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August 9th, 2007


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12:23 pm - IBARW: Racism in black and yellow
For those who don't know, I've been guest-blogging lately on Angry Black Woman, a blog hosted by ktempest where, uh, angry black women and angry allies of all persuasions gather to talk about race and gender issues. Despite (or perhaps because of) the attention-getting title, I've found that it's a great place to have some real progressive discussion -- Racism 201 so to speak, rather than the 101-level discussions that seem to take place in most places where race issues get brought up. I don't mind the 101 discussions; they're necessary and useful. But sometimes I get tired of discussing the basics. Deeper discussion of racism requires a safe space where anger can be expressed, because anger is cathartic and necessary to any healing process. And anger is a great motivator; sometimes you need to get a little angry to get things done.

Guest-blogging there has been an education for me on a lot of levels. But something that came up there, and again here after yesterday's IBARW post, has been bugging me and now I want to chew on it a little. The topic is inter-group relationships between people of color -- specifically African-Americans and Asian-Americans, and whether Af-Ams have "black privilege" relative to As-Ams.

I have to be honest; when I was first accused of having black privilege, I laughed. It sounded like the kind of thing that typically gets tossed out in discussions of racism by white people who are feeling defensive. It seems to be popular these days to declare black people the true source of racism; if we would just stop talking about race and demanding special treatment then racism would go away. But the person who threw this at me was Asian, not white, and more importantly she was someone who'd earned my respect as a longtime anti-racism activist. So I started thinking about it. Then after yesterday's IBARW post it was pointed out to me that I'd carelessly tossed out a statement which implied that Asians are "wannabe whites". It wasn't intentional, but then -- the worst prejudice usually isn't intentional. It's usually the result of ingrained misconceptions and stereotypes that affect the way we think and behave towards others. So that got me thinking more: did I have some kind of prejudice towards Asians, and was that having an effect on my thinking?

On top of that, another incident occurred recently, which added to the wondering. I was down in Atlanta visiting an old friend. We went to a beauty supply store at a nice mall in a predominantly black middle-class area of Atlanta; my friend has a one-year-old and another baby on the way, so she wanted to buy a wig for those days when the kids would leave her too tired to bother with her hair. When she asked to try on several prospects, the clerk pointed to a sign we hadn't noticed, indicating that customers were allowed to try on only three wigs. My friend was incensed by this, and said so: "I'm coming here to spend money; I should be able to try on as many wigs as I like." The clerk, who I'd guess was Chinese to judge by his accent, curtly replied, "Three and no more. Store policy. You don't like it, go somewhere else." Naturally we did, finding another store that didn't have this policy, where my friend (after more than three try-ons) bought two wigs.

After we left the first store, my friend commented, "I hate it when these people come into our neighborhoods and treat us like dirt. They wouldn't even be able to come into this country if it wasn't for us."

I pointed out to her that the guy might've had some problems with thieves, or with people who didn't intend to buy anything coming in to waste his time. She said, "Well, he could just post a sign saying 'Management reserves the right to refuse service to anyone for any reason', and deal with those problems on a case-by-case basis." So then I pointed out that I live in New York now, in a neighborhood where most of the beauty supply stores are owned by Caribbean (black) Americans, and in my experience they can be just as obnoxious. My friend said, "Well, that's the same thing. They wouldn't be able to come here if not for us, either. And a lot of them think we (African-American non-immigrants) are shit on their shoes, too."

I've been thinking about this incident. I've also been thinking about the ways in which I've appropriated from some Asian cultures in my life -- my early anime-based fanfiction, for example, which I used to pepper with atrocious "fangirl Japanese" (to my deep and abiding shame). And I've been thinking about the messages I've gotten from my parents about Asians. Not much from my mother, who has very little exposure to Asians and still tends to lump them all in under "Japanese" whether they are or not. When I went to Japan a few years ago, she was afraid on my behalf: "They don't like us, you know." And when I told her after the trip that I hadn't had any trouble, she waved this off: "You weren't there long enough." From my father, I got more specific negative messages, like: "Watch out for Asian drivers. They can't see right with those eyes of theirs." I once pointed out to him that many east Africans also have epicanthic-fold eyes, and he said, "Yeah, and look how they drive." ::sigh::

So.

