Thursday, February 9, 2017

White Privilege and Moral Indignation. . .

I am disappointed about recent political/social events. Ok, disappointment is far too week a word. Perhaps existential dread is a better word for my prevailing emotion. But then I think to myself, if I feel so overwhelmed by these events, what must racialized and marginalized people be feeling? I am a well-educated, white man. In social terms, it doesn't come more privileged than that. If I feel a sense of dread, I can't imagine the anger and disappointment of those who don't enjoy such privilege.

I grew up in the US in the 60s and 70s so I am certainly no stranger to open and overt racism. I heard the "N" word hurled at kids and adults and I understood, even as a child, its import and implications. But my youthful experiences in the US were mostly in Santa Monica, California and a mostly white neighborhood of Denver Colorado, and as racist epicentres go these were hardly crawling with racist sentiment, (at least not overly). When I came to Canada I actually saw more open racism among my peers, aimed almost exclusively at indigenous people and those whose "heritage" was Indian or Pakistani. But despite all of this, I assumed (I suppose like most privileged, white liberals) that we were on the road to a society where racism was vanishing. Now, I've always understood how painful the process was, and with what snail-like slowness it was proceeding. But I assumed, perhaps naively, that we were on the way down that path.

Suddenly the ground of that naive certainty has been pulled out from people like me. Again, this is probably itself a form of white privilege. While I blithely assumed things were genuinely changing, those who suffered the effects of real racism knew the score; they knew that blatant and structural racism continued in many cases unabated.

But I have never been particularly sanguine about progress or the goodness of human beings. So, at some level, I am not that surprised to see a resurgence of white supremacy, nor am I surprised at the cavalier attitude of many people at what amounts to a supremacist takeover of the White House. But what I suppose I am disappointed at is the way that structural racism has so insidiously seeped into people's consciousness, to the degree that self-professed liberals often hide their racism behind security concerns or, even more insidiously, behind moral indignation concerning black activism.

A case in point is the moral indignation that white liberals hurl at Black Lives Matter in general and at the Toronto chapter co-founder of that organization Yusra Khogali in particular. Now, I am very consciously not going to rehash white people's criticism of BLM or Khogali because that would be to fall into the very white privilege that I so despise. What amazes me is the ease with which white liberals make these criticisms, even to the point that a prominent white blogger on the Huffington post openly called for Khogali to resign in a recent post.

Here's the thing - it has always been a central element of racism and white privilege that white people feel that they can tell racialized or oppressed groups how they should protest, be politically active, or who they should chose as their leaders. But telling racialized people what to do is the very problem that racialized activists are reacting against, it is the very thing they are protesting. For white liberals to tell BLM who they should choose as a leader is a grand confirmation of racism and white privilege! As a white person you may not like who BLM (or any such activist organization) chooses as their leader, and my response is, tough luck, get over it! For centuries white people have brutalized and enslaved racialized people, raped them, imprisoned them, and lynched them. In the US this process continues almost unabated. The system of slavery and lynching has been replaced with a national prison system that is as brutal and de-humanizing as slavery ever was. In the face of this kind of violence and brutalization (here and abroad), moral-indignation at the actions of BLM and Khogali is the height of white privilege. Such indignation is like someone subjecting their neighbors to daily verbal and physical abuse and then being righteously upset if the neighbors or their kids egg the abuser's house.

Struggling against oppression has always been a messy, sometimes violent, business. That's because oppression is itself a messy and violent business, and the desire of liberal white people to keep it nice and tidy is a massive element of their privilege. It's easy to call for calm forgiveness and gentle inclusiveness when you're on the winning side of history. My answer to white people who have a sense of moral indignation at BLM is, get your own house in order and remember you have little or no sense what a daily ubiquitous experience of racial oppression feels like.

If Yusra Khogali hates me, I don't blame her. White people have given her plenty or reasons to hate us. Even if I disagree with BLM strategies, I'm not going to white-splain some notion of "appropriate" political action. When white Americans elect a white supremacist government, it amazes me to hear white people tell racialized groups to "calm down" and play nice.

6 comments:

Owen Gray said...

The Ku Klux Klan never disappeared, Kirby. They just stopped wearing their sheets.

doconnor said...

I'd comment, but I guess it would be inappropriate.

Gyor said...

None sense like this post is a contributing factor to why Trump won. Racism is stupid, and that includes self hating white people. I'll point out that while Trump only one a minority of minorities, it was enough of an increase over the last Republican presidential nominee that it helped him win.

Instead of identity politics and all trival the stuff that separates us, why not focus on universality and the far more meaningful stuff that binds us together and the economic common interest of the 99%.

A majority of New Democracts, not just Liberals and Tories, think PCness has gone too far.

I say this in the hopes you will take the time to reflect and see a more productive path forward.

Kirby Evans said...

Gyor - Your typical and entirely predictable patronizing tone does nothing but convince me of the truth of my conviction. Reflection appears to be the very last thing of which you have been guilty; and in fact, your reply reeks of knee-jerk reactionary rhetoric, devoid of any reasoning, but liberally peppered with provocative bombast designed to nothing but but avoid thought and bolster your sense of self importance. If you're going to come to a battle of wits, don't come unarmed next time. Save your patronizing blather for people who might be naive enough to imagine that you make some sense, and next time you want to peddle your racism do it elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

"If Yusra Khogali hates me, I don't blame her. White people have given her plenty or reasons to hate us."

Does the concept of the individual even exist in your universe?

Kirby Evans said...

Now, I normally wouldn't even publish a comment like the Anonymous one above but I publish and comment on it here because it is so indicative of the low level to which rational thought has sunk in recent years.

Let's take it at the level of basic rational coherence - what exactly is this comment supposed to imply? Is the implication here that expressing understand for the roots of anger and hostility of a group that his historically oppressed and victimized, demonstrates somehow that you have no concept of "individuality"?? This obviously, prima facie, is not just incoherent, but it is downright bizarre. The simple acknowledgement of the social-psychological phenomenon of racial hostility that is rooted in longstanding abuse and oppression, is not complex. It is, in fact, a fairly simple extension of the normal psychological category of PTSD in those who have been abused and who often harbour hostility and can, in turn, become abusive. The idea of social affects on individual behavior is so widespread and generally acknowledged that it could only be claimed by the very basest and misinformed intellect to be part of some sort of denigration of the individual. In fact, the case is quite the contrary. Empathy and understanding of powerful emotions like anger that are rooted in some kine of trauma, both individual and historical, is an important, nay essential, element in conflict resolution and understanding between individuals as well as groups. The first step toward reconciliation is never accusation, it is understanding. Thus to ignore, or fail to understand, Ms. Khogali's anger and hostility would be, in fact, not only to deny her individuality, but to deny my own.

Perhaps the commentator wanted to imply, but lacked the requisite linguistic and rational skills, that an acknowledgement that social factors play a part in emotions and actions, somehow denigrates a concept of individuality, essentially turning social actors into automatons that only express social phenomena in a kind of deterministic inevitability. If this is, indeed, meant to be the import of the comment, I encourage the poster to refer to the roots of social theory in the 19th century, particularly in the work of Durkheim, Weber, Marx, Comte, and Spenser. They will find there, in the works that set the stage for much of modern sociology as well as much of psychology, a clear acknowledgment of both individuality as well as the social influences and constraints on individual action.