Sunday, July 04, 2010

"My Name Is Ed. I'm a Racist."

I've been thinking, talking and writing of late on the virus of White Supremacy that's embedded in every fair-skinned person raised in the good ole U.S. of A. Actually, I've been thinking, talking and writing on the virus of White Supremacy since at least 1963, so on some levels it just fascinates the hell out of me that I can't even imagine reaching the end of the process of its examination. Social change is constant and inevitable, so how, I ask, does this one area in American culture just seem to get worse and worse. It's not like we don't know about it (whatever White folks like to claim).

Sigh.

Anyway, I came across this a two part essay a few minutes ago and I'm going to post both parts together right here immediately. I'm not suggesting that this guy's got the topic sewed up or anything. But it's a good addition to the dialogue.

"My Name Is Ed. I'm a Racist."
by Ed Kinane/Truthout op-ed

Alcoholics Anonymous knows that recovery requires acknowledging one's illness; denial cripples recovery. What follows isn't about drinking, but about a more cunning disease. Before I say more, I want to introduce myself: "My name is Ed. I'm a racist."

No, I'm not flaunting my bigotry, nor succumbing to guilt. I'm acknowledging that I've been deeply conditioned by a society permeated with racism. For a white person raised in the US, racism recovery demands persistent mindfulness. It's the task of a lifetime.

Admitting you're an alcoholic is hard; likewise admitting to racism. Conveniently, our standard notion of racism features behavior we avoid. We "know" we're not racist because we shun ethnic slurs; we wince at the N-word.

The flipside of this (necessary but insufficient) standard is our widely held, but rarely examined, notion of anti-racism. Again, we "know" we're anti-racist because, in my case for example, back in the eighties we organized against South African apartheid. Or because recently we contributed to Haitian earthquake relief.

But such notions of racism/anti-racism don't go deep enough. It takes work to fathom racism's breadth and subtlety and to perceive the social and economic forces fostering the de facto segregation that warps our social fabric.

Equally essential, we must recognize and resist the racism pervading US foreign policy. The Pentagon's current military adventures - whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia - were foreshadowed, in the 19th century, by relentless Indian wars and by US invasions of Mexico and the Philippines.

This generations-old war machine has never had much use for the lives of peoples of color. It's no accident that its numerous invasions and interventions invariably target nonwhite people.
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In my first 14 years of school, I had only two black classmates; despite over 18 years of schooling I never had a black teacher. I was 19 before I had a personal conversation with a black person. My early college days were spent in a lovely ivy enclave set off by walls and rent-a-cops from the black and brown ghetto at its gate.

Demoralized by the irrelevance of my courses, I dropped out. Thanks not only to family connections, but also to the sixties building boom in my hometown, I could work construction. In Syracuse's 15th Ward, "urban renewal" drove thousands of blacks out of what was becoming prime real estate. The forced relocation demolished a vibrant black ghetto.

Despite that boom, few blacks could break into the construction trades; there wasn't a single black in our union local. None of us challenged the arrangement. Forty-five years later, not much has changed here: few black contractors can bid on even modest building jobs.

It's no wonder that in the early eighties, when I hitchhiked through South Africa, it seemed like home. And last spring when I spent a month in Israel and the Occupied Territories, that European colony also felt like home.

Basic to these segregated societies and to our militarism is what poet Adrienne Rich calls solipsism. In philosophy, solipsism is the theory that the self is the only reality: you exist only as a figment of my imagination.

Rich speaks, in particular, of white solipsism: a cultural egoism, which assumes - quite unconsciously - that only white history or discovery or suffering or interests have merit and standing. Most white folks - whether in South Africa or Israel or here - grow up in white neighborhoods going to white schools and consuming white-controlled media. This is how we internalize white "reality."

For many of us, the solipsism that denies or demeans or destroys did not originate with racism. It began, historically and personally, before we were exposed to ethnic diversity. While being molded for roles defined by gender, boys acquire the parallel male solipsism of a patriarchal culture. Sexism precedes racism, grinding the lens that makes our racist outlook second nature. Sexist behavior provides an ongoing rehearsal for our racist performance.