As I consider these negative experiences and messages, I realize there was definitely a time when I did hold a number of prejudices towards Asians -- most of my early life, probably up 'til some point in college. Like most Americans I'd been raised to think in simple, dualistic terms: white people, and "everybody else". Although I intellectually counted Asian Americans among the latter, they were still more a "them" than an "us", very much an "other" in my head. And probably like most black Americans I've been raised to think of other races as competition rather than potential allies, largely because the color complex is deeply ingrained into our upbringing -- anyone lighter-skinned is more acceptable in white-dominated society, and therefore resented. Between that and the "model minority" stereotype that I kept hearing about -- this was before many universities began excluding Asians from the list of "minorities" covered by Affirmative Action -- I'll admit I'd begun to develop some resentment towards Asians, very much along the same lines as that of my friend: how dare they come over here, after my parents bled to open the door for them, and take the places we fought so hard to open for ourselves?

What changed my feelings on this was, frankly, learning more about my own past. I went through the immersion phase of racial identity development during college, which is probably when I first began voraciously reading about history, anthropology, all sorts of things that I hadn't been taught in primary and secondary school. In reading Afrocentric historians like Cheikh Anta Diop, I learned about a number of surprising linkages between Africa and Asia -- for example, there may have been trade between the two continents and Indonesia dating from the time of ancient Egypt (which could explain why so many east Africans have "those eyes") up until the rise of European colonialism. In American history, black slaves and freedmen often worked alongside Chinese laborers, and there was some intermarriage between the groups. There are even several hundred documented cases in which Asians (particularly Chinese Americans) were lynched, in much the same way and for much the same reasons as African Americans. I'd been raised under the shadow of the Michael Donald incident, which happened in my hometown during my childhood, but around almost the same time was the Vincent Chin incident, which I didn't hear about until college. Discovering this shared history of struggle -- and the history that African Americans have shared with Latin@ Americans, Native Americans, and just about every other racial/ethnic group on the planet -- revised my thinking about other PoC to a large degree. I can remember a sudden feeling, like a lightbulb going on in my head, that these were potential allies, not just incomprehensible others, and therefore I needed to learn more about them and start approaching them as such. It probably helps that around this time, the black students' organization (of which I was an officer) started dialoguing with other PoC student organizations on campus in response to some racist incidents that had occurred (by whites against blacks), and working together to present campus events. The Asian students' group sponsored our showing of Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing" after the Los Angeles riots, with a dialogue afterward. Remember the scene in that film, in which the Asian shopowner defends his store from angry black rioters by saying (paraphrase), "We're the same"? Another lightbulb moment for me.

Since then I've become a student of multiple histories, learning as much as I can about any cultures that interest me. I got into anime and manga sometime thereafter and jumped from there into trying to learn Japanese -- itself a lesson in culture -- and eventually visiting Japan. I got into Chinese film drama (hooked by "Raise the Red Lantern" and damn near anything starring Gong Li) and started learning more about the history of China -- in part because of that remembered connection with Africa, but also just out of general curiosity. Most recently, my cousin married a young man who was half-black and half-Korean, and as I get to know his Korean mother I find myself researching hanboks and staring glaze-eyed at the TV screen whenever I see tourist ads for Seoul. (But I'm poor, so that trip will have to wait a long while.)

All this said, back to the question of "black privilege."

