Human Nature and All-White Lunch Tables

In speaking with white folks who attend other colleges, I have run across an odd, recurring train of thought. It goes something like this: “At X College, students are very segregated. This is most clearly seen in the dining hall. All the white students sit together, all the Black students sit together, all the Asian students sit together,” and so on.

When pressed why this might be, I have generally gotten an appeal to “human nature” as a response. While that specific phrase might not be used, some kind of appeal to a “natural tendency” for human beings to gather together by race is usually made. While it is typically phrased in terms of a more generalizable “like seeks like” formation (“People try to make friends with similar interests and experiences…”), the underlying assumption that there is some simple, easy kinship between all members of a particular race goes unmentioned and unquestioned.

To be sure, there are real reasons why students at a college, residents in a neighborhood, employees in a workplace, or any other number of social groups might organize themselves along lines of race. However, “human nature” or even social psychological concepts like “ingroup-outgroup” actually have nothing to do with this phenomenon. Simply put, it is impossible to explain why any human group is structured by race without talking about racism.

What do I mean by this? In short, race is a social construct. We can actually point the specific historical moment when our modern global racial system began to develop. Because this is a system of power and oppression based on racial identity, it is better understood as white supremacy.

Appeals to “human nature” as a reason for why students of color might seek one another out in majority white spaces require the erasure of histories of violence and resistance to oppression, as well as the effacement of the continuing, destructive reality of white supremacy. To reduce this social phenomenon to a quirk of psychology is to render race a natural fact of human existence; it is also to equivocate on the question of power, hence to simply deny the very real inequality of power between white people and people of color.

Why, for example, is identity-based housing (where students from marginalized backgrounds can elect to live only with others who share their background) derided as “self-segregation,” while admissions policies that ensure the maintenance of a white majority at that same educational institution go unchallenged? It is because the former requires a racist power structure to acknowledge that racism is an ongoing social force while the latter is a manifestation of that same structure. Racially organized friendship groups in the dining hall similarly challenge the pervasive myth that racism is a thing of the past. In order to cover over this apparent contradiction, white supremacy must paint such groups as either: 1. equally bad when all white and when all persons of color and/or 2. natural.

In the former case, racism is reduced to a habit of the human mind. People are thought to group themselves into “ingroups” and “outgroups,” and no further analysis is given as to why such groups exist as they do in the first place. Race is not a natural given; it was created for the purposes of justifying imperialism, settler colonialism, and slavery by Europeans.

Why, then, should it be equally bad for students of color to avoid white students as for white students to avoid students of color? In fact, it isn’t. To some, this may seem like a controversial claim. But that can only be so if one truly believes that racism is over. And it isn’t, emphatically so. White students who have excluded students of color from their friendship groups are merely engaging in a long historical tradition of white solidarity to maintain white racial power. There is nothing admirable about white students seeking out one another, especially when institutions of higher education in the United States have been specifically designed so that white students never need engage with students of color as human beings.

On the other hand, students of color are in the minority at most colleges and universities in the United States, and this fact has also been engineered. More to the point, in the face of ceaseless micro- and macroagressions by white students, faculty, staff, and administrators, is it any wonder that students of color might wish to seek out those who are least likely to perpetuate white racial power, namely other students of color? To berate the solidarity of people of color in the face of white supremacy as “equally bad” to white intra-racial alliances for the purposes of the maintenance of white racial power is itself a racist act. Racism is a system of power and oppressed based on racial identity; it benefits whites to the detriments of people of color. In no case can all-white and all-person of color friendship groups be understood as “equally bad.”

But what of “human nature”? Indeed, this claim –that racially homogenous friendship groups are the result of a natural human tendency to seek out as friends people who share one’s own background– is quite enchanting to many white minds. Indeed, to suggest that racism plays a role in the friends one surrounds oneself with would seem to shatter the notion that racism is simply a mean-spirited act of willfully hateful individuals; and such a notion must, in fact, be shattered. As I mentioned above, racism is a system of power, and it cannot be simply extricated from our affective, intimate bonds any more than it can be separated from our political views or our morality. To replace a simple appeal to “human nature” with an account of the racial politics of friendship renders political the very bonds upon which many people rely for support and encouragement. And so it must be, for the just and the good.

