White Men Can’t Assimilate

In PeaceAble, Politics on January 16, 2021 at 4:55 pm

It’s been a problem right from the start. 

Before white men arrived on the shores of what they thought was India, the American continents had thriving, sophisticated, complex civilizations.  They had all the things that Europe had, albeit their own versions of those things.  They had agriculture, industry and commerce; they had art, literature, music, and dance; they had sports; they had religions; they had class structures.  They even had war.

But in an instance of irony of nearly cosmic scale, the white men who came to exploit and then to conquer, who brought deadly weapons and deadlier diseases, who raped and murdered, saw only savages. 

White men have, of course, never sought to assimilate with their inferiors.

Since then, white men have always insisted that the burden of assimilation is on the people we have tried to save from the curse of non-whiteness.  We have been successful at this rather bizarre insistence on our self-assigned superiority for hundreds of years across all the continents of the planet except Antarctica, which has escaped only because it had the good fortune not to be previously occupied by humans, though the penguins have not escaped unscathed.

This, of course, is because white men invented race, but exempted ourselves from the consequences which we assigned to it.  We even went so far as to remove the mention of our own whiteness as a qualifier of our accomplishments.  We were not so much a race ourselves as a default identity, referred to primarily when necessary to justify our behavior towards other races. 

The result was that we lost the ability to see ourselves as the other.

In fact, it may be that fundamental to everything else white men fear we will lose in a more diverse and equal world is the loss of the ability to ignore our own racial otherness and to never need to assimilate.  If white men should no longer be the center of the racial universe, but just one of the many races we have, ourselves, created, then we will have to accept the equal humanity of all people.  And we will have to learn to live among them, rather than assuming that they must always live among us.

The first step may be simply to acknowledge that there are more of them.  There always have been. 

In the past, we have been able to imagine that it didn’t matter, but as technology and information have shrunk the world, we can no longer pretend.  White men are a minority in the world, and we must acknowledge that and surrender our unearned privilege and our imagined superiority.

What we really fear, of course, is that we will reap what we have sown.  If we become the other, then we will be treated according to the rules we have made for how the “other” is to be treated.  This signifies two unspoken assumptions: first, that the others are just like us, not different at all; and then, that they may be just as angry with us as we imagine we would be had the shoe been on the other foot all that time, and they will be looking for revenge. 

Also, there is the sense that equality is ours to grant.  We hear that every time a white man complains that the other wants “special privileges,” and that’s not fair.  Why, goes the question, should we give them affirmative action, why should we give them equal pay, why should we give them the same access to the voting booth, that we have?  Why should we, white men, give the gift of being equally human to the others?

And then we ask, “why can’t we just start, fresh, OK?”  We promise to be “color blind” from now on.  Everyone’s the same.  That way, we don’t have to give you anything.  We’ll all start equal, starting today.  Of course, we’ll still have nearly all the wealth, nearly all the power, and all the existing social and cultural norms; but, hey, all the others have to do is work hard, and not cause any trouble, and they can earn their own stuff.

Except the norms, of course.  We’ll hold onto those, because, well, tradition and values and the American way, and God, you know.

What we don’t want to admit is that the problem isn’t what we have to give, it’s what we have to give up.

That’s what assimilation is, after all.  It’s giving up things, so that we can live harmoniously and peaceably with others who are, in fact, different from us.  We have to share our toys.  We have to stop whining about fairness when someone else gets something we wanted. 

We have to stop trying to control the conversation, and just listen for a while.

And we have to stop expecting the others to accommodate to our superiority and our privilege, to protect us from the consequences of our history.

It’s going to be difficult.  It will, especially if we continue to resist it, be painful at times.  We will not do it well; not at first, anyway.  We have no experience in it.  It’s foreign to us.  There’ll be a learning curve.  But if we work hard and try to stay out of trouble . . . well . . . you know.

One day at a time.  That’s what addicts are told when they’re trying to quit.  Superiority, privilege, and the invisibility of our own racial culpability are our addictions.  They are what we need to quit.

And so, let us begin, we white men.  One day at a time.  Every day, we need to give up a little more of our dependency on being white.  Acknowledge the problem, take responsibility for it, and actively seek solutions.

