As many readers will know, I am currently finishing a book about the concept of race in early modern philosophy. I have been working on it for some years, and it occupies much of my thought and energy. At least as many readers will know that I am white. This combination frequently has people trying to figure out --to put it both vaguely and pointedly at once-- what my deal is.
I have heard much discussion over the few days following the awful verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, most of it well-intentioned, about how white people should and should not talk about race. Naturally my ears perk up like a dog's at passing sirens, since I am nearly always thinking about how to hit just the right tone in my book, the tone that engages a maximum number of readers and that encourages all of them to stray a bit outside of the usual range of names, keywords, and problems they associate with race.
Most of the suggestions I've been hearing over the past few days would require me to leave off with my work all together, and go do something race-appropriate. I find this extremely troubling. There is a deeply ingrained idea coming from what passes for the Left, and distracting the younger and more naive members of the Left, to their own detriment, according to which we can each only speak for our own group, and in relation to other groups the most we can hope to be is 'allies'.
A good example of this was in the reaction to the phrase that sprang up spontaneously as a call to rally against the verdict: I am Trayvon Martin. This was of course not new, but a recycling of a common reaction to galvanizing events, e.g., the banners around Paris that declared Nous sommes tous américains on September 12, 2001. (I say, with Whitman: I am everyone, I am each of you, at every moment.) By the next morning some bold white internauts had posted video clips of themselves declaring emphatically that they are not Trayvon Martin, that they could not possibly be Trayvon Martin, in view of the many privileges they have that keep them safe from Martin's fate. By nightfall of the same day white people were abuzz in social media about how other white people needed to stop trying to get attention by announcing how not-Trayvon Martin they were, that this was not about what they either were or were not.
Clearly, the white kids just don't know what to do with themselves.
A white South African friend of mine in social-media land, a journalist I admire very much who is also a former ANC activist, wrote recently about a limousine ride he took in New York with an unnamed American hip-hop star. The driver was a Palestinian socialist. All three got to talking about the fall of Apartheid, and apparently the American simply could not get it through his head that there were white, Jewish ANC members fighting against Apartheid right alongside Mandela. The Jewish South African and the Palestinian driver in turn were alarmed at the American rapper's black-and-white thinking (as it were): the ANC wasn't made up of black people plus their white 'allies'; it was made up of South Africans who hated Apartheid. Listen to the way Mandela talks about Joe Slovo, for example. Is there any hint that Mandela thinks the Lithuanian Jewish immigrant doesn't get, can't get, what's at stake in bringing down a racist totalitarian system? Of course not. That's not the way racism is defeated. And the distraction of identity politics, perpetuated by well-intentioned young people who take themselves to be on the Left, is, I'm sorry to say, helping to abet and sustain the racist system in the United States.
So what is my deal? Why did I decide to write about race?
I grew up in the United States in a heavily racialized environment, by which I mean that it was taken as a fundamental and essential fact about the people around me that they were, variously, 'black' or 'white'. In my high school there were race-based gangs, and these were affiliated to the race-based gangs that entirely define the existence of millions of incarcerated Americans. Unlike most of the white Americans I know today, who went to high schools that fed into the Ivy League, I went to a high school that was more a sort of prison prep program. We were being trained how to be subjects of the carceral system, which meant first and foremost that we were being trained to think of ourselves in racial terms. There were boys with ties to the Klan, and older brothers in prison who were big-wigs in the Aryan Brotherhood. On the other side, Bloods. I did my best to pass silently under the radar, and I dropped out after a year-and-a-half.
Much of my later life has been spent trying to come to terms with how I, during that period of my life, could have bought into the social ontology of the people around me. I heard a certain highly charged word, not just from teens but also from adults, enough times to inure me to whatever dialogue Tarantino might contrive. It seemed, if I may put it this way, to denote a natural kind. I never had any feeling for racism, in the sense that I never saw any reason to hate the kids who were on the other side of the racial divide, and in terms of my own survival strategies I was certainly no more afraid of them than I was of the Skoal-chewing, pick-up-driving white boys. But I was a racial realist, in the sense that I simply went along with everyone around me in the presumption that these social divisions marked out something true, that they were an adequate world-carving. An interracial couple, on the rare occasions that I saw one, struck me as a highly noteworthy thing.
What strikes me so much now is that the white boys I've briefly described were, mostly, Okies and Arkies, that is, the descendants of Dustbowl migrants to the Central Valley of California, whose grandparents, and possibly also parents, did the sort of low-status, migratory agricultural work for which John Steinbeck labelled them 'Harvest Gypsies'. Now the Dustbowl was not the Middle Passage, but this is not a suffering competition, and the historical fact remains that the Harvest Gypsies and their descendants have been given the shaft by the rich and the powerful throughout American history. Convincing them that they are 'white', and therefore, though poor and without hope, at least better than the blacks, has been one of the most effective tools for distracting this group of people from any awakening of what might be called radical class consciousness (though I'm hesitant to call it that, and wish I could find an equally pointed but less Marxian phrase to do the trick). Convincing the descendants of Dustbowl migrants they are white, I mean, is what has kept them from recognizing common cause with the descendants of African slaves.
