Normally I find myself responding to breaking news stories or political opinion pieces, but today is a bit different. A reader pointed me to an advice columnist at the New York Times with a rather unusual take on an old subject. Kwame Anthony Appiah, a British-born Ghanaian-American philosopher, writes for the Gray Lady on a variety of subjects and apparently dispenses advice to those who are confused about propriety in complicated social situations. This week he was tackling a question from a reader who noticed something odd on what may or may not be the subject of racism.
The letter in question (which you can read at this link) posed the following, allegedly real-life scenario. A Chinese restaurant the writer frequents has two menus. There’s a less expensive lunch menu with a lot of specials on it and their more expensive, fancy dinner menu. The writer (who is white) noticed that when Chinese customers showed up, the wait staff (also Chinese) almost always immediately gave them the cheaper lunch menu. But white customers were uniformly given the more expensive dinner menu. When the writer asked for a lunch menu instead they happily gave it to them, but he’s concerned that other white customers might not know about the cheaper lunch menu and were getting overcharged. The writer wonders if he should intervene by telling other white patrons about the lunch menu.
I know this sounds very much off the beaten path, but Appiah’s answer really opens the door to a lot of questions. Here’s part of it. (Emphasis mine)
In the scenario you describe, the restaurant’s Chinese staff members are partial to their Chinese neighbors. They give them special treatment. They don’t have anything against non-Chinese, as they show by happily giving you the lunch menu when you ask for it. So they’re motivated by in-group preference, not by out-group hostility.
Some people think that giving preferential treatment to members of your own ethnic kind is as bad as hostility to outsiders. Others even deny that such a distinction can be drawn. I think that’s wrong. In my experience, African-Americans, especially in small towns, often smile and nod at black passers-by and not at white ones. You can have that as a reflex without ever glowering at a white person or refusing to smile back if a person who isn’t black smiles at you. Partiality needn’t be prejudicial.
Granted, we’d feel very different about white servers favoring white customers. But that’s for two reasons. One is a suspicion that, in our society, behavior of that sort would in fact be motivated by negative feelings toward nonwhites — that is, by racism. Another is that whites are a majority in this country.
Appiah goes on from there at length, not only batting away the idea that the restaurant workers could be acting in a prejudicial fashion but offering other explanations. These include the possibility that the eatery is “simply trying to maximize profits” on the assumption that many of the white customers are tourists. (Presumably by offering the lower priced menu to the “less affluent” Chinese locals and trying to sell the more expensive dishes to the “more free-spending foreigners.”)
I found myself somewhat shocked that these descriptions and definitions rolled so easily off Appiah’s tongue when I wasn’t even familiar with some of the terminology and concepts. First of all, the assumed difference between “in-group preference” versus “out-group hostility” caught me off guard. I had to go do some searching, but it turns out that these are phrases commonly employed in psychology and social identity studies. The problem is that they both deal with the same thing. If you are observed treating two or more groups of people differently based on their race (or presumably other demographic distinctions) than you can either be doing it because you prefer your own group or because you’re hostile to the other group(s).
What’s the difference you might ask? Well, as the author goes on to explain in the next paragraph, it’s based on your skin color. It’s perfectly fine to treat white customers differently than Asian diners if you are Asian because you simply have a preference for your “in-group.” But if you’re a white person behaving in the same fashion, you’re exhibiting “out-group hostility” which is racist. But if you’re not white, as Appiah writes, “partiality needn’t be prejudicial.”
We’re already hearing several of the 2020 Democratic hopefuls out on the trail talking about how we need have that long-overdue conversation about race. (The same thing Barack Obama said, though it seems some days as if that’s all we’ve been talking about for years.) The complaints keep coming that we’re not making sufficient progress on this front. Do you want to know why? This advice column in the New York Times is why. Because these ideas seem to be pervasive in universities and social justice circles. You can’t claim to be truly interested in a colorblind society where citizens are judged not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character, if you keep setting up a double standard that nobody is going to meet or be satisfied by.