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.

Fundamentalist is not the Insider Perspective*

Fundamentalism, the concept, is a topic that I’ve struggled with for a while—probably since 9/11, although to be frank, I haven’t exactly kept a journal or other record following my thoughts on the subject. But even if I remember exactly what I thought, I do know I’ve thought about it.

And I have the most trouble seeing it as more than simply a Bad Thing, especially when I usually can’t articulate why. I’m not much of a rebel, and still think my parents are some of the smartest people I know. As my mom said about it (fundamentalism—or some similarly-used term in the popular media) anything can go too far. Terrorists are fundamentalists because they go too far. But some Christian fundamentalists go too far. And so do governments. And the examples go on and on ad nauseam.

Mohsin Hamid’s novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is really all about fundamentalism and what it means, both in the US and the narrator’s native Pakistan. The American that Changez, the narrator, approaches in the opening of the book seems alarmed by his appearance—specifically his beard, which is specifically taken as a symbol of the Middle Eastern fundamentalist. Or that is how it, and the American, are introduced to Changez: “Do not be frightened by my beard: I am a lover of America.” But really, it’s all about fundamentalism as identified from the outside. What seems fundamentalist and dangerous to outsiders may seem perfectly acceptable to insiders.

A friend of mine pointed out that fundamentalism isn’t necessarily bad: in the sense of going to the fundaments. For instance, the fundamentals of the Constitution. The Constitution of the United States is essentially the ideal document of the United States, particularly with the Bill of Rights, the 13th and 14th amendments and the 21st amendment. It is the ideal of what our country is supposed to live up to, which is why arguments over the Constitutionality of laws makes people go so insane and irrational. Sort of. At any rate, her argument of going to the ‘fundamental’ (according to the OED, “2. Of or pertaining to the foundation or ground-work, going to the root of the matter.” and “3. b. Primary, original; from which others are derived) makes sense. If we went back to the fundamentals of the IRS, we wouldn’t need so many tax laws and forms and confusion.

It’s the “-ist” that causes the problem. Fundamentalist comes into use, according again to the OED from the first world war to apply to Protestant groups that wanted to get back to the fundamentals of the Bible. At first, this wasn’t seen as a bad thing. Then it is applied to the “other religions, esp. Islam” as “a similarly strict adherence to ancient or fundamental doctrines, with no concessions to modern developments in thought or customs” which is a pretty reasonable definition, until you get to the “modern developments” which is always considered a Bad Thing in most of the so-called “Western World.” (I feel terrible using that term, but here it seems to work).

Early in the book, when Changez reflects on his life in the US, he paints it as a fundamental society—fundamentally capitalist, and he sees this as just as bad as any other fundamentalism, or rather far worse, because America is so powerful, and because he himself was a part of it: “Moreover I knew from my experience as a Pakistani…that finance was a primary means by which the American empire exercised its power.” In fact, describing his “initiation to the realm of high finance” as primarily an education in the fundamentalism of capitalism: “Maximum return was the maxim to which we returned, time and again. We learned to prioritize—to determine the axis on which advancement would be most beneficial.” When he is first a part of this society, this particular corporate culture, Changez enjoys it, according to his older self, always feeling the seeds of guilt, though they eventually grow enough to lead him to quit.

Changez cannot fully buy into this fundamental finance culture because he was, or always felt like, an outsider. Though Jim, his boss, seems to recognize a similar drive in their ambition, he accepts fully the precepts of his “religion” and Changez even calls him a knight, describes what may be a nervous habit as “donning his gloves before striding onto a field of contest.” At first, Changez envies Jim’s certainty. Because of his own doubts he does not feel that he could have it in the United States. But the older Changez telling this story seems to have found it in his fundamental Islam.

Changez, though having decided to leave America and become a fundamentalist to his own beliefs and country, in advocating “a disengagement from your country by [Pakistan],” does not see himself as an extremist. He becomes a university lecturer on finance, and tells the American “it was not difficult to persuade [his students] of the merits of participating in demonstrations for greater independence in Pakistan’s domestic and international affairs.” When one of those demonstrations becomes a riot, for all intents and purposes, with thrown stones and burnt effigies, he admits it had gotten “out of hand,” and he had gone to jail for “intervening” in one of the “scuffles.” As the incident is described, he certainly seems to be using gentle language for his own role.

While Changez learned the fundamentalist role of commerce in the United States, and is aware of the world’s belief in his own county’s fundamentalist culture…and to an extent even acknowledges the problems of the local fundamentalist, he does not seem to realize his own role as a fundamentalist and how that affects others. For instance, when he is describing how the demonstrations got out of hand, and a former student was arrested for a planned assassination, his defense is that he is only a university lecturer, a teacher. But teachers have great power, great influence, and he admits that his reputation, although exaggerated, is attractive to many intelligent young students. But he doesn’t know their beliefs or why they are coming to his lectures in the first place. Though he ought to know that simply because someone can have the loftiest education doesn’t mean they are above fundamentalism. It was what he didn’t like about his classmates from Princeton.

*also known as “Fundamentalism is More Than Just the Fundamentals”

Baby Boomer Buddha

My parents are of the baby boomer generation. Unfortunately, they were not “anti-establishment Beatniks…anti-war peaceniks…antinuke activists who saw the world coming unhinged by assignations, nuclear proliferation and military buildup,” as Perry Garfinkel describes in his book, Buddha or Bust.(1) So when Garfinkel paralleled the Axial Age to his generation of rebels, I raised my eyebrows a bit, ’cause I didn’t follow. It seemed a bit presumptuous to appropriate the head of an ancient religion—even if he did point that out stretch himself.

