Two takes on whiteness

Some decades ago on a daytime TV talk show – I’ll never find it – the African-American public intellectual, Cornel West, was seated next to some Ku Klux Klan members, and the host said something about the KKK representing white people. West gestured at the white supremacists next to him on the stage and replied, “These people don’t represent white people; they represent morons.” That encapsulated the norm in anti-racist discourse in the post-1960s trajectory (post-MLK/post-hippies). It was not black vs white but, as Dr. King called it, a “coalition of conscience” on one side and racists on the other, “for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny . . . that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom” (“I Have a Dream,” 1963).

How times have changed. Many in the (ironically named, some would say) “progressive” movement have swung around to suggest that the KKK, in effect, DOES represent white people, as the KKK expresses more overtly what is implicitly baked into white people. Whereas West’s witty remark of yore would marginalize racists and foreground Dr. King’s coalition of conscience, the most prominent voices among today’s anti-racists give the KKK center stage.

“All white people are invested in and collude with racism . . . The white collective fundamentally hates blackness” (Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility).

“The way in which people have constructed whiteness, and even their identity, or even the identity of white people, prevents them from seeing this white terrorist threat for what it is” (Ibram X. Kendi, interview 01/12/2021).

Though Kendi’s remarks are less demoralizing than DiAngelo’s, they still emphasize the battle lines between white and black – not anti-racism as a (rainbow) coalition of conscience against racists, but anti-racism as a battle against “whiteness.”

The two takes on whiteness, in any event, are clear. The post-1960s anti-racist angle was that whiteness was neither here nor there, not a blessing and not a scarlet letter. In the coalition of conscience, whites and blacks joined hands to combat racism and racial inequality, without probing into the color of the hand next to you and whether that color meant secret sins that needed to be called out. The post-woke angle, on the other hand, is that whiteness is indeed the problem. It comes dangerously close to recapitulating the old blackness vs. whiteness dichotomy favored by Bull Connor and the racist segregationists that liberals fought so hard against in the 1960s.

Some of you might find anti-racist inspiration in the woke discourse, and I suspect I might find some myself if I push into it harder, but the overall thrust is a hard sell for me. The idea of teaching children, black and white, the Robin DiAngelo quote above, and how that might affect them socially and psychologically, is frankly a little chilling. The other angle on whiteness, the angle that I have identified as post-1960s (as opposed to post-woke), the angle I associated with that decades-old quip of Cornel West (my more up-to-date readers can comment on whether his position has changed since then) – that’s the angle I like. It allows all people of all races to celebrate each other, to work hand-in-hand to fix continuing racial inequality, each able to express one’s own heart robustly, with full confidence in oneself and one’s fellows in the coalition, not cowering in self-doubt about one’s own goodness or casting suspicious eyes on those around you.

Best that each of us, black or white, express the power of beauty and goodness in the heart without impediment, in the brazen manner of William Blake, or better yet, Walt Whitman:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself…
My tongue, every atom of my blood…
Nature without check with original energy…
The smoke of my own breath…
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,
I and this mystery here we stand.

I know I am solid and sound…
To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow…
I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood,
I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content.

Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!

(Song of Myself)

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Never trust any ideology that …

Never trust any ideology, left or right, that emphasizes division between races rather than our shared humanness.

Never trust any ideology, left or right, that uses shared humanness to avoid viewing and fixing racial inequality.

Never trust any ideology, left or right, that encourages us to visualize and bring out the bad in each other rather than the good in each other.

Never trust any ideology, left or right, that encourages you to prejudge anyone of any color by their race.

Never trust any ideology, left or right, that says we should respect walls of separation between races.

Never trust any ideology, left or right, that ignores the human consequences of wealth inequality and environmental destruction.

Never trust any ideology, left or right, that ignores the human consequences of unequal access to education, health care, and natural resources.

Never trust any ideology, left or right, that says that we cannot fully identify with all our fellow human beings because some stupidly reified concept of race prevents it.

Never trust any ideology, left or right, that says we cannot creatively identify with people from other demographics in our artistic expressions. When putting oneself in the shoes of other races and demographics becomes the #1 cultural sin, we have pretty much lost everything the Civil Rights movement fought for.

