“Some people are good in the world,” she wrote to me in the bland, blocky text of my instant messenger window, “even people doing jobs that are super problematic! And! It’s always been true!”
I’d just returned from another series of Quantum Leap-like adventures. In my excitement, I briefly shared the story of introducing a Cleveland public school teacher to the writings of school abolitionists such as John Taylor Gatto. Time well spent, I thought.
“Guess who had at least a little bit of uplifting info in her reading today,” she continued.
“What was your uplifting reading?” I asked.
“Ugh. How racism was constructed and justified,” she said.
“That was…uplifting?” I asked.
“Well, it gets there. In the 1930’s. In the mean time, white people have not only dominated the world, they’ve tried to rally science to their side.” She wrote:
I’m sure you’ve heard about all the early anthropological studies that tried to argue the hierarchy of races. But as early as the ’30s a guy name Franz Boas was like, “Um. I call bullshit.”
And he did. He called bullshit on anthropology, he spoke to all-black universities about African civilizations and [said] not to listen to what they were being told about themselves. And he helped bring about a change in anthropology, such that it was no longer acceptable to speak about races as being biologically superior, inferior, or, those who came after him realized, even real. There was a notion of 5 races that’s been pretty much blown out of the water.
So, that was great! Just reading that there have always been a few people who think for themselves and speak out, even when it’s not them that suffer for the way things are.
Of course, anthropology then stopped talking race all together, and went into looking at “ethnicity” as a concept separate from race, so that they didn’t have to deal with the blood on their hands, as it were. Nothing is ever 100% uplifting. Mostly my reading leaves me feeling hollow inside. So, this was a win.
These “early anthropological studies” primarily used the shape and size of the skull, and therefore, the human head, to determine hierarchical ranking:
White people were “proven” racially superior because our heads tended to be bigger and therefore, our brains were bigger, and therefore we were smarter and better.
You think that’s pretty dumb, right? Here’s the best part.
Boas took a look at that study: Not even true. The white researcher’s bias skewed his findings. Head size, which wouldn’t prove anything anyway, is pretty evenly dispersed.
I am fed up with whiteness right now—which, pale as I am, is annoying.
While it seems rather self-evident that race has no bearing on a person’s humanity, what’s probably less obvious to most people is that contemporary concepts of “race” are completely social constructions. What most people think of as “race” has no scientific basis in biology whatsoever. Her story about Franz Boas, and particularly how he laid groundwork for those who came after him, reminded me of Kim Ja Kil’s, “The White Anti-Racist is an Oxymoron: An Open Letter to ‘White Anti-Racists’.”
I first read Kim Ja Kil’s Open Letter while sitting on a bed in an Atlanta, Georgia suburb. ”You might find the following worth reading,” I wrote back tersely, offering a link to an exchange on Facebook I had with one of my Atlanta hosts, who wrote:
I thought the job of white anti-racists was to educate other white people on their privilege, not to butt into POC communities. It took me reading this twice (and it was a hard read) to understand (?) that she *generally* agrees with me. Although I’m not really sure how to tear down the structure of whiteness. The “obvious” suggestions (like “let’s all wear gear or dreadlocks in solidarity”) are non-workable.
[I]f that’s your read on it, I don’t think she agrees with you. My understanding of Kil Ja Kim’s open letter is that whiteness itself is an artifact of racism, and for the structure of whiteness to be removed, people who were racialized as white—like you and me—must stop claiming a “white” identity, including identities such as “white anti-racist,” because that is not possible. To wit, she writes, at the very beginning:
There is NO SUCH THING AS A WHITE ANTI-RACIST. The term itself, “white anti-racist” is an oxymoron.
Moreover, in her suggestions for dismantling the racist social structure of whiteness, I think she makes clear that the goal she seeks is to outright destroy white identity. To wit, she concludes:
…whiteness needs to die as a social structure and as an identity[…]. […S]tart thinking of what it would mean, in terms of actual structured social arrangements, for whiteness and white identity—even the white antiracist kind (because there really is no redeemable or reformed white identity)—to be destroyed.
I find this rather sensible. I am not “white,” any more than you are. I’m not “white,” I’m a mix of Polish, Israeli, and other regional ethnicities. You are not “white,” you are English. Being “white” is not an ethnicity. Being “white” simply means to be not-a-person-of-color, in much the same way that being straight simply means to be not-gay. Claiming whiteness therefore is entirely and unequivocally about capitalizing on the privileges afforded groups of people who are read as not-colored, which is racist. That’s what “white anti-racists” are doing when they claim to be “white anti-racists” because they are claiming a white identity.
