Those who can’t find anything to live for,
always invent something to die for.
Then they want the rest of us to
die for it, too.
I noticed that, on an MSNBC program, writer Ibram X. Kendi argued that Americans (white Americans especially) should be “anti-racists.” The idea opens an avenue different from the one opened by the question “are you racist”? For it suggests active behavior rather than simply a state of mind, which may remain passive and, well, useless.
Kendi’s suggestion made me realize more clearly what has often bothered me about many white American academics: while they may not be racist, per se, they often don’t actively oppose racism on campus. They let others handle it; they behave as if that work is someone else’s job. Of course, the same applies in other professions and trades. “Am I anti-racist?” is not a bad question to ask oneself. If the answer is “No,” then a follow-up “Why not?” is in order. If the answer is “Yes,” then a follow-up “prove it” is in order.
I would add only that anti-racist behavior need not be dramatically activist or attention grabbing. For instance, an academic might take the time to learn about some basic things a professor might do in the classroom to handle implicit racist questions or to avoid common errors, such as the “native informant” move, in which a professor asks the only Black student in a class her/his opinion about what Black folks think about a certain topic or issue. Think of how insulting that move is, as it puts the student on the spot much more so than a routine discussion question and as it assumes Black folks all think alike.
On a predominantly white campus, it can be helpful simply ask how a new African American colleague is faring–without necessarily raising the topic of racism. In other words, being polite and supportive is, arguably, a (small) anti-racist action.
It’s important to avoid the white-liberal “savior” or “messiah” syndrome, whereby a white person rushes in to protect and “save” a Black colleague or student, just as it is important to avoid the “it’s someone else’s responsibility” attitude. Somewhere in the middle of the fairway is the more productive, more basically responsible and (one hopes) effective play.
The most serviceable definition of “culture” I’ve encountered came from an art history professor, Fritz Blodgett. He defined it as “the sum of learned behavioral traits.” From this viewpoint, “culture” isn’t just high art like opera or low opera like professional wrestling, and it includes how or whether you use a fork to eat, for example. Professor Blodgett encouraged us to see visual art in the context of the whole culture, not as a sequestered thing.
I find myself ever more alienated from “my” culture, chiefly because of aging but also because of temperament. The extent to which most people seem attached to their phones seems alien to me, but of course it is now mainstream behavior. For instance, I will see someone walking her/his dog and almost never losing contact with the phone. S/he’s either listening to it or texting on it. The immediate reality around her–trees, grass, traffic, sky, birds, etc.–is secondary. She must ignore it to live life as she wants to.
I’m also alienated from America’s gun culture, even though, having grown up in the rural Sierra Nevada, I was around guns a lot. But they were treated as tools to be used as needed–almost exclusively for hunting. When not needed, they were put away, and they weren’t discussed, and they weren’t linked to one’s sense of self or politics. Now, of course, guns are everywhere, people display them, take them with them shopping, use them as a political symbol, and use them in massacres. Apparently a massacre-by-gun now occurs every 47 days in the U.S. When I make an infrequent trip to the mall, I always wonder if this will be the day I get shot by a disturbed person further disturbed by online frenzy. America.
Also, death-by-police-shooting is now the sixth leading cause of death of young men–mid teens to mid-twenties. And this is all men, not just Black men, who of course have grown up in a culture that thinks they are expendable. (Alienation is nothing new for Black folks, obviously.)
The bad news is also the good news with my increasing alienation. I used to think I might have some role to play in changing things through activism. Not a chance, as I see now. The culture will go along on its merry way, a way that seems increasingly irrational and lethal to me, and I’m just one of 8 billion people. I assume Trump will be re-elected, and an essentially White Supremacist order of elites will continue to be ascendant, at least as far as power is concerned. The necessary critical mass of white folks doesn’t seem to be materializing to rip the guts out of White Supremacy once and for all. There are simply too many white women and men who require a myth of whiteness to go on. They cling to it as the dog-walker clings to the phone. Accessories include enormous pickup trucks (their enormity not linked to job-requirements in trades) and guns and gun-decals on the mega trucks.
