If You Say Biased things…

If You Say Biased things… Earlier this week I came across a post from Dave Winer titled If you say racist things…. In that post he took issue with a comment made by Brooke Gladstone on On The Media, that “a bunch of principally old white male justices are going to be adjudicating an issue in which there are both gender and racial stakes.”

Winer writes:

It used to be, in my own lifetime and experience, you could say things like that about blacks or Jews and get knowing nods. In all cases, no matter what the excuse, racism is racism and sexism is sexism. It really doesn't matter that the race is white and the gender is male or the people are "old."#

Racism and sexism always come with excuses. However, if you say racist things, you're a racist.

I took issue with his argument and banged out a comment to his post on my phone. Shown below, unedited:

I'm try to determine if you're using hyperbole as a rhetorical tool here or if you genuinely believe this. Do you honestly believe that white men born of a certain generation will have have ZERO biases relative to, say, a Hispanic woman born in a different generation? Or a poor person vs a rich person? You believe that biases don't exist across age or socio-economic status? Race?

I just finished doing user interviews around a mobile app with participants ranging from 20's to 60's. There were clear patterns here around preferences and biases. And this was just for an app! Admittedly, this was a sample size where N = anecdote. But I'm honestly surprised by this post. Reads like misguided "color blind" progressive propaganda from the 80's or 90's.

I'm black (actually black & white) & grew up poor. I saw my dad last week & he asked me for money. My wife, who is white & grew up upper-middle-class, genuinely didn't understand this interaction. These differences in experience are real & can shape your world view.

It is absolutely appropriate to question whether a bunch of old white men can objectively adjudicate issues relating to race & gender.

Winer subsequently deleted my comment because he felt I was insinuating… he was racist? I’m not sure.


Most of the comments I've deleted have been of the variety of: "I'm assuming you mean X," where X is something reprehensible which I don't believe. They go forward and explain how wrong I am for saying X. When of course I didn't. I think it's obvious, if you say racist things, you're a racist. If it matters to you what the races are, then you are also a racist. Maybe you don't think being racist is wrong. Okay -- that's worth a blog post, not a comment. Send me a link and I'll read it.

So apparently my point wasn’t clear. Let me try again…

Racism is the prejudgement of a person’s ability, talent, intelligence, etc. on the basis of biological markers of genetic lineage (i.e. skin color). The prejudgement in the case of racism is one of inferiority. The problem with Winer’s argument is that he’s comparing a comment made on the basis of bias vs. a comment made on the basis of race.

Yes, Gladstone made an allusion to race in her statement, but the context is that men, of any age or race, have a very different set of life experiences to women, of any age or race, and these differences lead to very real biases. Furthermore, the experiences of white men, more specifically, lead to a set of biases that will likely lead to an impact on the objectivity of any judgement based on race or gender. Specifically the race and gender that suffers prejudice in the current status quo. I realize I’m making some assumptions relative to Gladstone’s statement, but my argument is that denouncing her comment as sexist, ageist, or racist breaks because:

  1. Bias (prejudgement based on perspective) is not the same as racism (prejudgement based on physical appearance).
  2. Arguing that a rant about old white men and their biases is equivalent to a rant about young black men and their thuggishness is both wrongheaded and dangerously close to the corrupted reverse racism argument. It would also be internally incoherent and the two are not the same fundamental argument.
  3. This approach of claiming any statement that references race is racist, though virtuous in its intent, leads to shutting down dialogue.

The concept of Intersectionality, which explores the intersection of societal systems of oppression across race, gender, class, etc., is important to this discussion. Attempting to censor any criticism of the systemic modes of discrimination (that white men have largely dictated policy for women and minorities of many kinds) rubs me very wrong. Shutting down dialogue around the privileges associated with race, class, ability, gender, etc. risks extending systemic oppression while silencing those who aim to confront it.

In summary, racism is about seeing an entire group of people as inferior based on biological markers. Lamenting the fact that a bunch of old white men are adjudicating issues surrounding race and gender in this country is not the same as claiming those same old white men are inferior. Conflating the two is missing a huge point about biases. I understand Winer’s bias and am very sympathetic to it; that is, he’s subjectively an old white man doing really smart work in an industry that glorifies youth and that he probably legitimately suffers from ageism. I think his work is brilliant, and that any prejudice he may get because of his age is wrong. I just don’t think Gladstone’s augment is one of age (and lack of ability due to age), it’s an argument of bias… of which Winer’s comments, unfortunately, were saturated with.

Posted on June 29, 2014 .