This essay is inspired by Ta-nahisi Coate’s Atlantic piece on Kanye West opting for white freedom.
Having thought on this a bit, my simple conclusion is that white privilege is a benefit of conquest. It is a primarily structural phenomenon of accumulated power and control. Being white is like being a Roman citizen, more privileged than others in the Republic or Empire. Kanye West wants the privilege to be a Roman citizen, not be a second-class citizen. In a perfect world, everyone could be free to be self actualized no matter the color of their skin or ethnicity. The trouble for West, is that he is perceived as “selling out” to be white; he’s abandoning his people to join another. “Success” can take a person out of structural, material, and societal confines.
Who has sold out and why? Have whites sold out on social equity and justice? Is a modern person simply “an individual”, divorced from their past? Do minorities sell out by wanting to be first class? Do all Alphas sell out all those of lower status? What is mainstream culture? This white privilege conversation has become more interesting by Mario Castillo recently questioning on Facebook what is Chicano, as compared to Latino immigrant?
Many tacit advantages and privileges accrue to white people in society. Whites are at the top of the pecking order, and it is well known that gradations of skin color correspond to levels of racial social acceptance. A subtle and not so subtle systemic exclusion of people of color has taken place. Minorities are concentrated in areas like Roseland, the Springs and Richmond, out of sight, out of mind.
Life, liberty and happiness have been sequestered by race. Race as class. It’s not fair. But it’s not in the interests of the conquerors to be fair. Now, many years after New World and colonial conquests, this business as usual seems normal. The world’s top dogs are Anglo-style white: US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa. If a person wants to be mainstream, they have to be white, that’s where the power and opportunities are.
“White” is not a country or an ethnic group; being white is a racial thing, and race is an artificial social construct. All people are the same species. Here’s a Wikipedia quote that lays out how science sees race: “Modern scholarship regards race as a social construct, that is, a symbolic identity created to establish some cultural meaning. While partially based on physical similarities within groups, race is not an inherent physical or biological quality… Social conceptions and groupings of races vary over time, involving folk taxonomies that define essential types of individuals based on perceived traits. Scientists consider biological essentialism obsolete, and generally discourage racial explanations for collective differentiation in both physical and behavioral traits.”
White supremacy is an essentialist concept, one that plays into racist views, that justify unequal power relations in society.
Being white is at once as accident of fate for those who happen to be born that way or not, and it can be a state of mind, and social status that is possible to achieve by, one way or another, becoming a member of society’s controlling group.
One big fight
It is more than reasonable to see all of human history as one long contest of winners and losers. Like baboons and chimps, people are not satisfied with having the short end of the stick, and so people have fought for supremacy. “White” now, is like being a Roman citizen was in the past; it’s to be in the winning, privileged group. In this sense, conquest and its ensuing complicit advantages is not an essentialist property of any particular group, like white people, but a property of all people. This is the Guns, Germs and Steel thesis, it was just an accident of fate, of environmental location, that Western Civilization happened to start in the resource/ climate nexus that it did. If such an environmental context was in the Americas, Indians would have done it too. All people would have done the same thing given the chance, as all are the same species, and not broken into races that have essentially different characteristics.
Universal properties and patterns
What this Guns, Germs and Steel thesis says, is that people have universal properties and characteristics, ones that underlie different cultural flavors, which are socially inherited and not biologically inherited.
Indeed, groups now thought of as minorities have, in the past, shown the same patterns of conquest, violence and domination now attributed to whites, for example, the Apache moving into the southwest 600 years ago, the Aztec domination of the Tlaxcalans, the Bantu expansion in Africa. This is not an attempt to justify, just to show that whites are not a specific type of devil or god; they are merely human. We’ll all dominate given the chance.
This is a biological, evolution-based, population dynamics, political, and human realism perspective. Machiavelli is held in disgust by many, for laying this kind of stuff out on the table. For those who don’t like it, what’s a better explanation for the savagery of human history? If we are so great, why doesn’t history show societies that are not based on maximal, unsustainable resource exploitation and exploitation of other people?
What has been spawned in the process of human history as one big fight, is 100s and 1000s of year cycles of revenge. The conquered never forget. The strong feelings engendered by forceful domination never really end, because the injustice is smeared in the faces of the conquered people in their poor living conditions every day.
In-group/ out-group, cooperation/ competition
Human history as one big fight between competing groups. Yes, you can see it that way, and it’s fundamentally true. Elaine Pagels, in her books, explores this as a religious/ cultural in-group, out-group dynamic. Edward O. Wilson, in his works sees this same dynamic as biologically rooted. According to Wilson, people have stumbled upon, evolutionary speaking, a potent adaptation of group selection; in-group selection. Wilson traces our behavioral roots on a continuum with our animal, and survival-based past. Culture, humanity’s ultimate adaptation, feeds back into this baseline biology, that includes universal human capacities and drivers that grew out of our primate past.
People use group identity (essentialism) to fight other groups, within groups, people act for their own individual advancement.