When we were young, we had little control over our enculturation and so weren't to blame for such tunnel vision. But now that we're grown, we are responsible for the kinds of callousness and exclusivity we choose to honor. Many of us eagerly - or obliviously - float along the mainstream that invalidates the lives of people of color. Their labor and their living conditions, their needs and their pain, their gifts and their rights, are systematically negated, rendered invisible, rendered mute.
______________________

White solipsism helps explain the foreign policy double standard which regards only political violence aimed at whites as "terrorism." Since World War II, few whites have been victims of aerial warfare: no wonder few here see such warfare as the cowardly terrorism it is.

Although the pundits glibly link "terrorism" to Islam, they never call Congress or Bush/Clinton/Bush/Obama terrorists when they squander billions invading Islamic oil lands or when (say) US drone aircraft assassinate those resisting the invasion and occupation. Or when those unmanned drones kill civilians willy-nilly.

In the moral calculus of white America, the tens - maybe hundreds - of thousands of slain Iraqis or Afghans barely exist. Even we who actively oppose US militarism in West Asia and the Mid East often ignore the racism at its heart.

To overcome our "isms," we could curb our overconsumption and our overeager embrace of privilege. We could shed our patterns of exclusivity, bursting the bubble of self-reinforced segregation.

Through cross-cultural study and solidarity work, we could better understand the human condition - especially that of the huge majority of our species who aren't white, who aren't affluent, who don't blackmail the globe with aerial warfare and nuclear terror.

Years ago, I hitchhiked through Africa. I spent several weeks each in Sudan, Uganda, Nigeria, Namibia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and apartheid South Africa. For a year - between treks - I taught peasant kids in a remote one-room school in Kenya.

My experiences with people all over Africa were diverse, but generally positive. They were different from those I had had with black people back in the United States.

At the time, struck by the contrast, I drew up a list of all the encounters I could recall having had with U.S. blacks. A manageable task - as for most middle-class white North Americans (and even an itinerant like me), such encounters had been sparse. That list included separate incidents in which I was punched in the face; beaten to the ground; confronted by a burly knife-wielding drunk determined (he said) to "get whitey"; called a "racist pig" by a middle-aged student for questioning her impeccable term paper (it was most unlikely she had written it herself).

A black person scanning this list might wonder how many of those incidents would have been avoided or defused if race conditions in the U.S. weren't so flammable. Or if I hadn't seemed so entitled. On the other hand, a white person might wonder why those incidents didn't make me an out-and-out racist.

One reason I have escaped the racist trap - not that any of us escape entirely - is that I do a lot of reading. I've read many books on black Americans and black Africans, and on capitalism and colonialism. Those books expose a scarring history; they expose the impact of organized power (white) over the lives of the less centralized and less weaponized (people of color). Those books expose the historical impact of men with guns on those without.

Another reason I haven't succumbed as much to racism, I think, is all the low-budget travel I've done. I've gotten out of what I call "the bubble" - those self-imposed limitations, geographical and otherwise, typical of so many Americans. The bubble, partly constructed by our mainstream media, leads many into jingoism and into U.S. exceptionalism: the illusion that U.S. people are somehow different from - somehow more decent and precious than - others.

Travel provided me the opportunity to observe the human condition. I've seen how people can live in penury - due to social, economic and historical factors - through no fault of their own. And do so with dignity and neighborliness. In part because I was often on the receiving end of hospitality, I could better see people as human beings and not as "other."

I should point out here that, thanks to a privileged head start, I've been able to have some professional training. But such training can be a mixed bag. Take my (former) field - anthropology. The field basically originated in the 19th century in the context of the expansion of well-armed white people over much of the globe. Anthropology was an adjunct to colonialism.

Here in the U.S., there are two kinds of anthropology: physical and cultural. During its early decades, physical anthro fixated on racial traits and typologies. In effect, physical anthro was seeking out and quantifying anatomical differences between "us" and "them."

Cultural anthropology carried the white supremacist mission in still another direction. In origin, and by its choice of problems and selection of data, cultural anthro fostered the conceit that Anglo-America was the peak of cultural evolution. Further, it served colonial administration, intentionally or not, by inventorying the resources and manpower of conquered peoples and identifying indigenous pockets of compliance...or resistance.