But even as I geared my arguments for dismissing the relevance of the comparison (and even as I still disagree with the use of the term “baby boomer” for what I see as an entirely different phenomenon) there may well be a useful implication of that observation.

Right or wrong, however, when I think of the baby boomers, I think of their image now, which is only the reference point I have. What I remember hearing of the baby boomers is their discontent, yes, but usually in the context of dissatisfaction. Materialism. Entitlement. Other such, rather less positive, terms.

The “baby boomer” generation was so named because couples fresh after World War II found themselves with far too much disposable income, and lavished most of it on their families. The kids produced in this era found themselves embarrassed by parents spending too much and making themselves foolish in the rush of keeping up with the Joneses.(2)

That kind of situation is where Siddhartha (the Buddha) is supposed to have come from.

So could Buddha be described as the world’s first baby boomer? He was the stereotypical pampered prince, never even allowed outside the palace walls. Unlike the Disney movies, though, he didn’t get out until he was nearly thirty and already married with children. At any rate, he did eventually find his way out of the palace walls—and despite all precautions, was presented with the reality of human suffering. He realized that one day he would grow old, even die. So he became an ascetic. After six years he realized, it really didn’t help. In a move of such profound common sense that it had to be formalized into religion, the Buddha realized happiness might be better found along a “middle way”.(3)

I think this says more about Garfinkel’s philosophy than about Buddha’s—as a baby boomer himself, that particular feeling of disillusionment would be most resonant with him. If anything, I find it irritating only that Garfinkel discounts how often such disillusionment comes to different generations…the Industrial Revolution was hard on people.

But whether the Buddha could be counted as a baby boomer? Maybe that’s not the most important question. Garfinkel seems to use him as a role model—implicitly at least—for the baby boomers who have not yet found a middle path. Like himself. Some people spend years jumping from quick fix to quick fix, and never find the stillness to really have a middle path of their own. Calling Buddha a baby boomer might make him relatable to those people…especially the ones who dismiss Buddhism as just more new age-y claptrap from their misguided youth.

1. Or should I say, there is no evidence for it. You could argue my mom went to Humboldt…but I’m going to Chico, and frankly, I stay home most nights. Also, she’s (mostly) Norwegian. We’re just generally boring people, even if we do chose “exciting” colleges.

2. I made that up as a reason. Kids are always embarrassed by their parents, aren’t they? And the philosophy of generations tends to follow a rather pendulum-like swing of reaction.

3. In no way is this intended to be disparaging. If anything is a misnomer, “common sense” is. It’s not common, nor is it often simply a “sense.” It takes a lot of work, and the Buddha seems to have been a skilled practitioner. Believer or not, that’s admirable work.

Hair Salons and Dentists and Personal Weird-itry

I recently went to the dentist.  Not particularly good news, as I had two cavities filled that same visit, but then again, the dentist thought one would be a root canal.  So I was rather relieved.

I had another reason to be relieved as well.  Before that visit, it had been awhile since I had been to the dentist…years, minimum.  I mean I brush my teeth the requisite two minutes plus every day twice a day (I haven’t quite made it the the new requisite of three or four quite yet) and I even usually floss. Hey, even the dentist and the ? man (don’t know the title) who did the x-rays said I had a really small mouth, it’s really hard to reach!  So I just avoided it until it felt like I had broken a tooth, and couldn’t chew anything on that side of the mouth.  But now that I have been, and have discovered that I will have to revisit before to long to get braces and lose wisdom teeth.  Fun yes?

Yes. Well not fun so much as not scary.

It turns out I’m not afraid of the dentist.  Lucky, lucky me.  Bad enough that I have all four wisdom teeth that need to be removed, but at least I’m not going to get a panic attack on the way to the appointment.  And I’m not making light of those who do either.  I’ve had panic attacks, and they aren’t any fun at all.  But when I was getting my cavities filled, I was watching the dentist.  I could feel him scraping and drilling, and I was fascinated.  Weird? Very.  Don’t worry, I do know that.

Especially since, and this is where the title comes in, I don’t like getting my hair cut because when my hair is getting shampooed it freaks me out.

You read that right.  I’m fine with some strange man with scrubs and latex glove sticking his fingers in my (numbed) mouth with power tools, but some lady sudsing my hair is the situation that really bothers me.  I am a very odd person in my head. And with my head.  Large personal bubble, usually.  Then again, first situation, drugs and “shiny-new-type-situation” is involved, and the other a significant likelihood of actually having to listen to the hairstylist talking at me.  Not that I dislike hairstylists, specifically, but I don’t like being a captive audience, as much as I like having one.

In (one of) my editing class(es) we had to read a story about a women who worked at a one-hour-photo place and who happened to be crazy. It’s called “Picture Perfect” I think, and the story was connected to an essay by the editor who published it.  Apparently, the author herself didn’t actually feel it was worth publishing because she didn’t think it was good enough. (It was.) But everyone else focused on how crazy the Laurie character was, and yet, I could only think, well, yes, she’s crazy: but I was already sympathetic with the author, and you know, should I ever go crazy, I probably would be something like Laurie.  Never answer my phone–not so much obsessing over the neighbor’s answering machine though. Then again, maybe I shouldn’t take it that personally, because, frankly, I can empathize way too easily.  I don’t necessarily think it’s a flaw; but when I start realizing that I can understand what reasons people give for reasons such murder and other crimes against societies “mores” (dangit, that sociology class is going to be of use somewhere!) then I know I’m going a bit far in my identification with their character.

You know, I probably just read way too much as a kid.

(Randomness is my forte.  I could go back to wrap this up so it makes sense with the beginning of the post, but I’m too lazy to go back and read it.  So there.)