Black and white

February 11, 2019 § Leave a comment

Last week, in writing this piece on white privilege, or white hegemony, I cited David Roediger’s excellent book, The Wages of Whiteness, and in so doing, I linked to the book on Amazon.  I spent some time reading the reviews of the book, especially the 1-star ones.

Most of the 1-star reviews are predictable, complaining about how to point out how whiteness was created in the United States is racist against white people, or claim (clearly without actually reading the book) that the book demonizes white people or the working classes.  It is hard not to call such responses racist at worst, or ignorant at best.

But one stuck out to me, because the author took a slightly different tack.  It is worth quoting the review at length here:

A small but very significant difference in terminology prevented me from getting far with this book. Roediger refers to black persons as “Black” (capitalized) and to white persons as “white” (lowercase) throughout his entire book. This rather meaningful difference in terms is utilized in every single instance that a cursory glance through the text revealed these words appearing either as nouns or adjectives. Thus the white person is consistently devalued in contrast to the black individual, solely by the word used to designate him or her. Since this racial devaluation of the white indiviudal is the premise upon all of what follows is based, why bother to read further? Almost before the introductory sentence, we already have a good sense of the bias inherent in the whole book, a bias which puts the author’s fair reporting of facts or interpretation thereof into serious question. Is it just a stupid joke, or an example of white self-hatred, or both, that Roedinger would write nearly 200 pages making a case about how whites advanced themselves in the workplace by collectively devaluing blacks, while himself using language which consistently devalues whites?

First, I feel sorry for this reviewer for giving up so early into the book, but I suppose had s/he actually read it, it would’ve led to a different review, one much more predictable.  But, ultimately, it is the same kind of review as the more predictable ones.  It is just dressed up in fancier language.  The fact that the reviewer argues that to capitalize black and not capitalize white devalues white people is an interesting one.

I have also had this question in the classroom, from students of various backgrounds, on the occasions I’ve either assigned the book or excerpts therefrom.

I think, ultimately, while I would be inclined to either capitalize nor, more likely, not capitalize, both, I can see a pretty simple argument for capitalizing black but not white.  Black is generally a racial category in the United States.  This is both done from the outside, but also from the inside. I don’t really see how, due to white privilege, an African American in the United States could not notice both this hegemony and their own difference from that hegemonic culture and, due to racism, be confronted with the fact that they might not be fully welcome to enjoy the benefits of a cultural hegemony due to the simple fact of skin colour.

On the other hand, because we live in a hegemonically white culture, most white people don’t think about these kinds of things.  Those that do are either people like me, working from a place of anti-racism, or racists.  But to the vast majority of white people, the colour of their skin doesn’t matter because it’s never mattered, because of their hegemonic place in our culture and society.

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Hegemony vs. White Privilege

February 8, 2019 § 3 Comments

Earlier this week, I wrote a piece about Jordan Peterson, who I dismissed as a professional bore.  A friend of mine shared it on his wall on Facebook and holy hell ensued.  One commentator took great exception to my point that ‘frankly, you cannot claim there is no such thing as white privilege and not be racist’ and, oh-so-wittily demanded a citation.

I come at this question after spending most of my adult life working from a place of anti-racism, of insisting that we recognize our diversity and that we work to a world where none of this even matters anymore because it’s the de facto response to all things.

The very term ‘white privilege is heavily loaded.  It does two things.  First, it points a finger at white people.  Second, it suggests to white people who have a difficult time due to class or gender or sexuality that they have something they generally consider themselves to lack: privilege.

White people get defensive when the finger is pointed at them.  I know, I am a white person.  The general defensive response from a white person is to claim that they have nothing to do with slavery, genocide of the indigenous, etc.  And, moreover, this all happened in the past.  But racism isn’t an historical exhibit in a museum, it’s still very real and prevalent.

And then there’s the question of class.  Poor white people do not generally have privilege, that’s part of the problem of being poor.  I grew up poor, and it marked me in certain ways, including a distrust of power and authority.  And then there’s people like me who worked to escape that poverty.  To say we have had privilege our whole lives sounds like a denial of our own hard work to get to where we are.