If race is a social construction, there can be no basis for its use as a categorizing tool by “human nature.” A “natural” mind cannot identify like “natural” minds on the basis of cultural bodies. This is a simple truth. Yet is seems somehow earthshattering to many fellow white folks to whom I have spoken. I, for one, cannot claim to understand why this particular rationalization is so compelling to so many white people. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, in Racism without Racists, identifies the naturalization of racism as but one mechanism of many whites use to deny the persistence of racism. Still, in a time where to offer an account of racism in even the most mild and subdued terms is construed as “divisive,” it is all the more important to push back again this seemingly minor instance of white racial hegemony.

Allowing any space for “human nature” into discussions of why people might come to form friendships with only those of the same race is not only specious and insipid (and thus intellectually repugnant), but it also legitimates institutionalized racial inequality (and thus is morally and politically repugnant). To allow white supremacy any quarter, any space to pillory students of color for seeking one another out while excusing all-white lunch tables as “natural,” is to give it ground on bigger issues, such as identity-based housing, financial aid, student group funding, faculty hiring decisions, and other issues of racial justice, both on- and off-campus.

Race does not exist outside of racism; it never has historically. To depoliticize solidarity among people of color while simultaneously legitimizing white-perpetuated exclusion and discrimination is not “natural” in the slightest. It is eminently political, and therefore subject to contestation.

Closedmindedness is not Dogmatism

Since I published my last post, it got reblogged by some folks whose views I pretty strongly disagree with. In that post, I was attempting to defend the idea of “closedmindedness.” I have been accused of closedmindedness in the past, and I wanted to point out that this claim doesn’t seem to mean anything specific, and when it does it remains specious at best.

Nonetheless, my somewhat ironic use of the term seems too vague in hindsight. I didn’t mean to claim that simply because one believes something, and believes it strongly, they are therefore entitled to ignore all contradictory claims and counterarguments. That is simply dogmatism, and it is a good deal different from what I mean by closedmindedness.

Closedmindedness is an attempt to respond to (neo)liberal concept of the “marketplace of ideas.” This figuration suggests that all political perspectives are in competition with one another, and as such they must all be given equal consideration by the “rational” actor. In this way, the “best” views can triumph, and all politics can be subordinated to the rationality of the market.

As I said in the last post, this view generally ignores history and power, as well as the institutional forces that allow some views to be more widely broadcast and more vigorously defended than others. I further argued that some views can be excluded from one’s political consideration in order to take a moral and political stand for justice.

Despite my best intentions, however, my piece can be read as a simple endorsement of dogmatism. This is precisely what I was hoping to avoid. As such, I’d like to clarify the difference between dogmatism and closedmindedness. Then, I will offer an outline of how one might come to exclude certain views from one’s political consideration, or how one comes to determine where to close one’s mind on the political terrain.

In my framework, dogmatism is decidedly different from closedmindedness. Dogmatism is an embrace of dead ideology. It does not respond to critique, is not fully conscious of the wider political terrain, and adopts very limited readings of history, reality, and theory. A good example is RadFem/Radscum thought. For those who are not familiar, RadFems are a group of dubiously self-proclaimed feminists who claim to advocate “Radical Feminism.”

Now, I chose RadFems as my example of dogmatism for three specific reasons. The first is that I used to almost be one and know how compelling parts of their ideology can seem to certain feminist neophytes. I think it is therefore important to point out that this is hardly a feminist group, despite their claims to the contrary. The second is that I am still a radical feminist, in that I am radical in my feminism. As such, I want to defend a hardcore, Left feminism that is deeply committed to abolishing all forms of oppression, but that remains vital and responsive to the world even as it is morally, ethically, and politically grounded. Lastly, I think juxtaposing RadFem dogmatism with my own brand of closemindedness will help to clearly demonstrate the differences between the two.

RadFems argue that the mainstream feminist movement today has forgotten its radical roots, and has been co-opted by oppressive forces. So far, so good. However, rather than engaging in a living, vibrant oppositional politics, RadFems tend to stick to their own closed communities and limited political views. They are neither radical (because they do not seek to understand the living world to “grasp things at the root”) nor feminists (as I will soon show). RadFems quote a handful of mid-20th century white, Euroamerican theorists as if their work were scripture, and they focus their political efforts on conservative readings of a small handful of issues. Thus, as an example of dogmatism, a RadFem might say, “You are no feminist, because you support X. I know that no feminist can possibly support X, because Andrea Dworkin once wrote Y. Dworkin is a true feminist, and I am too because I agree with her on everything. You, however, are not a feminist, because you support X, and no feminist can support X….” This cyclical logical continues unabated throughout the entirety of “RadFem” thought.

