A lot of activists have talked about White Skin Privilege.
Being White in the U.S. is very different from not being White.
Some people say that racism is really racialized classism.
Some people say that can’t be right, because how did Barack Obama get to be president of the United States?
Some people say that racism is everywhere.
It affects racial minorities in ways White people often don’t notice.
Both of those ideas are on the right track, but neither one of them is completely right.
Racism is racialized classism in the sense that classism is a way of putting people down and racism is a way of trying to keep people down permanently.
Regardless of the various reasons people have for their racist feelings, the goal of the actions people take based on those feelings is always to try to reserve better living conditions for one group of people by permanently forcing another group of people into worse living conditions.
It is true that racism affects some people all the time, and it is true that some people have racist attitudes all the time.
It is also true that everyone is naturally xenophobic, so we are all capable of racism.
Nobody can afford to trust everyone they see unconditionally.
To keep ourselves safe we have to look for clues about who we should trust and who we shouldn’t.
Institutionalized racism teaches people to look for the wrong clues.
We’re all capable of misinterpreting clues on our own.
That means the struggle against racism is ongoing.
However, to jump from those facts to say the generalized statement that racism is everywhere isn’t very helpful overall.
If racism was everywhere it would be unsolvable, because none of us would ever have any way of seeing what an absence of racism looks like.
If racism is not everywhere, then we must be able to find some way to break human activity down into activities where racism happens and activities where racism doesn’t happen.
Then we have a starting point for counteracting racism, because we can figure out how to make the non-racism stuff happen more.
Psychologists have been working on puzzles like this for decades.
The one place where racism is guaranteed not to happen is in general childbirth.
If two healthy parents conceive a child, and have healthy living conditions from then until the child is born, that tells you nothing about the mental abilities the child will be born with.
If you compare several babies who were born this way, there’s no scientifically verifiable reason to believe that the differences in mental abilities between two babies of different races would be greater than the differences in mental abilities between two babies of the same race.
We’re all members of the same species.
We’re all human beings.
Africa contains 90% of the human gene pool.
A woman of any race can have a healthy baby with a man of any race.
Genes don’t segregate each other by race.
We’re born with various skin colors, we’re born with color vision, and we’re born naturally xenophobic.
But provided that racism doesn’t damage our parents’ genes or affect us in our prenatal environments, all the effects racism have on our lives happen after we’re born.
That means we can look at which things lead children to develop racist attitudes and which things lead them to develop non-racist attitudes, and then we can make as much of the non-racism stuff happen as possible.
(It is important to recognize how racism can affect parents’ genes and children’s’ prenatal environments, because those can affect how a person is born.
For instance, affluent women tend to have healthier diets than poor women.
Toxic waste gets dumped around poor neighborhoods a lot more than it gets dumped around affluent neighborhoods.
And a disproportionately high number of men of racial minorities serve in the military, which means a disproportionately high number of men of racial minorities are being exposed to the depleted uranium that’s used in ammunition, which causes birth defects.)
White Skin Privilege looks a lot different to me than it does to most people, for a couple of reasons.
First, as I’ve said, I’m from a multiracial family where the White people relatively soon are going to be in the minority.
Second, I grew up in the rural north, which has very few racial minorities.
Where I’m from, the people who grow up to be the farm laborers are born looking like the people who grow up to be the bank managers.
We go to the same schools and shop at the same grocery stores.
My brother started out as a farm laborer, and now he’s in business for himself growing medicinal herbs.
The way race has been used to amplify divisions among groups of people looks really stupid to me.
Basically racism is the decision that you won’t get along with your neighbors no matter what.
At the same time, because of racism some people in the U.S. have centuries of cultural development at resisting oppression, both individually and as groups.
Some people in the Occupy! Movement have a lot of practice at dealing with situations like the one we’re all in now.
* * *
A big obstacle to the discovery of a unifying philosophy is the White majority in the U.S. The whole idea behind the racialization of our economic system was to give White people the choice in which parts of life they wanted to experience and which parts they didn’t. That creates limitations in people’s perceptions of the world.
