In PeaceAble on June 12, 2020 at 4:44 pm

If any of my fair-skinned friends wants to begin to understand racism as a systemic problem in American culture, a good place to start is with Tanehisi Coates’ book “Between the World and Me.”  You will barely get started in the first section of the book before you will be confronted with two revelatory ideas.

The first of these is that “race is the child of racism, not the father.”

Think about that for a moment.  We know that race is a social construct, that there is no biological basis for separating humans into races based on external physical features.  Claiming that a dark skin is evidence of a separate race is no more based in fact than claiming that detached earlobes are.  But the implications of the statement are more profound than that.

The statement tells us that humans did not see color, decide that races existed, and then became racist.  Rather, we needed a reason to justify de-humanizing those we would dominate, and the invention of race gave us that reason.  And by “we” I mean white people, for who else has benefitted more than we have from the invention of race?  We have used it to justify conquering and subjugation, colonialism, genocide, rape, and more – a very long list of atrocities that were easier to commit as long as the victims were not as human as we were.

Which then brings Coates, and his readers, to the second idea.  Being “white” is a myth, an illusion, what Coates refers to throughout the book as a “dream.”

We aren’t, after all, actually white.  We’re varying shades of a sort of pink beige, turning more brown or red with exposure to the summer sun, and more pale and yellow in the winter.  But being white has become such an immutable part of our identity; so fundamental to how we see not just ourselves, but the whole world and our place in it, that it is the beginning of how we relate to everything else.  The whole structure of the canon of western civilization, its art, literature, science, history, religion, philosophy depend on it.  We measure human progress by its relationship to our own whiteness.

If we weren’t white, what would we then use to determine who the “others” are?  What other characteristics of humankind have the breadth, the scope of race?  If “white” did not exist, would black, brown, yellow, or red also disappear?  After all, those colors are as inaccurate in describing other races as white is in describing us.

We might still divide up humankind by ethnicity, by nationality, by language, by culture; but wouldn’t those things first require us to recognize the fundamental humanity at the heart of those differences?  Once we have identified race as the controlling factor, once we have determined the inherent inferiority of the other on the basis of race, then we can judge their accomplishments, their civilizations as inferior by default.  But if we had to start by dealing with all those things that humans create, it would be more difficult to dismiss their creators as less than human.

Calling our whiteness a dream has other implications as well. 

Dreams are more than just fantasies or illusions.  They are, first of all, associated with sleep.  If the core of our racial identity is a dream, then we are asleep in our reality.  And what happens to our dreams when we awaken?  To be “woke” is to have roused ourselves from the dream; to have left it behind in the darkness.

A dream is also either an aspiration or a fear.  When our dreams become nightmares, they express those things we most fear.  We may wake from them sweating, our hearts pounding, confused and terrified.  Leaving them behind is difficult, the fear remains.  When our dreams are desires, they give us goals, and light our way.  But if we dream too big, the aspirations can become traps.  If we cannot become all that we dream we are or could be, how do we reconcile that, if the dream is of our innate superiority?

We find that we need the dream, because without it, all our fears and aspirations are merely the consequence of being no more or less human than those the dream does not include.

So, I think that I need to try to stop being white.

But how does one, especially in one’s seventies, shed one’s race?  I’m certainly not going to dye my skin, get plastic surgery, alter my birth.  And those things would be lies, anyway.  If I am to be something other than white, it has to be real.  And it has to come to terms with all those decades of whiteness that already live inside my skin.

Baby steps.

If whiteness is an illusion, how do I step outside of it?  If it is a dream, how do I wake up?

Another point that Coates makes, one that I already knew but the context is important, is that naming is an act of power.  I would also call it an act of creation.  We cannot name a thing until we have knowledge of its existence.  And when we name it, we say how it is to be perceived, judged, related to.  We define it.  We say what its fundamental characteristics are, and what connotations we are to draw from it.  We say what is our power over it, or its power over us.

To define something is to limit it, to enclose it in our perceptions; and to try to imprison it there.  Our words for things are the first steps in creating and controlling our reality.

So, the first step in changing our reality is to change the names we use for it.  This is an idea that has long existed in therapy.  Reframe the experience, name the feeling.  We do not need to be the victims of our lexicons, we can take control.

I am becoming more aware every day now of how much of my perceptions of the world and my place in it have been founded in my whiteness.  Many of my successes have been made easier because I am white, have been expected because I am white, assumed because I am white.  And my failures, my fears, my shortcomings have been amplified by those same privileges, expectations and assumptions.

So, what happens if I reframe my whiteness.