In contrast, closedmindedness is emphatically not dogmatic. Closedmindedness is not the belief that because I claim to deeply believe something, I can therefore a priori dismiss all other perspectives. Rather, it is a form of political praxis that takes stock of the present political moment, incorporates a historical analysis, and (drawing from a collective, transgenerational body of knowledge and experience) makes intentional decisions about where and how to focus one’s political time and attention. Closedmindedness is heavily indebted to Chela Sandoval’s Methodology of the Oppressed, and incorporates in particular her components of “semiotics” (sign reading) and “democratics” (a moral orientation towards love in the postmodern world).

As opposed to dogmatism’s (tacit) assumption of a fixed, specifically ordered world and limited understanding of history, closedmindedness is painfully aware of the political terrain. In order for closedmindedness to function (and, crucially, to avoid becoming dogmatism), one must be fully aware of the multiple, complex, and inextricable forces at play on the political terrain. Through semiotics, the closedminded individual strives to gain an understanding of the political landscape, in particular how specific actors, institutions, events, and ideas interrelate to one another. This is key to developing a predictive power and “common sense” which will allow one to understand where certain views are coming from, how these views came to be, who is advocating them, and to what end they are being articulated. Likewise, a closedminded activist must also be aware of the history that has led up this moment. It is not enough to simply work from what is happening now. One must know how we got to where we are in order to more accurately assess where it is we want to go.

Now, if objectivity is a myth and those with power have the ability to define that term, how can a closedminded activist develop the critical resources and ethico-political compass to figure out how to read the present and the past? Simply put, the one must become the many, and consciously so. The lone closedminded activist is at best powerless to affect change, and is at worst becomes a cynic and a nihilist. Alone, they are liable to be co-opted by power and/or turn to dogmatism. But the closedminded activist need not remain alone. Instead, it is essential to turn to the collective memory and critical capacity of oppositional forces in society. These can be generally termed “the oppressed.” The oppressed need not be consciously organized to produce knowledge and critical resistance relevant to their oppression, but it helps. This is in part what Sandoval means by democratics; she is referring to the collective liberation ethic that emerges from shared histories of survival and resistance.

Therefore, to give an example of closedmindedness, let me turn to a very fraught but pressing issue: the occupation of Palestine by Israel. I have chosen to refer to this as an occupation and not a conflict because I have closed my mind to Zionism. I have not done this arbitrarily (as if based on some whim or simple prejudice) nor have I been taken in by anti-Semitism (a real oppression we must take seriously). Rather, I have drawn upon my knowledge of the present political terrain, my understanding of history, and my ethico-politcal solidarity with the struggles of the oppressed. Though these components are analytically separate, in reality they are inextricable from one another.

It was only relatively recently that I have come to understand the political terrain of this issue. I began with my prior knowledge of the broader political terrain. For example, I knew that the United States is heavily funding only the Israelis, and that the political forces that most vigorously advocate for “Israel’s right to self-defense” are those which I generally oppose, namely the Right. Next, I drew on my ethico-politcal compass, informed by the struggles of other oppressed groups and social justice struggles with which I have chosen to stand in solidarity. This helped me to guide myself towards political analyses and historical accounts that reflected my emerging sense of reality. Finally, I grew into solidarity with Palestine and to support the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement from the work I had done to figure out just what was going on.

This process also fed back on itself; I quickly learned that mainstream US media provides a very limited and biased account of the situation on the ground, and this account is based on a false reading of history that supports Zionist colonial violence and occupation. Therefore, I began to exclude sources of information such as MSNBC and Huffington Post in favor of sources like Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss. Finally, I connected my support for ending the occupation to other political issues about which I am passionate. It would be personally and politically hard to reconcile a stance in favor of the occupation of Palestine with one that condemns the United States’ historical and continuing colonization of indigenous land in what is now known as North America.

In truth, these components emerged unevenly and in tandem, not in a linear pattern such as I have laid out above. Nonetheless, this living, politically engaged, aware, connected, loving, and ethically grounded vision of closedmindedness is what I advocate when I say there are defendable reasons for excluding some political perspectives and sources of information. There is not a morally or politically superior rationale for remaining perpetually stuck in the “marketplace of ideas” well after closing time. Indeed, I believe that there is no need to set foot in the store in the first place. There is no particular virtue to openmindedness, nor is there any justifiable reason to resort to dogmatism. Both openmindedness and dogmatism are retreats from politics; the former is an overly-cautious liberalism that refuses to commit too strongly to any one of a very limited set of preformed opinions, while the latter has a brand loyalty that has survived several product recalls. Neither seriously engages in political contestation, and both rest upon largely hidden and unquestioned assumptions and institutional factors that preclude radical political change.

