On Being White

Three phrases being bandied about these days, sometimes interchangeably, are causing confusion for a lot of people—and a fair bit of anger.  They are: white privilege, white nationalism, and white supremacy.

The three are discrete in meaning, although they have one common element—they all deal with the assumed advantage or superiority of the white race over all others.

I was born many long years ago, the eldest of five siblings, into a traditional middle-class, Christian, white family.  My parents wanted their children to be the best they could be, as I suppose most parents do for their offspring.  Among the things they taught us in hope that might happen, were these admonitions:

  • keep your elbows off the table,
  • respect your elders,
  • dress neatly and tastefully,
  • choose your friends carefully,
  • speak politely,
  • behave in a way that will make us proud of you.

dinner

They also taught us through their example that the things we do are more important than the things we say—actions speak more loudly than words.  Others will judge us, we were taught, by our behaviours, much more than by our avowals.

Their advice was meant to govern our interactions with people of all backgrounds, socio-economic status, and ages.  Had the issue of gender-identity been current back then, I have no doubt it would have been part of the package.

My parents called my father’s Jewish employer Mr. Halbert, the Italian owner of the neighbourhood fruit market Mrs. Carradona, the Irish milkman Mr. Alcorn, the Greek knife-sharpener with his clanging bell Mr. Kostopoulos—no one was to be treated disdainfully or condescendingly, regardless of their relationship to us.

It certainly never occurred to me back then that all these people were white, that virtually no one with whom we came in contact was a person of colour.

But the world changed as I grew up.  Canada, always a country of immigrants, mostly from white northern-European countries, opened its arms to newcomers from other parts of the world, heretofore largely ignored.  And, as these visible-minority folk and their descendants began to make their way in their adopted homeland, they ran up against the concept of white privilege.  Doors that had always opened for people such as I were barred to them.

Canada Canadian Diverse Unity Togetherness Concept

In 1989, Peggy McIntosh—an American feminist,  anti-racism activist, scholar, speaker, and Senior Research Scientist of the Wellesley Centers for Women—published an article entitled, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, which clearly sets out how being white in North America confers an unearned set of entitlements, benefits, and choices upon people solely because they are white.

White privilege explains power structures inherent in our society that benefit white people disproportionately, while putting people of colour at a disadvantage.  For most of my professional career, the biggest impediment to my advancement was not skin-colour, but that was the case for many others.  Equal-opportunity measures did affect me along the way as my employer sought to redress the imbalance in the leadership ranks, but even I, forced to wait, could see the need for those.

On balance, I have benefited from white privilege.  But I hope to live long enough to see privilege and opportunity available equally to any who may earn it, regardless of their skin-colour.  It is when our society actively seeks to maintain that white privilege that it creeps toward white nationalism.

White nationalists believe white identity should be the organizing principle of Western civilization. They advocate for policies to reverse the changing demographics wrought by immigration, which they believe (probably correctly) will eventually result in the loss of an absolute, white majority.  The tide is already turning here.  Ending non-white immigration, both legal and illegal, is seen as essential to preserve white, racial hegemony.

It seems to me they will be as successful as was King Canute in his effort to hold back the tide.  They are on the wrong side of history.

canute

White supremacists take the whole thing several steps further.  Merriam-Webster defines white supremacy as the belief that the white race is inherently superior to other races, and that white people should have control over people of other races.

That control has, indeed, been the case during several periods in the past—not just in North America, but in Africa, Asia, and Australia, where indigenous peoples have been ruthlessly enslaved and slaughtered.  And it’s true, the white race in all its nationalistic fervour was both politically and militarily superior during those periods.  But morally superior?  I think not.

Has white supremacy any chance of succeeding today, anywhere in the world, given the perverted efforts of its adherents?  It seems unlikely to me, although the terrorist acts they commit do wreak fear and havoc.

No dominant group in all of history, regardless of its skin-colour, has ever gone quietly into decline—not the Mongols, not the Nubians, not the Peloponnesians, not the Persians, not the Romans—though all were supreme in their time.  They all fought stoutly against an inevitable reversal of fortune, only to lose—as did the white colonialist powers, as will the white supremacists.  Theirs is a faulty premise.

As we contemplate the state of our planet today—beset by threats of climate change, nuclear war, trade disputes, wealth-disparity, homelessness, famine—it must be obvious to even the dullest or most perverse among us that we have nowhere else to go.  We are all together, adrift in the universe on this fragile vessel we call Earth, no matter the colour of our skin.

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It is past time to set aside the notions of white privilege, white nationalism, and white supremacy, to stop enabling them, to abjure them forever.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.

Things Happen

Things happen.

We don’t always know about them, of course—not right when they occur, and sometimes not ever.

Trees topple loudly in the forest all the time when no one is present, waves smash spectacularly on solitary shorelines, birds plummet exhausted from the sky to die on uninhabited barrens.  And nobody is there to bear witness.

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It has ever been that way, from the first appearance of our human species until the present day.  Things happen, even when we do not know.

But that truth has become increasingly hard for many folk to accept.  In this age in which we live—one of marvellous, instantly-accessible, graphic, digital reality—it has become easy instead to believe that, unless we are told something happened, or see it on our screens, or experience it first-hand, it did not occur.

If it’s not up and viral on the web, if we aren’t personally in the loop, it cannot have happened.

How foolish we have become!

devices

And there is another problem.  Much of the information we avidly soak up from our handheld devices is misleading—sometimes inadvertently, sometimes deliberately so.  Too many users, alas, are ill-equipped to assimilate the plethora of information assailing us, to differentiate, to assess, to form coherent conclusions about it all.