I have, for most of my adult life, played with the idea of the mongrel.  I have often joked that we are all mongrels.  I have bemoaned, in my humor, the lack of cultural or group identifiers for mongrels.  We have no traditions, no flag, no songs, no creed, no signs of belonging or loyalty, no natural gathering places.

But it turns out that it’s not really a joke.  None of us has a singular ancestry beyond a few generations, insignificant in the span of human existence.  We’re all mutts.

I’ll start small on my way to mongrelization.  From now on, when faced with some official form that asks me to say my race, I will respond not white, but other.  If required to explain, I will say that I am mongrel, or perhaps “mixed-blood.”  Didn’t we create laws that claimed a single drop of black blood made one black?  So, I will embrace all the drops within me.  I will be them all.

I think we should start a movement – an awakening, if you will – toward the end of the white race; and the rise of the mongrel. 

Anyone can join.  Anyone who wishes to shed the skin that whiteness has trapped them in can become a mongrel.  But it is most important that white people go first, because as long as there are white people, there will also be the others.  And as long as we continue to dream our own whiteness, we will never awaken to the full possibility of being simply human.

Thugs with Grievances and Very Fine People With Guns

In PeaceAble on May 29, 2020 at 12:16 pm

The question being asked by a lot of white people on social media this morning:

Why do these rioters destroy their own neighborhoods, loot and burn, and risk a violent, perhaps deadly response from the police?  Don’t they know that just makes them look bad and hurts their cause?

Now, let’s set aside for the moment the fact that these people were not asking a similar question of armed white people storming state capitols and threatening violence, talking about lynching and assassination and so forth.  Don’t they know that just makes then look bad and hurts their cause?

Although the answers to these questions are related in two ways.

I’ll start with the question that is being asked, then show how that question and the other non-question are related.

And I’ll begin by asking another question.

Why do prisoners, when they riot, destroy their prison: looting and burning, risking a violent response from the guards?

Because they don’t have much to lose.

And don’t try to say, “Oh, but that’s different,” because it is only different in degree, not in kind.

We used to call them ghettos, but they were always prisons.

We now call it the inner city, but it’s a prison just the same.

We call them the projects, or the neighborhoods, but they’re still prisons.

And the chances for a kid growing up in the inner city ever escaping from the systemic poverty, the institutionalized racism, the disastrously inadequate education, the oppressive living conditions, and the constant threats of violence from within and without are just about as few and far between as the chances of escape or release from prison.

And the chance that people living under those conditions have always been and will always be treated by major segments of society as less-than-human, even if they try to follow all the rules, do the “right” things, and manage to get out are pretty substantial.

So why not burn it down?  Why not burn down the physical manifestation of your imprisonment?  And why not, while you’re at it, take whatever you can get away with?  You’re unlikely to get it any other way.  And it’s going to burn, anyway, if you don’t take it.  And it’s a way of saying to those outside that the longer you deny us not just the basic, but even the least more than that which would make life more than just survival, that would liberate us even a little bit from the prisons you have put us in; the more our anger, our fear, our grief and our need will fester and grow until it again explodes into what makes you ask the question and not see the answer, just as you don’t see us.

And why should we risk violence, even death, at the hands of the police?  Hell, we do that every day, sometimes without even getting out of bed!

And how is that related to the second question?  I mean aside from fairly obvious racial and other issues of prejudice?

They both have to do with fear.  There is reasonable fear and unreasonable fear; and as a society we have routinely, historically, gotten them confused.

The people asking the question are afraid of the people doing the rioting.  They are afraid of them even if they are merely demonstrating.  They are afraid of them even if they are doing nothing.  They are afraid of them because our culture, our society has spent hundreds of years and enormous amount of resources convincing them, teaching them, to fear those other people.  Not to fear them because of what they have done, but because of what we have done to them.  To fear them because of who they simply are, which is the other.

After centuries during which white people took whatever they wanted, by whatever means they could, from other people, they are afraid that the others will take what they have – or take back what was taken.

And the culture has also spent those centuries teaching us all, convincing us all that when you are afraid, the appropriate response is to arm yourself, and the people with the most dangerous weaponry are to be admired and respected.  Corollary to that, we have been taught that those with the most destructive power have the right to use that power to do whatever they want, because if you don’t let them then they will use that power against us – and it will be our own fault for not properly respecting the people with the power.

We have, in other words, been told that the people without power are to be feared, and the people with power are to be respected.  Until the moment when the others realize that they, too, have power; at which point they are to be put down because that realization is all the evidence needed to prove that fear of them was warranted.