I’ve noticed that White people from most of the rest of the U.S., whether they wanted to or not, and whether they realize it or not, have a lot of absurd ideas that a lot of other people have very good reasons for not agreeing with. But those people who disagree get drowned out by the White majority. The White majority still agree among themselves that they have the right to think the way they do, and that it must be right because so many (White) people agree with them. Even if you call that the freedom to think for yourself instead of White supremacy, the rule of the more powerful, uninformed majority is still imperialism.
In the rural north White people don’t have the luxury of having an endless supply of people in worse living conditions available to suffer the consequences of the White people’s avoidable mistakes. A lot of the criticisms that racial minorities have had about White people, I’ve thought of too. Because where I’m from, I’m one of the people who do the hardest, most dangerous work for the least money.
(A lot of people have noticed how much of people’s culture is made up of proving they’re better than the next lower social group. I didn’t realize until just recently that’s why my own culture is so full of references to our being better than farm animals, with sayings like, “Were you raised in a barn?” Where I’m from, the main reason we’re told people eat with silverware is because animals don’t.)
* * *
As a rural working class White person, I would like to point out how the idea of White Skin Privilege is being used against working class White people.
The idea of White Skin Privilege is on the right track as the recognition of a way that people develop different perspectives on life.
But how people treat you because of your racial group is only one of many factors.
The critical factor is the life expectancy of the people in your group.
Groups that have lower average life spans live in more dangerous conditions, by definition.
People treating you one way or another because of your racial group is one of many reasons for that.
But from what I’ve seen the idea of White Skin Privilege is used mostly by middle class White people to lump all White people into the same category as themselves.
The real division is what I call the Middle Class Low Death Rate Privilege and the Working Class High Death Rate Adaptation.
Those are two points on a spectrum.
This is not an either/or distinction like the idea of White Skin Privilege.
Whatever the death rate is for your group of people, people with a lower death rate seem superficial and have a lot of absurd ideas, and people with a higher death rate are cruder people but have some sort of admirable inner strength.
Look at animals in the wild and you see the same thing.
When a species has a low death rate its diversity flourishes but a lot of those variations won’t survive when times get harder.
When the death rates increase, a lot of the variety gets wiped out but the animals who survive are the toughest at surviving in those conditions.
The only difference between class relations and animals in the wild here is that the differences between classes are caused by the evolution of ideas instead of genes.
The study of the evolution of ideas is called memetic evolution, and it’s a new branch of psychology where a lot of valuable discoveries are being made.
Now a lot of people refer to pictures on the internet as memes, by which they mean they’re ideas they’re trying to spread.
This is where the word meme came from.
Some people in the Occupy! Movement have pointed out that a political movement against oppression that’s made up of a disproportionately large amount of White people obviously is doing something wrong, because not many people who have lifetimes of practice at resisting oppression are bothering to join it, and therefore, their ideas aren’t being put to use in the struggle.
(Just in case I need to point this out, the death rate comparison doesn’t apply to differences between men and women who otherwise belong to the same social group.
Between one complete community of men, women, and children compared to another, oppression = harder living conditions = shorter average lifespan.
Which means shorter average lifespan = harder living conditions = opportunity for oppression.
Between men and women of the same social group, women always have longer average life spans than men because women are generally better than men at staying alive.
So the oppression of women within a social group doesn’t show up in their death rates.)
* * *
The whole idea behind the racialization of the economic system in the U.S. was to reserve the managerial class for White people.
Today we still have that basic division, but it isn’t determined by race directly anymore.
Now it’s determined by educational levels, which are affected by economic levels, which are affected by race.
Nobody goes to college to learn how to be a farm laborer.
If you’re White you might not have noticed this, but take a moment to think how this looks to other people.
Listen to how college educated White people talk; especially people whose families have generations of college educations and white-collar jobs.
Compare that to how people who aren’t college educated, aren’t White, or both, talk.
The people from cultures that have developed for centuries around the opportunity of getting a managerial job if they can prove they’re intelligent spend a lot of time talking about their unique ideas, or talking about other people’s ideas that only a few people support.
You belong to a group of people who live in a situation where you have to prove you’re smart so you can get a managerial job, so you can get the most wealth and decision making power, and also the most recognition of success from other people in that situation.
