August 20, 2008

Whiteness as a Global Phenomenon: Some Observations

And, yet, a certain word, a glance, a guise, will mirror, never show, reflecting not my gaze, but my uncertain question caught inside a shadow of our shifting eyes.


A man's errors are his portals of discovery.
--James Joyce


Joseph Palmi: Let me ask you something... we Italians, we got our families, and we got the church; the Irish, they have the homeland, Jews their tradition; even the niggers, they got their music. What about you people, Mr. Wilson, what do you have?
Edward Wilson: The United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.

--from The Good Shepherd directed by Robert De Niro

I've had a lot of time over the past few days to think, since I am currently holed up in Mombasa with a dwindling cash supply. I've been thinking a lot about race and racial identity. Even though 'mzungu' calling here seems to have dwindled a bit lately (the kids in the building where I;m living finally know my name), reminders of the ongoing importance of 'whiteskin privilege' are ever present.

Yesterday, I was sitting in the baobab forest on the west side of town, munching on coconut biscuits and litchi juice, when this young man came and sat nearby and struck up a conversation. Turns out he is a new arrival in Mombasa from Kampala, Uganda, recently graduated from highschool and looking to get a job in I.T.
He spoke excitedly of his love for America and California, American television (Prison Break anyone?), and of his ultimate desire to marry an American woman. When I asked why this was so, he replied how much he liked their attitude and their freedom. Apparently though, as I soon clarified, this only applied to American WHITE women, because black women, he had been told, cheated on their men, and if their man found out about it, he would kill you.
Again, it got me thinking about the pervasive attitude I have observed over here of mzunguphilia...I am talking about in casual conversation, as well as the numerous women who have approached me telling me they love white men. Is it money? Yes. Is it self-hatred? This I find to be more complex answer.

It brought me back to a reflection about race and white identity that was published in the Liberator Magazine about "Positive White Identity". That article was my attempt to piece together all the disparate parts of my experience into some coherent philosophy for moving forward and living wholistically in world where the standard for what is right, as much as whites don't want to admit it, is still based on what powerful white men think.

My article was interpreted by some as an unequivocal stance against identifying as white, as if the identity itself was the virus and not the privilege, power, and arrogance that rides shotgun. Yet I was not trying to call whiteness the enemy so that every white would feel guilty when that identifying word was used. I wrote provocatively because I wanted to use the emotions of that word to spark a deeper probing of identity in general for people like me, family members, friends, and others who may have struggled with these questions and issues.

My own probing began in highschool with history, primarily American history, and looking at how the edifice of white supremacy in America was built and sustained from the first European settlement all the way through the Black Power movement. When I moved South for the first time, the ongoing reality of this system and its effects hit home in a powerful way.

Many years later, after a visit to South Africa, I began to understand how the system that whites built in America had been duplicated in other parts of the world where European migrants settled. Reading Cedric Robinson's Black Marxism made me aware of how the intellectual lineage of European thought was grounded in an attempt to universalize the mix of dynamism and fratricidal warfare that characterized intra-European relations (the specific heritage of European development through history) as a pattern for global development. To some extent this became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the effects and after effects of European expansion and colonialization still reverberate through our modern political order.

At the same time that the historical link of whiteness and power was entering my understanding, my consciousness was penetrated by a second, more profound realization at the deepest levels. This was stimulated by going to school in majority black envirornments at Howard and Lincoln. Already radicalized going into these experiences, I was unprepared for how much I actually enjoyed the respect and affirmation I received for being (more often than not) the only white in most every situation. I didn't keep quiet or censor my views, but I did find that I was forced to grapple with viewpoints that were far from the rainbow view of diversity-for-personal-enhancement that I had been spoon fed by my public education.

More than being respected, I found I desired to be totally accepted by blacks. Since I increasingly did not find myself comfortable in the lily-white envirornments of armchair leftists, I gravitated towards black culture, and I saw my move as a cultural, as well as a political stance. If I wasn't going to be white (at least in spirit) then I would try to be black (at least in spirit). I felt I was solving two problems with this move. First, I was confronting my own segregated heritage and the cultural and social divide along racial lines that is absolutely real in America, Obama notwithstanding. Second, I believed I was dealing in an active way with the 'white guilt' that seems to overtake 'liberal' whites who attempt to confront race. (I used to observe despairingly the extent to which these whites let their guilt virtually paralyze their ability to analyze independently in discussions of race; it was as if their logical circuits shut down, and they put themselves down as the de facto oppressor.)