We have also been taught that when groups of white people take up arms against the authorities, and people are injured or killed as a result, it is the authorities who are to blame, not the groups of armed white people.  But when the others do it, the authorities are praised, not blamed. 

You do see how backwards all that is, right?  And how obviously true?  Because if you don’t see it, then you will never find the truth you claim to be seeking when you ask the question.


In Politics on March 29, 2020 at 11:01 am

We have relied, for the past several years, on the network and cable comedy shows to help keep us sane in these difficult times. Often, it seems as though John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, and the other late-night hosts have been a more reliable source of the truth about what’s happening in this country and the world than the main stream media.
And yet.
And yet.
Now that all the shows have been put online without audiences, I have been unable to bring myself to watch them. I see the Daily Show videos, the Colbert monologues, and I can’t bring myself to watch them.
I can no longer allow myself the luxury of relying on comedy to get me through this. It is too great a privilege.
I am a 72-year-old white male, retired, living at home with my wife, who is also retired. I can afford to sit at home and laugh through my anger and fear. I’m not being deprived of a wage that was already less than a living wage. I don’t have to figure out what to do about my children. I have books and television and radio and my cell phone and my computer. I can be isolated and not alone. I don’t have to go to work every day and risk my life. I don’t have to strip off my clothes before entering my house, then deny myself and my family even the simplest intimacies.
I am fortunate and I am privileged.
I even have reason to believe that even if I got sick I could afford testing and treatment.
My wife and I are social-distancing, self-isolating. We go out only to pick up a few things at the grocery store, where she goes in because she is younger than I and all the advisories say that I am more at risk if one of us gets infected. She is also required by family obligations to go out more than I. Of course, we must assume that if one of us were to become infected it is most likely that we both would.
Still, we follow the protocols. We clean everything that comes into the house. We leave groceries on the porch until we can sanitize the packages as best we can. We wipe down the mail. When we go for a walk outside with a friend, we stay 6 feet apart. We wash our hands frequently. We have reviewed all the guidelines. We live in a rural community where the virus has not yet been shown to be present, but assume it is only a matter of time.
We do this not simply because the government or the CDC or WHO or anyone else has required it, but because we want to be as safe as possible and we want others to be safe as well.
We worry about our sisters and brothers, our children and grandchildren, our friends and neighbors, many of whom may be more at risk than we are.
We live in ignorance of the facts. Like everyone else, we cannot really know the extent or location of the virus because testing is not being done as broadly or efficiently as it should. Was that dry cough a reaction to my blood pressure medicine or was I sick? Is there always a fever, or could I have been carrying the virus asymptomatically? Were our grandchildren infected before the schools were closed; before their soccer practice or games were suspended?
Will the measures now, finally, being taken mean that this crisis will be behind us by summer or still with us at Christmas?
How long? How much?
And that is why I cannot look right now at the comedy.
I’m too angry.
I can no longer laugh at Donald Trump. I can no longer see his daily displays of ignorance, pettiness, self-aggrandizement, lack of empathy or compassion, attacks on anyone and everyone who dares to suggest he might be wrong, might do better, might have some genuine responsibility to something other than himself, and not feel frightened for the future of our country, our democracy, our way of life.
I am way past the time to allow myself to believe that black humor, trench humor, can help us. These are dangerous times; not just because of the coronavirus, but because we are witnessing the willingness of the people in power openly and wantonly to destroy the Constitution in order to enrich themselves with both money and political power.
While we sit in our houses or suffer through our lives in the shadow of COVID-19, Our government is conspiring to stack the federal courts with unqualified, ideologically driven judges. They are arranging to give away hundreds of billions of taxpayer money to multi-billion-dollar corporations. They are stealing land and stealing the vote from the First Nations. They are carrying out petty vendettas. And they are dragging their feet on addressing the COVID-19 crisis because of unrelated, unimportant, fringe beliefs and issues. They are spinning lies and conspiracy theories and distortions rather than dealing directly with the very real issues of life and death.
And I want to go into the streets. I want all of us, by the millions to be in the streets. And we can’t be. The coronavirus has not just made us into hermits, it has robbed us of our most important power as citizens.
I expect I will get my sense of humor back. I do see some hopeful signs, good things swirling around in the chaos with everything else. I am, however, afraid that November may be too late for far too many of us. What will be left by then? And will we be able to come back from this?
We must stay engaged. We must stay afraid. We must stay angry. We must stay safe. When the doctors and the health experts tell us it is safe enough, we must go into the streets. And when the Fall does come around, we must take our fear and our anger to the voting booth in numbers that will make it loud and clear that we are not fooling around any longer.

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