Thankfully, it is perfectly possible to leave both liberalism (in the classical sense) and fascism behind. There are millions of activists and oppressed groups around the world who are closing their minds to neoliberal capitalism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, (neo)colonialism, and other forms of domination, exploitation, and violence. In closing our minds, we may open our hearts to one another, and finally take a collective, conscious, and undefeatable stand for liberation and justice.

Being open minded is overrated. We would rather be closed minded and stand up for what we believe to be right, than be open minded and stand for nothing at all.

In Defense of Closemindedness

I am a passionate person; I don’t deny this at all. But one critique that I have repeatedly received is that I am closed minded. For a time, I took this to heart. “Surely,” I thought, “there is nothing worse for a young, progressive person who cares about social justice to be than ‘closed minded’.” However, the more I have thought about it, and whether or not this description applies to me, the less I am sure that this is a serious concern at all.
Allow me to explain. I am very passionate about social justice, and I consider myself something of a radical. (As in, “Radical simply means ‘grasping things at the root,’” á la Angela Davis). You might place me on the libertarian-left, and I have described myself as an anarcha-feminist in the past. While I am white, able-bodied, and economically privileged, I am committed to ending all forms of oppression and am always trying to educate myself about hierarchy and injustice in the world.
The kind of political thought I encounter in my milieu of the Left tends towards fiery rhetoric and urgent calls to action, and I myself am subject to passions and deep feelings of urgency. As such, I can become flustered and frustrated when I encounter opposition. Sometimes I articulate points that I only vaguely understand without enough information to make a coherent case. Fair enough, and I take that critique to heart. I also take to heart the belief that it is important to recognize the different levels of political knowledge and varying approaches to social justice that I encounter in my day-to-day life.
So although I am aware that I can seem uncompromising in my views, I am always deeply disturbed whenever I am told that I am closed minded. I rush to internalize the critique and analyze my comments and behavior for signs of an authoritarian, patriarchal, or arrogant personality; in short, a failure to live up to my closely-held ethical and political values.
But in considering the situations that have led to me being accused of being some permutation of “closed minded” (“only read things you agree with,” “too academic,” “don’t consider other perspectives”), I have to come to the conclusion that this “critique” is rarely a critique at all, and is almost never made in good faith. Often, it is a form of ad hominem attack. Perhaps I got too flustered, was caught off guard, was having a bad day, was rude, etc. None of these things, however, necessarily invalidate my argument.
Other times, the critique seems more substantive, as in “you don’t consider all perspectives.” But, here too, the claim fails to hold. This form of the criticism is essentially an accusation of dogmatism, an inability and/or unwillingness to consider oneself fallible, to “listen to reason,” to dispassionately weigh all sides and come to the “mature,” “balanced” opinion that must surely await the “open minded” person squarely in the middle. To be sure, dogmatism can be dangerous, even deadly. But dogmatism is not the same as stridency, nor is it the same thing as passionately arguing for a deeply held/felt moral or political belief.
I do listen to multiple perspectives, consider myself fallible, and deeply consider important issues at length before coming to a conclusion. AND I am strident, passionate, and deeply committed to a bedrock of ethical and political values. These things are not at odds, and in fact depend upon one another.
There is not particular virtue in being “open minded.” First, that term is never clearly defined. Sometimes, it means something like “reading perspectives from all sides before coming to a conclusion based solely on the facts.” I know of no one who actually conducts their politics this way. We don’t start out as blank slates, but rather positioned by power and lived experience. Further, objectivity (in the form of the “view from nowhere”) doesn’t really exist; or rather it signifies the perspective of those with the power to define reality.
Second, there are good reasons to reject some viewpoints out of hand. Not all perspectives are equally positioned, and some are supported by power and histories of violent oppression. As such, there is no reason I need to give, for example, a “pro-racism” position equal time to various strains of anti-racist thought. The racist position has institutional power and influence backing it up, and there is still a lively array of anti-racist views to ward off the ill-defined specter of “closedmindedness.” Even mainstream politics tacitly agrees with this point; liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans might argue about certain issues with a narrowly constrained field of opinions. But both sides agree to limit the debate to that limited field, and to support an underlying set of principles which makes the terms of their debate possible. Neither most liberals nor most conservatives will be caught arguing against capitalism qua capitalism, for example. Conservatives tend to embrace the “free market” uncritically, while liberals argue for “more” or “better regulation,” while conceding that “capitalism is the only system possible given ‘human nature’.” In either case, a viewpoint that rejects capitalism wholesale is marked off as dangerously extreme and/or hopelessly naïve. That neither liberals nor conservatives usually take the time to read anarchist theory before rejecting it out of hand is beside the point.
Or, rather, it is precisely the point: everyone excludes certain opinions out of hand. If we didn’t choose to exclude certain perspectives from those we consider “viable,” “valid,” “permissible,” or whatever term you want to use, we would be consistently forced to given equal weight to perspectives we find abhorrent (such as the views of Sheryl Sandberg, Samuel P. Huntington or Phyllis Schlafly) simply because they exist. It would presumably be “closed minded” of me not to use my limited time to read things I believe I will disagree with simply because they are views available on the discursive field.
But I can make a better case for “closemindedness” than shallow efficiency, and it is that “you can’t be neutral on a moving train” (Howard Zinn). Because political positions do not exist on equal terms in a mythical “marketplace of ideas,” because real lives are involved in struggles over power and resources, because oppression affects us all in deep and personal ways, I believe it is morally, ethically, and politically good and necessary to be “closed minded,” at least in some ways and some of the time. I don’t need to know why someone is against abortion to know that too many people of all genders, and predominately women, die from illegal abortion across the world every day. I don’t need to know what it would do to the banking system for people to stop paying their mortgages en masse to know that too many people are evicted from their homes due to poverty and capitalist greed. I don’t care why some famous white queer theorists like to use the t-word to know that trans women of color are murdered every day in this country and around the world. And I really, truly, do not care if I sound extreme, naïve, foolish, or uninformed because I express a view passionately and loudly, or because I do not see the need to give airtime to viewpoints that are more concerned with being “open minded” than taking a moral stand and sticking to it.
Being open minded is overrated. I’d rather be closed minded and stand up for what I believe to be right, than be open minded and stand for nothing at all.

