Most racism is NOT about race. People say, “Oh, I just HATE racism! I have worked all my life to get rid of racism.” That’s what your mother taught you and that’s what you should hate. No one loves racism. They just love the leverage it gives them. And the markers of racism are always so easy.
Racism is a construct of assumptions: that certain classes of people are different, that one indicator is skin color or eye shape, that people who are different don’t “share your values” and that you must never admit that this gives the top an advantage (more or less automatic) and the bottom an advantage (you have to push the fairness issue). But none of that should come out in the open and be discussed because it will just make everyone angry and that won’t prove anything. Anyway the trump cards are class, status, education, tenure, being published, followers, virtue -- those markers of who’s better. Along with money. Money follows class and reinforces it.
There’s one category of society that pays no attention to these markers: the arts, especially music, because there are fewer intermediaries. Intermediaries pay very close attention to race because it goes to “platform.” There are any number of platforms. One might be prize-winners, one might be martyrs, another might be lone wolf genius, one might be downtrodden, one might be saint, one might be devil. one might be portal to a world you’ve never guessed existed, one might be mommy. The skillful intermediaries know which one to reach for and how to manage it: how should you dress? Should you ever curse? What TV program can you be on without losing your image? That means it’s not enough to know the person being “platformed” but also the effects of the various mediums. If your platform is a nice mom, can you wear purple lipstick? Think lawyer-putting-defendant-on-the-stand. Haircut, suit, no piercings. That is, if you’re going for irreproachable church-going middle-class. If not, sleeve tattoos, a wreath of smoke, a Mohawk.
Academic class markers are more subtle. Mustache? Cords or khakis? Oxford blue shirt or black turtleneck? That’s the guys, but it’s mostly guys anyway, isn’t it? (Some people like to mess with gender.) Black skin is a given -- the haircut is not. Especially with women. Fat and frumpy can either mean someone out of place or someone so highly placed that they really don’t have to bother. But those are markers for persons presenting bodily. It’s much more difficult on email and list servs.
Email pecking order is mostly dependent on credentials: most correspondents will be young, not quite fully certified. (Thesis accepted but not defended.) The old guard will often establish their superiority by greeting certain long term friends familiarly, establishing that they go “way back” together. But young, passionate, politically enflamed persons, especially females, will rush in like junior high girls making entries in a slam book. The mid-men can vary from those who are so courtly that they sound sarcastic to those with so much confidence that they dare to be rough and emphatic. Someone ought to do a study of the rhetoric of academic pecking orders.
There is a major split running through the fields of Western lit and Western history, plus a lot of smaller fractures, but this big split goes to pecking order, because it cannot be firmly established. It is between those who identify so completely with the West that they cannot step away from it and those who are truly objective scholars looking for material that reaches the level of fact. Unluckily, there’s quite a lot of the former but not a whole lot of that latter, and because there has been so much talk about the mythic meaning of the West, it’s tough to get people to focus. That’s before political correctness comes along and sweeps everything off the board by claiming they know because they know the oral tradition, however one footnotes that. (I’m not saying it’s not valid, but that it has a different sort of validity than a Hudson’s Bay log book or an alcoholic West Point general’s file of papers back in Washington, D.C. -- which may have a lot less fact in them that your great-grandmother’s love letters.)
Part of the problem with this whole pecking order is that the new generations keep appearing faster than anyone expected and they’re more different from the previous people than seems quite decent. They’re so aggressively “post!” On both sides people are disrespectful without meaning to be, simply because they are not entirely visible to each other. There are parts of each other that they don’t know exist, much less on an academic listserv.
I confound people who ask me my agenda and assume that I speak at all meetings I attend, but I don’t do that anymore. I used to. Now I just go to hear the music, not that it isn’t a great pleasure to meet people and -- oh, how I love to get hugs from people I haven’t seen for centuries. But I put down a print-out of an article in High Country News I’d brought along to read -- because I never have enough time to read everything I intend to -- and someone remarked on it, so I remarked back that I didn’t like them. Stopped writing for them when the previous editor blithely changed what I said -- not editing style, but my opinion. “But, but . . . they’re very highly respected !” Yes, prestige. Power of the intermediary. For relatively young, college-educated, nicely-mannered, way-liberal, backpacking -- hell, they’re even handsome -- with their stubborn conviction that if the right laws are just passed, all grizzlies will go to heaven happy.
I do keep score. NA is a plus, college-educated and living in the city or on a campus, a minus. (Likely to be “racist.”) NA college-educated and returned to the rez, a double plus. (NOT likely to be racist.) A graceful bespectacled novelist -- could go either way. My former UPS man, double plus. Like that. And they’re scoring me at the same time: old, a minus. Not dressed up, neutral at a tribal college campus. She knows Earl Old Person, add two points.
Make a casual ironic remark and if you’ve got enough points, they’ll consider you clever and initiated. Make the same remark without enough points and you’ll be labeled racist. If they don’t understand what you said, you’ll be racist. If they understood, but didn’t like it -- racist. Feel put down or taken unawares -- back channel to moderator: let’s move on. This is so ugly. There’s no use to it.