Friday, September 5, 2014

Semi-Open Weekend Thread: 'What Sort of White Person do I Want to Be?' On Racial Illiteracy, the Southern Slaveocracy, and Ferguson

It has been a hot, humid, stormy, and energy draining day here in Chicago. The weather seems confused: it is almost schizophrenic, punishing us with heat and then dropping down to the 70's over the weekend. I was laid low by a weather succubus. She drank deeply. Blah and yuck. Saturday and Sunday, the latter being the day when my beloved New England Patriots will return to form with The Gronk, cannot get here soon enough.

As is our habit, do treat this as our semi-open weekend thread.

On a related note, I am going to give the Tumblr site for WARN--what I have christened "The Negro from Planet X"--another try. I created the site some months ago and let it sit idle as I was not sure how to leverage it. My original plan was to use The Negro From Planet X as a space where the friends and readers of WARN could submit news items and stories. That option is now "live" on the site (apparently the feature only activates once the Tumblr is indexed by Google). There is an icon on the upper right hand side for submissions. If so inclined, do share and submit stories and information that you think could be of interest.

During our conversation on WARN's podcast series, Paul Breines asked the profound question "what sort of white person do you want to be?"

I am going to use Dr. Breines' meditative and introspective question as a lede/header for a series of posts here on We Are Respectable Negroes.

"What sort of white person do I want to be?" is a deceptively simple and dagger-sharp question that exposes the core that is our individual decision to be a moral, righteous, and ethical person. Paul's question is foundational because it can be easily extended to gender, sexuality, class, and other types of identities and relationships.

We have choices that we can make in life about our behavior. Of course, our relationship to systems of Power, resources, opportunity structures, and varying levels of agency will impact how we choose to resolve such matters.

Oftentimes, individuals make the simple into the complex.

The decision to do the right thing and to live a just and moral life is made complicated by our very human habit of creating obstacles which can then be used as excuses for inaction. I am unsure if this is cowardice, laziness, or some combination of both; I am sure that a surrender to inertia and craven self-interest has been a obstacle to making the world a better and more just place.

What follows are several examples of white brothers and sisters asking the question "what sort of white person do I want to be?" and then acting on their own personal code of honor, looking history in the face in the lived present, and challenging other white folks to confront their own personal relationships to systems of white supremacy and white privilege.

During the recent protests in Ferguson, Missouri over the killing of Michael Brown by the cowardly thug cop Darren Wilson, Hedy Epstein, a Holocaust survivor, was arrested as she participated in direct action in support of the human rights of black Americans.

In an interview in Newsweek, Esptein explained her values and ethics:
But police and security officers blocked the door, preventing them from entering. 
“I really didn’t think about being arrested or doing anything like that,” Epstein told Newsweek. “I was just going to be somebody in the crowd. I guess maybe I was impulsive: Someone said, ‘Who is willing to be arrested if that happens?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m willing.’”
A police officer informed the crowd that Nixon and his staff were not in the building, Epstein says, and urged them to leave. When she and eight other protesters refused, they were arrested for failure to disperse. Police handcuffed Epstein behind her back and took her to a nearby police substation. She was booked, given a court date of October 21, and then told she could leave.
“I’m deeply, deeply troubled by what’s going on in Ferguson,” says Epstein. “It’s a matter of racism and injustice, and it’s not only in Ferguson…. Racism is alive and well in the United States. The power structure looks at anyone who’s different as the other, as less worthy, and so you treat the other as someone who is less human and who needs to be controlled and who is not trusted.”
She concludes:
“The basis of who I am today was what my parents taught me and what I saw. They were examples to me of how one lives and how one does not persecute other people,” says Epstein. “I would like to think that they’re proud of me.”
The past isn't gone, it ain't even yesterday. Whiteness involves a type of cultivated historical myopia and amnesia. The past is forgotten except when it is remembered in order to legitimate a society organized around maintaining and protecting systems of white privilege as something natural--the outcome of meritocratic lies such as "hard work", "personal responsibility" and the Horatio Alger myth.

White conservatives, because of their particular relationship to white supremacy in the post civil rights era, often tell black and brown folks to forget the past and "just let all that slavery and racism stuff go" because somehow that will cure the divisions, pain, and material inequalities of the color line.