Sherlock is a White, Wealthy, Cis Man for a Reason

I am becoming a fan of the BBC series Sherlock.  It is exactly what it sounds like: a modernized version of Sherlock Holmes created by Steve Moffat (of Doctor Who fame).  Now, while I enjoy the program immensely, I realized something disturbing (and in retrospect obvious) last night while watching: Sherlock qua Sherlock could only be played by a white, able bodied, cis man, whose character must also have some degree of class privilege.  This is not at all to say that I think only such a uniquely privileged person could play Sherlock Holmes well, but this specific version is dependent upon a great deal of social and economic privilege.  There are potential spoilers ahead.  This Sherlock is a stoic/brooding, silent, intellectual type, living in relative comfort in a nicer district of London.  Furthermore, he makes extensive use of his smartphone, which, while not necessarily indicative of wealth, certainly doesn’t help matters.  More to the point, a great deal of the series thus far (I just finished series 2) hinges upon the fact that Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft, holds a fairly high position in the British government.  But the privilege doesn’t stop there.  Sherlock also has a somewhat territorially combative but generally easy relationship with the London police, being allowed regular access to crime scenes and police laboratories.  Despite his almost inside knowledge of the crimes committed, he is rarely ever suspected in any serious way of having committed them.  His intelligence is in no way questioned despite any immediate evidence of an extensive formal education, and he can rely upon others (particularly his landlord, Mrs. Hudson) to take care of the day-to-day matters of his existence.  Now, on this point it could be argued that John Watson is more responsible for “taking care of” Sherlock, but Watson is in many was feminized versus Sherlock.  This is not to denigrate femininity at all, but to make a point that, within the context of the show, Sherlock’s masculine, stoic “intellect” cannot be bothered with such petty things as grocery purchases, cleaning, or knowledge of basic facts.  Additionally, where Watson is emotionally expressive, caring, loyal, and cares about relationships, Holmes is aggressively anti-social, seeks solitude, is regularly rude and abrasive, and only shows sympathy or emotion in extreme circumstances, and even then only in stereotypically masculine ways.  This dichotomy between Sherlock’s “extraordinary” mind and those of the “ordinary” folks he so regularly denigrates reinforces the idea that, somehow, Sherlock is above everyone else.  To think such a thing, and to have it reinforced by so many others depends upon the possession of some degree of social privilege.  Furthermore, Sherlock is quite plainly a misogynist, not only treating women with particular contempt, but also relying upon sexist stereotypes in many of his “deductive” analyses.  That the generally lead him to the correct conclusion is beside the point–such stereotyping would not hold in the real world and Steven Moffat can write whatever he likes into Sherlock’s universe.