As a member of the managerial class, facing life-threatening danger is not part of an ordinary day.
Or to put it another way, people in harder living conditions than yours have shorter average life spans because we have more ways to die.
That means you don’t associate serious danger with your ideas not working.
That means in your ongoing cultural struggle to prove who’s smarter than who, you can afford to take bigger chances on thinking of different ideas.
That means your goal is to think of unique ideas, not to think of ideas that you, personally, can stake your life on applying.
The managerial class doesn’t gamble with their own lives; they gamble with other people’s lives.
* * *
For a specific example, I’m from a farming town.
I meet a lot of activists who obviously aren’t from farming towns, who insist that there’s more to life than food production and drinking water.
There’s art and music and emotions.
Food production isn’t all there is to life, but if you don’t get any food to eat for a year you’ll die and then you won’t feel any emotions anymore.
Whether you call it Christianity or New-Ageism, conservativism or liberalism, 99% or 1%, a bunch of White people sitting around talking about their unique ideas that they can never figure out how to act upon still looks like a bunch of people who expect someone else to do all the hard work.
I don’t mean to put anyone down here.
But that’s how a lot of people interpret it when people who previously have had lower positions in society start talking about themselves as if they’re equal people and they don’t deserve to suffer the consequences of mistakes the people of the dominant group could’ve avoided making if only they’d thought a little harder about what they were doing.
Activists from the suburbs have made a lot of valuable insights about the psychological oppression of the advertising industry that I wouldn’t’ve thought of.
But getting enough food and water to stay alive is still a prerequisite to feeling positive emotions.
This isn’t Disney Land.
This isn’t Saturday morning cartoons.
This isn’t shopping at the mall.
This is political struggle for the fate of the world against the most powerful people on Earth.
If we treat this like a hobby we aren’t going to win, because the 1% don’t consider this a hobby.
* * *
The other side of that is that people from high death rate cultures often don’t think about new ideas because so much of their safety depends on the support of their immediate communities.
A lot of racist, sexist, ethnocentric, homophobic, and every other type of prejudiced attitudes are the result of people not daring to undermine the trust of their prejudiced neighbors.
If you work on a fishing boat in the north Atlantic, you don’t want anyone in your crew to hold grudges against you, and they don’t want you holding grudges against them.
If you can’t see the point of view of some other group of people because theirs is too far outside your own point of view, or you can’t afford to go far enough outside the safety of the shared point of view of your neighbors to try to see the point of view of some other group of people, you can feel like you have unsolvable conflicts with the other people.
Once you feel that you have unsolvable conflicts with someone else, the simplest solution is to hate them.
If you feel that you’re in a permanent state of conflict with someone else, the only solutions you have are to ignore them, eliminate them, help someone else eliminate them, or not intervene when someone else tries to eliminate them.
Hating the people is how you make yourself feel like they deserve those things.
How many people throughout history have volunteered for a war against some group they thought they had unsolvable conflicts with, only to get to know the people after they’d invaded their country, and realized then that their conflicts hadn’t been unsolvable after all?
* * *
There are six basic ways I’ve seen of talking about differences between groups of people.
The first is to believe the dominant group is always right about everything and everyone else just isn’t smart enough to see that.
The backlash against that is to believe the other people have magical powers the stupid dominant people just don’t understand.
The backlash against that is to feel sorry for the poor misguided dominant people who just don’t know any better.
The backlash against that is to ignore groups altogether and talk to each other as individuals. That’s the stage most people I’ve met in the Occupy! Movement seem to be on.
That would be good enough if our goal was to hang out in a park and congratulate ourselves on being so diverse.
But that’s not our goal.
The 1% are trying to win.
Whatever that means, if they do win it will be bad for us.
If we are going to win, we need to figure out how to use our diversity to our advantage.
Throughout these four stages, people have felt different ways about different groups.
They’ve used different tones of voice for talking about people to try to get other people to feel the same way about the different groups.
They do that to get people to treat people of other groups in whatever way they themselves feel that group should be treated.
But we have other choices.
* * *
The fifth stage is to leave ideas about good and evil, superior and inferior so far behind that you forget them altogether.
