StuffWhitePeopleDo: associate non-white people with pollution

StuffWhitePeopleDo (9/22/08)

associate non-white people with pollution

This common white reaction was recently clarified for me as a kind of unspoken (and even unthought) feeling by Kristen Myers’ book, Racetalk: Racism Hiding in Plain Sight. Working at various times with a total of sixty-three undergraduate student researchers, Myers compiled over six hundred examples of “racetalk,” which she defines as spoken language that contains “the vocabulary and conceptual frameworks that we use to denigrate different races and ethnicities in our everyday lives.”

Myers’ larger point is that instances of such talk are not mere acts of individual racism; rather, they help form a larger societal network or structure. The racism expressed in “racetalk” consists of feelings, thought, and language that help to maintain both divisive boundaries between groups of people, and the various institutions that oppress non-white people.

In a section of her book called “Pollution,” Myers provides numerous examples, gathered by her small army of student researchers, of language that indicates “how people believed that the contaminating effect of ‘otherness’ was contagious, and [how] they avoided being associated with it.”

Basically, this post is my effort to answer that same question. And many others that are just like it. With the help of Kristen Myers, I can answer that white people say things like that because of a feeling they have. This feeling is a common, subdued revulsion at the thought of non-white people. Especially the thought of large numbers of them (such the “hordes” of “Mexicans” who are supposedly “streaming across the border”). It’s an instilled, fearful conception of supposedly dirty people with supposedly dirty habits, who threaten to contaminate cleaner, “whiter” spaces, as well as the white people in them.

And then there’s Myers’ larger point, about how such “racetalk” and the feelings that provoke it help to maintain structures of power in society. I can just imagine how this contaminating part of the collective white psyche is going to manifest itself for a lot of people in November. That’s when American voters will be asked who belongs in another fantasized, highly symbolic space of abstract cleanliness—the White House.

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