On intersections

(Via stuff white people do 2008-12-07.)

From Suzanne Vega, Measure for Measure (2008-12-03): Which Side Are You On?

The last verse was inspired by a real-life discussion I overheard at a bar in Baltimore. A black man and a white woman were discussing a recent sports event. He called her baby playfully. She called him stats boy, meaning, I guess, someone well-versed in statistics. The conversation escalated quickly into a loud yelling argument, as he did not feel he was a boy of any kind and that word had racist overtones. Maybe the recent election means my song is on its way to being obsolete. I hope so.

— Suzanne Vega, Measure for Measure (2008-12-03): Which Side Are You On?

I singled this passage out because I wanted to note something about how the use of diminutives plays out here — what kind of lines get noticed here and what kind of lines get ignored, and what kind of words get a remark and what kind get a free pass. Of course, whatever the white woman may have intended — and I’m sure she didn’t think of what she was doing, and I’m sure she used that as part of an attempt to defend herself, but it’s actually part of the problem — racist overtones is a really mild way to describe the cultural freight that accompanies calling a grown Black man a boy. The man she was talking to was not a boy. And there’s a history there that makes it important not to forget certain things. But neither is she, a grown woman, a baby. And if you think there isn’t a history there that makes it important not to forget certain things, well, you need to think harder.

We don’t know what the man and the woman said in their fight so I have no way of knowing whether she allowed herself to be upset about that; I do know that if she did, Suzanne Vega didn’t think it was worth recording the fact that she did in retelling the story. I think it’s interesting what gets singled out as worthy of remark, what gets singled out as the sort of thing that somebody might be upset about and that might be imporant to understanding how a conversation could end up as a fight. And what gets dropped as beneath that sort of attention. I think that’s interesting. And I think that’s sad.


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17 replies to On intersections Use a feed to Follow replies to this article

  1. Jeremy

    Wow, maybe Vega isn’t telling the story well and leaving out important points, but the drama here makes absolutely no sense to me. Absolutely none.

    I’m all about historical context, but to be honest, if I have to consider the entire history of race relations every time I open my mouth to an african american, in what way am I really having a conversation and not just engaging in copious amounts of protocol? Yes, it’s important to remember historical context. It’s also important to remember that the person you’re talking to is an individual who isn’t necessarily responsible for 400 years of subjugation?

    I generally think I understand the sense in which black men don’t want to be called “boy” (at least I thought I did). But calling somebody a “stats boy” or “b boy” or “fan boy” is totally different than simply calling them “boy”, and even THAT could have context and inflection that would render it offensive. This is more subtle than I guess Vega could communicate, and that’s why it bothers me to draw conclusions about this.

    I guess this is part of what worries me about thick libertarianism… yes, there are more facets to a free society of individuals who can express themselves maximally than mere politics. But aren’t there also priorities? Aren’t there more important aspects of racism – like institutional structures in government, business, etc. – than dissecting a conversation between two people who could be fighting about anything?

    It’s important to remember that subjugation still occurs, even the subtle subjugation of language. It bears reminding every so often. I just don’t want to live in some cultural marxist hellhole where everything gets reduced to that.

  2. anonymous

    “Cultural Marxist hellhole” sounds right.

    Seriously… do you ever speak to ordinary people? Calling someone simply “boy” would be insulting, but the construction such-and-such-boy has nothing to do with age or race. (See “spud-boy,” “fan-boy,” “b-boy,” etc.) I have a friend who spends far too much time on eBay. I sometimes call him “eBoy,” which we both find mildly humorous. He’s white, but if he were black and also my friend, I’d still feel free to call him that — or we wouldn’t really be friends, would we?

  3. Butler T. Reynolds

    Sadly, if you’ve ever lived down South, you’ll understand how black people can take the innocent use of the word “boy” complete out of context.

  4. Soviet Onion

    black people can take the innocent use of the word “boy” complete out of context.

    Oh come on, people!

  5. Aster

    Soviet Onion-

    Thank you.

  6. Nick Manley

    Soviet Onion,

    You’re on quite the leftist warpath these days ( :

  7. Rad Geek


    Since I’m not a victim of racism, I don’t see how I have much to say about what aspects of racism people of color ought or ought not to prioritize in their work against it.

    However, I will say that getting upset over, or spending some time analyzing, or spending some time analyzing the analysis of, the dynamics in a particular conversation, isn’t the same thing as claiming that that particular conversation is somehow the most important aspect of that particular problem, ever, or with reducing everything to the thing that you got upset about, or spent some time analyzing, or spent some time analyzing the analysis of.

