Monday, June 9, 2008

Who's White? Who's down? And Who Am I?

Believe it or not, I have white friends. And a helluva lot of "white tendencies" -- a penchant for weird ass music, a tendency to annunciate and say the whole. word. like. this, etc. And some might even accuse me of having a "high yellow" complex -- you know, those super political folks who use Black radicalism to compensate for their lack of melanin.

I've lived a lot of my life on the fringes of expected racial behavior. I was the only Black kid at a predominantly Asian middle school bumping Alice Deejay, and the only queer kid in a Pan Africanist student organization at the University of the West Indies. So I'm well aware of the dangers that come along with trying to generalize about folks.

I like to talk about white people, and poke fun at white people, but who am I talking about when I say white people? All white people? All snobby white people? What about snobby folks of color?

I remember vividly some of the conversations I'd have with one of my good friends in college. She was an immigrant from the Ukraine, grew up under the harsh realities of Soviet communism, came to the US where her family struggled to make ends meet in Jersey, and spent her high school years in a comfortable upper middle class neighborhood in Oregon. Now she's an immigrant -- twice removed -- teaching English in Chile. She was often the only one in my circle who openly challenged me to define what I meant when I said "white people". Depending on the year, her experience either made her a perfect candidate for, or the antithesis of, the monolithic white person I targeted so much of my anger toward.

When it comes down to it, I think that we in the US have a very limited vocabulary when it comes to race. Then again, we have one of the most nuanced racial histories of any nation on earth. We're a land of immigrants where whiteness became a commodity that disenfranchised Irish, Italian and German immigrants bought into for their own economic survival. Sure, it's a social construct, but tell that to the lone Black girl in a suburban Minneapolis classroom, or the migrant worker dying in an ICE detention center.

White people are not evil; power is evil. Historically, certain white folks in the US have had unlimited access to that power, but now shit's changing. Take the Iraq war, for instance. It was lobbied for by a Black woman (Condi), sold by a Black man (Colin Powell) and legally protected by the grandson of undocumented Mexican farmers (Alberto Gonzales). Corrupt governments and viscous multinational corporations around the world are run by folks of color.

This weekend I heard Roberto Lovato make an interesting point:
"We can't confuse the defeat of George W. Bush with the defeat of capitalism, or the defeat of the GOP with the defeat of empire."

But maybe I'm going off on a tangent.

Back to white people. When I talk about white people, I don't mean white people specifically. In a comical sense, sure, since our historical imagination makes it much easier for the collective (affected communities; communities of color) to connect white people to power, and the abuse of that power. But when I talk about "white people", I'm most often referring to folks who either blindly have power, or don't question it. "White people" is my symbolic term. It's the easier, albeit ill-equipped, term I use in lieu of more academic language that doesn't hit quite as hard. My "white people" is a euphemism for whiteness -- that fluid concept of racial identity that enables capitalism, and all the other "-isms" to breed a dangerous amount of corrosive power*.

People of color can feed into this. Women can feed into this. Queer folks can feed into this. We all feed into this in one way or another because it's as abundant as the air we breathe. I guess the trick is to at least try to check ourselves on it. And it's those folks who I have issues with -- the ones who see nothing wrong with the status quo, the one's who speak without thinking, and then continue without questioning.

I absolutely do not think that you have to be actively 'working' to end the systems of domination to be considered "down"; the non profit/social justice world is problematic unto itself. To me, social justice means enabling folks the ability to live in healthy, happy communities. It never has to be a job, just a way of life. I say and do dumb/ignorant shit all the time, and I will continue to say and do dumb/ignorant shit for the rest of my life. I'm not going to magically wake up one day and be absolved of my prejudices. Maybe justice is a journey, not a destination.

*There are plenty of folks of color who I'd consider white. Think of: Former SF Mayor Willie Brown. Along with being the first Black mayor, Brown also opened the doors to modern-day gentrification. Is he a tool? Mos def. Does he really run shit? Nah.


kg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kg said...


i really feel you on this. i want to write so much in response. and i will soon. but you have once again expressed your thoughts and convictions which reflect mine.