However, my growing adaptation culturally--deepening friendships, serious working relationships, dating, and even the ability to master linguistic cues in Black English--was not without its problems. Some blacks found my 'passing' into black culture less than authentic and actually quite pathetic. Those who disliked me likely did so for one of three reasons (that I either overheard or was told directly) 1) Genuine suspicion--ie, this guy has got to be a spook or 2)Belief that I was basically an interloper snooping where I didn't and couldn't belong. (commonly held by the 'conscious' crowd) or 3) Envy--ie, how could this white guy be so successful at a school for 'us'?

At the same time, I think my immersion raised concern among my family that I had really lost my foundation and didn't know who I was. I am quite sure other whites had even more unkind thoughts: Who the hell is this 'wigger' and what does he think he's doing? But there were many whites, who even if a bit quizzical, admired what I was doing. For my own part , I (uncharitably)found their admiration evidence of their unwillingness (or, more likely, inability) to do what I was doing.

I got so accomplished at being racially ambigous that black women customers at the Silver Spring Kinkos where I worked would frequently ask what race I was or comment how I must just be lightskinned. My personal favorite was, "Are you related to my cousin in Newark? Because you look just like him." This phenomenon even occured internationally. Two years ago, in Tanzania, an elderly man asked me, "Are you mixed with Negro?"

It made me very happy to not be considered white, I must say. At first, I felt like some kind of pioneer, or maybe a new hero, someone like the few whites I idolized--John Brown, Bob Zellner, Heather Booth. I was motivated by the idealistic feeling of a higher calling to do something no one else was willing to or capable of doing. I was that 'special white boy.' I was 'different than the rest.' And maybe I was, indeed am. No one can take the experience I have had from me.
But the inescapable fact, despite my abilities, my openmindedness, my ability to break down cultural barriers, despite the acceptance I have gained, is that I am no closer to being 'non-white'. At the end of the day, I have privilege and power I didn't ask for, benefits I have not earned, simply because of my skin color and my passport.

Indeed, the immersion into majority-black-envirornments actually helped me avoid dealing with the fundamental issue of who I am. In a way, as long as I was the only white, and I was down enough to hang around, I could enjoy myself and not have to think about a more fundamental problem: who the hell is Nate Mathews? That question only popped up when other whites came around, and I was forced to interact with them on some interpersonal level. Maybe that's why I found myself often a little suspicious at other whites and their motives for being where I was.

At the root of a lot of my suspicion, as well as white guilt, as well as the pervasive fear in the American body politic, is a lack of knowledge about who WE truly are? What collective identity do white people (now many generations removed from European descent) have other than living in the most powerful nation on earth? As a colleague put it, if America were to fall, what would 'whites' really have? What cultural foundation do we have to stand on? Where are our roots? Who the hell are we?

Now this is a question I found that African Americans (that is the descendants of those Africans brought to America to be enslaved) had to grapple with historically, and did so on a collective level by drawing on their remembrances of West African culture and tradition and attempting to extend that in an unfamiliar context. However, white Americans, by virtue of their political position, have not had to do this to any great extent. This is because of the relative economic position and illusory security offered by whiteness (in the form of land benefits, better jobs, family wealth, etc). Yet it is something that we must do, if we imagine a future beyond the United States as a people. I am reminded of that immortal quote from James Joyce, "Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." I hope I am too modest to claim to be forging the uncreated conscience of my race, but G-d willing, my experience can offer some food for thought on how whites can both look at themselves critically and take action as REAL participants in the struggle for justice, not mere sideline contributors driven by latent guilt or a need for identification with the other. May the 'battles behind my forehead' be something worthwhile to someone, somewhere.

P.S. You know, as close as 6 months ago, I could not have written this post. I was still working so hard to be accepted. But thanks to some great conversations with people like DH, NP, and TN, I have been able to see the importance of admitting to myself certain things I did not want to see for a long time.

6 comments:

Sam August 22, 2008 at 7:26 AM  

Another famous quote: "There are no races, only clines."

