The Whiteness Mystique

Last week I went to a lecture called “White Privilege and the Politics of Identity” as part of the Conversations on Diversity, given by Dr. Jill Swiencicki. It was an overview of the study of Whiteness scholarship today, mostly an introduction designed for people who hadn’t heard of the topic before.

Whiteness studies focus on how white people benefit from racism, and the inherent privileges that come from being classified as white in our societies (and possibly others). Basically it “pays to be a member of a dominant racial group.” When part of a dominant racial group, it’s difficult to acknowledge. It emerged with slavery, and has become ingrained in society. Whiteness means that white people get more trust, money, and jobs than people who belong to other races.

It was actually less a lecture than a conversation series, more than usual, perhaps. Dr. Swiencicki gave us several topics and a little history and then prompted conversations with our neighbors. I went with a friend, and since I’m not very outgoing I ended up talking with her for all of the conversations. This wasn’t really a bad thing, I knew I could be more honest with her than I would dare with a stranger. And after each small conversation, then there would be a group discussion.

We heard some interesting thing. One man said that he didn’t realize until he went to New Zealand that he wasn’t being watched in stores all the time. Instead, he was The American. Another guy, I think a business major, said that he had to dress better for interviews than others. A woman mentioned that she got fewer call-backs for jobs. Several people mentioned their school experiences, where people would claim the cafeteria lunch tables based on race. And while one person said that when they came to CSU, Chico from a primarily white suburb they found the campus to be very diverse–another said they were surprised by how homogeneously white it was.

I confess I had that same impression when I first came to Chico. I remember coming on campus my first semester and thinking “it’s so white!” I don’t know if that would have been my though right out of high school, though perhaps it would have been. I’m about as white as one could be although there may be some fraction of Native American on my dad’s side. And both sides of my family have been in the US for generations, which means there may well be lots of different contributions from unknown donors. That sounds odd, but really, there’s no such thing as race under the best of circumstances, and things only get murky once people actually begin interacting. Anyway, I spent two years in Santa Clarita, CA going to community college. One person here in Chico called it the place with “all the pretty girls”–the model types. But apparently it counted as less white than Chico.

But there I met my favorite professor, and probably the smartest person I’ve ever actually met. Professor Varga had some sort of descendant tie to Alexander Hamilton and was mostly Hispanic–but he had blue eyes and light skin. I had him for the Modern History of Latin America class. Apparently, at one school, they didn’t want him teaching Chicano studies because he looked too white.

So I guess that brings me to the one thing I didn’t like about the lecture. It wasn’t anything in the real lecture itself, mostly the subject itself. Not even that, really. My point is that I don’t like separating racism, which is basically just prejudice with an obvious visual element. Makes it harder to avoid, yes, but it just seems divisive to start a subject called “Whiteness studies” when it’s just an aspect of racism. Of course, to me it seems obvious that the impetus behind racism [prejudice] is for a privilege. People spend a lot of time–no matter how educated or enlightened–looking for ways in which they are better than others.

So as far as I’m concerned the way to stop, at the very least, racism, would be to simply not divide people into races anymore. See–there you go.

No, it isn’t that simple. But honestly, I can be really naive, and I don’t see why not. People, just be smart already.

New LanguAge

I was reading the school paper, and perused a commentary on how students on campus use language in this age of information. As an English major, I approve.

The author, as I recall, blamed the breakdown of intelligent communication on the text messaging language as it creeps into the spoken.  Many people do. I’m not sure I don’t. In fact, I was surprised at myself when I first read the article, because at first I found myself rolling my eyes. I don’t appreciate the careless use of language. Using text speak in actual speech is always ridiculous–unless used satirically. Or maybe even just used humorously. But I must admit, sometimes I have at least thought “WTF” when watching/hearing something so utterly stupid that I can’t spare the mental time to think the whole phrase–and, hey, it’s not really cursing. And there are plenty of words invented by the internet* that I genuinely  appreciate. Sheeple. Kerfluffle. Angsting.

Perhaps it’s careless to use new words, when a careful enough revision of my own writing or thoughts might be able get the same feeling across using ‘traditional’ English. But then again, as the Facebook “Flair” button says “English: A language that lurks in dark alleys, beats up other languages, and rifles through their pockets for spare vocabulary,”** which I’m quite sure is stolen from someone who does not get nearly enough credit…but when you say something that awesome on the internet you tend to lose your fame for it very quickly.  Anyway, when English doesn’t have the perfect one, it tends to fill the vacuum with something new or borrowed (and sometimes blue, I’m sure). Thus I justify my internet speak.

So when I first read the article, I thought: well, really, why not use text speak in casual conversation? I’d greatly appreciate if you do so out of my hearing, but if your group understands the language, you may as well. So long as your formal communications–to someone outside of your social circle, or in written communications other than texts or possibly tweets. And if you have any acquaintances (or especially coworkers/bosses) as Facebook friends, don’t use text speak in status updates.  Nonetheless, I do feel  it has a place.

Then again, pretty much as soon as I found myself making the argument above, I realized–the problem is people don’t seem to be able to distinguish when it might be appropriate and when it definitely isn’t.