At times, anthropology has facilitated physical and cultural genocide. To the detriment of the communities they studied, during the Vietnam War, anthro and other academic research in Southeast Asia was financed by a very goal-oriented CIA. In Afghanistan today, the U.S. military has its so-called Human Terrain social scientists deployed along with the invading troops.

Anthropology happens to be the field I'm most familiar with. It's probably not much more guilty than some other fields. Academic learning, in general, especially that which pretends to be "objective" or "value free," or which poses as "social science," tends to serve the agendas of those who finance it. By the data it neglects or emphasizes, it can spawn myths and subtle slanders that justify or bolster white governance.

Ironically, academic learning helped provide me with liberal notions about race while at the same time credentialing me for a place in the very class system that perpetuates and profits from racial exploitation.

It's the old story of the Haves and the Have Nots. While modern genetics knows there really isn't any such thing as "race," liberals in regard to race can be quite classist. I find it easy to look down on poor whites, especially those who don't share my facility for appearing "politically correct."

Not every white can afford a gated community or suburban insulation. Some have more reason to fear and resent blacks. Some may have had their bruising encounters with blacks on the street (see above). That blacks have had vastly more to fear from whites and from white law enforcement hardly matters if you are a white feeling threatened.

The fears and resentments of poor whites - which we reflexively label "racism" - may very well be based, in part, on concrete experience. Poor whites are on the downside of a class system that pits them against blacks - blacks who, despite their disadvantages, are often brimming with brio and capability.

In our effectively segregated society, poor whites - far more than prosperous whites - rub elbows with poor blacks. After all, they're scavenging the same few crumbs and for the same scarce jobs. Sometimes they clash. Racial epithets abound. Such conflict, of course, is deplored by the genteel.

But these good people - I'm talking about you and me - gain from a divided working class. Racial strife makes it very hard for workers, tenants, and welfare clients to organize for decent wages, housing and social services. For the affluent, skimpy social services mean lower taxes; cheap labor means lower prices, and both mean higher dividends.

Like prosperity, our self-esteem is relative. In the early eighties in South Africa, I could see that black degradation fostered white self-esteem. I don't think it's so different here. Racism is hardly an exclusively lower-class franchise.

There's a whole strata of genteel and structural racism that isn't vulgar or verbal or directly violent. That strata's violence is systemic (item: in my home town, far more black babies die from preventable illness in their first year than whites). Such systemic racism isn't confrontational. On the contrary, it operates on aversion and invisibility, on obliviousness and avoidance - reflecting the opaque distance between suburb and slum. And it's a function of the immense disparity of wealth - shaping life options - that marks the gulf between whites and people of color.

I'd like to close with an assertion: what we typically think of as racism (e.g. people under stress calling one another "nigger," etc.) often isn't real racism. It's a product of racism - a product of those forces determining the unequal distribution of power and opportunity in our society.

To the extent that I profit from and help perpetuate such forces, consciously or unconsciously, I foster racism.
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NOTE: The cartoon featured above is by Barry Deutsch.

3 comments:

Will Capers said...

That is a very good read. You don't hear too many whites admitting openly to racism, and it's a sharp parallel with that and being addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Joy said...

I've been working in our city's children's hospital, located in a poor neighborhood, for the last 4 years. This year our department adopted a class in the neighborhood school. Between the work we've done in the school and the things I've learned about the hospital's work to reduce the infant mortality rate, I've begun to peel back the tape on what I thought was racism to peek at what lies underneath... systemic separation and abuse of power. This article confirms what I've seen. It's breathtaking and overwhelming. There are no easy answers, but it gives me much food for thought, especially as we raise our children and try to break down some of the system's walls for them, at least a little.

Changeseeker said...

I agree, Will. The comparison to addiction puts racism (and its effects on the racist as well as those around him or her) right up there with other forms of insanity. Where it belongs.

Joy: Your comment highlights what I so often write on this blog. People who want to "get" it will find a way to learn. And those who don't want to know won't, no matter how long you talk. You can't wake up a person who's pretending to be asleep. And you can't hide the truth from one whose eyes have been opened. Welcome to my world. And thanks for your comment.