’t just assume that something is racist just because some people say that it is. What we can do is make decisions based on what we know; if we know that some people will perceive the soup as disgusting, we can choose not to serve it, and if we know that some people will perceive a shirt as racist, then we can choose not to wear it. The race of the perceiver doesn’t make a difference—everyone is entitled to their own opinions and experiences, regardless of race. To say that the validity of a person’s experience and opinion depends exclusively on her race (instead of on her prior experiences and logic) seems, well, racist. A person’s race does not magically give them the ability to assign the quality of racistness to an object, and the dialogue on racism should not be open to some races and closed to others. We should be able to make choices that respect others’ experiences without discounting our own, which is something that the current discourse around racism does not allow.

Anna Moss is a fourth-year in the College majoring in linguistics.