Culturally speaking, too, what looked at the time like an unbridgeable divide now appears like a classic instance of the narcissism of minor differences. My grandmother was a gentle, hardworking woman from Arkansas. Not long ago I was on the 7 train in Queens. Across from me sat an elderly African American woman. I cannot fully explain the feeling I had, and the microsecond in which I had it did not leave me any time for examination or second-guessing, but when I looked up and saw her, something about the way she held her head, or her smile, or I don't know what, made me think: Grandma! Now of course I, like everyone, have had two grandmothers, but that this woman on the train stood for the one from Arkansas, and not the one of Swedish ancestry, was as certain as the sympathy I felt, and the sense of timeless familiarity.*
And is this not also the history of American popular music in nuce: black music, which is in fact just American music simpliciter, inspires white Americans to make music too; yet time and time again we are expected to react as if some uncrossable divide were magically leapt across whenever a white person raps, or swings his pelvis a certain way. We see this over and over again at the lower socioeconomic strata of popular culture in America, where racially coded forms jump the line, and come to seem wholly native within a racially defined scene: think of Old English script in tattoo and poster art, for example. (I would imagine that today Rio Linda High School is overrun with Juggalos, the most perfect expression yet of the instability of racial coding.) The white people I've known who inhabit these strata --and I've known many; if you are from the Northeast and have a Ph.D. in the humanities, I've probably known more such people than you have-- typically carry on about the virtue of white pride, and do so while sporting abundant cultural signifiers that higher status whites would surely associate with African American culture. Things are messy down at the bottom, I mean to say.
Anyhow, these days I am an expat, and the longer I'm away the more implausible the idea of ever living in the US again seems. I try to make intellectual sense out of the forces that initially shaped me, mostly by reading books, and also by talking to people. In Paris I see girls from Françafrique coming out of the écoles, holding hands with white boys, and I have to remember to notice; I mean, I don't notice, until I notice that I'm not noticing.
To have the opportunity to move from Rio Linda to Paris means among other things to be able to learn that 'race' doesn't always mean the same thing. In the American context, when we say 'race' what we mean is the un-dealt-with legacy of slavery. But it is a gross mistake, and a triumph of the racist system we are supposed to be seeking to overcome, to suppose that this legacy is about phenotypes or skin color. The contingent fact that the slave system in the US was based on the exploitation of the labor of a group of people that tended to be phenotypically different from their captors has created the illusion in the United States that it is the color difference that caused the inequality in the first place. But this is getting it precisely backwards.
There are other, similar forms of social inequality in the world that are not based on a color difference, indeed they are based on social divisions that do not seem from the outside to map onto any significant differences of physical appearance at all: think for example of the Roma of Southeastern Europe, who were sold at slave auctions in Romania until at least the 1860s, and who to this day are expected to avert their eyes when speaking to non-Roma. (They are still waiting for their Martin Luther King.) It took me many years of visiting Romania before I could even detect who was Roma and who was not; and yet for Romanians the difference is clear as day, and the discrimination the Roma face really is significantly and objectively analogous to that faced by African Americans.
Anyhow, it's a platitude, but travel really does reveal the contingency of the local circumstances in the place from which one hails. And history is a sort of travel, too, so my idea with my research into the concept of race in the 17th century was to try to uncover a context in which the concepts and terms deployed to talk about human diversity had not yet taken the form they have for us today. I think this sort of work can potentially be helpful in moving us beyond certain fixed and sclerotic patterns in the way we think about social problems, regardless of the identity of the person who produces it. But if you wish to know why I began to care in the first place, I would say it's because I feel like 'ally' doesn't quite cut it. I'm an American, and that means that the world into which I was thrown, for better or worse, is one in which race is the defining fact about my existence as much as of all my concitoyens. And I can't help but feel compelled to think about that fact, to try to make sense of it, using the resources I have available to me, and to try, if I can, to overcome it, and to show others that it can be overcome, by laying bare its utter contingency.
*Addendum. My father (from his own self-imposed exile in Mexico), writes in with this very infomative addendum about our family history (the picture shows my grandmother, his mother, circa 1938, at the age of 19):
As for having a flash of familiarity in seeing an African-American woman, that has happened to me also, seeing a black woman who reminded me of my mother. I don't have DNA proof, but there is a possibility that my mother had a near African ancestor. Of course, this is not something my Arkansas relatives wanted to discuss, but they were initially quite excited when I announced that I had found records showing my great-great-grandmother to be on the 1790 census as a Cherokee. What the relatives did not want to hear is that the history of South Carolina shows that Cherokees owned slaves and there were mixed-race babies. Cherokee-Africans were free, more or less, and were considered black Cherokees. To this day, there are lawsuits in Oklahoma regarding disputed rights to land and oil royalties by full-blood Cherokees and the black Cherokees.
As a young teen, I remember talking to my grandfather about blacks and whites. For a semi-literate white southerner, he held some unusual views. He told me that in 200 years everybody will be a light brown, a mix of all races. Grandpa Pharis said our ancestors were 'Black Irish' -- a term with various meanings, but which generally refers either to the Protestants from southern France or from northern Spain who migrated to what is now Northern Ireland. The term was also applied to whites in the Carolinas with mixed blood.
Your Grandmother Bertie was teased in high school for being a 'high yellow' and an 'octoroon'. It's a genetic lottery as to which traits are inherited, and Bertie was darker than her six older siblings. My grandmother would not allow my mother to go outside or to help work the fields unless she was fully covered, long skirt, big hat, long sleeves and gloves, because she tanned quickly and became even darker.
This is getting longer than I had intended, so I will skip to genealogy:
Richard Cruce, born 1770, Belfast, Ireland. Immigrated as a child to Spartanburg, South Carolina.
Hannah Stone, born 1775, listed on the 1790 census as 'Hannah Stone -- Indian'.
Richard and Hannah were married about 1790 in what is now Cherokee County, South Carolina.
John Pharis Cruce, born 1807, in South Carolina, died in Beulah, Arkansas.
Pharis Calvin Cruce, born 1876 (when his father was 68!), Beulah, Arkansas.
Bertie Mae Cruce, born 1919, Beulah, Arkansas.
So, assuming the census records are correct, Bertie is one-eighth Cherokee. If Hannah Stone was a tribal cast-off of mixed race, then Bertie would be one-sixteenth African: one step removed from actually being an 'octoroon'.
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