I think it doesn't exist. Not in wider American society. I also think there's no "Asian privilege" or "Native American privilege" (no, not even those groups with casino success) or any other privilege held by groups which are identifiably not Caucasian. Too much of this society is configured to privilege whites at the expense of people of color, and any limited privilege people of color have gained through Affirmative Action etc. is nowhere near enough to counterbalance this, much less overwhelm it. That goes for Asian Americans too; they might be considered a "model minority", but this theoretical assignment of privilege is far too much of a double-edged blade. It means those Asian ethnicities and individuals who don't fit the stereotype don't get the attention or resources they need, and it means that all other groups feel free to resent them for their supposed success. So it doesn't matter that blacks get first billing during any discussion of people of color and race, or that Asians are considered smart and thrifty, or that everybody and their sister claims a Native American princess in their ancestry, or whatever -- there is no privilege in any of this. Just a few gold nuggets shining amid the whopping pile of horseshit that American society gives all of us and calls "opportunity". However much American society tries to stack people of color against each other along various axes -- skin color, hair texture, body shape, "good" and "bad" cultural practices, math skills, assimilation, whatever -- we're still all ranked against one key standard: white.

However.

I do think there's a degree of privilege that African American non-immigrants experience versus those who've come here more recently -- or those who are perceived to have done so. It's the latter area that causes the biggest problem between blacks and Asians, I suspect. I'll refer back to my friend's comment. When she said "these people", I first assumed she meant Asians, but I now suspect that what she meant was recent immigrants. God knows I see that how dare they? attitude among black Americans all the time. There's a certain hurt underlying the anger, IMO -- a reaction to being disrespected by people who benefitted greatly from the predominantly black Civil Rights struggle and other efforts to fight racial discrimination (such as the largely Civil-Rights-related pressure that eventually led to the end of racist immigration practices). There's also the hurt that comes from seeing groups which are new to this country -- potential allies -- adopt the dominant racist paradigm. As we've seen over and over throughout history a la the Irish, new immigrant groups in this country generally realize that they need to sort themselves into the racial hierarchy here to get ahead. Those groups which have some hope of assimilation (due to visual similarity with white Americans) quickly distance themselves from the groups which can't; and even among the groups that are visibly different there seems to frequently arise an attitude of, "Well, at least we're not black." This is what lies behind my parents' cautions to me, because smart black parents do that -- teach their children to deal with the racist attitudes they may one day encounter in the world. My parents assumed that Asians would inevitably follow the pattern of other immigrant groups, and prepared me accordingly.

But of course, Asians aren't all immigrants. Here's where Af-Ams have unfortunately absorbed the racist dominant paradigm: we look at our fellow people of color and assume based on their appearance that they're new to this country. Sometimes that assumption is correct, and supported by other clues -- a noticeable accent, for example. But I've seen people like my mother make that assumption even in the absence of an accent. In this we're no different from a white American who worries about terrorism upon seeing someone who looks Arab, or who refuses to hire a Latina housekeeper for fear she'll rob the place... or who clutches her purse and crosses the street on seeing a black man. We've been in this country longer than most other PoC, and that means we've had longer to be contaminated by the toxins of racist thought.

So I probably do hold some lingering prejudices towards Asians, simply by virtue of being American. I'm sure some of them hold prejudices against me. I'm going to continue to try to recognize and fight mine; I hope they'll do the same. But more importantly I also hope that I, and we, and they, will continue to focus on the real culprit here, which is racism itself. We may all affected by racism differently, but the bottom line is: we're all affected by it. Only by recognizing that and dealing with it can we move on.
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(18 comments | WTF?!)

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:oyceter
Date:August 9th, 2007 11:41 pm (UTC)
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Thank you so much for this. I've struggled with similar issues with regard to black people when I first started trying to educate myself on anti-racism; it also doesn't help that my mom says stupid things like, "Don't ever marry a black person" or that high school classmates would appropriate by listening to hip-hop and "acting black" while also denigrating black people. I've been trying to recognize and fight my own prejudices and still am.

I've recently been reading Helen Zia's Asian American Dreams, and I was really heartened to learn that though she covers areas of black-Asian tension (LA race riots, Korean convenience stores in NY), she also talks about how the NAACP was one of the first outside organizations to offer help in the Vincent Chin case.

I'm not sure how accurate this is, so please feel free to whap me if wrong, but the wee bit of "privilege" that I see with black people is that they are generally assumed to be American. And like you say, calling that privilege is bullshit, because compared to everything else, it's nothing. And I think it's a two-edged sword as well, as it means less acknowledgment of people from the Caribbean or immigrants coming over from Africa.

