Friday, June 30, 2017

It's a white thing cont'd

I've listened to four episodes of "Seeing White" now. A lot of it is really good. I recommend it.

The question the program has us focus on is, "What is whiteness?" The question comes up in an odd way. Originally, people were more interested in categorizing those whom they wanted to oppress. To begin with, this wasn't much of a problem but, at least in the case of the United States, it becomes a problem.

Others are others. We categorize people as being part of or not part of certain groups them and we typically don't have trouble identifying these groups. Yes, you can make mistakes. But how much do you want to make of that? When travelling, I sometimes wake up in the morning not certain of where I am. If I've been in four or five different bedrooms in a  row I will often wake up before sunrise in my own bedroom on returning home and spend a little while not knowing where I am or thinking I am in another bedroom altogether. It's a disorienting experience but I would not begin to wonder whether I'm really sitting at my office desk right now as a consequence. Likewise, I have had experiences where people I thought were friends turned out to be enemies (I can't think of a single example of the reverse alas) but I don't throw the concept of enemy out the door.

Of course, we're not talking about enemies here but rather of an oppressed group. The key part of that term is not "oppressed" but "group". Suppose Jim's father swindled me out of my life's savings. How am I going to treat Jim? Let's make it more distant and suppose Jim's grandfather did me a nasty turn. How does that affect relations between us?

If we're honest, we'll admit that the less we know about others, the easier it is to hate them. If, in the example I've given above, I knew Jim for a while before I realized he is the son of the man who swindled me out of my life's savings it's going to be harder to hate him than if the only thing I know about Jim is that he's a part of the category "family of the man who swindled me".  That category move makes it a lot easier to oppress someone. The people who so casually oppressed people for so long did so because they categorized them based on ... well, what?

But the reverse is also true. If I am sitting next to someone on the plane and discover in the course of conversation that she is a cousin of mine, that will draw a closer bond between us even though I don't know much about her character. It's not the fact of the category distinction but the purpose for which we draw it that is important.

What is a category?

Where "Seeing White" goes wrong is that it repeats certain liberal or progressive platitudes (we might as easily say "clichés") instead of really dealing with the issue at hand. One of the lines repeated over and over again is that race is a construct. That's absolutely true. But the category "planets" is also a construct. As are the categories city, neighbourhood, human, bush, tree, bird and, in fact, every category that you could think of.

A category is just a grouping together of "things" for some purpose. I've put "things" in scare quotes because things only become things by virtue of being categorized. It's only when brains like ours start organizing the world that they acquire the status of thing. Their real enough—I don't have to acknowledge the existence of the meteorite that kills me in order for it to exist—but things become particular types of things when human beings categorize them for some purpose.

Black people became black people when they were enslaved. Until that moment, darker or lighter skin meant no more than blonde or brunette. "Seeing White" is very good on this point and does a very good job in showing us that while we human beings have always been determined to see people other than our own group as inferior, the practice of making the distinction on race as opposed to family, tribe or ethnicity didn't get going until slavery in the Americas.

Well, not quite. Saying "slavery in the Americas" is my touch. The show focuses almost exclusively on what happened in the United States of America. That is a blind spot I may come back to in a future post.

To return to the liberal cliché the show deals in. The argument is that there is no genetic basis for race. That's true but, unfortunately, it doesn't get us where we want to go. Or as Suzanne Plihcik is Associate Director of the Racial Equity Institute and one of the contributors to the show says:
Anthropologists finally say, and it is way past due, that race is anthropological nonsense. Is that the same thing as saying it's not real? No. Because it's real. It is powerfully real, it is politically and socially real. So we need to know how did we get it and what we say is, we constructed it.
And that is where it's going to get tricky. Not because it isn't true that race is a construct but because every category is a construct.

To make a category, you need three things. The first two are a purpose and a grouping. The third is that you need other people to go along with you. If I have a handful of marbles that I want to group some out as belonging to a group, I need to get others to see the difference. If no one else can see the difference, my "category" doesn't exist. I might try and prove my category is real by asking you to mix the marbles into the a pile of other marbles and then showing you I can separate them but that won't work because it will be the same to you if I pulled out marbles at random if you can't see the distinction I wish to make. If, on the other hand, I say I'm going to pull out all the red marbles, that is a category you can understand and will most likely accept even if there are a few in the mix where the line between red and pink is hard to draw.

Consider the following text that I've transcribed from Episode 2 of the podcast. Most of the text is Suzanne Plihcik speaking at an anti-racism workshop and the text in parentheses are voice over comments by host John Biewen to help us understand better because we only have audio.
It is statistically likely that I am closer to you genetically (Suzanne, who is white, points at a black man) than I am to you (and then a white woman).
See the problem? Biewen distinguishes based on race. He casually uses these categories in the course of a podcast whose theme is that the distinction doesn't exist.

If we want to rid ourselves of racism, we need to stop spouting the same platitudes that my good liberal parents taught me fifty years ago. The problem of racism is not an education problem. It is not a matter of, as Biewen describes the activities of the Racial Equity Institute, "dropping a whole lot of knowledge" on people. And it isn't a matter of dispensing with the category of race. As in the quote above, the show uses the distinction of race over and over again. Biewen identifies himself as "white", whatever that means, and others as "black", whatever that means.

The change has to take place somewhere else.

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