First: My Own Racisms
On the fourteenth floor of a skyscraper, I breathed in the electric smell of metallic ink dust. Tall tinted windows filtered in the rose and violet light of the sun’s setting and I, searching past the rows of machines, tried to divine which of the people gathered in one corner of the office was my supervisor.
For 6 months, I worked as a document-specialist, a modern, low-level scribe. I was to stand before a massive photocopier and replicate pages of “legal discovery,” perhaps the closest I’ve ever come to actual factory work. We were supposed to wear face-masks, as printer and toner ink produce particles which will cause something similar to black-lung, but, well, there were no face-masks and the pay was good enough that one didn’t care so much about the long-term effects of the job.
My first evening shift, and I was supposed to find a man named William, who was the night foreman and would assign me a work-station. No one was wearing name tags, and I didn’t know anyone yet, so I stood, disoriented, attempting to figure out who he might be.
A voice saved me from looking too much like a fool, both then and for the rest of my life. “Are you new?”
Relief flooded me as I looked at the woman who’d spoken. Young like me, less well-dressed than the others–eminently approachable.
“Uh, yeah. I’m Rhyd. I’m looking for William?”
She told me her name, smiling, and then answered, “he’s the one with the blue dress shirt. He’s a nice guy.”
And in that moment, I realised I was a racist.
There were maybe 30 people in the office, about 20 of them male. There was only one man with a blue dress shirt, yes, but it took me an extra few seconds to identify him. Something had short-circuited in my mind, because while yes, he was the only one wearing said color, he was different from the others in a few other ways, one of which stood out first to me–he was black.
By this point, I was already a leftist. I’d read much, I knew much, and I thought I understood much about how whites have utterly fucked-up most of the world and its people. I had “black friends” (and I’ll get to that bit of racism in a bit), didn’t fear minorities, etc. etc.. But here, looking at the people in the office, I was confused. Why hadn’t she said, “William’s the black guy?” Because all the other potential Williams (that is, the men) were all that special shade of white that only comes from living in Seattle or a cave, near translucent skin even in mid-summer.
Granted, William was also the tallest guy in the room, and when I thought about this later (that shift, and the next couple of weeks after), I tried to parse out why she had chosen shirt color to distinguish him from others rather than his height or his skin color. A Truth had begun to take root in my mind, and it was horrifying. I looked at skin color as an “obvious” difference; she didn’t.
A few years later, I became the chef at a popular dinner-theatre in Seattle, working for two uber-liberal, very progressive and eco-conscious people. They’d bought a house in an historically black neighborhood in Seattle, renovating both it and the area where they built their theatre. They publicly supported liberal causes, including the city council campaign of a black neighbor (hosting one of his fund-raising campaign dinners for free). They were generally what one might consider paragons of post-racial Seattle, what we all should strive to be.
Except when the well-dressed, amiable, professional woman arrived one afternoon. She pulled a resume from a very chic leather document case and, speaking to one of the owners, said, “I’m here to apply for a job?”
“Oh–talk to Rhyd,” he answered. “He does the hiring for the kitchen.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I was hoping you were hiring for servers?”
“No, sorry,” he lied. “Not right now.”
This is where I mention that this well-dressed, fabulous applicant was black. And I failed to confront my boss, because I wanted to keep my job.
A Brief History of Race
The history of racism is sordid, but it can be parsed out and unwoven. There’s something you should know about it, though–race theory (that is, there are different “races,” and the races are different from each other) is a new idea. Hannah Arendt (a jewish philosopher, student of Heidegger before she had to leave Germany), most famous for her treatment of the political uses of Zionism against Jews (Eichmann in Jerusalem) wrote extensively about both the history and function of Racism. In The Burden of Our Time, she traces the birth of “race-thinking” to the early 1800’s liberal aristocrats in both Germany and France and notes how its spread did not occur until nation-states noted its usefulness as a justification for their colonial and imperialist policies, particularly in Africa.
Consider the implications of this, though. There was slavery before the 1800’s, and there was what we now call “racism” against non-whites before the 1800’s as well. But her argument is this: there was no widespread, universal ideology about racial difference and racial superiority before the development of racism (during the much celebrated “enlightenment.”). Before then, other justifications existed for slavery and for hierarchies of peoples, but they were varied and unrecognisable to most in america now.
One of the justifications for slavery and oppression of non-european peoples was levels of “civilisation” (and this still returns to our thinking when we bomb the fuck out of less-dark peoples, like Afghanis and Iraqis–consider all the talk of how backward, violent, and savage muslims were/are to their women and minorities, unlike our enlightened selves (because we’d never justify the killing of homosexuals or blacks, nor would we support the rape of women, right???).
Another justification was religious and pseudo-historical. For those unfamiliar with the Bible, Noah is said to have had three sons named Ham, Shem, and Japheth. Ham looked his father’s nakedness, it appears, and so was cursed to be the servant of his two brothers. Ham later went on to found the nations of Africa, supposedly (and Ham sometimes translates as “dark,”), so christian preachers in america and elsewhere used this story as justification for slavery (after all, the forefather of Africa looked at Noah’s cock…).
And yet another was religious. Anyone who’s ever seen The Mission (and if you haven’t, you should–Antonio Banderas and Jeremy Irons as bearded priests…) will be familiar with this theory–rules of decency, of charity, and of society only applied to other Christians, not to non-Christians. This idea helped justify the European slaughter of Arabs and Jews during the crusades, as well as justify the plunder and slavery of Africa and Asia.