Wilson caused a major ruckus in academia in the 1970s and 80s with his book Sociobiology, The New Synthesis. Anthropology departments were torn asunder in all or nothing debates between culture and biology. I know; I was there. These fights, for me personally, have taken a lifetime to settle out into wider, more inclusive perspectives. The Wilson conundrum is like many academic false choices, that a good thesis must be framed in an all or nothing context. Wilson has been accused of being a “materialist”, a “reductionist” etc. Those making these accusations see culture as primary. It gets to be a false choice, all culture or all biology. People who inhabit a hybrid space then get flack from purists on either side.
The world as it is
Take human evolution and world history at school, there’s really no other conclusion to reach than that human history is one big fight between competing, invading groups. Winning groups exploit, suppress, and/or exterminate the losing groups. Any flowering happens in periods of stasis between fights. The flowering is based on the enslavement and exploitation of the losers.
This is where white people are today in American society, enjoying the fruits of the structural exploitation of the losing brown races.
White people have not leveled the playing field to include former slaves, blacks, Maoris, American Indians, La Raza, Aborigines, or any other out-groupers, or even their own white poor. Whites have conquered and then held institutional advantages. Whites control the legal and justice systems. Prisons are filled with racially-profiled people of color. Whites construct memes to justify the exploitation, that the losers are essentially violent, lazy, “takers”, who simply don’t get up early enough in the morning to get ahead. Whites have excluded others, determinately not sharing the spoils of power and control.
Homo hominii lupus
Even before the advent of ag-based civilization, people warred, conquered and exploited. One of my college professors, Larry Keeley, wrote a book about it, War Before Civilization. Keeley says humans were never in a mythical harmony with nature. The Pleistocene Overkill hypothesis seems to about fit like a glove.
People who expanded into new areas as a result of population pressures at home, Apache, Bantu, Viking, typically displaced existing cultures, killed the men, and bred with the women.
Once our species achieved the modern cultural assemblage about 40,000 years ago, we became really good at dominating and controlling other life. Through modern language capacity, and an emerging cultural self-consciousness, we made a lethal adaptation that fused biological survival with planning ahead intentionality, and group-fostering symbolic meanings. We became able to consciously vilify and make enemies, take them over, take their land, make them into slaves. Before the Industrial Revolution, slave/ underclass labor was what created wealth.
This is humanity’s primary legacy. Homo hominii lupus, man is a wolf to himself. Then and today, animosities linger, a Stone Age present, tribal consciousness prevails as a common human denominator. This same Stone Age present manifests in identity politics, populism, and nationalism. It’s hard to shake biological and cultural essentialisms, hard for people to arrive at a more universal stance.
Unequal suppression spawns rebellion
When certain groups are prevented from the means to achieving the higher stages of self- actualization, of Maslow’s hierarchy, there is nothing left to do but fight for it. Those who fight against structural prejudice and exploitation are revolutionaries, radicals, “advocates”, those who want to keep structural advantages are satisfied with the status quo; they don’t want to rock the boat too much; they prefer to “work within the system.”
Any new winners of the domination game will be only too willing to forget past injustices done unto them, as such winners enjoy the fruits of power and control. So much for righteous indignation… Case in point: Jews in Israel. This is the essence of white privilege, a denial of exploitive power relations, and then blaming the victims as evil, lazy or disingenuous.
Whites have it coming, certainly. Uneasy sits the King, beneath the Sword of Damocles. The only trouble now is that whites may have just about ruined the nature upon which future civilizations can be based. Whites may be the last conquerors. Earth certainly can’t afford any more of the current style.
An honest call is that we are screwed
Bright and shining moments there have been, yes. There is a basis for an optimistic view of human capacity, culture, and history. Optimism is all that keeps me from being a criminal. It’s just hard to make a realistic call that people will work it all out for the good. The bright and shining moments pale in contrast with the litter of suffering and conquest that makes up the bulk of human history. The Greek flowering of Athens? Maybe lasted 100 years. By the time we evolve past the Stone Age present, if we do, it will likely be too late for our higher capacities to achieve a Star Fleet kind of fruition.
And here we are. The US is going to hell with white racism at the helm, white world domination as US foreign policy, no pretense to even neoliberal ethics or values, straight up white Anglo conquerors at work… This is justified by free market capitalism, by Social Darwinism, by religion, by Divine Right, by identify politics essentialist racism, whatever construct that fits to justify conquest and a resulting white privilege of the conquerors and their descendants.
The US was born in rebellion to an aristocracy, and now the new merchant class winners become a new aristocracy…
Redemption? Not easy….
Our only chance for redemption is to think globally and work locally to realize the inclusiveness that makes a just society, as if we were all on the same team. To use our vaunted intelligence and self-consciousness for the good of all, and to sustain the ground on which our collective future lies. To give up on this is to become irreversibly callous, or criminal. But what do we do? Local politics is one big, ongoing fight. Nobody listens. Everyone has bad neighbors and territorial spats; we can’t help ourselves. It’s all interests fighting interests, the most powerful and well connected prevailing, with our own local hierarchical pyramid of East Side at the top and the Springs on the bottom. None are willing to step off the throne and enact structural changes that level the playing field with the conquered. “We have to work within the system”, folks say. This tacitly keeps the white conquerors with the upper hand.
