"Insensitive" seems to be the word that's won out to describe symbolic violence in white supremacist praxis; it shifts the production of the problem to the victims, whose "sensitivity" to the expressions and symbolic acts create the offense on the receiving end out of an act presumed neutral and innocent. "Insensitive" is like a plea of "no contest"; it accomplishes the denial of aggression and benefit to the aggressor. "Insensitive" belongs to the apologetics for crime and aggression that have been over the past decade established as the favourite substitute confession of power - indifference, carelessness, callousness, inattention, incompetence, negligence. "Insensitivity" is the lesser charge to which ZizneyCorp and its counterparts all eagerly plead.
In Chapter 4, I introduced the idea of “social alexithymia” (Feagin 2006), Hernan Vera’s term for White Americans’ curious lack of empathy for the feelings of people of color. We can now see that this lack of empathy involves a chain of reasoning that goes something like this: “I am a good and normal mainstream sort of White person. I am not a racist, because racists are bad and marginal people. Therefore, if you understood my words to be racist, you must be mistaken. I may have used language that would be racist in the mouth of a racist person, but if I did so, I was joking. If you understood my meaning to be racist, not only do you insult me, but you lack a sense of humor, and you are oversensitive.” Notice that this entire chain of reasoning makes the speaker the sole authority over what her words shall mean. But this exclusive control is merely the common sense of personalist logic, and it is very hard to interrupt common sense….
Van Dijk argued that ‘knowledgeable minority group members’ are our surest guides to where racism is active. People of color have produced some of the most profound thinking about racism, and, while they pick their battles carefully, letting much that is offensive pass by without objection, both in small acts of everyday rejection and in deliberate public manifestations by entire communities, they have been active in resistance. When I have talked to people of color about “covert racist discourse,” I often find that they have understood this concept, in an informal way, since childhood. Among Whites, the idea of “linguistic appropriation” is a concept encountered, if at all, during university education. Among African Americans, it is a commonplace of everyday understanding. So, not only do people of color deserve civility and respect as fellow citizens, they deserve the attention of anti-racist Whites as knowledgeable experts in the analysis of White racism, which is surely one of the greatest challenges faced by American society.
Along with accusations of “oversensitivity”, the media ritual of moral panic over “gaffes” should cease. I have followed these affairs for about a decade. Their terms are rigidly formulaic. The exchange of blame and excuse is utterly predictable, with Harvard-educated Washington Post columnists and middle-western talk radio hosts alike invoking the same hackneyed formulas, knotting up once again the frayed ends of the folk theory of racism and the personalist rhetoric of motives to return to the same tired conclusions about decent people who somehow slipped. It is time to simply hold people responsible for their words. If victims claim that those words were hurtful and damaging, that alone should carry blame and bring appropriate punishment. Arguments about whether or not speakers are racist are not useful, and function largely to reproduce White racism’s central ideas.
Jane Hill, The Everyday Language of White Racism