Friday, January 23, 2009

. . . And The White Rage Never Ends

Following some of the outrages of the Great Cultural Appropriation Debate, I came across a discussion at Micole's of the infuriating things this one novelist has said about class trumping race in the Oppression Pinochle Tournament. I was struck by a couple of insights:

First, the novelist is totally cribbing from The Trouble with Diversity. I'd suggest that this insight means his position is worth contesting, because Michaels has a pretty substantial following.

Second, if there wasn't a gay black aristocrat with a 130K salary in the SF world, we'd have to invent him. Evidently this novelist has used the old "But . . . But . . . Chip is more privileged than I am! Hah!" argument to derail the conversation. While I like the idea of, say, calling Chip out on his class snobbery (Marilyn Hacker's been doing that since 1960), I gotta say: a gay American born in 1942 has had to fear for his life, health, and sanity in ways that this novelist and I would have to work hard to imagine. It's not Merely Cultural: it's not even the equivalent of being, say, a wealthy but politically disenfranchised Jew in the U.K. of a couple centuries ago.

As to being obtuse about the reality of race relations, we've seen that in recent days as tv, radio, and internet commentators say "Obama owes the world an apology, because Joseph Lowery's benediction was part of a longstanding tradition of oppressing white people!" I can see a reasonable argument being made that Lowery's witty conclusion to that benediction sounded anachronistic for the occasion: black, at this event, is not being told to get back, whatever may be the case for African-Americans in other settings. But who can fail to be charmed by the heroic old man? My atheist immigrant white mother called my even whiter wife on inauguration day and said "I theenk he was referring to eh song by Beeg Beel Broonzy!" declaring it her favorite part of the inauguration.

Is there a connection between the two instances of White Rage? There's a certain ressentiment, a certain trauma envy, a certain Kerouacian worry that the black guy is having a good time, and Heaven help us, a certain "identity politics" in both cases: there's an implicit "As a white man . . . " at the start of the provocative novelist's claim of underprivilege, and an explicit use of that phrase in many denunciations of Lowery (not Michelle Malkin's, but perhaps most others). I'm reminded of Baldwin's "As long as you think of yourself as white . . . " i.e. as long as you depend for your sense of self, of pride, of integrity on defining yourself as the oppressed other's other, your potential for the depth of love and understanding that the human race needs to survive is going to be limited. "My social identity is not being recognized" can be a legitimate gripe, but to claim "whiteness" as that wounded or traumatized social identity, as the Rev. Lowery's detractors do, is to take leave of social reality in some pretty scary ways.

Emended to clarify that I'm not making an argument for "color-blindness" or against self-awareness of white privilege.


Cat Rambo said...

I was struck by an article yesterday (I don't remember the source, unfortunately, since it was encountered during transit) but it basically was bemoaning the fact that many of the whites on the Washington "A" list might be bumped off by blacks. The amount of indignation over this sort of thing is appalling in its willingness to showcase how taken-for-granted white privilege often (usually?) is.

Timmi Duchamp said...

Cat: The "appalling willingness" is merely the artifact of their unconsciousness-- which is the whole point of white privilege: only the privileged are allowed to enjoy the luxury of day-t-o-day unconsciousness of the workings of institutionalized racism. & it's their sense of entitlement to this unconsciousness that results in so many white people going on the attack whenever someone makes that privilege visible.

Whenever someone responds with: "You're calling me a racist? How dare you!" you can just about bet they think of "racism" as merely a set of uncouth verbal mannerisms & the nasty violence of the Ku Klux Klan & other white supremacist gangs. No, most people hear suggestions that their behavior or remarks are racist as accusations of uncouthness. & since they know that they never use racist slurs in their language, they are outraged at the very thought. This is a line of psychological defense that's almost impregnable.

claire said...

claiming "white" as one's core social identity is some pretty weak sauce.

Huh? But what if white IS your core social identity? This is how rational discussion of white privilege gets derailed. NO WHITE PEOPLE think of themselves as "white," even when they are. They try to avoid the classification by breaking down their identities into component ethnicities (which often include a dollop of "Cherokee.")

The majority of whites in the US are mixed ethnicity, and Richard D. Alba, in the mid-eighties, showed that hewing to ethnicity, even among the traditional ethnic enclaves of the East Coast, was a matter of claiming an immigrant identity that was peculiarly American, rather than a matter of maintaining a meaningful ethnicity. Most whites aren't "Irish," or "German," or "Swedish." Most whites are white.

And yet they duck the tag like hell. Why? Because people like you say things like:

claiming "white" as one's core social identity is some pretty weak sauce.

I cry hella foul. You can't hound someone out of pride in their identity and then expect them to be able to recognize their privilege. If every time they come to you you're saying something idiotic like "what you are is pretty weak sauce," they're: a) gonna feel legitimately invalidated by you and b) gonna stop listening within an eighth of a second.

copracat said...

But who can fail to be charmed by the heroic old man?

People who have booked passage on the fail boat. Idiots. People with no empathy or imagination. People with no joy.

Josh said...

Yeh, the disconnect between that facile final sentence and what I seemed to be doing earlier in the post bothered me too. I've changed it.

claire said...

ah, that made a lot more sense. thanks for the clarification.

Stella Omega said...

think of "racism" as merely a set of uncouth verbal mannerisms & the nasty violence of the Ku Klux Klan & other white supremacist gangs

Timmi Duchamp has said it-- I know that the first time I was told I was being racist, that was my reaction.

But how long does anyone get to prance around being being pouty? Not long,not if I really cared that I'd hurt people. Which is what is killing me about what I've been witnessing, and the ways in which some of the worst cases of self-entitlement are being shown off like precious possessions.

Well, I've been explaining to other white people ever since, that that notion is incorrect. Some start to get it quickly, some not right away, some... not ever.

Maybe SF writers are SF writers for a reason? Maybe it's a reason I don't want to know about?

Josh said...

Stella, your testimony that such a "line of defense" is in fact pregnable (izzat a word?) is encouraging.

But how long does one get to prance about being pouty? Great question. As Timmi says, we're talking here about a "psychological defense" --a compensation for what I've seen called "ego weakness." Reading recent commments at Micole's, I find that a beloved British journalist of Timmi's generation has made almost exactly the defensive remarks that Timmi describes here so well.

So, although it's tempting to think that personal experience expands the moral imagination of a thoughtful person, the ability to listen on the part of the white interlocutor does not correlate with having been stigmatized or marginalized oneself. I'm curious, then, about the "almost" in that "almost impregnable." What can mitigate that defensiveness? Or is an answer to that already implicit in my post above?

Stella Omega said...

Josh, I don't do philosophy much! My experience and observation say that anyone who is both thoughtful and moral-- and really, it's astonishing how many people are-- wants to get it, and as soon as possible.