If I can see that a person is Black, I can conclude from that the person has some ideas about the Civil Rights Movement that I hadn’t thought of.
So why can’t we all just admit it and say what we think?
A lot of people in minority situations try to talk without offending people in the majority.
Everyone feels themselves to be important.
People in majority situations also have a lot of political power on their side.
They can use that to force other people to recognize them as important.
People in majorities have ideas, and people in majorities can force other people to recognize them as important.
But a lot of people in majority groups misinterpret that and equate having their particular ideas with those ideas resulting in their importance.
Then when someone says something that undermines their important-seeming ideas, they feel threatened by it.
Then they start arguing against facts just to try to maintain the importance of their own ideas.
For instance, I’ve been in conversations with people who say things like, “Rich people invented banking,” as if that proves rich people are the smartest and deserve to rule the world.
To which I reply, “Yeah, but poor people invented rock ‘n’ roll.”
I’m not here to talk about why one group of people is better than another, I’m here to talk about why one group of human beings thought of one set of ideas and another group of human beings thought of a different set of ideas.
Then the other person says, “Yeah well rich people could’ve invented rock ‘n’ roll.”
To which I say, “Yeah, but poor people did invent rock ‘n’ roll.”
There’s more to life than having good intentions.
You also have to produce results.
Are we all supposed to sit around feeling sorry for rich people?
Are we supposed to pretend nobody invented rock ‘n’ roll just because rich people can’t take the credit for it?
If you want to invent a musical genre, you have to work for it!
In other words, we’re all important.
We just have to agree on that.
We all have to agree that we aren’t trying to put each other down when we talk about why some people have had ideas that other people didn’t think of.
* * *
The sixth stage is to admire everyone.
Everyone who is alive today knows something important about life because they’ve figured out how to stay alive this long.
Everyone you meet knows some things you don’t, because we’ve all led different lives.
But people who are still caught up in ideas about good and evil, superior and inferior, misunderstand this a lot.
If you assume everyone is either superior or inferior, then if you see one person admire another person, you assume they must be putting everyone else down.
But for me to admire your good qualities doesn’t require me to believe everyone else is worse than you.
We shouldn’t ignore each other’s bad characteristics, but shouldn’t focus on them either.
We make ourselves more powerful as a group by fitting our strengths together.
We make our situation turn out positively for us by focusing on positives, not on negatives.
Why should we push and pull each other down?
Why can’t we push and pull each other up?
We can talk about our belonging to different groups as our reasons for having seen different parts of life.
We have all developed the perspective on life we have because of what we have perceived and misperceived or overlooked.
Talking about what each of us have seen is a good idea, but it can only get us so far.
One reason the people of another group think differently from you is because they’ve seen things you haven’t.
But another big reason is because they haven’t seen things you have.
People can’t tell you what they haven’t noticed about life because they haven’t noticed it.
By recognizing how people develop their perspectives, you can recognize how people from living conditions other than your own have developed their perspectives because they’ve overlooked or misinterpreted something you’ve seen.
And you can recognize how you’ve made mistakes too by overlooking or misinterpreting something someone else has seen.
Like I’ve said, expanding your horizons depends on recognizing the limitations of your own perceptions.
* * *
There will be dancing in the revolution.
But there will also be a lot of hard philosophical work.
We can’t solve the problems we’re trying to solve if we keep causing them ourselves.
The trick to what I call constructive listening is to recognize why someone else knows more about something than you do, and to recognize possible limitations of their understanding of their situation also.
That way you can learn from other people and also resolve disagreements constructively.
Environmental science philosophy is a great equalizer.
We’ve all seem part of the picture.
White people have had advantages in getting through the education system, so they’ve had opportunities to learn a lot of complicated things, but have also had their attention diverted from a lot of simple things.
All the Native Americans I know believe that we’re just one part of the world and people are related to all the other animals.
Everyone from an inner city knows about the law of the jungle.
Everyone from an agricultural society, like all those Mexican people who are immigrating here, has seen all the parts of the cycles of life happening on their farms.
All of those are good starting points.
We just have to stop getting bogged down disagreeing about our “unique” ideas.
We are trying to develop cohesive ideas, and everyone has a path to success at that goal.