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Racism is a Matter of Whiteness

In recent years, I’ve thought about race and racial discrimination in our world. I’ve written about racism in the American criminal justice system and how it continues the legacy of slavery; how movies vilify characters of color; the indifference towards refugees of color and growing Islamophobia within Europe and the United States; and hostility of white society towards racial justices movements like the Black Panthers and Black Lives Matter. By reflecting on the consequences of racism, I have been able to turn the corner racism and see how my white identity is central to the problem and solution.

White people need to realize that racism is a White issue. We–white European people–live in a world of racial ignorance. I lived in a world of racial ignorance growing up.

As the political theorist, Barnor Hesse, explains, the idea of race is fundamentally about the creation of a division between Europeans and non-Europeans, both internally, beginning with the Spanish expulsion or forced conversion of Jews and Muslims, and externally within systems of colonial rule, and of course in the transatlantic slave trade across the Americas.

Take the example of the StoryCorps film Traffic Stop. In this short film, Patsy, a white mother, tells Alex, her black adopted son–who is two years younger than me–that “skin color really didn’t matter.” Like Patsy, my family, which lived in a small, almost exclusively white Canadian town, “never talked about race.” The naïvety of white people about race and racism isn’t unusual. It’s built into our society.

White people never see racism. We never feel it. This is one of the many privileges of being white. This is whiteness and it’s a problem.

The differentiation of results seen in Traffic Stop is but one example of how people of color are treated differently in society. It speaks to how schools and workplaces treat people of color differently. How they are talked (down) to, how they are shown (and not shown) in TV and magazines and how they are told to see themselves. All of these daily instances add up to a societal structure of racism that people of color are not allowed to leave and are told to be thankful for.

So, what would happen if this world was reversed? What would happen if white people were forced, even if is was for a few hours, to experience a society that treated them differently because of how they looked? Would you be happy to receive the same treatment as a person of color in society?

This is exactly what educator Jane Elliot has done with her Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes exercise, which substitutes eye color–a non-controversial part of the human body–for skin colour. Skin and eye color are both dictated by melanin, our biological pigment determined at birth. We don’t have any control over either, yet we continue to use one as a means of discrimination.

This ingenious exercise was first implemented inside Jane’s all-white classroom, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Although it’s impossible to experience the effect of racism (particularly white supremacy) as a white person in a room full of white people, Jane was able to have her all-white students experience either superiority or inferiority based solely on which eye color group they were placed in.

The cruelty of the “superior” group and the under-performance of the “inferior” group were felt nearly instantaneous. Although the “superior” and “inferior” groups were chosen randomly and shouldn’t change academic results, the internalization of each group led to real-world results. This exercise proved that racism is a learned behavior based on arbitrary characteristics. It also means that it can be unlearned.

Although I never participated in a Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes exercise, watching videos of Jane facilitating these workshops has had a lasting effect on me and changed my perception of society.

I can now admit that I’m a racist. Not a racist by choice, but a racist made by society.

Like her students, I was raised in a country–Canada–that puts white people in positions of power; just look at all those faces of Prime Ministers that are the same as mine. I was raised in a country, whose land was colonized by Europeans from its aboriginal inhabitants. I was told about the seemingly infinite accomplishments of white European and settler societies, while never hearing about the accomplishments of minorities. This racial ignorance about the lives (and worth) of people of color continue today, all around the world.

It exists for white university students; some of whom may feel attacked if labeled a racist and have the freedom to walk out:

It exists in Britain, the home of white Empire:

Whiteness and racial ignorance exists everywhere that white people are made and told that they are superior than other people of color. We–white people–need to first accept the racism that has been ingrained in us and then second work to change the systems around us.

Classrooms need to change so that kids stop seeing

We–white people–need to start in childhood education to overcome the stigma that white as good and black/brown as bad. We need to see the injustice in our criminal justice and immigration systems. We need to see how media perpetuates white supremacy and negative portrayals of people of color. We need to question why businesses and universities cater largely to white people. We need to find the truth in our history and seek reconciliation with those who have been harmed. We–white people–need to do a lot more.