The hypocrisy is laid bare: the White Right, for all of their supposed desire for black and brown folks to have historical amnesia, react with great anger towards any truth-telling about American history. See the White Right's upsetness about minor changes to the AP history exam as an example.

[My more pithy late night rebuttal to such lazy piss poor thinking is that by such logic all criminals should be pardoned and there should be no consequences for one's individual or group actions in the present. In all, the thief and the murderer should tell the victim and their families to just let it go, as such a gesture is more than sufficient compensatory and punitive justice.]

"My family never owned slaves" is a standard talking point in the the color blind white racist script and handbook. Asking himself a version of the question "what type of white person do I want to be", journalist Chris Tomlinson decided to research his family's roots as slavers and to contact his African-American "relatives".

What did Tomlinson discover?
Tomlinson's book is titled "Tomlinson Hill," after the plantation his ancestors built. The story was first produced as a public-television documentary.
Tomlinson told Journal-isms by email, "Let me be clear, my research shows that my ancestors murdered, raped and tortured the people they held in slavery, and an important part of this book is to take ownership of that." 
"Fresh Air" host Terry Gross asked, "So you've spoken of how you were brought up thinking — you know — hearing people talk about the descendants in their own families who were slave owners as having been, you know, like more, you know, kindly slave owners. And you reprint a couple of letters from your ancestors in this book — not so kindly. So there's a letter I want you to read on page 23 from Churchill Jones and he is again one of the, you know, quote, entrepreneurs who bought a lot of land to build plantations on. Tell us who this letter is to." 
Tomlinson replied, "So after Churchill bought the land, he sent his oldest son and a nephew to start developing the land — to clear it, build homes, to build slave quarters. "And so he managed via letter. And this is what he wrote — on July 25, 1853 — (reading) George, I'm afraid you've got the Negroes to like you and not fear you. If it is the case, you cannot get on nor take care of anything. They must know when you speak they have to obey. And to do this you have to stand square up to them and show yourself master. You cannot coax a Negro to do his duty. You have to force him. And if they only like you and not fear you, they will soon hate you and get tired of you. That is the nature of Negros. But to make them fear you and like you both, you can do anything you want with them."
From the transcript: 
"GROSS: What was your reaction when you saw — when you read these letters from one of your own ancestors? 
"C. TOMLINSON: It was shocking. I was — I was taken aback. And I was taken back by the brutality that he espouses but even more so by how it was a business for him — that he thought, you know, beating people and whipping them and withholding food and that sort of thing was the same as greasing an engine. It was — it was just part of doing business. And perhaps he's not the sadist that we all think of, but it's almost worse that he does this as a business, as kind of a calculated business proposition. . . ."
What did he find out?

"Racial illiteracy" is one of the meta-level concepts governing the relationship between whiteness, ethics, and justice.

Writing for the Seattle Times, Professor Robin DiAngelo outlines the importance of this concept:
I AM white. I have spent years studying what it means to be white in a society that proclaims race meaningless, yet is deeply divided by race. This is what I have learned: Any white person living in the United States will develop opinions about race simply by swimming in the water of our culture. 
But mainstream sources — schools, textbooks, media and anecdotal evidence — don’t provide us with the multiple perspectives we need. Yes, we will develop strong emotionally laden opinions, but they will not be informed opinions. Our socialization renders us racially illiterate. 
This illiteracy was evident in the debate about the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society production of “The Mikado” and its casting of non-Asian actors in 40 Japanese roles. 
To understand the crux of white racial illiteracy illustrated by the debate, consider a typical computer user. The user is proficient and knows all the basics — Word, email, spreadsheets. But when the user has a technical problem and tries to explain it to the IT department, communication breaks down. The user gets defensive, feeling talked down to by tech support. Tech support gets frustrated because the user doesn’t know how computers actually work and can’t comprehend its instructions. 
Like a nontechnical user trying to understand a technical problem, our racial illiteracy limits our ability to have meaningful conversations about race... 
Let me be clear. I don’t see myself or other whites as bad. Racism is a system that we did not create, but it’s one that we did inherit. We must take responsibility to see and challenge it both within and around us. The first step? Have some humility and listen.
White privilege makes too many white folks stupid. Their stupidity is not cultivated or grown by a lack of school resources, access to information, or some type of mental disability. The particular stupidity that is created by white privilege consists of a willful denial of the facts, facts and information which are readily available by listening to black and brown folks' life experiences, doing the minimum amount of research on America's (and the West's) history and present, or just shutting one's mouth and opening their ears when people of color say that events such as the recent murders and police abuse in Ferguson are not an outlier or revelation.