Never trust any ideology, left or right, that suggests we should not celebrate cultural cross-pollination in every direction, continually playing with each other’s cultural stuff, continually wearing the other’s shoes – black, white, female, male, every ethnicity and sexual orientation – incorporating, collaborating, and sharing a laugh when the cross-pollination becomes clumsy, as it often will. Better to throw open all the doors and windows than to build walls around your turf.

Never trust any ideology, left or right, that vilifies one race or demographic to elevate another.

Never trust any ideology, left or right, that says only people who “look like me” can relate to my struggles.

Never trust any ideology, left or right, that does not inspire you to celebrate our differences without denying our shared humanness.

Never trust any ideology, left or right, that does not welcome different and dissenting opinions to the table.

Never trust any ideology, left or right, that obscures the fact that we are all on the same spaceship Earth with limited time and a shared fate; whatever our surface differences, we will sink or swim together as the mothership flourishes or founders.

Never trust any ideology. Turn off the news and love your neighbor.

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The New Front in the Culture Wars: Wokes vs. Liberals

Who could have predicted it? Liberals are losing the culture war. But not to conservatives. According to the woke narrative, the old “liberal vs conservative” battle line, as least as it applies to race, has morphed into “wokes vs white supremacists.” That reframing certainly serves woke interests. In today’s USA, if you can scarlet anyone who disagrees with you as a white supremacist, you win. Unfortunately for the wokes, the real 2020 front in the culture war on race is not “wokes vs white supremacists” but “wokes vs liberals” (with white supremacists as a group that is marginal but hot in the media because it’s politically useful to all sides).

To a careless observer, the wokes may seem a natural extension of last generation’s liberals, but make no mistake: their world views are oppositional (at least on issues of identity). The old liberal values (pro free speech for multiple inputs and less racialization in our value judgments about people) are incompatible with woke values (stifle dissent and emphatically racialize value judgments about people and interactions). And the wokes are winning in university administrations and practices, where e.g. universities are placating the woke by going back to racially segregated housing, in newsrooms and online media, with the New York Times just the tip of the fallen iceberg, and to a lesser extent in the corporate hiring and training practices, and most obviously in museums and the arts, where the skin color of the artist often weighs more heavily with curators than the art itself.

So I’ll be curious to see where we go, now that Biden is in and the glue holding wokes and liberals together (fear of Trump) is dissolving. I would agree with the wokes that “liberal vs conservative” is no longer a viable defining line on race (though it still works on many other topics), but I disagree with their self-serving replacement (“wokes vs white supremacists”). It is more accurately “woke vs liberal” views on race. In this respect, for the past couple of decades, even many people who are otherwise conservative share the “liberal” view on race as I have defined it (pro free speech for multiple inputs and less racialization in our value judgments about people) and recoil at the racial essentialism of the wokes. Very few people today, on any end of the spectrum, would say that racial equality is not a valid goal. How and how much do we attend to that goal is what the fighting is all about.

Thus I come back to my thesis: The real 2020 front in the culture war on race is not “wokes vs white supremacists” but “wokes vs liberals” (with white supremacists as a group that is marginal but hot in the media).  Do we want to see less racialization in our value judgments about people (liberal) or more racialization of our value judgments about people (woke)? Be careful how you answer, especially if you are an educator, because the way you answer that question may determine whether our kids have any real hope of moving toward a more ideal union of racial harmony.

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The content of their character

“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
(Martin Luther King)

If only we could get this down. Some conservatives suggest that laws have been changed to make discrimination illegal and thus we are already there (in effect, we ARE judging people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin). Some woke progressives suggest, on the contrary, that the remark points to a distant future, so far removed from the present that it is a mistake to try to apply it today in our everyday lives.

I think each of these views is somewhat myopic. I think the best way to look at it is this: MLK’s rule is a starting point for the individual and an endpoint for society. If we each start now, with the people we meet on the street today, to judge people by the content of their character and not the color of the skin, if we each follow the well-known paraphrase of Gandhi to “be the change you want to see in the world,” we will be taking the necessary first step on the path that ultimately ends with the society Dr. King envisioned. So don’t make the mistake of thinking there is not much work left to be done on the road to racial equality and harmony, but don’t make the perhaps even larger mistake of not applying the MLK rule in your personal life today.

Those are my thoughts. Additional thoughts and comments welcome.

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