Today, many of us assume if it is up and viral on the web, bringing us personally into the loop, it must certainly have happened.

So, what is real and what is fake?  Hemingway wrote, …there is no one thing that’s true.  It’s all true.  And, in many ways, his observation has proven accurate—at least in the sense that it’s all there in front of us, waiting for us to choose from it.

There is a problem with that, though—one associated with our all-too-human tendency to embrace those opinions we are already in agreement with, and to reject those to which we have a preconceived aversion.

Don’t bother me with facts! we seem to say.

Unfortunately, even so-called facts can be fabricated by malevolent purveyors of misinformation, leaving us even more confused and more susceptible to manipulation.  That may not be overly-problematic if we’re being influenced to buy one brand of toilet tissue over another, for example; as an aside, a friend once told me, “On the (w)hole, they’re all pretty good!”

But it might be calamitous if we are being callously misled about the relative merits of one political leader over another.

Political_Banner

Which of these two imaginary politicos would be more palatable to the average voters, do you suppose?  The one who tells them exactly what they want to hear, who panders to their fears and prejudices, even if (s)he has no intention of fulfilling the empty promises?  Or the one who dares speak about the looming climate crisis, for instance, despite knowing the warnings might fall on deaf ears among the electorate?

Which of the two would be more favoured to win, the one who croons the siren-song of making things better—the way they used to be—or the one who tells of the hard slog ahead to deal with climate change, the existential crisis of our time?

The answer, I suspect, is the person who most-closely approximates the baked-in attitudes and ideas of us who are the voters.  Or the majority of us, anyway.  The relative merits of the candidates’ positions come secondary to that.

Facts no longer seem to matter because, while they used to be considered unassailable, almost sacrosanct, they are today viewed as permeable and malleable.  Where they used to be built on a rock foundation, they stand today on shifting sand.

Facts are, in this worldwide web of deceit and falsity, whatever any shill or charlatan wants us to believe they are.

But in a way, none of this matters for the planet.  Not really.  For, in spite of what we are told about this critical issue of our time—whether it’s the truth or a lie, whether we heed or ignore it—there is one fundamental reality that does not change.

Things happen.  Whether we choose to know about them or not.

Glaciers shrink and shed meltwater all the time when no one is present, permafrost thaws in the isolated, wind-swept tundra, animals disappear from our planetary menagerie, never to be seen again.  And too many of us choose to look away, refuse to listen to those who are compelled to bear witness.

The planet will go on, regardless.  But what of us, wrapped in our imperious cloak of superiority?  Will humankind survive?

Things happen.

reaper

Do Better

Only the seriously stupid or wilfully resistant among us can deny that this planet Earth, our interstellar home, is changing.  Even if one were to disregard or dispute the vast array of credible evidence of global warming and environmental degradation we are presented with on an almost daily basis, it would be hard to challenge the notion that, over time, since its very beginning, the planet has evolved from its original state.

Across billions of years—4500 million of them is the best estimate—this third rock from the sun has passed through numerous iterations: the largest of these are defined by science as the Hadean, Proterozoic, and Phanerozoic eons, each of which is further subdivided into eras, periods, epochs, and ages.  During the first of these, the hot rock we now call home cooled to the point that water began to form on the surface, enabling the creation of the earliest life forms.

earth

According to the fossil record so far unearthed, human life first appeared during the mid-Pleistocene Epoch, five to seven million years ago, following an environmental cataclysm that destroyed about 75% of all plant and animal species then existing.  This demonstrates that for 99.5% of the planet’s existence, humankind did not exist, mainly because the conditions necessary for our survival and propagation were not present—evidence that, over four billion years, the planet evolved from its original state to a stage that supported human existence.

Why, then, should anyone today suppose that the earth has somehow ceased its evolutionary journey?  It is ridiculous to think that it has somehow morphed into stasis, an unchanging organism destined to remain for always as we would like it to be.

Of course it is evolving!  Of course the climate is changing!  As it always has.

During the relatively short period of time human life has existed, the planet has experienced as many as six ice ages, the last of which was about twelve thousand years ago, and four periods of temperature variation warmer than today’s, the last of which was approximately 160,000 years ago.  It is worth noting that the temperature variation of the planet today is creeping ever closer to that of the last warm period.

icemaps

Had we been alive at the end that last ice age, we would have witnessed the retreat of continental-shelf glaciers from what is now Canada and the northern USA as the ice melted during a warming period—just as we see happening in the Antarctic and Arctic regions today.  The waters are rising.

Really, the question is not whether the earth is changing, or whether we are truly plunged into a period of global warming.  Only the seriously stupid could doubt that.  The question is: has this change been exacerbated by the great spewing of carbon-based emissions we have caused?  The question is: are we, as self-preoccupied residents of the planet, ensconced in our oft-warring, sovereign nations, able to sacrifice our creature comforts in order to slow down the rate of warming?  The question is: are we even willing to do that?

And the critical question is: even if we do decide, globally, to take meaningful action now, not thirty years on, is it already too late?

The humans who walked the planet during the last warm period were not like us today.  Humankind has changed mightily since then.  It is likely that, if our species is to survive the earth’s latest evolutionary cycle, however long that may last, those remaining will be far different creatures than we are today—perhaps as unrecognizable to us (if we could still be here to see them) as our distant homo erectus progenitors would be (if we had been around to see them).

When I read of the potential devastation to the populations of the planet by the end of this twenty-first century—made worse by our wilful ignoring of humankind’s destructive aggravation of the evolutionary changes naturally occurring—it is of some comfort to me that I shall not be here to suffer through it.

warming

But I wish we could do better.