Offensive racial, ethnic, and religious slurs are means of asserting power and privilege, and thus creating a social space in which there are distinctive power differentials. The person being offensive is essentially asserting his or her power over others, whether it is Donald Trump or some other faceless drive-by bigot.
In the same way taking offense is a way in which those being marginalized try to protect their place in the social space by asserting their own power, however small.
In both cases a focus on the emotional content of offending and taking offense is misleading. The offender may have a variety of feelings that are associated with being offensive. And those who take offense may likewise have a variety of feelings associated with being offended. But in both cases what is really happening is a struggle for power in the social space, and any analysis limited to feelings is misleading and simply serves to perpetuate the power differential created by offensive language.
It appears that at the University of Missouri the students and student athletes, as well as their allies among the faculty understood this power dynamic and used taking offense to their advantage in seeking to create a social space in which they had a more equal place.
The Council of American Islamic Relations is another example of a group that in its daily email newsletters, press conferences, and public statements shows a clear grasp of the power dynamics of offensive behavior. And of the value in taking offense at every assertion of power through islamophoic slurs, vandalism, and physical harassment. The American Jewish Committee is equally vigilant in calling out the kind of anti-semitism that disadvantages Jews in the social space of the United States. Both understand that words are an assertion of marginalizing power in the public space.
However, when we take a hard look at the power struggles represented by offending and taking offense we must realize that they are much less important than the underlying structures of inequality. Thus while creating equality in the social space being shaped by expression (verbal, bodily, visual, and so on) is important, it may distract us from the deeper sources of inequalities of power.
In NPR’s reporting on the student protests at the University of Missouri one of the student leaders was heard reminding her colleagues that the resignation of the University President was not enough, was not the end of the struggle for an equal social space on campus. And she is right.
Because Timothy Wolfe’s failure to address the issue of racism doesn’t mean that his office would have had the power to create an equal social space on campus or even end racist language. Getting rid of him and replacing him with someone apparently more responsive may make little difference. To make real changes one would need to ask why a large state university system didn’t have a student body that more closely matched the ethnic diversity of the state. What are the barriers to entry into the social space of the campus for ethnic minorities?In the same way here in Texas the public condemnation of racist behavior and islamophobic slurs will only have a minimal impact on the power differentials in the social space, whether on campus or in the general public. After all, overtly racist language has been almost entirely banished from the social space for decades now with little effect on actual power differentials.
Far more consequential have been the actual changes in law dating from the 1960’s. Yet even those changes remain contested. Continued inequality should remind us to probe more deeply into the ways inequality is perpetuated.
I’ll suggest one: structures that promote an enduring sense of privilege. Businesses, schools, churches, clubs, and even magazines promote the idea that their constituents are some form of “elite” and possess some form of “privilege,” whether it is the privilege of boarding the airplane first of being the only inhabitants of heaven. And it is a sense of privilege that underlies and justifies the creation of power differentials whether through racial slurs or more overt and covert forms of discrimination.
Tell a person that he or she is particularly “discriminating,” whether in a taste in clothes, friends, car, or choice of a university and you are giving that person permission to discriminate.
The overall structure of American society is complex, and is created and perpetuated at many levels. Federal laws, however wide their reach and public discourse, however minutely regulated, do not exhaust the ways in which bigotry is turned into power over others. There are marginalizing power structures that run through all social structures. And these may be unspoken, unseen, and untouched by law.
And even when we expose these we will have to finally look to the structures of the mind, the place where a sense of privilege dwells inside each person to expose what is both thought and is un-thought in our society. That will require scientists, philosophers, theologians, and physicians to join the activists and politicians if there is to be an end to racism and its close cousins islamophobia, xenophobia, and anti-semitism.