It’s been said recently that it’s not enough to strive to be non-racist.  We must become anti-racist.  We white men cannot simply take back race as though we’d never invented it, never practiced it, have not had our whole lives shaped by the reality of it.  We have to tear it down, brick, by brick.  We built it.  We own it.  And it will, ultimately be we who will have to give it up.  We will have to take an active part in the demolition. The only other choice is to have it torn down around us, and that will almost certainly mean the realization of our worst fears.

The world is no longer Euro-centrically male and white, and we will have to assimilate.


In PeaceAble, Politics on December 12, 2020 at 10:46 am

Perhaps we should have seen it coming.  Maybe it was always inevitable.  Possibly the plan was fatally flawed from the very beginning.

America.  No, wait.  The United States of America.  Sure, we regularly use the shorthand, but the 50 states and 5 unincorporated, permanently inhabited territories are not America.  They are, in fact, not even most of America, which refers properly to two continents that comprise nearly all of the western hemisphere.

I bring this up because the 2020 presidential election, following four years of a presidency that has ripped the sheets off deep and abiding divisions and enflamed them nearly to the breaking point, has led to what may seem impossible-to-heal polarization.  On the left there is talk of never forgiving those who have so egregiously wounded the fundamental bonds of democracy; and on the right there is talk of a new civil war, of secession.  Each side is throwing around charges against the other of sedition and treason. 

How very “American” of us.

We call ourselves the “United States,” but a degree of disunity has always been there, has always lingered in the shadows, waiting for its chance to break things apart.

Each of the “united” states has individual sovereignty.  We have always been a federation of sovereign states, not a nation with a unitarian identity.  Our differences and divisions have been part of who we are since before the revolution, and have been codified by the Constitution and the courts since the 18th century.

The most obvious manifestations of this have always centered around racism and slavery, but have expanded to include all kinds of arguments involving every kind of human characteristic that distinguishes white men as the natural ruling class; wealth as the equivalence of superior intelligence and ability; nominally Puritan ideas about sex, gender, matrimony and general morality as normative; protestant Christianity (itself rife with internal division) as the institution of authority for all things called god; and Manifest Destiny as the final word on the United States’ proper place in the world.

We are, in other words, not really designed to be a nation at peace with itself, with a singularity of purpose or vision.

In some ways, this has been our strength.  We gave ourselves permission, whether the founders knew it or not, to become incredibly diverse, to become a melting pot, to become a home to so many who found themselves homeless in other nations. It gave us a foundation on which to build arguments of justice and freedom and fairness for non-whites, for immigrants, for the differently-abled, for LGBTQ+ individuals, for followers of a broad range of religious beliefs and doctrines or none at all, and all kinds of educational, economic, and cultural classes, communities, practices and personal choices.

But it has also allowed us to hang onto deeply rooted prejudices, and normalized discrimination.  It has allowed us to abuse, disenfranchise, dehumanize our own citizens.  It has allowed us to make self-aggrandizing claims of freedom, equality and justice while maintaining embedded exploitation, inequality, and injustice.  Freedom has come to mean a measure of anarchy; equality has come to embrace the idea that the false is equal to the true and the harmful equal to the healthy; and justice has been reimagined as the rule of authoritarian law.

This is the great dilemma that must ultimately be resolved.  Are we to be a single nation?  Will we embrace in reality our idealistic pledge of indivisibility?  Can we at last find a way to reconcile and repair our violent, bloody past and the long-festering, unhealed wounds of intolerance, bigotry, and human exploitation?  Can we, in the 21st century, use this moment of open – even honest in its own way – polarization to become what we have fantasized ourselves to be?

Have we, at last, hit bottom?

For the moment, the ball is in the Progressives’ court.  If meaningful change, lasting change, substantive change, is to happen, it will be because Progressives are able to seize this moment without rancor, without vengeance, without exacerbating the divisions that plague us, but by finding intelligent and effective solutions and advocating tirelessly for their implementation.  It will require perseverance, patience, and genuine adherence and fidelity to our most important principles, even when we have to apply them to people we have heretofore denigrated as deplorable and dismissed as irredeemable.

I sincerely hope that we are up to the task.

Thanksgiving in the Year When Nothing Good Happened

In PeaceAble on November 26, 2020 at 4:22 pm

(In response to a friend who asked on FB, “what are you thankful for in the year when nothing good happened?”)