This forces one to ask: Should you feel guilty about being white?

No. As Jane Elliot says, “I didn’t choose it. I can’t lose it.”

I was born white. I didn’t choose it. I can’t change that fact. But I can change how I act.

So: Should you do something about racism and whiteness?

Yes, I think every white person should.

Once you admit to yourself that society is based on a foundation of white supremacy, you need to recognize which group your actions benefit.

On one extreme of whiteness, there is a small group of white people fighting for racial injustice, spreading messages of hate. This include neo-Nazis, the alt-Right, Ku Klux Klan members, people who support travel bans on a certain color of people, and anyone else who vocally identifies as a white supremacist. These are the active, proud racists who are fighting to keep whiteness alive.

Now, if travel to the other end, you have another small group of white people. This group, however, fights for racial justice and against white supremacy. They were white people in the civil rights era, who took the Freedom Ride and protested segregated lunch counters. They are people who stand with BLM and kick the door open to discuss modern racism. These are anti-racists.

Who’s left?

Like a magnet, whiteness has two active parts, described above, and a larger neutral part, where all the other white people sit. These are teachers, doctors, politicians, artists, plumbers and business owners who neither join hate groups nor join racial justice protests. These are the people who say things like “I don’t see race” or think they aren’t racist because they “have a black friend.” (Both of which are deeply racist.) What average white people need to recognize (and I hope Jane Elliott’s work points out) is that we–white people–are all racist. You don’t need to feel bad about your white identity, but you also can’t be neutral about your place in society. As Howard Zinn said, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”

That moving train is our racist society. We are conditioned from birth, through our actions and behaviors, to be racist and we benefit from it everyday. It’s time you recognize your privilege and work to better this world. If you do nothing, you are unfortunately playing into the hand of the vocal, proud racists who would like to see you move silently through life and not stand in solidarity with people of color.

If you start to admit that racism is a problem, then you can move into other spheres of identity, biology and power. Seeing how how society turns us into racists allow one to recognize other forms of discrimination you may hold, including:

  • Sexism.
  • Homophobia.
  • Ableism.
  • Xenophobia.

These are just some of the ways that identity and biology are used by people in power, who often are straight white able-bodied men. Ignorance of how discrimination originated and why is lingers is the greatest tool they have to divide and rule. Politicians, media personality, business leaders, and others then use fear as a tool to support their stature and harm to minority groups.

When ignorance combines with fear, the result is hate. An example of this took place last year, when Sikh politician Jagmeet Singh was confronted by a white woman who feared that he was going to implement Sharia law, a Muslim tradition that isn’t part of his faith. Her ignorance of Jagmeet’s beliefs and her fear of Muslims lead to hate speech towards him and other people of color. This incident isn’t unique even if it was broadcasted widely in the news. People across Canada, the United States, Australia, Europe and other white communities hold racist beliefs either consciously or unconsciously. They sometimes express their ignorance about the lives of people or their hatred for the other. It is up to all white people to speak up against racism and to act to stop it.

As a straight white, able-bodied man, I can admit that I was completely ignorant about most inequality that exists in the world. The single greatest cause was a lack of exposure. I grew up in a patriarchy community (small rural town) without discussion of inequality of injustice. I didn’t have conversations with people of color. We didn’t talk about differences.

So, when I later discovered books on the subject, I felt awakened. Knowledge is the cure to ignorance and something all privileged people should excitedly rush towards. White people should learn about race. We should explore differences in sexuality and genders. Europeans should learn about cultures from around the world. We should learn about all religions and believes in the world. We shouldn’t be afraid of what we find or learn.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

A recent book I found quite helpful in explain these topics is Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. This books documents, in great details, the history and current manifestation of racism in white societies, like the United States and United Kingdom. Reni discuss her childhood story and the unique challenges of being a young girl of color in societies ruled by white men and women. Her own childhood showed her that:

“White children are taught not to ‘see’ race, whereas children of colour are taught–often with no explanation–that we must work twice as hard as our white counterparts if we wish to succeed.”

