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Commentary: Calling someone racist stops discussion

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 29, 2009 - "Calling someone racist is the quickest way to shut down communication." I have previously written about the tactic. It's a short cut to smearing a person's credibility, but comments supporting the claim are often taken out of context and frequently misconstrued. Let's take two recent examples: Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor and University of Chicago student Steve Saltarelli.

Judge Sotomayor stated in a 2001 address an the University of California Berkeley School of Law that, "I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life." Many pundits have expressed that such comments are unacceptable, because if a White male made them that person would be vilified.

At first glance, you might agree.

However, if you read her entire speech, it is clear that she is pushing the graduates to question the status quo. She raises the issue of who gets to define wise and how judgments are merely a series of choices that are influenced by our experiences.

Before I read the entire speech, I was concerned that she was putting forward a monolithic perspective of what it means to be Latino (e.g. "A poor Latina would see things differently than a rich white male."). She seemed to be conflating a host of issues and making grand assumptions when comparing the two (e.g. the intersection of class, gender, home/neighborhood/school environment).

However in her speech, she makes clear that there is not one Latino experience and uses Supreme Court Justice Thomas as an example of the variety of beliefs within the African-American community. What she exposes most is a country that wants to tout its diversity yet then claim not to see it.

She barely escapes the argument of relative morality and physiological differences to suggest that experience influences judgment. Therefore, since experiences vary, perceptions of facts and, subsequently, judgments might as well.

She cites the history of the Supreme Court, which did not uphold the claim of a woman in a gender discrimination case until 1972. Are we to believe that gender discrimination did not occur before this judgment? Or can we agree that the Supreme Court justices might have been influenced by their own lenses and were unable to see it? That is the point Sotomayor was attempting to highlight.

I think her comments are less racist than attempting to showcase an uncomfortable history from which we are progressing by diversifying our judicial system and encouraging all of us to consider how our backgrounds affect our perspectives.

The second example is of a third year student at University of Chicago. The claim here is sexism, but the mantra works the same. Saltarelli has started an advocacy group, "Men in Power." The group seemed to be an outgrowth of a satirical column where he called for individuals interested in learning from men in power and reverse sexism.

Personally, I don't think he should be immediately vilified, although I understand that the mention of the phrase "reverse ___ism" can be a red flag. Here, it signals a lack of understanding of systemic and institutional disparities, which continue to exist based on gender. However, it is also true that men have been hit hard by the recent economic downturn, and sectors traditionally dominated by women have been less affected (e.g. education and health care).

In principle, there is nothing wrong with having a group focused on preparing men for leadership. It's all in the details. For example, I would feel it would be problematic if the group came from the perspective that only men should lead or that men are more naturally suited to lead (re: my concern with Sotomayor's suggestion of physiological correlates to judgment).

Others might suggest that no group is needed since the majority of spaces in society seem to uphold men in leadership. But to simply have a group that is intentionally focused on the development of men and boys as leaders seems far from racist.

None of us can claim the ability to know the motives of Sotomayor or Salterelli. Maybe they are both raving hatemongers, although thus far I'm not convinced. But I know one thing, the quicker we are to label them, the further away we will be from understanding.

Kira Hudson Banks, PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon. 

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