"Well, at least we're not black."

I sadly think that is how many people think in the community I've seen (Chinese people coming here from Taiwan), and I hate it. It's so useless as well; like you say, we're all affected by racism, and struggling to climb up the shaky ladder is largely a gesture in futility when anything -- a perfectly legitimate pet food scare frex -- can turn things around in an instant.

And of course it doesn't help any when society attempts to pit both groups against each other. I don't think it's coincidence at all that the "model minority" stereotype and phrase first popped up in the sixties, during the Civil Rights Movement (I swear, I've read more about this, but I can't remember, sigh. Oh wait! I found a link, yay!). It makes me spitting mad: don't use my race as a way to discredit others, asshats! Ahem, yes, sorry.

Anyway, I will stop babbling on in your LJ ;). But again, thank you for this.
[User Picture]
From:nojojojo
Date:August 13th, 2007 06:44 pm (UTC)
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high school classmates would appropriate by listening to hip-hop and "acting black" while also denigrating black people.

See, I'm not sure how to handle appropriation that's so... mutual. For every Asian kid "acting black", you've got black kids listening to Wu-Tang Clan and obsessing over Asian martial arts and wearing t-shirts with badly-drawn Chinese characters on them. Is it still appropriation if the appropriated party is appropriating back??

And yeah, for the most part black still = American in most Americans' minds. The only exception I've seen to this is New York, where there's a large-enough African and Caribbean immigrant population that people wait to hear you speak before they judge where you're from. I keep running into that one, now that I live in a mostly Caribbean neighborhood -- people are all smiles until I open my mouth, and then they realize I'm Not One Of Them. They don't necessarily get hostile (though some do get *cold*; as I mentioned, a lot of these people think African Americans are the lowest of the low). It's just a noticeable change.

Thanks for the book rec, BTW! I'll put that one on my list. And thanks for the link to that model-minority page. I'd seen that Newsweek cover -- it's infamous -- but hadn't realized just how calculated the whole model-minority thing. There are times when I dismiss the conspiracy theories about how people of different races are being pitted against each other by The Man, because thinking about stuff like that will make me paranoid. But... sheesh. Maybe I'm not paranoid enough. O.o
From:orbitalmechanic
Date:August 10th, 2007 01:11 am (UTC)
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One thing I learned a few years ago is that many American laws are set up black/white, so that if you are (were? wouldn't count on it) Asian or latino or American Indian or whatever, you would literally go to court trying to be declared white, so you would get the better side of that law. Interesting fact: it never worked. You would be declared legally black, instead. I always felt like that kind of summed it up, you know?
[User Picture]
From:ktempest
Date:August 10th, 2007 02:05 am (UTC)
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I hope you post this on ABW sometime as well. Claire is going to do a post about Asian-American/African-American relations an I think this would be a good companion to that post. This is really amazing and awesome.

I was just having a conversation with one of my aunts last night that made me wonder what pod people kidnapped her. There was something on MSNBC about a debate in front of a Latin@ audience and my aunt started shouting indignantly something like "They want them to debate in SPANISH!? That is so stupid!" and proceeded to have a creepy conversation about how "those people" need to learn english because they're in this country and it's crazy for them to expect people to speak spanish to them and other such completely horrible things. And I'm looking at her like "oh my god, you're totally being a bigot" and she got indignant at ME an then refused to discuss it further. I shouldn't have been surprised, she told me she loves Lou Dobbs. Jesus.