Another way to think about this is that queerness’s ultimate social agenda (furthered by radical queer activist types, like me), is to destroy the validity of “straight” identity, since that identity, too, is a structure of domination whose sole purpose is to oppress anyone seen to be not-straight. That’s homophobic, and the only reason one supports straightness is if one supports homophobia. That shit needs to stop. Likewise, the goal of polyamory (and radical polyamorous activists, like me) is actually to destroy the institution of marriage, since that institution is fundamentally about restricting relationship choice in myriad ways, which is antithetical to polyamory’s agenda. Yet another example is that BDSM’s ultimate goal (furthered by radical pro-BDSM activists, like me) is to make it acceptable to consent to endure violence from others, since behaving erotically violent is viewed as inherently pathological and the structure that supports this view (pacifism, which is racist) fundamentally destroys one’s ability to have the kind of sex one wants.
Of course, these are hard radical positions that complicate social reality to a degree most people actively want to push back against—you’ve heard the “why can’t you just settle down and have a normal life like everyone else?” argument before, haven’t you?—that are almost never outright stated because it is dangerous to speak of them publicly. Consider your own reaction upon reading Kim Ja Kil’s open letter, and how a person of color could easily (rightfully?) describe the “oh, she actually already agrees with me” direction of your thinking as paternalizing. To wit, in the open letter, Kim Ja Kil writes:
Now I am sure that right now there are some white people saying that non-white people cannot understand what is going on, that we do not have the critical analysis to figure stuff out, or that we have fucked up ideas. This is just white supremacist bullshit because it is rooted in the idea that non-white people have not interpreted our experiences and cannot run things ourselves. […] In short, this perspective by whites that non-white people cannot be in control of our own destinies is rooted in a paternally-racist approach to non-white people.
So, basically, I am going to start trying to find ways to stop wrapping myself in the racist flag of white identity. I don’t know how I’m going to do this yet, and I’m sure I’m going to fuck it up a whole lot along the way. But now I understand a lot more about how badly I’ve been doing anti-racist work. I hope I’ll get some help, because I think I’ll need it, but even if I don’t (it’s ultimately my responsibility to end this internalized dominance in my own behavior), I’m going to do my best.
Even when we individually stop claiming a “white” identity, that does not mean we stop benefiting from being seen as “white” by other people, or by the racist social structures society has created to serve us, many of which Kim Ja Kil points out in her open letter. I think this means the only way we can destroy white identity and cleanse our world of that racism is to collectively end the behaviors that privilege whites over non-whites. This is very difficult, because it requires everyone’s cooperation in something very few people understand and even fewer actually seem to want to do. To use software developer Mike Cohn’s phrase, this means we need to do “all of it, all together, all at once.” That’s gonna be really, really hard. :\ It also further explains why one’s “pursuit of happiness” depends, at least in part, on the success of others’ similar pursuits.
Like many other realizations of the sort, becoming aware of how oppressive one’s own belief structure had been up until that point was an indescribably uncomfortable experience. When I re-read my own words in this thread, I recall an all too rare humility. It doesn’t feel good—and it shouldn’t.
More than a year later, my first night in Chicago was spent on the third floor of a large brownstone in the Hyde Park neighborhood: Chicago’s South Side. Hyde Park is famous for the University of Chicago. The University, in turn, is famous for its racism.
“I wouldn’t walk past East 63rd Street,” my white host said. “Chicago race relations are insane,” she continued.
“So I keep hearing,” I said. “Why is that?”
“You know about the University, right?” She asked. I shook my head. “Oh! Well, they’re basically buying up all the buildings in the neighborhood, have been for decades. They push out Black residents when they do.”
At the time, I didn’t know how long I’d stay in Chicago or what I’d find myself doing. For the moment, I was sitting on the front deck of a large housing cooperative catching up with an old friend. Right before that, I had found my way to the co-op from a North-side neighborhood in Chicago where my rideshare dropped me off at an entrance to the public transit system I’d never used. Before that, I walked down deserted downtown streets of Minneapolis to meet this driver I had never seen before, or since.
As it happened, Chicago gave me an education in many things, but none more visceral than the palpable racial tension my friend described. She told me a story:
My friend and his girlfriend, a pretty classic white yuppie couple, once decided to walk from the Garfield station Red Line to their home on the other side of the park, near the water front. It’s thought to be a really sketchy walk, but they just decided to walk it anyway.
On the way, an old Black man came up to them and asked, “Do you feel safe walking here?”
“Yeah, pretty much,” they said.
The Black man frowned, and replied, “Then I won’t be here much longer.”
I gave her a puzzled look.
“Because it means he’s going to be priced out soon,” she said. “That’s what’s so crazy about the South Side. The mere presence of white people in the neighborhood is a threat to the Black population already here, so every single interaction has all this tension associated with it. Even if they aren’t gonna do anything, it’s basically in a Black person’s interest to scare white people, so they won’t want to go there. They’re protecting their home. If they don’t, white people will want to move in, the University will buy up all the land, and they’ll have to move—again!”
“Holy shit,” I said.
“I know, right?” she said. “It’s insane.”
She told me she wants to write about it one day. I hope she does. I think she’s a good person, someone who thinks for herself and speaks out, even when it’s not her suffering for the way things are.
I think we need more people like that.
(This was originally published on my other blog.)