Navigating an institutionally white supremacist society is the lived and daily experience of black and brown Americans in the United States. This fact exists independent of the White Gaze and the white racial frame's willingness to acknowledge them. Unfortunately, racial illiteracy is a cognitive and intellectual shortcoming which too many white folks have chosen to afflict themselves with. If whiteness is both a type of property and a psychological wage, racial illiteracy is one of the ways those unearned advantages are accumulated and protected.

What are your thoughts on racial illiteracy and the question "what sort of white person do I want to be?"

As always, do you have any interesting news items or other information to share?


chauncey devega said...

I will listen to the show you linked to. There are some good resources in the thread on Isis. I learned a great deal. Thanks again for those kind words. We have 2 more podcast shows this season. I have good people for Season 3 too. We will be upgrading the audio, putting it on Soundcloud, Itunes, and Youtube to increase our exposure.

James Estrada-Scaminaci III said...

DiAngelo's advice is very accurate. A white person has to educate him or herself. The place to start is figuring out that race was central to the founding of this country. Trade in Africans formed the basis of the country's wealth. Trade in Africans was the start of our insurance and shipping industries. The average white person is unaware of the country's actual history. They are unaware of even the real history of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s--which is why Coates's essay is so powerful--the forces of racism were present when I was born (1951) and I benefited by virtue of my skin color. I did not have to discriminate against anyone to benefit. I just benefited. The privileges of being born white are just given to you.

That said, it is completely understandable why white ethnics think they struggled against prejudice. My family in the 1950s and 1960s, for example, was filled with stories of prejudice against Italians dating back to the early 1900s when my great grandfather emigrated. But, no white ethnic group operated under the severe burdens of African Americans. Not even close. And, most whites are not familiar with the history of how excluded white groups like Italians, Irish, and Jews became white in order to serve the political-economic elites of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Historical blindness fosters racial illiteracy. Race is central to America. If one does not see it or disagrees with it, then you, as a white person, are part of the problem.

kokanee said...

Re: "We have 2 more podcast shows this season. I have good people for Season 3 too. We will be upgrading the audio, putting it on Soundcloud, Itunes, and Youtube to increase our exposure."

Excellent! Personally, I'll appreciate iTunes for sure.

"Why kind of white person would I like to be?"

One that treats all people as equals with respect and dignity. One that fights for social justice for all people including:
- the right to earn a decent living and/or the right to live a decent life
- the right to good free or affordable education
- the right to good free or affordable health care

- the right to fairness and equal treatment from the government, courts, police or the work place.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

When I meet new people I find myself wondering how much investment they have put into understanding history, race and contemporary issues.

I'm wondering what my next step is. I keep hearing from Internet circles I follow to put work in my own community to change and I am just at a loss to how to effect that. Getting knowledge is certainly the crux of it, but I don't know how to be effective. I'm certainly not going to make any headway with the confederate flag waving life trolls in my neck of the woods.

My wife and I think we want to move, but family keeps us here and the big wide unknown keeps us boggled where we could put our feet down. Being low income doesn't help either.

Did you hear about that Economist article defending slavery? Something about a recent historian "only portraying slavery as bad."

Wild Cat said...

How how does one deal, as a "white" person, with a brown person attempting to "purchase" white supremacy via "my approval"? As I may have recorded before, a dark-skinned nonentity of Trinidadian Hindu background tried to buy into the Club of Whiteness by using the word "nigger" with me quite frequently, often devoted to Obama.
I got tired of him and his insanity by reporting his disgusting value system to my office authorities, who have, behind the scenes, muzzled the sad, little man.
But did I just cop out? Should I have explained to this pathetic soul what my value system required and not sent him off to the scolds in a white-power/media structure to "correct" him?
I realize this is abstract and may stretch the original focus of the topic.

chauncey devega said...

What a sad soul. Unfortunately, such behavior is all too common--self-hating gay folks, women, the poor, etc. etc. Every out group has members who want to find some way to suck on the tit of what they see Power to be.