While women, people of color, working class folks and other oppressed folks could certainly be as intelligent as Sherlock, and are capable of the same feats, their more precarious social position (compounded by intersecting oppressions) means that they would be granted far less freedom than, and have access to far fewer resources than, this Sherlock. Sherlock can treat folks horribly, “exposing” them as hypocrites for simply trying to maintain social grace, and be written off as “just Sherlock.”  Were Sherlock a woman, she would be a “bitch.”   Were Sherlock a person of color, s/he would be seen as “uppity” or “reverse racist.”  Were Sherlock disabled, s/he might not be able to perform the physical feats that this Sherlock does (such as jumping roof to roof) or have their intelligence taken seriously, being dismissed instead as “unstable.”  If Sherlock were not cisgender or within the gender binary, they would have a much harder time trying to navigate the social sphere, attempting to pass while still remaining the same stoic, abrasive, unfeeling character that we know this Sherlock to be.  In short, this Sherlock is a variation upon the brooding, masculine, loner genius who nobody understands.  That itself is a played out trope, proven time and again to be reliant upon similar social privileges as I have enumerated here.

I don’t think a non-white, non-male, trans*, poor, disabled, and/or queer Sherlock is at all a bad idea.  However, I do think that the current interpretation of the character requires a great deal of privilege to be what we know this particular incarnation to be.  A character with less privilege would have to work harder to navigate the social sphere, but ultimately I think it would make for a stronger character, and a better series.  I like this Sherlock, but I’d like to see other Sherlocks, as well.  For the record, I have not seen Elementary, but I want to do so.

I’m No Hero

Something that really bothers me is when folks, even my loved ones, tell me that they are “so proud” of me, that I’m “a revolutionary,” that I’m “going to change the world,” or that I’m “opening people’s eyes.”  I am white, upper middle class, able bodied, and pass for cis male and straight.  I’m just doing the bare minimum to not be an oppressive bigot, and since I benefit from, and am blinded by, these privileges regardless, I feel disingenuous accepting all this praise.  So I’m not an active bigot, so I oppose oppression in all forms, so I try to check my privilege, so I do my research.  So what?  I may have mentioned before how I hate the word “ally,” and this is why.  It lavishes praise upon the title-holder, who is by definition in some way privileged, and, when used as an identity label, allows the “ally” to co-opt some of the oppression which they claim to be fighting for themself, thereby perpetuating it.  It’s ludicrous!  I’m no hero, and I don’t pretend to be.  Am I furious about injustice? Am I passionate about my anti-oppressive beliefs? Yes! But that does not make me a hero.  It means that I’m (somewhat) politically conscious (and I mean that in the most basic sense, as in I’m awake and breathing).  Why on earth should I be praised for this? Perhaps I’m a revolutionary relatively (versus some of the more politically unconscious folks around me), or maybe by association (feminism is definitely radical, and I am most definitely a feminist), but my privilege(s) mean that I am not taking any serious risks in being vocal and active for social justice.  It means that I can shed my anti-oppressive allegiances when I feel it is convenient (though I would not allow myself to do that, because that seems pretty lousy.)  And most importantly, it means that folks are more likely to listen to me calmly, actually acknowledge what I say, and respond seriously.  I am NOT a hero.  I am just another privileged person in solidarity with all oppressed folks everywhere.  Sounds pretty easy in comparison right? Well, it is. 

Social justice “allyship” is an easy thing to claim when you are as privileged as me.  It doesn’t mean that you care about it any less necessarily, but it means that for the most part, it’s not personal (unless people are giving me gender-binarist grief).  It doesn’t make what I say automatically wrong, but it holds a lot less weight and is more likely to be wrong when I say it versus when an oppressed person says it (although I probably would be granted far more leeway in what I say, be taken more seriously, and be given more time/space to say it).  And isn’t that what we’re fighting?  The manifestation of privilege on a personal level contributes to the manifestation of oppression on a societal and institutional level.  So please, for your political consciousness and mine, don’t make me into a hero.  I’m not.  I don’t believe in hero worship, but folks who speak truth to power from their own experiences (the only way truth can be spoken to power is by the oppressed, after all), come pretty close, I think.  I have a feminist brain-crush on Angela Davis.  If you want to admire someone, go read her.  Or just read her and don’t make her a token, or a representation of all women of color everywhere.  She’s still one person, she’s just highly educated, extremely intelligent, an excellent scholar and writer, and amazing politically conscious.  Most importantly, she’s positioned to speak truth to power.  Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherrie Moraga, bell hooks, and Patricia Hill Collins are all other great feminist theorists who have influenced me greatly.  But please, don’t make me a hero. I don’t deserve it, I don’t need it, I don’t want it, and quite frankly it annoys me when it happens.  It requires a great deal of privilege for me to be able to say all that, but it’s the truth.  Why do I need special credit for being a decent person and doing my homework?