Skin melanization is a biological phenomenon of adaptivity to climate and sun exposure. The ONLY difference it has from any other such phenomnenon (Blood type, etc), is that it is readily noticable to the naked eye. To the extent that race is real it is a cultural construct and self-fulfilling prophecy.

There are some of us who reject this inherited opprobrium outright. The white guilt is just as spoonfed as your public education, methinks.

John Brown August 22, 2008 at 7:54 AM  

Thank you Sam. Your response is a familiar one, and of course we can't forget the biological basis for constructing reality.
However, this discussion always seems to devolve in this manner...someone begins to talk about race and difference and someone chimes in about how there is no such thing as race.
Therefore, we shouldn't be talking about it, right?
However, its easy to say what you have said, harder to live. Is a 'cultural construct' any less real for being a human creation?
I mean, no one ever rushes to say, "clothes are a cultural construct!" or "cars are a cultural construct." or "family is a cultural construct." Yet your response shows how thoroughly even the most educated among us wish to forget that RACE DOES MATTER AND THEREFORE IT IS REAL.

Sam August 22, 2008 at 11:27 AM  

John, I think you're reading too much into what I wrote.

My point was that as a cultural construct it is largely arbitrary. One could imagine a world where people were in fact judged and discriminated against based on the size of their pinky finger or the more familiar world where people are judged and discriminated against by their cars and clothes, cultural constructs as you mentioned. They, like skin melanization, signify something else such as class, descent, etc. Someone like me wants to point out that the hypothetical pinky finger fiasco and/or the class division of clothing and cars are REAL, but unnecessary, petty, and making things worse than they are. Race is in this category as well. So are starbellied sneeches.

So yes I think that race is real as a cultural construct, I said that in the first place. But it is arbitrary. People commonly believe that it is or treat it as though it is biologically substantive, which is why it is important to point out that it is not.

I would prefer a postracial society, as many people would, especially since the concept is damn near vacuous to me. What can you really tell about a person based on the amount of a certain chemical in their skin, anyhow? What can you tell about me? How do you know you're not wrong? Are you unwilling or unable to use other cues to taxonomize me into a social group, if you must?

The phenomenon of race in culture that should be discussed and treated as real. It is what you, Nate, and I are choosing to do right now instead of focusing our attention elsewhere. However it is not necessary to use race on an individual level to decide how we relate to people and make assumptions about people. This is useful in some situations but unuseful and deleterious in others. It is a choice that we make, and I think we ought not resign ourselves to utilizing race in this way as though we don't have that choice.

Zeinab August 24, 2008 at 10:59 AM  

Nate, I truly, truly admire the life choices you made, i.e. totally embracing an African American identity and living as a black person. I was always very amazed by this and kept watching carefully how the hell you did this!! It does take immense courage and bravery. Nonetheless, the question of you not being fully accepted by African Americans remains problematic. I don’t like the part where you say that one reason of not accepting you was jealousy of your academic achievements in their own school. Have you ever thought that one reason of partially rejecting you is because after all you are still practicing your supremacy as a white man?? only a white man has the luxury and power to shift identities and cross racial boundaries and become black, whereas a black can never ever do the same thing!!! So somehow, despite all respected efforts, you remain to be a white man exercising his absolute human authority to do whatever he wants and, moreover, expects others to respect what he is doing and accept him, whereas other races can never do the same. When a white man does such a thing we should all applaud, but if a black man does it then he is absolutely condemned. What you are doing without a doubt could be a great step towards something big, if people get the message, but it might not be the ultimate solution yet, I think. Apologies about being too frank here.

Me August 25, 2008 at 6:41 PM  

this was a great post, Natey Nate!!! I'm glad you've FINALLY tackled this issue...

Anon August 25, 2008 at 8:36 PM  

I'm a little confused by how you manage to equate white with American.

You may have tried to slip loose the trappings of being white, but you apparently have not yet slipped free from thinking you are associated with supremacy in one form or another.

Instead of looking so deeply into "race" as the issue, maybe you should spend a few years pondering power, how it has been acquired, and how it has been held onto.

It's probably too simple to be clear, but power corrupts. At the same time, the way things have always been done are generally accepted as the way things should be done.

Throw in a dash of media control, whether by ownership, influence or spending power, and you've gotten a bit closer to the issues involved... instead of spending your life scratching at the surface, so intently that you don't even notice your other ridiculous prejudices.

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