Monday, January 23, 2017

White is a privilege, not a people

Ruined friary church, Ballycastle Church, Ireland
Ballycastle Church, Ireland, photo by John Spragge
People from many cultures and origins, including  Picts, Celts, Franks, Angles, Saxons, and Slavs, have somewhat lower melanin levels than the average for the human species. That physiological peculiarity does not define a common culture or identity. People with low melanin levels speak different languages, derived from different language groups, follow very different religious and cultural practices. Where cultures meet, as in the "melting pot" or "mosaic" of mainstream North American culture, African cultures have as much influence as their European counterparts.

The word "white" defines a cloud of privilege, not a people. Like most clouds, it is white with unclear and contested borders, opaque but insubstantial, and often roiled by unseen but real violence, both within and without.

Those people who define themselves as "white" court three specific kinds of humiliation. First, since white identity has no substance, no skills ideas or real merit attach to it. Real identities have bodies of knowledge and skill, as well, often, as religious ethics to go with them. To live a Jewish life right takes a lifetime of work and study. Even more permissive cultures, such as the Scots and Irish have bodies of literature, tradition, and habits of thought, which those who identify with them need to at least appreciate. Those of us perceives as white receive certain privileges; to claim the identity means, therefore, to define ourselves in relation to desire for privilege. The boundaries of "white" are contested, as the recent upsurge in "white" supremacy that excludes Jewish people makes very clear. Anyone can define themselves as "white", and anyone else can dispute their claim. Finally, since white refers to a group identity, many people cannot claim "white" as their identity, their people, without setting themselves against people who showed their ancestors nothing but kindness, and claiming kinship with those who rarely showed their forbears anything but cruelty.

Ancient dwelling, Holyhead Cymru
Ancient dwelling, Holyhead Cymru, photo by John Spragge
Peoples of Germanic origin have fallen on my ancestors at least four times with fire and sword, not counting the ethnic cleansing and the terror famine. The Anishnaabe and Lakota and Kanien'kehá:ka never did that; neither did the Ashanti or the Xhosa.

Under most circumstances through my life, I have had white privilege. I didn't ask for it, but I have benefited from it in a variety of ways. That's all it is: a privilege, one that is not always consistent or reliable, but one I have most of the time. It is not a basis for kinship or solidarity. Those looking for affirmation as "race brothers" in a way that excludes most of humanity can look elsewhere.

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