But all those ideas went a bit to the side when a new idea, a more useful ideology came about: there are Races of people, and some are better than others. Springing from Nationalist and aristocratic thinking in the 1700’s, along with the applications of materialistic science, came a new justification for the slaughter and oppression of people-not-like-us.
And now we live with this legacy.
Race and Privilege
I’ve read too many recent conversations on the internet regarding race and privilege lately (too many, because I’ve got a pilgrimage to sacred sites in France to plan, and also they’ve made me a bit ill) to be unable to address one thing which keeps coming up.
It’s been expressed various ways, but the most common aspect of those expressions can be summarized as such: “Racism and Privilege are just ideas, and we’re all one people, so stop throwing blame and guilt around.”
Ideas don’t kill, but people embracing Ideologies sure do (Nazis, anyone?) The difference is both simple and profound–an idea is just a thought expressed within a person’s mind; and ideology is a set of ideas which lead a person to beliefs about the world, and beliefs, when held, lead to action. “Black men are untrustworthy” is a mere idea (and possibly racist), but “black men are untrustworthy” is an ideology when it is shared by many people who embrace it not just on the level of ideas, but of belief. And the most powerful thing about ideologies is that they become invisible to those under its sway, except on the level of society. And each person within a society holding to this belief reinforces the others, making the power of that belief that much more potent and that much more invisible.
Except, of course, to those who don’t hold to the ideology, or those who are the target of a racist ideology.
One need not look at the individual beliefs of each person in a society to prove that Racism has power. Rather, it makes more sense to look at the function of that belief within society, or look at the conditions of the targets of racism and discern whether or not non-whites have the same access to everything that whites do.
And, well, they don’t. And privilege is easy to explain–when someone has access to more things than another in society, not by their own virtue but by some sort of classification, than they are a privileged class. Need examples?
When people talk about privilege, this is what they mean: whites are a privileged class in America: they have access to more rights, more security, more opportunity as a whole than non-whites. Even if any particular white has less wealth and less opportunity than a non-white, in general whites have more. It’s a useful way of talking about the affects of Racism As Ideology as it functions in society, and people should really stop taking it so fucking personally. That is, acknowledge that, in general, some people have more privilege than others, that Racism continues to exist as an Ideology even if you yourself don’t feel privileged or racist, and that this Ideology and its functions are making the lives of millions of people really, really miserable.
“All one or none”
There’s this…shampoo. Or soap. Or dishwashing liquid, or insecticide, or purportedly 30 other things, called Dr. Bronner’s. And I’m afraid people may accidentally be getting there politics and spirituality from the manic and incoherent prattle printed on the bottle. Not the “Dilute! Dilute! Or Rinse Eyes Well!,” but the repetitive claims that We Are All One.
Well, yes. But not at all. Imagine sitting at a table where everyone is eating, and you are particularly hungry but by the time the food is passed to you, there’s only a spoonful left and then the host proclaims, “I’m glad we all got enough food.” You didn’t, and you’re having trouble not staring at the person who got served first and took more than everyone else, but you don’t want to speak up because, well, everyone did get some food, you just got barely anything.
This is akin to proclaiming that we are all the same. We are not, because some of us are treated horribly, shot because we’re a different color or not allowed to apply for a job because we’re not white. We should all have equal rights, and we should all be treated equally, yes. But this isn’t the case, and until it is, there’s no sense pretending that we’re all equal.
This has too many implications to number, but one of the most obvious is the way that wealth is distributed. And this is where one begins to see the implications of Race Theory, and specifically, why very little has ever been done about it except by disobedient people who end up in jail. Minorities are–poor. The richest people in America are some of the whitest, and whites are, on average, much better off economically than non-whites.
There’ve been a few attempts by some very horrible (white) men to justify this philosophically and scientifically by attempting to prove that some minorities have lower mental capacity by virtue of their genetics, or are unable to do certain kinds of work because of their cultural upbringing, or (in the less politic sense) because they are lazy. These are all easily rejected, but two questions should present themselves immediately: 1. Why are they poor? and 2. Why are white men trying to justify non-white poverty?
In Capitalism, wealth is generated by wealth. If you don’t start with wealth, and can’t borrow wealth to invest, you have to accumulate it by selling your labor. If your parents and grandparents weren’t rich (and not many slaves from Africa came over with great wealth shackled along with them in the slave-ships), then you have to get a job. And if you aren’t white, this is not an easy proposition (refer back to my story earlier). The same goes for immigrants (who are often fleeing poverty, war, or oppression) and First Nations (who had most of their land stolen, most of their ancestors slaughtered, and their primary resource eradicated by government policy.
The Perpetuation of Racism
But to the second question. Why do people continue to justify unequal distribution of wealth between whites and non-whites? I’m not interested in individuals here, per se (though sometimes I want to shake a fool or five). No–more interesting: what is the use of Racism, if it’s wrong?
The roots of Race Theory answer this question. Arendt’s theory–that ideologies don’t take hold until they become useful as justifications of certain policies–is illuminating. Racism is very useful if you want to hold on to power and are white. Dividing the poor into (superficial, skin-deep) divisions which make them distrust each other is a very adequate way of ensuring the poor will never unite to take back some of that wealth.
That is, we are being used. When we repeat the refrains of a baseless ideology, we strengthen the rich and powerful. When we refuse to confront this Ideology, we play into their hands. And when we refuse to confront our own privilege, we are doing their bidding. And many of my readers think not just of political implications, but spiritual matters, so I must add–to liberate ourselves from the materialistic forms which enchain us, we must learn how we inadvertently help the powerful enchain others.