But calling out white privilege is none of this.  For one, privilege (whether in terms of race, gender, or sexuality) is not a one-size-fits-all hat.  It is relative.  I always think of the Italian communist theorist Antonio Gramsci, and his concept of ‘hegemony.’  Cultural hegemony, as Gramsci conceived of it, explained how and why the ruling class maintained power and why the working classes did not revolt.  This means that the ruling class imposed its own world view, its own cultural mores, and so on on culture and society and normalized them.  Thus, ruling class ideals were the normal, anything else was deviant.  And thus, the union movement of the late 19th/early 20th centuries in North America was about accessing some of that hegemonic power for the skilled working classes.  The union movement of that era was not about the overthrow of capitalism, but the amelioration of it, allowing these skilled working class men and their families to access some of the benefits of hegemony.  But it was still a relative slice of the hegemony pie.

Privilege, as the term is used today, is pretty much the same as Gramscian hegemony.  As I argued in this piece, we live in a culture created and dominated by white people.  White people, in other words, are hegemonic.  And, as David Roediger argues in his excellent The Wages of Whiteness, the process of racial solidarity was forged in the United States in the 19th century, the colour line was created through a process of essentially convincing the white working classes that while their lives may be difficult, at least they weren’t black.  That is obviously a simplification of Roediger’s argument, but it is also the basics.

And so now, in the early 21st century in the United States (and Canada) we live in an increasingly multicultural, diverse world.  Two of Canada’s three largest cities (Toronto and Vancouver) have minority white populations.  Around 35% of Canada’s population is comprised of people of colour.  South of the border, 44% of the American population is comprised of visible minorities.  More than that, 50% of the children in the US under the age of 5 are people of colour.  So the times are changing, but not quick enough, really.  The fact we still use terms like ‘people of colour’ or ‘visible minorities’ reflects that.

So we still live in a white world.  To me, this is blatantly obvious looking at the world around me.  In Canada, indigenous men and women are continually assaulted by the police and private citizens.  In the United States, it is African Americans who find themselves looking down the barrel of a gun with police and private citizens on the other end.  More subtle forms of racism exist, like crossing the road to avoid black men.  Or calling the police because an African American person is walking down the street.  But racism also exists in other forms, against other groups.  And all non-white ethnic groups are forced to live in a white world in the US and Canada.

To use another loaded term, this is white supremacy. For me, white supremacy isn’t the Ku Klux Klan or Richard Spencer (that’s just outright racist idiocy), it is simply the fact we live in a white world.

To return to my original point that to deny white privilege is itself a racist conclusion.  Ta-Nehisi Coates summarizes white privilege very well in a 2012 Atlantic article, where he writes

But I generally find it [white privilege] most powerful and most illuminating when linked to an actual specific privilege–not fearing sexual violence, not weighing one’s death against the labor of birthing, living in a neighborhood bracketed off by housing covenants, not having to compete for certain jobs etc.

In the other words, because I don’t fear being shot by the police due to my skin colour (amongst other things), I have privilege based on race.  That neither I nor Coates fear being sexually assaulted on our walk home from work is privilege based on gender.  And so on.

Thus, to wilfully deny that white people enjoy a certain hegemony in our culture is racist, because it denies an entire cultural framework.  That cultural framework means I am far less likely to get harassed by the police if I wear my hood up walking down the street.  It also means that white people are sentenced far more leniently for crimes than black people.  It means that poor white people don’t get red-lined like poor black people by financial institutions when seeking a mortgage.  And to deny that is not only wilfully ignorant, it is a product of that privilege, and therefore, racist.

But at the end of all of this, the very terms ‘white supremacy’ and ‘white privilege’ are, as noted, loaded.  Spring-loaded, really.  Thus, perhaps we should re-frame the discussion to centre around hegemony.  That is far less likely to put people’s hackles up, to make people defensive from the start.  And if we don’t start from a position of defensiveness, we’d be far more likely to get somewhere.