The Discursive Feast of Privilege: Towards a Theory of Self-Abjection

In speaking about issues of social justice, we are often called upon to invoke the principle of “self-love.”  That is to say, “love yourself,” “be proud of who you are,” and other similar blandishments are presented as radical political statements; and, indeed, in some contexts they can be. To love oneself in the face of a society that finds your very being abhorrent is, to quote the venerable Audre Lorde, “an act of political warfare.”  But it must be understood that, in such instances, the individual being asked to love themself is usually asked to do so in opposition to forces of oppression and/or bigotry which seek to destroy their very being.  For such persons, the radicality of self-love is found not in the action itself so much as it is in the stance of opposition which it necessarily entails.  Here, self-love is a refusal to be colonized by hegemonic systems of domination, a refusal to be “crunched into other people’s fantasies for [oneself] and eaten alive.” This kind of self-love is a necessary part of accepting oneself as fully human, as a conscious subject entitled to rights and respect.  Therefore, it is necessary and good, and something to which all of us are entitled.  However, self-love always exists in a social context, and this context determines the political content of such a stance.   To love oneself with the world against you is one thing; to love oneself when the world is encouraging you to do so is another.
     Now, no one person is only subjected to messages of self-destruction or self-love, and indeed the multiplicity of identities we each contain would make such a prospect a near-impossibility.  But, I think there is something to be said about the limits of the concept of self-love.  Clearly, in an unjust world, a reminder of our essential right to be(ing), regardless of embodiment, marginality, or social position, is a prerequisite for any anti-oppressive project.   Nevertheless, I think there is a specific situation in which a “self-love” discourse goes too far, or ceases to be useful.
     As a multiply privileged person dedicated to a liberatory social justice project, it is critical that I remain aware of my positionality at all times.  As a white, male-bodied, able-bodied, class privileged, straight and cis passing person, I maintain a highly privileged subjectivity regardless of my political commitments.  However,  no matter how zealous (or educated, or conscientious, or well-read…) one is towards social justice, a privileged positionality always implicates one in systems of oppression greater than any individual activist.  Thus, to be privileged is to wield power, regardless of how much one disavows it.
   Being a privileged person in solidarity with the oppressed (also known as an “ally,” though I am loath to use that term), one often achieves a certain pleasure in being “right.”  Any social justice activist with a privileged identity knows what I am talking about, namely, that feeling of moral righteousness one gets when confronting a similarly privileged person about an identity neither of you share.  It is likely that those who have witnessed their “allies” in this state of anti-oppression euphoria know what I am talking about.  The long indignant rant about “privilege-checking” that seems to be more for the moral-condemnatory pleasure of the ranter rather than for the advancement of an anti-oppressive project.  Now, checking privilege is a vital and necessary first (and ongoing) step to a social justice consciousness, but this is quite a different phenomenon.  In fact, I would argue that such a sense of “rightness” occurs from a failure to fully check one’s privilege, instead resting on the laurels of one’s “allyship,” as it were.
  I’m going to call this scenario the “call out high.”  It happens when the privileged “ally”  feels empowered and “clean” from condemning the similarly privileged but pro-oppression folks around them.  It happens in the classroom, on the Internet, in social justice organizations, on the street, across the dinner table, and everywhere else one finds white folks talking about race, middle-class and wealthy folks talking about class, men talking about sexism, cis folks talking about transphobia, straight folks talking about heterosexism, and so on.  Though the “caller-outer” may mean perfectly well, they run the unique risk of losing their sense of self-reflexivity.  You can shout “I am NOT Trayvon Martin” from the rooftops all day.  If you are white, you still benefit from all the privileges attendant thereupon.  Being “right” is not enough when you still use your privilege like a blunt weapon, crudely addressing complex issues of power and identity about which you have no first-hand experience and simultaneously silencing the population for whom you claim to speak.
  I believe that this phenomenon (and it most certainly is a phenomenon) ties very closely to the language of self-love.  If all of us should love ourselves equally, and in an equally unqualified way, the those of us who society has granted significant privilege already start out with more love to lavish upon ourselves.  As a white anti-racist “ally”, I gain significant psychic and social benefits from claiming this “status” in many contexts, and in those where it is not beneficial to me, I can hide it or ignore its immaterial consequences.  In either case, I can feel a smug sense of self-righteousness from being “one of the good whites,” rather than one of those straightforward racists, or those liberals of the colorblind variety.  But no matter how good I feel about myself, I have done little to either shift the consciousness of my white peers, or to deconstruct material or ideological systems of racist oppression.
