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Racist If You Do, Racist If You Don't

Here's a thought experiment for my white readers: say somebody came up to you and said they could turn you into a black person. How much money would you ask for as compensation?

Got your answer? Well, it turns out that by answering that amount that you did -- whatever it was -- we can see that you're racist. I say this because I've recently seen this experiment cited as evidence for white racism in two mutually contradictory ways.

The first place I heard about this -- I unfortunately can't remember the source -- said this experiment showed racism because white people asked for too much compensation. After all, the author reasoned, if you truly think there's nothing wrong with being black, you shouldn't need much money to be a fair compensation for switching races (though I think this author underestimated the importance of transition costs -- imagine going to the DMV and asking for a new driver's license because your race changed).

But I just read a post by Amanda Marcotte in which she cites other authors claiming that the participants in a similar experiment are racist because they demand too little money. The logic here is that black people suffer a lot of oppression, so giving up the privileges of being white ought to be worth quite a bit of money, so lowballing your demand shows you underestimate the degree of racial oppression that exists. (Here I question how well the experimenters' and participants' definitions matched up with respect tp the line between the effects of being a new race and the "everything else" that's held constant, since so many things are partially shaped by race and partially shaped by other things. So it wouldn't be unreasonable for a participant to assume that the researchers meant for him or her to hold their economic status, at least up until the point of the change, constant, even though the researchers were factoring in racial disparities in income to calculate the real non-racist cost of switching.)

The point is that given two plausible but contradictory interpretations of the experiment, it becomes difficult to assume the experiment participants were thinking in just one of those ways and therefore to draw one conclusion. We'll have to find different ways of demonstrating how racist white people are.


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