Posts Tagged ‘Culture and Society’

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.


In Politics on October 23, 2020 at 10:45 am

It is, to put it plainly, ridiculous to argue over which of two white American men in their seventies is more racist.

Comparing degrees of racism is like comparing how much “special ingredient” Minny put in our pie.  I mean how much should we be okay with?

Now, if we accept the idea that it is nearly impossible to find an adult white American male who is completely free of racism, then we can begin to address the more complicated issue: what are we going to do about it?

And I say this as a white American man in my seventies.

From my admittedly privileged perspective on issues of race, I would argue that there are two kinds of institutional and systemic racism: white supremacist and white privileged.

White supremacist racism ranges from the overt acts of racism by proud white nationalists to the small daily doubts of people who grew up in overtly racist times and can’t quite free themselves of the occasional racist response.  It is the second group that needs to be helped.  The first group will need to eventually die out – or not.

A lot of the white privileged group are sincere, kind, honest, and loving people who have tried very hard to change, and may even be convinced that they are no longer or have never been racist.  They have lots of professional and social interactions with non-whites.  Their circles are broadly diverse.  They may even intermarry, or genuinely celebrate the inter-racial relationships of their friends and family.  They may even work very hard to advance social change around things like ghettoization, income and work inequality, unequal treatment in interactions with the legal system, hate speech and hate crime, and so on.


Every once in a while, there is a moment when they wonder if “black on black crime” may be a fair point; or they have to fire up Google to fact-check whether Black communities really do have an “absent father” problem that white communities don’t.  Every once in a while, they may listen with a moment of sympathy or thoughtful intellectualism to a debate about whether the principal cause of the Civil War was rooted in slavery or in economics or in states’ rights, before it kicks in that the economic history of America is inseparable from slavery and the states’ right being fought about was the right to own slaves.  Every once in a while, they realize that they are far more aware of, and concerned with, in ways both small and large, the race of their non-white friends than their white ones.

Racism is part of our national character.  We have all been affected by it.  Even non-whites raised in America have internalized it. It’s a disease that lingers in us, and occasionally erupts into noticeable sores. We have learned to live with it, but we would be so much better off if we could find a cure.

What cure?

I don’t want to overstate it or give the wrong impression, but the current COVID-19 pandemic may provide a useful, though flawed, analogy.

We have to start by understanding that racism is highly contagious; can be debilitating or even fatal; requires us to assume for our own safety that everyone we come into contact with may be infected; and even asymptomatic carriers can transmit the disease.

To fight the disease, we will need to watch ourselves carefully.  Try to stay away from people and places where it is likely to be spread.  Especially avoid potential super-spreader events, like certain political gatherings.  Know who in your personal bubble is less likely to be putting themselves in harm’s way, and self-isolate within that bubble. When you must venture out, take precautions.  Sanitize regularly; every time you have had contact with anyone or anything that is suspect, wash your hands of it.  When your “crazy uncle” tells a “Mexican” joke, tell him it’s not funny and you won’t have any part of it.  When a white acquaintance tries to “whitesplain” the BLM movement. Refuse to cooperate.

And here’s what may be the hardest part.  Wear a mask to reduce the possibility of your inadvertently spreading the disease.  Think before you speak, before you act.  If you’re about to argue with a non-white person about their described experience of being non-white in America, stop yourself; and just listen instead.  Remind yourself regularly that even the smallest droplets of racism you might unconsciously breathe into your surroundings can spread the disease.

There won’t be any vaccine any time soon.  We aren’t going to discover any miracle cure.  Herd immunity is clearly not going to happen.  The disease will be with us for a long time.  It will continue to be a drag on our society, our economy, our lives in myriad ways.  We may need to shut some things down for a while.  Some radical surgery may be needed, such as tearing down memorials to racism or racists, such as cutting irredeemable racists out of our social and political and economic systems, such as cutting our own ties with those persons or institutions that are helping to spread the disease.

But the first, and most important step is to recognize both the severity and the inevitability of the disease itself, and to take responsibility for our own part in it.  The second step is to take whatever action we can to root it out and deal with it both within ourselves and within the culture.  The third step is to demand the kinds of systemic, institutionalized, and culturally normative changes that will be necessary to someday eradicate the disease.  And all of these steps need to be taken simultaneously.

Now let me reiterate.  I’m a white American male in my seventies.  I am, by definition, a carrier of the disease.  It is my responsibility to do whatever I can to treat the disease in myself, reduce the spread of it to others, and advocate for treatments now and a cure in the future.

I can’t be certain, of course, that I am speaking for anyone else, or reflecting a perspective that others will find useful, or even valid.  What I am certain of is that if I don’t say something, do something, try something, then I will never fully recover.  And if we, none of us, do, say, or try, then there is a real possibility that the disease will prove terminal for us all.

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