Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The Cultural Pandemic

Cultures are dynamic living systems that feed on story. Cultures can change; they can be nurtured or inhibited, encouraged to grow or starved to death.  If we are to change our culture in any significant way, we must attend to it as we would any living entity and address the stories that feed it. That is not to suggest that we can manufacture through legislation the official stories of our culture. Organic processes are not mechanical in that way. But listen: the culture is responding to new stimulus, new growth. When an organism is in trouble, its natural healing response activates. [The burgeoning of personal storytelling is an example of culture growing and responding to needed change.] This time of  protests and the stories that accompany them, may also be a sign of cultural growth and immune response. 

A year out of college, I took a job for which I was grossly unqualified. I had a degree but lacked the education I needed. Why was I hired? Was it that the other, qualified, candidates were female? Or that a friend in the company had recommended me? I had great confidence in myself. 'I can learn this,' I thought. I did learn. Ultimately the company went through a regime change and in the interim I was promoted to boss in true Peter Principle fashion. What I learned was that I should never have been there in the first place.
Somehow, though, I always managed to land on my feet. I acquired a deep and abiding faith that things will always work out. I often felt my mercurial career was some kind of magical journey, a Homeric Odyssey, wherein I am always in the hands of a mysterious, benevolent, force.
Now I know it isn't all magic, and not so mysterious. Whatever good fortune I have enjoyed must now be suspect, as the "invisible hand" that moves through it all, is white. A corollary to the silver spoon, the white hand opens doors, calms rough seas, rescues, uplifts, empowers, and emboldens.

Country Club
It hasn't all been easy-going. I've experienced abuse and exploitation in my career; (1) I've had an officer of the law draw his gun on me during a traffic stop; I've spent time in jail for unpaid parking tickets! But whatever the trouble, it was ameliorated by my membership in an exclusive club: the Great White American Country Club (GWACC) into which I was born. A club, as it happens, that was invented to divide the lower and servile masses into factions of "race."

"According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first appearance in print of the adjective white in reference to “a white man, a person of a race distinguished by a light complexion” was in 1671. Colonial charters and other official documents written in the 1600s and early 1700s rarely refer to European colonists as white." [https://www.facinghistory.org/holocaust-and-human-behavior/chapter-2/inventing-black-and-white ]

Race is a social construct after all, hence "whiteness" is as contrived as "blackness." The GWACC co-opted a large segment of the population while conveniently disenfranchising a newly identified group of "color."  Being designated as "white," compounded for men their ages-old prerogatives of gender. "White" women, though still second-class citizens, became club members too, albeit at the bronze rather than silver levels.
The American racial narrative became so atomized as to be atmospheric.(2)  As a result, I am inheritor of ill-gotten gains; a ledger of dividends centuries long and written in blood. I inhabit an invisible  kingdom made of amnesia and reconstructed stories maintained by a power structure that lacks legitimacy. Whiteness is what Kurt Vonnegut would call a granfalloon, a meaningless group identity as vapid and spurious as Star-bellied Sneetches.

In a recent interview with Krista Tippett (On Being, June 4, 2020) therapist, Resmaa Menakem, discusses the millennia of trauma carried in Western Civilization and the invention of "white" as a legal term. 

Menakem: … right after the Bacon Rebellion is the first time you start to see in-law “white” persons; not landowners, not merchants, “white” persons *…
Tippett: That language.
Menakem: … at that moment, the white body became the standard of humanity — not merchants, not landowners — the white body, because at that moment, the white body had dominion over, and everything else was a deviant from that.
And then a couple years later is when you start to see white persons show up in Virginia law. By the time they offered that to poor white people, they said, “Ey, you want to be white?” After all of that brutality, white people said, “You mean, all I gotta do is be white, and my babies may not have to go through that? Yeah, I’ll take that. Let’s take that.” And that’s what sewed it in. So now they saw their allegiance more with white landowners than the enslaved Africans that they were rebelling with.
Tippett: You’re also saying that it was actually a way of co-opting poor white people into their further traumatization.
Menakem: That’s exactly right. That’s why what you see now is like the flower of the seed of that. That’s what you’re seeing right now.
As far as I know, my ancestors were indigenous to the Rhine valley and the mountains of eastern Bohemia. In the Middle Ages they survived the bloody Northern Crusades by converting to Christianity. I do not know for certain, but it seems entirely likely that they played part in a violent, generations-long game of 'pass on, no pass back' by transferring that trauma to the indigenous peoples they displaced when, in the 19th century, they emigrated to the western United States.
My father and his peers returned from the World War with their eyes brutally opened to horrors they had thought impossible in Western Civilization. They were determined that their children would not know such horrors and that the specter of fascism would never rise again. So they raised precocious children in a protective bubble of ignorance and distraction. They showered us with opportunities they never had: toys and food in abundance, higher and higher education, and the confidence to succeed. I sincerely believe they wanted us to be citizens of a renewed yet innocent society.  
Some of us, that is.

Walt Disney opened "the happiest place on earth" a month before I was born in 1955. Disneyland embodied a vision of childhood and optimism. Yet for all the racial inequities of the era, at it's core was a deep utopian dream of human happiness. A dream that has slumbered in Western Civilization for thousands of years. For the mythic memory of a Golden Age is ubiquitous, and the loss of that Golden Age was the trauma that birthed "civilization." Western Civilization is predicated on trauma, operating on cycles of abuse and alienation, addicted to consumption and dependent on the oppressive vilification of The Other.

But passing on trauma never gets rid of the problem. Those who respond to the idea that Black Lives Matter by countering that All Lives Matter are missing the point. For members of the GWACC, the message that Black Lives Matter should be heard as a call to stop passing on our trauma to others, to own our actions, our history, and our culpability. That Black Lives Matter does not mean that black lives are more important, but that white lives are no better. It is increasingly apparent that the humans designated as "white" must confront and attend to their own deep-seated history of abuse and abusing. BLM is showing us that if we are ever to heal, White America must first do no more harm.
Can we move away from the false narrative of race and color and shift our discourse in meaningful ways? Resmaa Menakem again:

Menakem: Well, I don’t say bodies of “color” anymore, because what I’m trying to do is, I’m trying to reclaim the idea that I’m actually a human.
Tippett: So you’re saying that you’re formed by the culture —
Menakem: Bodies of culture. That’s right.
If we are not to abandon our received identities as "white" persons, might we re-frame that identity? What if we are to respond as the "white blood cells" of our culture, and gather around the pathogens to eliminate them from our system? This is a pandemic after all.

1. The Price of Admission

2. Color Town


  1. I admire what you have done here. I like the part where you say you are doing this to give back but I would assume by all the comments that this is working for you as well. Need to hire good staff, send me a mail

    1. What part of this post are you referring to when you write ”you says you are doing this to give back,” and what comments?