The History of White People

August 2, 2017 § 4 Comments

I am reading Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People.  For those who don’t know, Painter is Professor Emeritus of History at Princeton University.  She is, in academic parlance, a heavyweight.  This might be one of the most frustrating books I have ever read.  Not for its content argument and its basic argument, which is to trace the history of ‘whiteness’ as a social construct in American society, stretching back to the Greeks.  Rather, it is frustrating for a certain sloppiness and factual inaccuracy that dogs the book.

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Part of what we base our reputation and claims to authority on, as historians, is our attention to detail and our attempts to make sure we remain factually correct.

To wit, only seven pages in, in discussing the great Greek historian, Herodotus, Painter writes:

Herodotus’ world is still flat — that notion would stand for another thousand years.

She is correct, Herodotus did believe the world was flat.  So, too, did, amongst others, Homer.  But, for many Greek philosophers (to the Greeks, philosophy and science was the same thing), the world was anything but flat. Pythagoras (he of the theorem) was amongst many Greek thinkers who believed in a spherical Earth.  Plato believed the world was spherical.  So, too, did Aristotle.  Eratosthenes, around 240, attempted to estimate the Earth’s circumference.  He did this without any modern tools, of course, and though he was wrong in his estimation, he was only off by around 10%.  The great Ptolemy thought the Earth spherical. So, too, did the Romans.  Even the early Christian Church believed in the spherical nature of the Earth.  Indeed, the belief in a spherical Earth lasted into the Middle Ages and beyond.  Stephen Jay Gould argued that the belief in a flat Earth was non-existant amongst the educated classes of Medieval Europe.  So, clearly, Herodotus’ error in the belief in a flat Earth did not stand for another thousand years.

Other anachronisms abound.  For example, she discusses Samuel Stanhope Smith’s views on race during his academic career in late 18th and early 19th centuries.  And while, when introducing him as the president of the College of New Jersey, she notes that said college is now Princeton University, on the very next page, she calls Smith the President of Princeton.  He was not.  Princeton did not exist until 1896, until then, it was the College of New Jersey.

And then there is a long discussion of the works of Gustave de Beaumont, a French lawyer, more famous for his fiction and quasi-sociological studies of the United States and Ireland.  Beaumont is even more famous for being the second fiddle to Alexis de Tocqueville.  Beaumont and Tocqueville were life-long friends and Beaumont accompanied Tocqueville on his famous tour of the United States that led to his legendary Democracy in America.  In fact, Beaumont published his own work, a novel, that examined that which Tocqueville did not, race in America.  But, his Marie, or Slavery in the United States, a Picture of American Manners, while it won the Prix Montyon of the Académie Française, quickly faded from view.  Following their tour of the United States, the two French gentlemen made their way to Ireland, and were rather shocked by the wretchedness of the Irish peasants.

But here, Painter engages in some very sloppy and lazy historical accounting.  The Irish Famine was from 1845-52.  During the Famine, any number of ‘journalists’ headed out from London and other English cities to the Irish countryside, to see the conditions of the starving nation first-hand. Painter is correct to suggest many of these journalists thought the news reports sensationalized.  They discovered they were not.  But, she conflates, for example, Thomas Carlyle toured Ireland in 1849, two years after the worst of the Famine in 1847, but in the midst of the Famine.  Painter conflates the trip of Beaumont and Tocqueville a decade earlier, before the Famine.  She also goes on about the Famine conditions Beaumont saw and wrote about.  Except, of course, he was in Ireland six years prior to the Famine.

She also, I should add, claims that the Irish were slaves in North America.  That is the subject of another post, at an another time.

This is nothing but sloppy and lazy scholarship.  Painter is flat-out wrong in her characterizations of views of the shape of the Earth and Beaumont’s journey to Ireland vis-à-vis the Famine.  She severely mis-characterizes what Smith was president of.  Errors like this should cause the reader to stop and question the author.  Is the author to be trusted?  How could she make such lazy mistakes?

And this is most unfortunate.  Because The History of White People is a fascinating read for the very fact that Painter historocizes and problematizes whiteness as a category.  Anyone who knows anything about race and science knows that race is social, not scientific construct, and yet it still dominates our society.  So, quite frankly, unpacking the constructions of whiteness in the US is an important historical, sociological, and political act. I would say that this is a book that everyone should read, but such egregious errors with historical fact makes me hesitant.

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