I think this is part and parcel of what you talked about here. Looking back, I can remember times when she's said nasty things about the Koren folks who run the small grocery store in the neighborhood and the "Arabs" who run the gas stations (she's convinced that it's part of a plot, that at some point they'll receive a signal and blow up every gas station around). It kills me because my aunt isn't what i wouldn't call her an ignorant person, she's college educated and not sheltered or anything. She taught ME that discrimination is wrong, that skin color doesn't matter, about MLK and Civil Right and... and she says these things.

it drives me up the damn wall.
[User Picture]
From:nojojojo
Date:August 13th, 2007 06:53 pm (UTC)
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I'll post to ABW when I get a chance; things have just been crazy busy lately. -_-

And yeah, I hear all kinds of Stupid from my relatives, especially the older ones. I figure it's kind of hard to go through stuff like Jim Crow and having dogs and firehoses set on you because you wanted to be equal, and then getting bludgeoned with stuff like "Now why can't you be like those nice Asians?" without developing *some* hangups about it. But I don't hear nearly that much Stupid from the folks my generation on down, so that gives me some hope.
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From:dsmoen
Date:August 10th, 2007 05:58 am (UTC)
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I think one of my problems dealing with the white/black issue is that I've become keenly aware of the problems in Irish history. The issue of slavery is routinely shoved under the rug. My ancestors weren't people of privilege, either. There's still a divide between my branch of the family -- which converted to Protestant after arrival in the U.S., and the remainder of the family that remained Catholic.

For a long time, the Irish were treated as badly as those of African descent, which is one reason why The Commitments (a bunch of Irish guys saying, "I'm black and I'm proud!") tickled my funnybone so.
[User Picture]
From:nojojojo
Date:August 13th, 2007 06:59 pm (UTC)
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I mentioned this in an earlier blog post, but you should really read Ignatiev's How the Irish Became White. It provides a lot of nuance to the whole black-Irish issue -- for example, it emphasizes not only that the Irish had it as bad as African Americans, but that the Irish and blacks were natural allies for a while, even intermarrying pretty freely and influencing one anothers' art, etc. It also dissects the Protestant/Catholic thing in a way that I frankly never understood until I read this book -- I just could not get the whole Northern Ireland conflict at all. But the book also tackles the culpability on the part of some Irish leaders, who made a very calculated decision to steer their people away from supporting black causes like abolition, for the express purpose of advancing themselves. Basically, white privilege was dangled in front of them, and they had a choice as to whether to take it. The book explains what choice they made (well, the title covers that) and how that affected them.

It's a good read. I think you'd enjoy it.
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From:dsmoen
Date:August 16th, 2007 11:50 pm (UTC)
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Ordered, thanks!
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From:mvrdrk
Date:August 10th, 2007 05:42 pm (UTC)
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LOL! "Three and no more. Store policy. You don't like it, go somewhere else." I love this. The policy is clear, published, and applied. It allows the clerk to be unpleasantly factual to all customers.

If there were no store policy and a rule like this was applied on a case by case basis, the store could be accused of racism by the first person who decided to kick up a fuss. With a store policy, they piss off customers across the board, but they can't be accused by any one individual.

Either way, the store is in a no win position just by having an unpleasant clerk.
[User Picture]
From:nojojojo
Date:August 13th, 2007 07:22 pm (UTC)
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See, I find the store policy racist too, because it's rooted in the stereotype that black people are thieves or malingerers or whatever. This was an affluent area. I saw more Lexuses in a square mile there than I usually see on a dealership lot. There's no logical class/economic reason for the store owner to assume that a significant number of customers are coming in to waste their time, and create a policy to head that off. The only reason I could see for that policy was because most of the store's customers were black.

But yes -- the store owner lost $50 worth of business that day, and probably loses more than that on a daily basis. And it just doesn't have to be that way. The other wig store we went to was not far from the first one, actually in an area that was a slight economic step down -- more lower middle class than the first area -- but also catering to a mostly black clientele. And they did just fine without a policy like that. They offered customers hair-caps for trying the wigs on, then gave the customers access to the wig area and let them loose to try on as many as they wanted, without an attendant hovering over them. The clerk wasn't particularly friendly either -- no smile, no greeting, general look of boredom -- but just being treated like a *customer* rather than a waste of time made a huge difference.
[User Picture]
From:mvrdrk
Date:August 13th, 2007 09:19 pm (UTC)
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Nod. I know you see it as racist.

