Taking Exception

Adam Kotsko writes,

Take, for example, racism. It is perfectly fair to say that “white people” in the US are racist against African-Americans. The fact that an individual white person does not consciously hold those beliefs is no counter-argument, because the very non-racist stance of that individual always refers to the hegemonic stance: “I know that white people are generally afraid of black people, but my experience with black people tells me that’s an unfounded fear.” And a non-racist white person will also generally assume that she’s not going to be given the benefit of the doubt as a non-racist in a group of black people — precisely because “white people” are racist. It is not unfair of black people to think that “white people” are racist, because “white people” (the white people’s big Other) includes racism that is, as it were, free-floating, independent of any concrete racist individuals.

Jodi Dean responds (I’m quoting the end of her post, the whole of it is of interest),

And, I confess to something worse: I love cultural generalizations: Russians want to hang out with people all the time. Everyone who went to Kenyon is super nice. Teenagers are horrible. Gay men have excellent taste. A pleasure of everyday life, of travel and the consumption of culture, is the way that generalizations are proven and disproven. Exceptions are wonderful, magical, refreshing. They show a different facet of the world. Confirmations are reassuring in a fluid, uncertain time/space.

As someone just finished with (and, indubitably, recovering from) a thread on Nice Guys, I can personally attest to the passage from Jacques Lacan that Jodi cites: “Most of what we say is wrong. We couldn’t communicate otherwise.” Furthermore, I’m going to give her passage the benefit of the doubt and assume that her last three sentences are themselves generalizations — that is, inevitably subject to error — which makes them quite witty in a self-referential way.

Kotsko’s paragraph assumes that there are white people out there who don’t hold racist views, that in fact this might be the majority of white people, and that such people should not get defensive when the big social structures (including “white people”) are accused of racism. This frees each individual white person, who is free to identify as non-racist, from the incomplete and difficult work of examining himself for unexpected upsurges of racist thinking, or unconscious patterns of racist behavior.

Each person is free from racism in the sense that he has the potential to act in unbiased ways, to change his mind about racist ideas, and to try to rid his perceptions of bias. That is all. There is no stable center of consciousness that can be declared, for once and all, non-racist. Kotsko inadvertently removes the call of conscience when he tries to relax the white person’s defenses; in a conversation where others are never talking about him, and never could be, the stage is set for a lot of empty agreement (which, incidentally, plagued the Nice Guy post).  When I was in elementary school, and the U.S. waged the first Gulf War, I was violently anti-war and wrote several terrible poems to that effect. I would also stand in the middle of my friend’s yard, the two of  us singing our national anthem at full volume. All the news stations played it constantly, as an accompaniment to U.S. Army approved newsreels of polite and cunning “smart bombs.” That’s the perpetual situation when it comes to bad old ways.

***

Gay men do not have particularly excellent taste; they don’t have particularly bad taste either. If one wanted to study gay culture from the standpoint of taste, there would be the Scissor Sisters, and there would on the other hand be house music that, minute by minute, plays for longer than it took to compose.

Teenagers are not horrible. As far as I can tell, they’ve earned that reputation mostly by making older people uncomfortable. People who accuse teenagers of having raging hormones are, I sincerely hope, working out of their homes, at some sort of job that does not include Christmas parties. People who describe teenagers as reckless or arrogant should also avoid guys who make lots of money and the majority of bars.

Are Russians gregarious? Possibly — gregarity is neutral. Generalized value judgements, on the other hand, are mirrors. That is, far and away, the most useful thing about them.

A goodnight to you–

JK

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