Andrew was . . .


It was Thanksgiving and he had been reading all day about how he should be thankful.  All day.  On social media.

But this was the Year When Nothing Good Happened.  And Andrew didn’t feel thankful.

Be thankful, the internet was insisting.  We know that this is the Year When Nothing Good Happened, but you . . . Andrew . . . should find something to be thankful about.

Find something.

To be thankful about.

So, Andrew tried.  He really did.  He opened up a fresh page in his word processor.  He made himself a cup of coffee.  He would have made himself a glass of bourbon, but it was still morning and Andrew never drank in the morning.  That was a good thing, but Andrew considered it and thought that perhaps it was not enough to be actually thankful for on the occasion of Thanksgiving in the Year When Nothing Good Happened.

First, he tried all the usual things people say they are thankful for on Thanksgiving.  He had his health (though there was that suspicious cough earlier in the week, which might have been merely allergies, or the dryness of the seasonal air, but which could also have been the start of some dread disease or chronic condition – he’d have to pay attention to that).  He was financially secure (as long as they didn’t start screwing around with his pension or his social security).  He had the love of his family (at least he was pretty sure they still loved him – he hadn’t actually talked to any of them since August, and they all lived so far away these days, and with families one never really knows – people drift apart – he’d have to call them later, when he was finished being thankful).  He was going to contemplate the beauty of the world, but it was raining and a little chilly.

Then, grasping at straws, he thought, “This has been the Year When Nothing Good Happened, and I have survived it – I can be thankful for that!”  (But the year wasn’t quite over yet, so who knew what might still happen and whether he would survive that.)

That clearly wasn’t working.

Andrew realized that he needed something more.  It didn’t seem right to waste perfectly good Thanksgiving thankfulness on the ordinary day-to-day things for which one might be occasionally consciously thankful.  This was a holiday, after all.  A special occasion.  One should try to find something worthy of the moment for thankfulness.  One should find something for which he could be literally full of thanks, not just kind of lightly thank-y.

But what?

So, Andrew tried being thankful for big things.  But he couldn’t seem to think of any big things without sounding to himself like he was answering a question in a beauty pageant about how he wanted to bring about world peace.

It seemed that the more he tried to be thankful, the more he despaired that there might actually be nothing to be thankful for.  Especially in the Year When Nothing Good Happened.

He was getting desperate now.  Surely there was SOMETHING for him to be thankful for.  SOMETHING worthy of this solemn occasion must be able to fill him with appropriate gratitude!

So closed his word processor, shut off his computer and his phone, pulled his shades down and sat in silence and darkness in his most comfortable chair.

And, as he sat there, he found himself awash in all the bad things that had been happening in this Year When Nothing Good Happened.  And he began to cry.  At first, softly – just a bit of wetness around the rim of one eye.  Then, a tear escaped, a small gasp of breath came from deep within him, the gasp became a sob, more tears began to flow, his chest heaved, his nose ran, and he was full on crying.

And he realized that he wasn’t crying because this had been the Year When Nothing Good Happened, but because he could feel something shifting, not just within himself, but in the universe.  This, too, he thought, will pass.  And he felt a great release.  His tears were a reminder that he could choose to breathe again, to feel what he had been afraid to feel, to let the Year When Nothing Good Happened fade into the past.  And, he thought, this is how I know that my humanity is intact.  I have not, his mind raced on, simply survived, I am beginning to fight back.  The Year When Nothing Good Happened hasn’t defeated me.

Or us.  Because he could feel that he had a kinship with the rest of the human race who were also emerging from the recent troubles with new hope and new purpose.  There would be work to be done, the struggle wouldn’t simply go away, the wounds wouldn’t simply heal, but that’s what life is supposed to be about – doing the work.  There was hope, he saw; there was possibility.

His mind tried, then, to fall back on the gloomier thoughts, tried to tell him that this was all Pollyanna thinking, that he – and the rest of humanity – wasn’t up to the task.  But it was too late for that.  The thankfulness had taken hold.

Andrew had found that the human spirit, hope, empathy, purpose – love – when bundled together, even in the Year When Nothing Good Happened, were big enough to fill him to the brim with thankfulness.

And the Year When Nothing Good Happened was no longer.  The Year When Good Things Began Again had arrived.

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