When we understand the unique intersections of identity, we can also look at the unique challenges some men face. As Reni notes:

“Men inhabit different spaces. Some face racism. Some face homophobia.”

But maybe, the most important thing we can learn is the role of white people and the need for us to no longer be neutral. As Reni summarizes, it’s time for white people to examine whiteness and their contributions to a racist society. It’s time to stop telling people of color to solve this problem and begin listening to them so that we may be part of the solution:

“The perverse thing about our current racial structure is that it has always fallen on the shoulders of those at the bottom to change it. Yet racism is a white problem. It reveals the anxieties, hypocrisies and double standards of whiteness. It is a problem in the psyche of whiteness that white people must take responsibility to solve. You can only do so much from the outside.”

What I hope changes is that the majority of white people come to terms with whiteness and the racism they grew up in and perpetuate everyday. I hope white people will become less reactionary when told about racism or labeled racist for their words and actions.

The fight for racial justice has been long and hard-fought. It’s time that white people take a side: either with those who spout hate, or those who express love.

In June 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail. In it, he defends the strategy of nonviolent resistance but also criticizes white moderates and all their “goodwill”:

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.


If you’ve made it this far, I applaud you for your open mind. If you want to hear more about whiteness, I highly suggest listening to this episode of ABC’s The Minefield:

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The Seven Deadly Sins of Powerful Institutions: Films by Alex Gibney

“Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

From the unquestionable belief in Catholicism, Scientology and other religions, to the idolatry of Lance Armstrong and other sports stars, to the trust we place in government and business, we thrust a lot of power to the institutions that surround us. Identifying_The_Seven_Deady_SinsThe documentary films of Alex Gibney examine these institutions and how they become corrupted.

Gibney’s resume is filled with films that cover a broad range of topics, including those noted above. The more I thought about it, his films are excellent case studies of the power of institutions and the damage that they can cause. They also align with the Biblical notion of the seven deadly sins:

  • Lust
  • Gluttony
  • Greed
  • Sloth
  • Wrath
  • Envy
  • Pride

I felt this analogy was apt since at least two of Gibney’s films look at religion. These films inevitably cover similar areas. For example, at least five of the following films deal with money and the greed that a capitalist system can generate. However, I will stick to one sin per film for illustrative purposes. I also provide the Biblical quote for each, to illustrate the original meaning. These films are largely set in the United States or involve Americans, but they also have consequences for everyone around the world.

 

Lust

Lust is an intense desire or need:

“But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28)

casino_jack_and_the_united_states_of_money_xlgThe film Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2010) looks at the career of Washington, D.C. lobbyist, businessman, and con man Jack Abramoff, who was involved in a massive corruption scandal that led to the conviction of himself, two Bush White House officials, Rep. Bob Ney, and nine other lobbyists and congressional staffers. Abramoff was convicted of fraud, conspiracy, and tax evasion in 2006 and of trading expensive gifts, meals and sports trips in exchange for political favors.

The lust for power is commonly concentrated at the intersection of government and business. Lobbyists like Abramoff are the mechanics that make such a relationship possible.

Although corporate lobbying is found in many countries, the United States is unique due to the scale of lobbying and volume of cash changing hands for political favors. Since the 1970s, lobbying activity has grown immensely in the United States in terms of the numbers of lobbyists and the size of lobbying budgets. A study in 2014 suggested that special interest lobbying enhanced the power of elite groups and was a factor shifting the nation’s political structure toward an oligarchy in which average citizens have “little or no independent influence”. Analyst James A. Thurber estimated that the actual number of working lobbyists was close to 100,000 and that the industry brings in $9 billion annually.