    I have to confess that I’m a little puzzled about how any of this connects with a worry about thick libertarianism as such (or left-libertarian forms of thickness, more specifically). If you think that some cultural or social or institutional commitments are more important to emphasize then others, well, fine, I agree with you about that. (Although I may not agree with you about what is the best way to identify the priorities, or what to do once you’ve identified them.) But that’s still a thick conception of libertarianism, and it’s still a Leftist form of thickness, at least so far as what you’ve said so far goes. If you think that cultural commitment A is more important for libertarians to emphasize than cultural commitment B, even though both A and B are equally non-liberty-infringing, that’s a reason in favor of a thick conception of libertarianism (i.e., a conception in which there are recognizably libertarian reasons to favor some non-liberty-infringing cultural commitments over others), and as long as A and B are both recognizably Leftist ends, that means a debate about Leftist strategy and tactics, not an argument against Leftism as such.

    As for your perceived troubles in talking with black people, well, honestly, there’s nothing I can do about that. I’m sorry.


    The concern has nothing in particular to do with your personal intentions or the state of your soul. It has to do with the effects that your word choice may have on other people, even if those effects were not what you intended.


    Dude, I was born and bred in the South; I’ve spent 20 years of my life (including almost my entire educational career, from pre-K through University) in the historical Confederacy. And what I’ve come to understand is that the context of a white person using the word boy to describe an adult Black man is a lot wider than just the personal intentions of the individual white person using it.

    And also that a lot of my fellow white Southerners are willing to be quite willfully obtuse, and needlessly defensive, in the effort to play innocent and shift responsibility for our fuck-ups onto offended black people. Which is as much or more of a problem than the original offense. In a civilized society, when you step on someone’s toes, you say I’m sorry about that, even (especially) if you didn’t mean to do it; you don’t just change the subject to how big the other fellow’s feet are, or the the psychological or cultural faults that you think caused her to set her toes where you were about to step. And I think the readiness to substitute that kind of psychologizing and sociologizing, in place of simple empathy or even basic politeness, is interesting. And sad.

  8. Soviet Onion


    I wouldn’t think that casually pointing out the obvious counts as going on a leftist warpath, but apparently in some contexts it is. It’s just not PC to bring up psychological assault, and act like it matters, in some libertarian circles.

    I like to think of myself as half bleeding heart lefty-libertarian, and half no-nonsense, truth-or-consequences Malcolm Reynolds libertarian. The two halves mesh pretty well.

  9. Marja Erwin

    Gina de Vries discusses the patterns of violence against sex workers:


  10. Jeremy

    First of all, I do think it’s interesting what gets singled out for attention and what flies below the radar. I agree with you on that, Charles, and I think it’s something you can analyze. But I think if you encourage an analysis, you can’t simply reject people’s conclusions because, well, they’re not victims of it. I openly stated that maybe I didn’t have sufficient information to make a call, and that it did boggle my mind.

    And you did identify why I thought of thick conceptions of libertarianism in this context: because in practice the arguments for thick libertarianism that I’ve seen seem more interested in the conclusions one draws from these commitments than in the commitments themselves. This is one of the things I mentioned to Preston while he was formulating his critique of your and Roderick’s arguments: neither of you have been very clear about the specific broader commitments involved in the thick approach. What are these commitments? You both have given examples but you haven’t laid out the full extent of what you think is entailed, etc. So I think it’s natural in the absence of details to simply conclude “cultural marxism by libertarian means”.

    In other words, being against racism may be entailed by libertarianism. But what does that mean? Does that necessarily mean that, because one accepts that treating people equally regardless of the color of their skin, one arrives at the standard liberal position on racism?

    And so when I see an issue like the story you mention and see more unexplained than explained, I wonder whether or not I’m being invited, in the name of thick libertarianism, to actually analyze the situation, or whether I’m being invited to embrace a particular conclusion. Especially when I see commenters who agree with you express hostility towards those who don’t understand, and yet don’t seize the opportunity to make a thick argument.

    Does that make sense? Your thoughts would be welcome.

  11. Marja Erwin

    In the social anarchist milieu, the political theory, which accords with other libertarian theories, is often considered an extension of the rejection of hierarchy in general. (Although there is some ambiguity about the nature of hierarchy).

    I wrote a blog entry about that:


  12. Aster


    May I ask what you mean by the ‘standard liberal position on racism’?

  13. Soviet Onion

    In other words, being against racism may be entailed by libertarianism. But what does that mean?

    I think it would mean making it a priority to denounce it as evil/undesirable, and to oppose and overturn it in the same way we do statism, whenever possible and in whatever ways are ethical. Doesn’t that just seem like the logical course of action, given the stated premise?

