Monday, 12 September 2016

How to tell if you’re a racist

One evening a couple of years ago I was on the bus to go home, and this old guy got on at a stop in the middle of town, by an internet café. This was around the time that the Council updated the bus schedules, and the timetable at that particular stop had recently been taken off its post. According to the old guy, it was the café staff that had taken it down. Now you or I might see nothing sinister in that, but the old guy knew better. He knew what they were up to. They’d taken the timetable down so that people looking for parking spaces wouldn’t know it was a bus stop! Then they’d park there and use the internet café, and they wouldn’t realize their mistake until they got the traffic fine! Just as well there were sharp people around, like himself, who wouldn’t fall for tricks like that!

I was sitting several seats behind him, so I didn’t get a good look at the expression on the face of the younger guy he was talking to. From what I could see it looked very much like “From the sanity level of what you’ve just said I infer that any attempt to reason with you would be a waste of time, so I’m just going to smile and nod.” But I don’t actually know.

When I say “this old guy”, by the way, are you picturing someone wild-looking, unkempt, with teeth missing, muttering to himself and staring belligerently about? Don’t. This was a dignified-looking, affable elderly man; working-class accent and second-hand clothes, if I recall correctly, but if you were asked to spot a mentally ill person on that bus by their appearance you’d pick me over him. I don’t think his bizarre delusion arose from any kind of brain disorder. I think it had more to do with a small detail which he never felt the need to mention, and which I also haven’t said anything about so far. See if it makes it feel any more plausible to you. Are you ready?

The staff and management of the internet café are immigrants from East Asia.

If your answer was yes, that does make it more plausible, then you – like the old guy – are a racist.

Nowadays we all agree that it is very bad for someone to be a racist. Which of course is true, and don’t get me wrong, it’s a genuine moral advance since the days when newspapers printed editorial cartoons decrying the “Yellow Peril”. But the advance has been less than it might appear, because of one unfortunate side-effect of the new understanding. “Racists are bad,” people reason to themselves, “and I am not bad. Therefore, I am not a racist. Therefore, my belief that Muslims are terrorists and East Asians are amoral schemers and Polynesians are stupid lazy thieves is not racism.” Well, sorry, yes it is, and yes you are.

Yes, I’m including prejudice against Muslims under “racism” despite the fact that technically Islam is a religion, not a race. When racism dignifies itself with theory, it typically latches onto genetics (systematically confused and misunderstood); but that is only a rationalization. Hostility to visible ethnic difference can attach to any ethnic marker, genetic or cultural. The psychology is the same at the broadcasting end, and the effects are the same at the receiving end. The term “racism” applies regardless.

Recently the French city of Nice was in the news because the police there forced a woman to undress in public, to remove a cultural marker of Islam (a burkini, if you missed the viral video). A lot of Westerners support some sort of restriction on hijab in principle. Hijab, they say, is a form of oppression imposed on women by patriarchal Islamic cultures, not something a decent secular society should tolerate. Their opponents reply that the West can hardly talk, what with its exacting beauty standards and its chronic objectification, and women should be allowed to wear hijab if they want to. Neither side seems to be listening very closely to Muslim or ex-Muslim feminists. Here’s one:

So. Let’s pretend (lolsob) that I am one of these women directly victimized by the very regressive ideology of modesty being opposed here. I have a bit of freedom being allowed to go to a pool in a burkini by my restrictive and intolerant family and community. And you’re going to ban me from that??? Thereby making it so on top of all my other restrictions I can’t swim too?
Thanks, now I’m more isolated and limited than I was before. ’Cause you’ve also made sure I can’t go to public school or university in my hijab. Well, I guess I’m confined at home now, because no hijab ban law is going to matter to my family who view hijab as a matter of mortal moral incumbency. So here I am stuck at home, unless my family is able and willing to put me in private schooling. And on top of that more forms of public presence are slowly being restricted from me as well.
But sure, ban me from the public in attempt to champion my rights. That will fix things...

