“We invented the modern world... White people are the best thing that ever happened to the world.”
- Columbia University student, who reportedly approached a group of students of color on campus last night for this tirade
[Tweet by Keith Boykin]
In arguments with white nationalists who are smart, usually male, and think of themselves as simple truth tellers -- Richard Spencer and Jordan Peterson roughly bracket this group, with Spencer at the overt white supremacist end, and Peterson at the cagey end -- you often hear versions of the quote above.
I think it's worth breaking down this argument, because it's so frequently made, and I gather they think the only arguments against it are mere impassioned outrage and not cogent refutation.
This argument, in its best version, goes something like: "Listen, I know all people have made contributions, but look at the last 500 years... can you really deny that Europeans/the West/white people have contributed the most to civilization?"
Richard Spencer has publicly asked a chilling version, something like: "If you erased Africa from the last thousand years of history, would you even notice?"
These arguments seem strong to many people as a result of several misconceptions -- common ones, but also deliberate ones, and certainly pernicious ones -- that act together to open what seems to be a large rhetorical window for this argument to go through.
But even in its most seemingly innocuous version -- "Listen, I just want to celebrate white people and be proud of them, like black people or Latino people want to celebrate their people" -- there is a huge set of misconceptions, and dangerous ones at that.
One misconception is that racism is just one of many things that has been a feature of white identity over the centuries. That seems reasonable on the surface, to many people steeped in our culture. In the past it seemed reasonable to me!
In this framing, you could make a checklist of aspects of white history: the scientific method, calculus, calculating gravity, modern physics, the plane, the Protestant Reformation, the US Constitution, slavery, Jim Crow, the Trail of Tears, the Holocaust, the EU.
But this completely fails to appreciate what "whiteness" is. Racism is not merely something that white people *did*. Racism is the purpose for which the identity of "white" was created in the first place. There is no whiteness without racism.
In historical places where the lines of race we're familiar with today were not being used, "whiteness" simply did not exist.
If you assembled residents of 17th century Trieste, and separated Moors, Arabs, Somalis and Berbers on one side, and Finns, Celts, Galicians, Jews, Muslim Slavs, Armenians and Persians on the other, and asked what the dividing line was, people would have been stumped.
All nationalism and ethnic pride is a bit abstract and absurd, but at least it usually has some reference to an identity whose delineation is one of common experience, common culture, common laws, or *something* shared.
I'm proud when an American wins a medal, when a Jew does something generous or brave, when someone from my hometown makes good. These are all "imagined communities", per Benedict Anderson's formulation, but at least I and they have some shared set of positive experiences. And of course we all have shared experiences with humanity, and the imagined community of all fellow humans.
But there are other identities that were constructed deliberately and specifically for exclusion, destruction and oppression. That doesn't make the members of those identity groups bad! The people included still deserve love, and many may be decent and deserving of pride and respect.
But to assert love and pride and identity for that categorization is another matter. That means putting the people themselves aside, and assigning fealty to the oppression that is the reason that identity was constructed in the first place.
I love German people, and the German people may be more or less the same people that were supposed to be the core citizens of the Third Reich, but expressing love for the people of the Third Reich is inherently an act of oppression. It can't just be appreciation for people.
"White pride" today has no more to do with appreciating Kabardino-Balkarians or Kaliningraders or the Sami than it did in the antebellum South.
Asserting "white pride" may be squarely intended to express dominance and cruelty. Or, it might just be passing on an inheritance, casually as a conduit for what the person has absorbed. Not everyone knows history.
But the source of "white pride" is the specific, deliberate, systematic creation of an identity -- the construction of a lie -- with one purpose: to enable the legal kidnapping, imprisonment, rape, murder, abuse, deprivation, brainwashing of, and theft from, people of color.
And if that's not what this or that white person thinks they meant by something they said -- well, the originators planned for that. They built the identity of "whiteness" so that complicity with cruelty and theft would feel natural, and not remarkable.