This is a frustration I have with the local non-profit/ philanthropic scene, no one talks about changing the underlying exploitive relations that make it so donors have all the resources and the brown-skinned and poor white recipients none.
From human muddy water to sustainability?
What can I do personally? I am spinning my wheels check-to-check trying to survive in a world dominated by more powerful white men. Should I divest of all small advantages and bust myself down to the lowest rungs on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? What good would that do? There are many serious human-caused problems to tackle; I cannot do them all. Shall I take the tacit luxury of being a white guy and tackle climate change and groundwater overdraft? I sense that anything short of devoting my whole life to social justice will come up short, when measured against the monstrous injustice of conquest and the legacy of colonialism.
This is why sustainability is the way to go, it incorporates social equity, economy and environment into one rational playing field, it appeals to anyone who has any sense. It’s for the good of all.
There for the grace of God go I
For my own white privilege, I don’t have racial prejudice in my heart, I just happen to be white. I’ve spent my whole life rejecting tacit mainstream white values. And yet I am still a white man. I need not worry about being kicked out of Starbucks, or about cops when I am driving anywhere. I get the advantages. I’ve had the advantages. These are things that have allowed me to be more fully human, even as I exist at the lower rungs of economic viability, in a voluntary poverty that shows my rejection of the white mainstream. I can still strain enough quality out of life to be more privileged than the bulk of people on earth today. I hit life just about right, at the peak of US power and wealth. Luck? I’m white.
Peak US stasis starts to unravel
Robert Pirsig, in his book Lila, An Inquiry into Morals, made a great analysis on dynamic and static quality. In evolution, this same tack has been broached as Stephen Jay Gould’s punctuated equilibrium. Maybe that’s how it really is. The conquerors are like the dinosaurs, presiding over a reign of stasis, but then little forgotten cornerstones, mammals for example, rise up for their own new epochs of power and control.
Why would anyone give up control? It seems to go against nature. The only logical course for underdogs then, is to try and seize power and control by force. Majority rule always makes losers, who then keep on fighting. Power won’t be handed over voluntarily, nor will any big switch be allowed by “the democratic process”, power players and big money will make sure of that.
Power has been enshrined, in the US Constitution, to the merchant class, and through the Supreme Court, business, corporate interests have become the new white aristocracy. This is what Mitch McConnell and Trump are working hard on now, to pack the courts with judges friendly to the interests of powerful white men.
The hierarchical pyramid of power and control is as apt now as it ever was. If you are the ruling class and if you look the same as the ruling class, then that puts you up in the pecking order. By being white, I am identified with the Alpha exploiters.
White privilege is a matter of race perception, class, and history, and of human nature. My call: we are condemned to endless cycles of domination and revenge, that will fold into either civilizational collapse, revolution or both. We, whites, can attempt to be voluntarily inclusive, to do the right thing, which never happens on a scale big enough to matter, but it does reflect a moral choice to at least try. I think this positive choice is what Sustainable Sonoma is trying to do, and it is worthy of all our support. People who try can at least sleep at night.
All people deserve the potential space to enjoy our great human positive and creative aptitude, art, music, literature, a good meal, and these things should not be denied for the color of one’s skin, as we all have the same fundamental humanity. The human flower of our higher capacities has to be built up from equal and just access to life’s necessities. Equal opportunity, life, liberty and happiness, can’t be sequestered to only one group of conquerors.
Whites have to be willing to examine the history, biology, and the cultural content that leads to prejudice and racial, class stratification of society. Whites can’t accept ill-gotten gains and then pretend they’re not there, or that descendant bear no responsibility.
Once we get to social equity then we can address the huge environmental and economic problems we have create, or, whatever order we put these tripe bottom line aspects in, as long as we are tacking that way.
Whites have it coming
In spite of hope, my realpolitik conclusion is, as Barbara Tuchman said, people don’t change until the sewage is coming in the front door. Whites won’t share their generational ill-gotten gains, based on conquest, slavery, genocide and corporate concentration of power. The only logical conclusion is that the white house will be torn down, by hubris and collapse, by rebellion and revolution, in any combination of all the above. This is the inevitable cost of white privilege, as reflection of the human nature that cuts through all out hearts. We can’t just get rid of white people and solve the problem because the behavior of whites is a property of us all.
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956
What should we do?
Conquering is not personal, or an exclusive property of whites. So, what should white people do now? Accept that it has always been such and go on with our day? Cede some advantages and broaden the in-group to all of humanity? Yes. Small pockets of people, advocate this kind of universalism, Quakers for example, Buddhists, Unitarians.
In daily life, this empathy and altruism starts one person at a time, as an antidote to the pervasive, lowest common denominator, enemy-making, exploitive relations behavior that is part and parcel of humanity’s character.