I have been thinking about an upcoming event co-hosted by the PCRJ, one of the many important community-building efforts spearheaded by WWHAT’S UP?! in Pittsburgh.
It is a meeting in the summer series “Confronting Racism in Conversation— Practice Salon.” These conversation salons are a brilliant way for folks to get down to some of the more subtle aspects of why it is hard to even start a conversation about crucial issues concerning race in America.
The topic on July 14 will be “Patriotism and White Supremacy.” The title and the intended critical analysis of discourses of patriotism– especially as they contribute to anti-Islamic/anti-Arab attitudes in the U.S.— highlight for me how our sociopolitical positionality changes the nature of “free speech.” In my classes for undergraduates, when brainstorming the implications of free speech (an important aspect of the American ideal that we might all be thinking about around Independence Day), I often point out that there is no absolute freedom of speech. I use the example of yelling “Fire” in a crowded theater (when one knows there is no fire) as language that is not protected, but more current situations with which many will be familiar are when people have been arrested and banned from airports because they joked about terrorism.
Obviously, we cannot say whatever we want whenever we want in legal terms, but there are also many and often more subtle ways in which we censor what we say— and, in terms of patriotism and “Independence Day,” race does matter. For instance, as a person of color, I would not sponsor an event with the phrase “white supremacy” in the title because I would fear alienating white participants too much. That WHHAT’S UP can effectively use such a title is because, in addition to hosting conversation salons for multi-racial groups, their primary focus is on white-identified people
studying anti-racism and participating in corresponding actions to challenge white supremacy. WWHAT’S UP’s goals are to educate ourselves and support other white people in challenging white supremacy and to actively create a world that is free of destructive white privilege. WWHAT’S UP believes racism hurts everyone and that unlearning racism is liberating for all.
As part of the racial “majority” (not for long, predicts the census!), white-identified Americans today can and should talk about white supremacy, because it is those who most partake of the alleged ‘privileges’ of it who have the greatest likelihood of dismantling contemporary racism.
Unfortunately, in my experience, it is unusual for whites in America to attack white supremacy; there are no doubt diverse reasons, including the invisibility of one’s own privilege, historical ways in which different races have been pitted against each other in labor markets, class inequalities among whites that make many feel very far from ‘supreme’… or, some whites because they actually ARE convinced of the superiority of whites. Case in point: of many sources reporting on the census predictions, the link above is to The Washington Times, which is seen as a politically conservative newspaper. In the comments section, online readers of this article displayed a markedly different response than me to the news that, by 2043, whites will no longer be the majority in the country. For many of them, this is a doomsday warning.
Perhaps there are other ways in which these comments are worth considering, but many of the distressed responses about the shift in majority race are based on a set of faulty assumptions that we must collectively work to dispel. These may seem obvious to some, but we must repeat them and disseminate all the evidence we can to overcome these myths about race and racism:
1) People of color are NOT all lazy con artists milking the system to the detriment of white Americans. Conversely, being white does not connote a shared identity EXCEPT in opposition to other “races” in the U.S. European/Anglo Americans have long differentiated amongst themselves. So, “hardworking whites” (“the real Americans”) is an artificial, constructed category from which we should not draw too many generalizations. Let us not forget that the actual “natives” were wiped out and the alleged Founding Fathers were themselves imports.
2) Immigration (and, tragically, the African slave trade as well as imperialism abroad) economically empowered the U.S., rather than depleting resources from the majority. Studies have shown that immigrants add more to the economy than they subtract.
3) Many, many (if not most) of the things that make America unique and exceptional are contributions from people who were NOT white: this late in the day, there is no easy untangling of the dynamic influences contributing to politics, music, cuisine, language, and so forth. Instead of bemoaning some pure “white” culture that never existed, it is more useful to think about what is happening on the ground.
As WWHAT’S UP points out, white supremacy is destructive for all of us— and it is a worldview based on a set of flimsy excuses for superiority that do not stand up to the tests of history, economic analysis, nor most peoples lived experiences.
Writer: anupama jain