As I become more alienated every day, however, I’m blessed to be able to do things that are part of my personal version of culture: raising vegetables and flowers, watching this or that TV show from Europe, reading, writing, cooking. Occasionally I will look at my phone, but I do not view it as a friend. This is all good news to me. I rarely text with it or even answer calls, most of which seem to be scam-related (another feature of our culture). I find I don’t need a gun on my hip to pull weeds. Crazy, I know.
When something white supremacist happens at or in an institution, one of the ritual public-relations responses these days goes something like this: “This incident does not represent our values.” In some cases, such a statement is followed up with “diversity training” or the hiring of a “diversity officer” or “consultant.” And nothing changes.
Those interested in rooting out white supremacy have little influence to change this status quo, these rituals of moving on. Except, perhaps, in our smallest spheres. If we have a white supremacist relative, we can cut off contact with that person. If someone hangs nooses in a local factory or business, we can try to boycott that business. But we can’t affect the monolith of white supremacy that, among other things, guides the Supreme Court, the Presidency, the Senate, ICE, and the Border Patrol, colleges, high schools, and so on. When hearing or reading “this incident does not represent our values,” we may delete the “not.”
Deep change requires a critical mass of white Americans to actively resist white supremacy. What such a critical mass would look like, I don’t know because I’ve never seen one, neither in the nation nor in places where I’ve worked. Instead, it’s always up to the people who belong to the group targeted: African Americans, primarily, but of course not exclusively. In way, their being forced to try to do something punishes them, another “gift” from white supremacy.
The percentage of white folks in most states is dropping. I would regard that as good news, IF it meant white influence and power would drop accordingly. That’s a big IF.
In very small ways, at the very small college where I taught for 34 years, I tried to effect change. From this vantage point, the things I helped institute, such as an African American Studies Program and a standing Diversity Committee of the Faculty Senate, look very modest, no offense intended to the people who belong to these entities. Just like at almost all institutions (I’m not singling out “my” college), the fundamentals rarely change even as good things materialize. Who really runs these institutions? Even if there are persons of color or aggressively anti-white-supremacist white persons with high levels of responsibility, it’s likely that the institutions ultimately will be controlled not just by white folks but by a white mindset which, even if it projects sympathy for resisting racism, is more or less comfortable with the bedrock status quo.
This situation is why the huffing and puffing of Orwell in his famous essay looks ever more useless. “This incident does not represent our values.” This is a clear sentence. It is also a lie. There are no consequences for telling such a public-relations lie. Game over. Or rather, game continuing, and continuing.
I still choose hope over despair as much as I can because the Black folks I know and with whom I worked chose hope over despair, so, really, who am I not to follow their implicit lead?
But the wicked backlash against the elections of Barack Obama, the election of Trump, the hardening of white supremacy in government, education, and law enforcement: these suggest that, on the whole, American power has rededicated itself to white supremacy. And although person of color, and especially African Americans, are the ones most affected, the nation itself suffers. For the white supremacist goon Trump and his enablers also vitiate such things as voting rights, healthcare, environmental policy, education, and on and on. White supremacy depends upon ignorance and greed. Also on amorality, which is often badly disguised with piety. Look how many white religious leaders enthusiastically support the white supremacist Trump. Rooting out white supremacy depends upon enough white people consistently, relentlessly pushing to change institutions. But the “enough” never materializes.
Weirdly, it turns out Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon (1930) and John Huston’s film adaptation of the same name (1941) were prescient about the rise (like swamp gas) of Donald Trump:
Joel Cairo (played by Peter Lorre) speaking to Kasper Gutman (played by Sydney Greenstreet): You. . . you bungled it. You and your stupid attempt to buy it. Kemedov found out how valuable it was, no wonder we had such an easy time stealing it. You . . . you imbecile! You bloated idiot! You stupid fat-head you!