I just find it puzzling because I'm assuming the store applies the rule to everyone, regardless of race. (A not unreasonable assumption given the store sign.) If the store clerk was black instead of asian, would it still have been racist or become just poor business practice? It feels a little like a "never ascribe to malice" kind of situation. I'm sure you're correct, but the path of logic from store policy to racism is one I'm not navigating successfully so there's lots for me to think about.
[User Picture]
From:nojojojo
Date:August 13th, 2007 11:07 pm (UTC)
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I would also consider it racist if the store clerk was black, yes. It's not the clerk who's to blame for the policy, after all -- he might not be the owner (and it occurs to me, the owner might not be Asian. I think my friend and I both just latched onto the clerk as the "face" of the store). It's the *policy* that is racist, IMO. The clerk was just unforgivably rude in its enforcement.

And yes, if the policy were applied equally to all people who came in the store, then I would feel differently. Hard to say since there was no one white in the store, and no one else looking at wigs. But I have to wonder whether the policy would even exist if the store were in a white or more evenly-mixed area of Atlanta. I just never see idiotic, rude-on-its-face policies like that in stores in white areas. White stores get crappy customer service too, of course, but this particular flavor of crappy customer service -- which seems to assume the worst of the customer -- is something I only see in black or Latin@ areas.

Or maybe I only *notice* it there, granted. But it rankles so much when I get it there.
[User Picture]
From:mvrdrk
Date:August 13th, 2007 09:24 pm (UTC)
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The clerk wasn't particularly friendly either -- no smile, no greeting, general look of boredom -- but just being treated like a *customer* rather than a waste of time made a huge difference.

That's not being treated like a customer in my books. I'd have looked and walked.
[User Picture]
From:nojojojo
Date:August 13th, 2007 11:09 pm (UTC)
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Heh. In black neighborhoods, it's really hard to find good service. You tend to settle for "mediocre, but at least it's not overtly offensive" service. And we'd been out all day, me and my 8-months-pregnant friend. You pick your battles.
[User Picture]
From:parallactic
Date:August 11th, 2007 09:10 pm (UTC)

Here via IBARW.

(Link)
So I probably do hold some lingering prejudices towards Asians, simply by virtue of being American. I'm sure some of them hold prejudices against me. I'm going to continue to try to recognize and fight mine; I hope they'll do the same. But more importantly I also hope that I, and we, and they, will continue to focus on the real culprit here, which is racism itself. We may all affected by racism differently, but the bottom line is: we're all affected by it. Only by recognizing that and dealing with it can we move on.

Your post really resonated with me, especially this part. I've been wondering how to be a good PoC ally (I'm Chinese-American) to other PoC, and not do something like accidentally cut another PoC off at the knees. I also have racial prejudices that I consciously reject, but they do manifest themselves in my dealings with other PoC.

Anti-racism and the media is also a new area for me. In the past I rationalized it away as fiction, or allowed myself to be convinced that there weren't skanky race issues going on in canon. So I have to unlearn some old things and learn new things.

I've also been reading your other posts and following your links. They've given me stuff to think about.
[User Picture]
From:nojojojo
Date:August 13th, 2007 07:37 pm (UTC)

Re: Here via IBARW.

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Yeah -- I think it's a hard slog for most people, recognizing and working through the stuff they've absorbed. I honestly didn't think I had any issues with Asians, even though I *know* how this stuff works, and I *know* that growing up hearing the kind of crap I heard from my family had to affect me. Denial, man. It's scary. The only solution is CONSTANT VIGILANCE!! (Sorry, HP reference. -_-)
From:delux_vivens
Date:August 12th, 2007 06:41 am (UTC)
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That whole "black privilege" line *infuriates* me, because it very much negates the reality that anything black people *have* accomplished in the us, has been soaked in spilled blood.
[User Picture]
From:nojojojo
Date:August 13th, 2007 07:40 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, it pissed me off to hear it. I think it's pure polemic, irrational bullshit *designed* to infuriate and unbalance, and I was really surprised to hear someone who's regularly an anti-racist use that tactic. But we get angry too, and sometimes when we're angry we fight dirty.
Nora, World. World, Nora. - IBARW: Racism in black and yellow

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