Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Thoughts On Race

I'm a beneficiary-of-white-privilege who renounces the category of "White" as a political fiction of the worst kind. Maintaining it seems to me to be in nobody's interest. The idea of "white people," together with all the taxonomy and lurid pseudoscience of defining it case by case, has been disastrous for everyone defined out of whiteness, that vast majority of humanity's billions, of whom "White"ness makes a zillion mere outgroups. It also seems to me that people whose heritable genetic traits happen to give them the option of identifying as "White," and who in fact do so, pay a kind of inner price for that.

As for me, I'm an obvious Ashkenazi Jew and I would have been doomed in Deutschland back in the day, without ever opening my mouth. Present in the New World since Colonial days, Jews weren't "White folks" here until the American labor market needed us to be.

James Baldwin said: "So long as you insist upon being White, I have no choice but to be Black." What's the point of being white, if not to take more than a fair share? Nobody has to be white, because of the "one drop rule," where whiteness itself insisted on excluding everyone who had even one "drop"--as though that were a unit of heredity--of blood from a non"white." As a statistical phenomenon, that's a mess after four centuries of genetic drift since the European guns-germs-n-steel bonanza that more or less invented race (not slavery) in the first place.

So part of what's left when you try to opt out of being white is the problem of white privilege, only one layer of which is under your indirect control, while the rest comes at you from other people and institutions where inequity persists because norms are tenacious memes that get entrenched.

But like any virus, racial ideology (by which I mean not only claims to supremacy, but the whole taxonomy of human groups into "races," which is, to say the very least, not fully separable from its deployment as a caste system) requires many conditions for its virulence, and somewhat fewer conditions for its survival. One is, that enough of the people who receive white privilege refuse to acknowledge it (not only by denying it when asked, but also by opposing affirmative action, taking little interest in the historical experiences of people in racial outgroups, and so on). Baldwin again: "So long as you insist upon being White, I have no choice but to be Black." 

Whereas it seems to me "white" is category whose work is done, since it was primarily a tool for social crime, Blackness remains an identity, dynamic and uncertain in its boundaries but historically specific in its core, like any other identity worth having.

James Baldwin: "...[G]
enerally, most white American writers think of themselves as white. To be a white American is to have a very peculiar inheritance. All white American writers came from someplace else, even if they were born here. My past, after all, stretches back to Africa by way of Europe. But most white American writers seem to have cut off their heritage at Ellis Island. Their testimony, for me, does not include enough. Or, one could put it another way. One could say that they reveal their heritage in unconscious ways."

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Reactionary U.S. Presidents In Denial

An anthropologist from another world might marvel at it: the same little screen which has shown me King Lear so many times, with its deep tragic lessons of humility and loss, has also presented three decades of American Presidents engaged in hysterical nostalgia and denial:
Thou shalt find That I'll resume the shape which thou dost think I have cast off for ever...” (I, iv, 839).