   Some might argue that this “call out high” is not a serious problem.  “Whatever gets people to care.”  But I disagree.  I think the rationale behind one’s dedication to a social justice project, how one approaches it, the strategies and ideologies one adopts, and the outcome of one’s actions are all interrelated.  A social justice praxis premised upon “feeling good” about one’s “allyship” is not going to lead to the kind of brutal, unceasing, critical self-analysis necessary to seriously engage with and “check” one’s privilege.  Being an “ally” should not “feel good” all the time.  In fact, the greater the degree of one’s privilege, the more uncomfortable one should feel. This is not a call to embrace the dreaded “white guilt,” an “emotion” which I think serves little purpose other than to sooth the psychic wounds of whites confronted with their own privilege and thus to allow them to ignore it, but rather to embrace the sense of self-disgust that should accompany every single instance of “call out high.”
Imagine you are eating some decadent (but nutritionally empty) foodstuff.  Plate after plate, an endless feast with no external control or sanction.  At some point, you begin to grow tired to the meal, and then soon after begin to feel quite sick.  You cannot stand to eat, let alone look at, another bite, and you push away your plate in disgust.   That feeling, not of shame for the calories consumed (that’s internalized fatphobia), not of what others will think, but purely of embodied disgust for the once delicious food before you, is what I think should guide us as privileged folks encountering the “call out high.”  We should feel somewhat sick with ourselves.  Similar to this hypothetical meal, the “call out high” occurs whenever we have fully gorged upon anti-oppressive discourse.  It’s what I as a white, male-bodied, class privileged person feel when I read Audre Lorde and fail to fully consider the political implications of her words, as well as the context in which they were written.  It’s when I call out a white, cis “dude-bro” in class for his privilege-blind nonsense, and feel oh so proud of myself for the rest of the day.  It’s what is happening right now, to an extent, when I write this very essay.
  It does feel good to be an “ally,” and in certain ways it should.  If you take social justice seriously, then you are freeing yourself from the burden of hating the Other, and embracing a fundamental human community.  But that doesn’t make you, nor I, a “special snowflake.” We don’t get ally cookies for that.  It helps to keep in mind that by embracing feminism, anti-racism, intersectionality, and other tenets of social justice, we are doing the bare minimum of work necessary to be a decent human being.  We might be few in number amongst of privileged peers, relatively speaking, but we are not automatically “groundbreaking,” “earth-shattering,” or “speaking truth to power.” In many ways, after all, we ARE power.
  So what is to be done about all this? Do we abandon social justice for others when it no longer serves our personal psychic needs?  Do we refuse to ever speak on issues of oppression which we do not experience? Do self-flagellate each time we slip up? No, all of these miss the point.  We shouldn’t feel bad for getting mad about oppression.  We should, after all, be outraged by the abuses of power, by the injustices, by the inequalities engendered by oppressive systems.  But we should be mercilessly, critically self-reflexive at the same time.  We must not let our guards down to our own potential to oppress, and we must never forget our own positionality.
  I think all of this is aided by fostering a productive sense of self-abjection, of making oneself continually humble.  That sickness we feel after gorging ourselves on liberatory discourse?  We must live up to our high words.  We must silence ourselves sometimes in order, not to ignore oppression, but in order to listen.  We must hold ourselves accountable.  By never ceasing to critically evaluate our own beliefs, actions, identities, privileges, and positionality, we refuse to simply enjoy being “allies.” Instead we call upon ourselves to be worthy of that title without ever feeling the need to claim it.  We reject it when it is offered, because it is not for us to claim.  It is in the doing that social justice gets done.  So, while we must never be afraid to challenge oppression wherever it  lies, we must also be vigilantly aware of the seductive power of the “call out high.” Because it is when we forget that being an ally is NOT an identity, that privilege continues to operate despite social justice awareness and even in anti-oppression spaces, that we return to the discursive feast of privilege, and put our identity as an ally ahead of the serious work of challenging and dismantling oppression.

Welcome back!

Hello dear Quintrospection readers!

As you can possibly tell, I’ve been on an extended hiatus, to the point of taking the blog offline unexpectedly.  Some private matters arose that made this a prudent decision at the time, but know I feel comfortable returning Quintrospection to the internet.  So welcome back! I hope to begin posting again soon, but as always, I never seem to get around to it regularly.  Thanks for reading!

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