I remember, in high school, I read two ‘paragraphs,’ each written by a one person attending detention. Okay, so I couldn’t have been expecting much, but still, these would have been written in an academic context, not to mention that it was displayed on the whiteboard. Each, though, were equally terrible. You’d think they’d never learned how to write…which I suspect they did, as they had that ‘valley-girl’ handwriting, one even adorned with hearts.

And, despite the fact that I am now in my third senior semester at college, each of my professors, after the first essay assignment, still have to go over the most basic tenets of writing. For instance: spelling. When I first started college and heard this lecture, I was horrified. It was like, really people? this is college. The fact that it was a community college makes now difference. Now at least I’ve gotten used to it, though I am still saddened. While I’d like to think that people ought to be able to adjust their language based on the situation….apparently, no.

I don’t know how to solve this. I refuse to submit to writing text speak in my essays or talk to my mom that way–she doesn’t even use the computer, much less would have any idea what I’m talking about (although she is rather proficient at reading my mind when I’m particularly incoherent.)  You know what I think? I think that we should just disallow those people who can’t tell the difference to participate in any meaningful communication, because they aren’t capable of doing so anyway. First amendment be damned.

*Okay, so the internet itself didn’t actually develop the language, but it’s such a facilitator, it seems to make the spread rather faster and more creative. I likes it.

**Possibly James Nicholl, actually: “The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”  Apparently he’s mostly an Internet personality, as opposed to being famous offline, which I find rather appropriate.

True Evil

Oops. Been awhile.  Before I get to new content, may as well at least cross-post the last 6 or so articles from the class…

Is evil really a simple concept? We like to think it is, we like to think we can recognize evil as something evil, and something other. But most people don’t actually have any real experience with evil, no direct experience.

Craig Williamson was an operative for the South American apartheid government. He was granted amnesty from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He now works in a market, selling produce, but despite the official amnesty he says that he does not feel that he is forgiven. In his defense, he claims a sort of “just following orders” defense. If he’d been told it was evil to do the things he was ordered, he would have thought about it more. Apparently because it was presented to him as the “greater good” he just didn’t question anything. As weaselly as this sounds, and, really, is, the fact is that once people get into the mindset of distinguishing “us” from “them” this kind of thought process can be used to follow through with all sorts of terrible actions: it’s probably very similar to what urban gangs to do each other.

However, though at times during the documentary “The Ones That Got Away” Williamson does seem to have accepted his actions, and is genuinely trying to make some restitution and, in a way, make up for his evil, he also resents what he sees as an over-positive fairy dust solution. Part of his reasoning behind this resentfulness is that “there will be people…who hate what I did.”  This is problematic, because he should also hate what he did. Everyone should hate what he did. Forgiveness means that we shouldn’t hate him, as an individual, but apparently, somewhere in his mind, he may still believe that he wasn’t entirely wrong.

In A Human Being Died that Night by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, who was a part of the TRC and is a clinical psychologist, believes that “even atrocities call for an apology that is sincere, unencumbered by explanation or justification.” I believe that is true. It’s very hard to make a sincere apology. No one likes to admit being wrong, and to make a sincere apology they have to be able to face what they did. They have to strip away their mental defenses against whatever wrong they committed…and even minor every-day infractions, like forgetting to take out the trash, can be very difficult to admit to, especially when the person apologizing feels they are in the weaker position: also a hard place to be.

As Gobodo-Madikizela says, an apology “clears…the air in order to begin reconstructing the broken connections between human beings.” An apology doesn’t come from weakness, but it does require the speaker to completely acknowledge their own faults—and that admits weakness. Actually truly apologizing is strength. But an apology enacted to put the apologizer in a position of moral power is even less likely to be sincere. Gobodo-Madikizela uses the example of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and her official apology in front of the commission for the death of Stompie Seipei. The young man’s body was discovered just outside of Soweto, and linked to the activities of the Mandela Football Club. A court hearing found that there was evidence that Seipei’s death was related to events that had taken place in Madikizela-Mandela’s home.

During the TRC public hearing, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela refused to admit she knew anything about anything, whether or not it had happened in her home. Gobodo-Madikizela does not give details as to what specifically she said, her focus was on how Madikizela-Mandela used that opportunity as a way to offer an “apology” and keep a position of moral strength: “She approached Stompie Seipei’s mother while the TV cameras rolled. With a triumphant smile and open arms, she embraced her.” Unlike Gobodo-Madikizela, I don’t know that I believe Seipei’s mother was stripped of dignity in this interaction, if only because she seemed to be behaving far better than Madikizela-Mandela, but I wasn’t there, and I don’t know the details of the interaction. Unfortuantely, Madikizela-Mandela was unwilling to face what she’d done, or even what she hadn’t done, much less try to heal the wounds she left behind.

Both of these people did very wrong, and hurt people. But where do they fall on the scale of evil? Is there a scale? I would judge that, at least to a certain extent, Williamson is willing to face what he did during the apartheid—even if rather obliquely. But Madikizela-Mandela does not face any possible damage she may have done, what part she played. And Williamson undoubtedly killed more people, and was far more directly involved. So should we not forgive them, because they aren’t doing enough? Perhaps so. After all, we know what’s Right.