There is also an element of what too many "elevated ethnics" do, where they try to make themselves distinct, in this case from black Americans, by hating people who look like them.

I think you did the right thing as it is not your responsibility to cure such sick people.

Nick Dahlheim said...

I'm white and 30, and living in Chicago and NYC over the course of my life has shown me a lot about the way America, er AmeriKKKa, deals with race. For at least half my life, a solid majority of my friends have been non-white p.o.c.; and you can't help but gain a strong appreciation for their understandings about race and racism in AmeriKKKa. The sort of white person who interrogates the history of AmeriKKKa and of whiteness deeply is rare. Rarer still is the white person who recognizes the paradox behind the artifice of race coexisting with the very real social facts and collective psychology of the racism of white supremacy---which also decisively shapes many inter-black social interactions and structures. So sad that most white people are so backward. There's barely 5% of them, in my view, who really get it.

joe manning said...

White supremacy is a facet of authoritarian enforced subsistence. Its a constant reminder to getting poorer whites that while they are piss ants, we have it better than the majority of blacks. For at least 100 years the productive apparatus has had the capacity to feed, shelter, and cloth everyone on the planet in triplicate. The oligarchy forces the subsistence economy upon its subjects as a means of social control, to suppress rising expectations.

balitwilight said...

What you experienced is called "The Narcissism of Minor Differences". (see Serbs vs. Bosnians, Shia vs. Sunni, and the massacres justified thereby). Excellent post by Chauncey. I wish all "white" people were as principled as you were in this instance.

About that "brown" person...I wonder, if you stood him in a lineup side by side with 10 random "black" people - would the skin not be darker than some, lighter than some (with random variations) around a human mean... We are all mostly shades of brown-tan. I have never seen a "black" or "white" person in my life. There are probably 1,024 shades of skin - just as hair colour. Racialism is the enabling lie in the Matrix of racism, but it is an unwelcome word in the American lexicon.

My wish for all "white" people is that they learn to reject "whiteness" completely. Same wish re: "blackness" for "black" people. What a strange scary world that would be. When we see an auburn-haired person, we are not "colour-blind" (of course!) But we do not see an "Auburn Person", or (even more strangely) a "Red Person".

John LeMieux said...

The only thing I took away from the ferguson riots was that a great many people could afford to spend time looting without any jobs to go to. The dialog was the same tired excuses that have been repeated for over forty years.

Dark skinned people from the Indian subcontinent earn degrees and start businesses without any fuss without knowing the language. Black immigrants from Africa do the same.

While you are feeling sorry for yourself, the world moved on.

Wild Cat said...

This Trinidadian Hindu is darker than many people who self-identify as black.

Let's complicate it further: Does the Hindu caste-system culture he was born into make it seem more realistic to him to obtain the Power of Whiteness without paying the usual price, which is establishing yourself in the U.S. for about three generations (see Jews, Italians, etc.) or getting rich quick (money is the real and only value in the US).

Wild Cat said...

I'd also of loved to have brought up Derek Jeter Day, a man on every red-blooded Noo Yawker's pin-striped back, for conversation.

The black-fathered Jeter is as worshipped by every white male conservative as the black-fathered Obama is loathed. The most common expression in this racially and economically segregated city is, "Jeter does it all right, on and off the field," albeit he's the most vapid human in history.

BTW, I gave up the NFL.* Look what it's doing to humans.

*Can't sell my PSL, so I just sell my tickets to anonymous souls online.

Wild Cat said...

But it's not just this nation. An Italian-American second-generation female friend was not allowed by her Northern Italian-born-and-reared father to listen to Michael Jackson as a kid because he was black. We may have perfected racism; we didn't invent it. I don't think this man magically became a racist by immigrating to the US.

Wild Cat said...

I hear you, but do you feel "AmeriKKKa" is an overused, jingoistic, and simplistic term? Many times racism is subtle; many racists are intelligent, above the bed sheets of the rabble.

balitwilight said...

There has been a lot of global pollination by America across the Atlantic and Pacific. America actually did invent a lot of it, in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. Did you know, for example, that the 1920s Nazis borrowed their Eugenics and Aryan theories from American authors?

I would really like to see some research on where the racism that we see today actually originated: the specific strain based on superficial phenotype of skin tone, hair texture, selected facial features. It would be a fascinating study.

kokanee said...