And though I’ve seen [this cartoon] a hundred times (and seen the hijab compared to Western beauty standards a thousand times), it still manages to knock the breath out of me with how severe and audacious a false equivalence it is.
In short, this is how thoroughly they are not the same:
When a woman’s community acceptance, respect, dignity, employability, marriageability, physical safety, enfranchisement, social mobility, access to social institutions, freedom, and autonomy hinge upon her daily, unwavering, public adherence to the bikini, then we can make this comparison.
When a woman cannot leave her home in anything other than a bikini without being deemed immoral and her human worth and family’s honour compromised, then we can make this comparison.
When there are severe legal, social, and extrajudicial forces holding a woman’s safety, wellbeing, and livelihood hostage to her adherence to the bikini, then we can make this comparison.

What the Niçois police did was not like making a Westerner put something on over her swimming-togs. It was like making a Westerner take her swimming-togs off, in front of a crowd of strangers to boot. I argued a wee while ago that just because a thought-behaviour pattern is genetic doesn’t mean it can’t be controlled. The converse is equally true – just because a thought-behaviour pattern is cultural doesn’t mean it can be shrugged off at will – and nudity taboos are a clear example. And hijab, make no mistake, is a nudity taboo. Nudity means the parts of a person deemed unacceptable for public view; the West merely happens to designate a smaller area of unacceptable skin than the Muslim world. Yes, the West does require that women cover up more than men, and does hold them responsible for men’s sexual feelings about them. Neither taboo is more rational than the other.

Am I making the same “false equivalence” here that Krisht objects to in other commentators? I think not. I acknowledge there’s a difference of degree, but it is not the case that one can casually violate a Western nudity taboo without risk to one’s “community acceptance, respect, dignity, employability, marriageability, physical safety, enfranchisement, social mobility, access to social institutions, freedom, and autonomy”. (That’s why it’s etiquette in nudist circles not to give or ask for surnames; if you were to accidentally let slip the identity of a fellow nudist in the clothed world you might lose them their job.)

If you’re a Westerner still having trouble grasping the argument here, imagine this. Imagine that, if you went to the beach with clothes on, the police would make you strip naked in front of everybody. Would you go to that beach? Would you feel that you had been liberated from your irrational embarrassment about nudity? Or would you say you had been forced off the beach by the threat of public humiliation?

So if the burkini ban (and similar legislation elsewhere) isn’t about liberating women, what is it about? Why, it’s about pushing Muslims out of public spaces, of course. It is, plainly and simply, racist.

I shouldn’t get on my high horse about the French. Here was me thinking I’d give electoral politics a bit of a rest for a while after a run of posts about it. But there’s trouble brewing among opponents of the current New Zealand government. The racism stirred up in America by Donald Trump and in Britain by the vote to leave the European Union has had fallout here. I don’t think it’s creating bigotry that didn’t exist before, but people who dislike Asian immigrants are starting to talk about it more openly – I’ve had several Facebook quarrels with them – and I’m afraid they may start forming connections and building up political momentum. That could seriously derail any Left consensus.

Once again the racists do have facts and arguments they can trot out in order to pretend, if only to themselves, that race isn’t the point. Sometimes people who aren’t racists are convinced by one or another of these arguments, and can be found repeating them; and, racist or not, very few people give up an argument on the spot when challenged. But the non-racist ones don’t make “Well, we have to get these people out of our country anyway” the sticking point. If that is the sticking point for you, you’re a racist.

So here we go. No, immigrants are not causing the housing crisis. Tens of thousands of houses are standing empty in Auckland, priced out of reach of the families who need them, as I’ve mentioned before. They’re not being filled up by immigrants, they’re being traded by speculators. Yes, some of those speculators are foreign investors. No, foreign investors are not the same as immigrants. Immigrants are people who have come from another country to live here; foreign investors are people who live in another country and shift money in and out of this one. The only thing they have in common is that they both come from overseas. If that by itself constitutes a problem to you, you’re a racist.

