Lately I’ve been reading, thinking and writing on the topic of race. Many have been so kind as to join me in this important conversation. Some have mentioned these posts to be helpful. In light of this, I am providing links to the entire series below, along with some excerpts from each.
Hoping these might serve you as you bring this needed dialogue into your own spaces.
But we can’t move this forward until we understand the term “race”.
Put briefly, there’s no such thing as race! The only thing that makes race a thing is that it has been socially engineered to be so. Race is a quasi-scientific category; a category that was invented for socio-cultural reasons, but has been met with repeated failure in its attempts to be “science-ized” in order to support the social construct.
This was observable in the middle of the last century in Nazi Germany, and their promotion of the idea of a superior Aryan race—an idea with roots in the 1850s. Nazi propaganda reflected their unique efforts to demonstrate Nordic racial superiority through pseudo-science. We recoil at these notions, but then forget to interrogate our own understanding of race. Nazi racial ideology is rooted in the racial constructs of Western, white civilization going back into the 1400s.
Now I’m sure that some of you reading are, at this point, so certain that race is a fixed aspect of humanity, that you are questioning the very notion of it having social origins; as though I am telling you that the elements of the Periodic Table are only a social construct.
But race, as we know it, is a superficiality that has been co-opted into Western thinking with a dehumanizing intent. Yes, intent!
And while a mutually-understood employment of the term “racism” is critical toward any meaningful dialogue, it must be said up front: whites are wrong on this, and non-whites are right.
My previous post was aimed at clarifying our understanding of race in general; namely, that it doesn’t exist. Race has, however, been conjured into existence as a means of sub-dividing humans in a fashion more akin to species. But why would anyone want to do that?
Race is a pseudo-scientific socially engineered construct for sub-classifying peoples based on superficial physical traits in order to justify sub-human acts of exploitation toward them.
Read that again. If you miss it, the rest of this will be lost on you.
Of course, there are physical traits that characterize people-groups from various regions of our world; skin color, hair color and type, other facial variations. This is undeniable. But this is not race—not as it has been deployed in the history of the West and in our nation!
And the socio-scientific concept of “ethnicity” is categorically valid; involving a multifaceted study of geographical, genealogical, cultural and lingual factors. Ethnicity is a sociological and anthropological category for understanding meaningful features of people-groups. But this is not race! Race it different. Ethnicity is benign. Race is malignant.
The fiction of race is the basis for the fact of racism—a superficial, systematic and societal sub-classification of people for the sake of exploitation.
But this is not how white people define racism.
…my trusted non-white friends, colleagues and students all agreed that white voices must remain in the chorus on this topic. I’m understanding the why behind this more and more.
From the earliest days of abolitionism (a movement that arose immediately on the heels of the colonial era and the widespread advent of chattel enslavement), through the Civil War and Civil Rights movement, voices among the white populace have played an irreducible role toward the cause of racial justice. There is a position and venue into which our voice has more purchase, and oftentimes we know the vernacular for playing translator between both sides.
As much as anything though, I’m seeing how silence is a way of retreat. When those of us in the white community can’t or won’t name racism or address its damage, it communicates either tacit endorsement or craven betrayal. Most people of color have spent their lives swimming upstream against racial currents. They’ve become adept at feigning indifference and maintaining poise in the face of it. As uncomfortable as it is for whites like myself to confront these societal dynamics—even calling them “evil” or “unjust”—still those affected by them have no such choice. Measures of healing come when we enter into their sorrows and even anger. And though I’ve never once met a person who readily admits to being a “racist”, still we know racism is alive and well. If my own history can be any indicator, it seeps out despite our best efforts.
Maybe what I’m dancing around right now is my own racism; my willingness to prefer sloppy stereotypes over human considerations, to prefer judgement over understanding, to exclude or insulate, to remain willfully oblivious to how I benefit from racial constructs and willfully loath to consider my obligations toward remedies, my own hidden attitudes of superiority and innate deservedness. Maybe I’m learning how to grapple within and grapple without in these issues—whether I’m brave enough to enter further into the rough terrain of longsuffering involvement. I can, after all, still use my racial identity as exemption from all this.
But how can I do so, now that I grasp that this is the wrong thing to do?
Privilege is a good word, not a bad one. Its connotations overwhelmingly positive; fortified with the soul-nourishing nutrients of gratitude, humility, contentment and purpose. For instance, I am privileged to be a husband and father, privileged to be employed, privileged to be in good health. For all this, I feel blessed. Who am I to come into such bounty?
The recognition of privilege appreciates that we have been beneficiaries of forces external to ourselves; outside our powers of control. Privilege is the foil of entitlement, redirecting our attention to endowments, causing us to treasure them.
Yes, privilege has the power to animate those human faculties of kindness, responsibility, compassion and magnanimity which deploy us into the world as life-givers. Yet it carries with it an existential threat; like a conceptual Trojan horse, it might occasion the overthrow of our sense of personal credit—if permitted past our gates of defense.
You see, external credit—especially beyond one’s agency—is a diminution of self-credit, and undeserved prosperity is anathema to the American ethos, is it not? And so we come to privilege not entirely under amicable terms; it is more of a truce. “I will acknowledge you only so long as my own credit remain intact.” But privilege will never comply with this, because the truth will never comply with this. Thus, we are all prone to subscribe to a myth of singular self-credit; or at least we must preserve self as the majority agent in our personal credit narrative—and this usually carries over into our corporate identities.
No one wants to be confronted by the notion that there are two sets of stairs, and that theirs is the carpeted, sheltered, dependable set leading to a preferable location. We prefer the other set be tucked in the back-alley; out of sight. No one wants to be confronted by the revelations that we pass, as it were, through unequal portals, and that this may, in large part, explain why we end up in prefereable localities along with others like us.
But the point of mentioning white privileged is not an exercise in scolding. It is an exercise in awareness, and, as in the case of all privilege-awarenesses, to awaken humane attitudes and quell the baser ones.
My generation was indoctrinated into the post-racial mythology, and not just whites but all. We called it “color blindness” and it sounded sublime. But it was a bandage on a gangrenous wound; partially concealing, but impeding real healing. I mentioned it in a previous post that America cannot ever be truly post-racial. Racial ideology is among the chief architects of our nation and, as such, its infrastructures and design-intents may never be fully resolved. Post-racial America may be an oxymoron, but a racially redeemed America may be a worthy undertaking.
Truth and reconciliation must go hand and hand. Real reconciliation can never happen apart from truthful reckoning. I mentioned above the importance of our bases. Reconciliation places the basis of human concern above all others, be they politics, pride, personal preservation or the like. Nothing kinks the hose of empathy like defensiveness in all its forms.
Seeking truth and reconciliation means not minimizing pain, listening simply to understand, grieving others grief and, yes, owning up to our complicitness. I must say here that the onus rests on primarily on white communities. Race has visited its harms in our nation upon non-whites like an apocalyptic plague. If the least whites can do is come to terms with this, and learn to lament, it will be a quantum leap.