I don't see it the way you do. Your friend isn't trying to buy whiteness, he's offering you blackness. He most likely identifies as a black person and many black people - especially young black males - use "nigga" as "man" or "dude." i.e. They've taken back the word and diffused it of its history and evil. The same has been done with fat/phat and slut. When someone says to me, "Yo nigga, wat's up?" or "Nigga puhleeze!" that's a badge of honor for me (as a pasty skinned guy). Just don't be dumb enough to say it back. I do apologize for my foray into disrespectability but there is another side to the story.

chauncey devega said...

I don't know on this one. If he is using that language and then disparaging Obama it is clearly an effort to buy into whiteness and white supremacy.

If it is more general, then he is just ignorant and embarrassing.

kokanee said...

I don't approve of the use of that language, I thought it needed some explaining. I recognize that I'm working with a limited set of facts and could easily be wrong.
Good on Obama for not being pushed into an all out war on IS. He's definitely been the least hawkish president since Carter.

chauncey devega said...

On the ISIS point, Balloon Juice has a very instructive essay by a former military officer w. experience on these matters that is worth reading:

kokanee said...

Good article, thanks. My thoughts:
- The US military and government doesn't do anything for humanitarian or altruistic reasons and really cannot be trusted.
- Borders are not sacred. The objective should be containment and keeping the various factions separate. Lebanon needs to be protected.
- Air strikes that are reasonably expected to kill civilians are war crimes and should not be done.
- This shouldn't be a US war even though the US created IS. Can we not work with the UN this time?

Wild Cat said...

Eduardo Galeano points out the 'science' of eugenics was actually pioneered by a Jewish man of the sciences living in 19th c. Italy ('Upside Down,' published by Picador). To add to the irony of blowback, Freud's nephew, Bernays, pretty much wrote the methods of propaganda Hitler's right-hand man, Goebbels, later used for his anti-Human propaganda. (Of amusement, Bernays also was the man who was hired to "teach" Americans that bacon and eggs was the All-American breakfast. The brainwashing worked and arteries have been clogged ever since.)

balitwilight said...

I think the more direct relationships are here in America. The possible ironic connections to some Jewish-ancestry is nothing more than the natural fact that some Jews ARE Germans. It was Americans who provided directly and explicitly Nazi-like racialist and racist ideology to HItler's incipient party:

1) From The Guardian, titled "Hitler's Debt to America"

2) From History News Network, titled ""The Horrifying American Roots of Nazi Eugenics"

Courtney H. said...

Very good article, Chauncey. Thanks.

Nick Dahlheim said...

Maybe it is---but, I use it because the racism is so pervasive, even if it is subtle. Even if most whites won't feel it's any longer "respectable" to join the KKK, Aryan Nation, or a Neo-Nazi organization; they still might flirt with the "Conservative Citizens Council." Heck, since 1968 and especially Nixon's 1972 campaign under the stewardship Lee Atwater; the Republican Party is probably a white racial identity party even if it uses only "coded" language to establish that fact via "dog-whistling."

Lkeke said...

I was about to say the same thing. It's one of the ways some individuals try to worm their way into what they believe is the power structure and an attempt to differentiate themselves from "those people". A way of saying, "Hey! I'm special."
This describes Dinesh D'souza's entire political philosophy and not a few Blacks as well.

These are people who are perfectly willing to throw all other Brown skinned people under the bus to further their careers or a pat on the head from White people - i.e. Collaborators.

Nina Flowers said...

It's downright ugly to see the white supremacy showing its ugly head with the tragedy of the Ebola outbreak. A quick glance at article comments' sections shows a lot of proud wing nuts going on and on about how "those people are the same as the ones in Ferguson" and mainly how that by not having white colonialists in charge is why Africa has this problem. The real story of course is that thousands have died and the real effort is not to save lives but to protect non-Africans. This "mostly killer" disease suddenly had powerful drugs and treatment available once a few white folks got sick. My thoughts immediately went to the mysterious killings of the world's top microbiologists and the black man (whom I believe is a physician) protesting outside of the UN claiming that there is a cure for AIDS that has been suppressed. Who knows if that claim is true, but it is certainly probable considering the recent events and the efforts of the western world to stop development (aka competition).