No, immigration does not put an appreciable strain on the New Zealand environment. Yes, growing more food here would put a strain on the environment, and indeed the strain from dairy intensification is already near breaking point. But that’s because we’re a major food exporter. It makes no difference to the rivers whether the food gets eaten here or overseas. When people immigrate here, that doesn’t mean more food gets grown here; it just means that little bit less gets packed up and shipped away. An important point: unlike the birth-rate, the immigration rate does not increase with the population. That means there’s no reason to fear exponential growth in immigration.

No, New Zealand-owned corner shops are not going out of business because of competition from immigrant shopkeepers cunningly pricing their goods too low for locals to keep up. Yes, this is seriously an argument I had recently. Look, I only know economics from taking lectures in it for my job, but this guy’s theory is that New Zealand small businesses ethically keep their prices higher so as not to push each other out of business, only to be undercut by these sneaky immigrants coming in. Um, that’s not how capitalism works, you know that, right? That sort of thing is called a “cartel”, and we have laws against it. Plus, no small business could ever undercut prices the way a supermarket can. When I asked him what evidence he had that New Zealand businesses don’t undercut prices, this guy’s answer was “LOL”, which I think sums up his credibility quite nicely.

Yes, if someone moves to New Zealand and gets a job, then some New Zealander hasn’t got that job. Yes, if they consume goods or services here, then a certain amount of the good or service has been used up. What people fail to notice here is that these two facts cancel each other out. If you have a job, you’re helping provide some good or service. If you consume some good or service, someone had to work to provide it, and so you’re helping create a job. On average, each immigrant will deprive locals of approximately nothing.

That’s making a big assumption, of course: that the immigrants are working for the same wages and conditions as the locals. Yes, if they’re in fact taking on work for much cheaper wages or under worse conditions, then they’ll be undercutting everyone else – exactly the same logic as a youth rate or a work-for-the-dole scheme. But notice the implication, if you turn that around. If jobs are being undercut by immigrants, then immigrants, specifically, are being shafted with cheap wages and conditions that they can’t turn down. It follows that any workers’ platform concerned about preserving jobs for locals needs to give immigrant rights special attention. If you accept this logic for youth and beneficiaries but resist it for immigrants, you’re a racist.

Traditionally, right-wing administrations have used anti-immigrant racism to divide the working-class vote. That hasn’t changed, but the exact tactic has. Previous National governments used to adopt the racist pose themselves: “Wages are low because of all these immigrants taking the jobs.” Now they’ve flipped it around: “Immigrants are getting the jobs because New Zealanders are too greedy about their wages.” Either way, the intention is to take the responsibility off employers and pit two blocs of potential National opponents against each other. Racism in the working class always serves the ruling class.

I don’t for a moment credit Prime Minister John Key’s claim that unemployed New Zealanders aren’t getting jobs because of drugs and poor work ethics. People entering the country on work visas have a big incentive to find work: they’ll be deported if they don’t. People in the income support system have a big incentive to stay out of work: take anything part-time or casual as a stepping-stone and most of the wage gets taken off your benefit (can’t have dole-bludgers ripping off the taxpayer, can we?) Been there, done that, trust me. And it’s only got worse since I got out.

No, it’s not racist to want the best for your own people; the racism is when you think “the best for your own people” has anything to do with not having other cultures around.

Yes, it is racist to take offence at people speaking languages that aren’t English. Gods, people, grow up.


  1. Good post!

    I'd be interested in your thought's on Sheth's theory of "racialisation" as relates to anti-Islamic racism. I met this idea in a two-part video series from "Philosophy Tube".

    Part 1 is here:
    Part 2 is here:

    1. Part 1 is at You copypasted a Miles Davis video by mistake. (But thanks.)

    2. Gah! Curse you Windows clipboard!

    3. Gah! Curse you Windows clipboard!