The whole point is that unless we "white" people fight against that programming, and dismantle our assumptions that what we think of as race has essential meaning, we will be passing on and perpetuating the oppression that whiteness has always served. And even when we fight against the programming, we'll always be struggling to grow and extricate ourselves, and continuing to be complicit in oppression, because that programming runs dddddeeeeeeppppp and the incentives to buy into the big lie are still legion.
Another, completely separate misconception is thinking that ideas like "the Western mind" and "the modern world" are concepts that merely happen to overlap with whiteness. In this misconception, "Western" accomplishments seem to be a credit to people who would be called white.
To unravel this complex lie, you need to consider how the exploration and formulation of history and ideas themselves is farmed in part by the demands that racism places on how we see the world.
The contributions of people excluded by "whiteness" to the great cultural or scientific products of history are not merely ignored or downplayed, but our assumptions about what constitutes great achievements are built in service of whiteness and racism.
It's ironic that one of the most famous right wing assertions of white cultural supremacism was Saul Bellow's "Where is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?"
I'm reading Anna Karenina now, and it's all about how bogus an assertion like this would be. Tolstoy is focused in many sections on demonstrating that brilliant ideas and creativity not only can come from anywhere, but do, and that it is our assumptions about gender and class, in particular, that determine which kinds of brilliant ideas get documented and celebrated.
So while the gravity-related experiments of Galileo were astonishingly brilliant and able to spread widely, we in this Western-dominated world just have no idea how many other people, on different continents and at different times, conduced their own experiments on gravity, in ways both similar and different to Galileo.
But even more importantly, we know nothing of nearly all of the other great works produced outside the West, because our systems of recognizing, spreading and reproducing great work themselves were built in the course of building Western power. Most statues in Europe and the United States glorify someone famous, in part, for killing people; few recognize brilliant teachers, transcendent builders of community, gifted doctors and healers, heroic midwives, phenomenal matchmakers or astonishingly productive experimenters with wild herbs. And we certainly don't know more than a tiny sliver of history's most brilliant epic poems, folktales, speeches, songs, sermons, and stories.
That is not to say -- not to say at all -- that the impact of those great creators isn't with us. It is with us, crucially, essentially. All of those things have been necessary to build the modern world, to create its health and spectrum of culture and depth of experience and breadth of imagination.
I'm deeply indebted to Ta-Nehisi Coates and Barbara Fields for helping me begin to break down my own programming around race. Coates wrote about the Bellow quote in Between the World and Me, excerpted in his post, "Tolstoy Is the Tolstoy of the Zulus".
And now I looked back on my need for a trophy case, on the desire to live by the standards of Saul Bellow, and I felt that this need was not an escape but fear again—fear that “they,” the alleged authors and heirs of the universe, were right.
And this fear ran so deep that we accepted their standards of civilization and humanity.
They made us into a race. We made ourselves into a people. But not all of us.
It must have been around that time that I discovered an essay by Ralph Wiley in which he responded to Bellow’s quip. “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus,” wrote Wiley. “Unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.”
And there it was. I had accepted Bellow’s premise. In fact, Bellow was no closer to Tolstoy than I was to [17th century queen] Nzinga.
And if I were closer it would be because I chose to be, not because of destiny written in DNA. My great error was not that I had accepted someone else’s dream but that I had accepted the fact of dreams, the need for escape, and the invention of racecraft.
In conclusion (I hope!), there have been many incredible innovations in technology, culture, inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge in the world. There are many ways you could break down or categorize the patterns of who was involved and who was recognized; who provided credited and uncredited support; where potential was invested in or squandered or suppressed.
Many of these people fit our unfortunately familiar categorization of "white". But nearly all people in history who could be called "white" had nothing to do with these innovations; and many who could not be called "white" had a huge role in them.
Crediting "the modern world" to "white people" has no explanatory power; because understanding the world has nothing to do with the motivation behind that claim.
To carve a boundary around thousands or millions of people from hundreds of different cultures and times that follows only the contours of complexion is perhaps the most tortuous and pathological gerrymander in history.
Labels: epistemology, history, race