    I myself would be satisfied if libertarians would just stop excusing racism, or pretending it doesn’t exist and isn’t relevant, or scolding us on how it’s not all that bad, just because they have this childish need to do the opposite of whatever political correctness expects of them. As Charles already pointed out, that’s just a different kind of thick libertarianism in its own right.

  14. Nick Manley

    I suspect Jeremy means the standard left-liberal position on its pervasivness or existence. I could be wrong though.

  15. Jeremy

    May I ask what you mean by the ‘standard liberal position on racism’?

    I’d say the normal politically correct view on racism. If I had to tease out the core features that distinguish it, I’d include the following: (A) it is a priority above other social ills like hunger, general legal injustice, etc. to eradicate, (B) it requires the active moral policing of individual behaviors to eradicate, (C) it generally is only egregious when practiced by the majority on the minority. There are probably other elements, but these seem to me to be the underlying priorities that justify things like affirmative action, accepted social decorum on denouncing racists, general deference to minorities on select issues (by no means all), etc.

    The goal does not seem to be to make society more egalitarian, but rather to make society more “aware” of how inegalitarian it is – as if that were all that were required. This is why I bring up cultural marxism – at some point, the racism becomes more useful to deconstruct social relationships and it is to use as a means towards bettering the lives of individual victims of racism. I understand why this approach is accepted by progressives – it provides a narrative for why state intervention is needed by the victimized individual – but I wouldn’t think libertarians would arrive at these conclusions necessarily.

    But maybe I’m wrong, and an argument could be made. Or maybe libertarians have a different take and that different take is in fact more substantive than the standard liberal position. Either way, you have to make an argument for what that commitment actually is prior to demanding people act on it, and you have to argue for its inclusion in the set of thick commitments, if you want it to be synonymous with libertarianism.

  16. Jeremy

    Just so we’re clear, I would think a thick libertarian approach would end up concluding that institutional structures perpetuating racial privileges and subjugation are a higher priority than policing individual relationships, for instance. That would arise from the joint commitments of libertarians to recognize (A) the primacy of the individual regardless of second-order distinctions, (B) the preference for allowing individuals to work out their problems without outside interference, all other things being equal, and (C) the role of coercive institutions in artificially perpetuating distinctions between individuals and groups of individuals that are not relevant to their moral value, such as race. To me, if these were the commitments (I’m not saying they are or should be), I grant that the libertarian view one would take of Vega’s story might not be too different, but there’d be a greater likelihood that other, more systemic or pervasive instances of racism would be prioritized over analyzing such a mundane one.

    The chief thing I was responding to vis a vis Vega’s story is that it just doesn’t make sense to me. Until we understand, we cannot work these things out individually. And it seems to me that the standard, liberal position on racism is more interested in us not working racial issues out individually and depending on expert intervention. If you want a more social, decentralized, individualist fight against racism, the first step is for the individuals to understand what’s going on, and I just don’t get what’s going on in that story.

  17. Jeremy

    Soviet Onion,

    Hopefully I’ve answered your question in making a distinction between prioritizing the policing of individual behaviors and prioritizing the dismantling of the institutions that perpetuate racism.

    I myself would be satisfied if libertarians would just stop excusing racism, or pretending it doesn’t exist and isn’t relevant, or scolding us on how it’s not all that bad, just because they have this childish need to do the opposite of whatever political correctness expects of them. As Charles already pointed out, that’s just a different kind of thick libertarianism in its own right.

    Charles is 100% right about that – where did he point that out, if you recall? Actually, I think that concept is far too important to risk conflating with the argument for leftist commitments. I’d prefer that right libertarians simply recognize that what they think is “plumb line” libertarianism actually does include cultural, value-oriented, and altogether arbitrary commitments that inform their principles. That would be the first step towards changing those commitments, and I’d advise Charles to make that argument distinct from the argument for a leftist set of commitments.

    I consider my take on racism both leftist and libertarian, but I can see why Charles (and maybe you and Aster) would differ with me. I do not see libertarianism as a moral code of individual behavior, so I don’t necessarily think a thick libertarianism has a place there except coincidentally (i.e., it just happens that the same principle applies to an individual behavior as applies to an institutional relationship). For me, libertarianism has much more to say about the role of power concentrations that arise from mass human behavior; the commitments are informed by that priority. Even though there are other, more personal ways those commitments can still be realized in our individual behavior and beliefs, those commitments need not ALWAYS be considered “libertarian” ones, just as libertarian political commitments need not have a corollary with principles of personal behavior.