With so much money available, congresspersons are often focused on lucrative lobbying careers after Congress rather than on serving the public interest while in office. To improve this system, Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor, believes that a constitutional amendment should be written to limit political contributions from non-citizens, including corporations, anonymous organizations, and foreign nationals. Any system that incentives politicians to work for donations rather than their constituent’s needs is broken.

 

Gluttony

Gluttony, simply, is excess:

“for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags” (Proverbs 23:21)

park avenue 2Park Avenue: Money, Power and the American Dream (2012) contrasts the excessive wealth inequality found in American society by contrasting the incredible wealthy from the incredibly poor who live on the same street of New York City, a few miles apart.

As of 2010, 400 of the richest Americans control more wealth than the bottom half of American households (150 million people). This level of inequality is tied to the rising gluttony by the upper class. Park Avenue profiles the uber-wealthy who live in the world’s richest apartment block, found in the Upper East Side of New York. It shows how the wealth that allowed these people (mostly old, white men) to afford such elaborate part-time residences was fueled by the corporate takeover of much of American life, reinforced by the cycle of political deregulation and corporate lobbying.

The film then moves along Park Avenue to another area of New York, which has felt the consequences of so much inequality: the South Bronx. As hinted by the film’s subtitle, a mental barrier that prevents many poor Americans for advocating for their basic human rights is the myth of the “American Dream,” which promises incredible levels of money and power for all. This dream is a big, fat lie. The few hundred Americans who get to live elaborate lifestyles are rarely made through hard work; they are more likely born into incredibly rich families or, like the Koch brothers who live at Park Avenue, make their fortune by destroying both the environment and worker’s rights. This is the new American reality and it’s not working for millions.

 

Greed

Greed is an excessive or reprehensible acquisitiveness:

“Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more” (Ephesians 4:19).

enron_the_smartest_guys_in_the_room_xlgEnron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) was Gibney’s first major documentary. The film examines the 2001 collapse of the Enron Corporation, which resulted in criminal trials for several of the company’s top executives during the ensuing Enron scandal; it also shows the involvement of the Enron traders in the California electricity crisis.

Enron is a revealing character study of corporate greed, illuminating many of the systemic problems that lead to economic destruction, like the 2008 Great Recession that followed Enron’s demise.

Enron was respected widely by the business community for its ability to amass profits, regardless of the cost. It was named as the “most admired” corporation by Fortune magazine for the six years running before causing the California energy crisis: Enron traders exploited the shaky foundation of the state’s newly deregulated energy market by shutting down power plants and exporting power out of the state to create artificial shortages that would drive up the cost of electricity to Enron’s benefit; Enron would make $2 billion off of the crisis. Like many corporations that found investment more profitable that actual service provision, Enron had moved from an energy supplier to an energy trader.

And it’s executive team made millions along the way. One example is Lou Pai, the CEO of Enron Energy Services. Pai abruptly resigns from EES with $250 million, soon after selling his stock. Despite the amount of money Pai has made, the divisions he formerly ran lost $1 billion, a fact covered up by Enron.

Enron is not an isolated incident. It is a story that shines a light on a rotten system. The industrialized countries of the world, the United States and beyond, have reconfigured their economies away from production to financial services. This has allowed corporations to make amazing profits while plaguing the world’s people with the ultimate risk when things go wrong (and they will always go wrong). The 2008 Great Recession proved this point when it came to sub-prime mortgage lending. Future financial crises (student loan debt or Chinese housing are two possibilities) will continue to provide evidence. Ultimately, we, all of us, who are paying for the greed of corporations, must act to change this. We must take the power back into our own hands.

 

Sloth

Sloth is being disinclined to activity or exertion, not energetic or vigorous:

“The way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns, but the path of the upright is a highway” (Proverbs 15:19)

Mea_Maxima_Culpa_-_Silence_in_the_House_of_God_posterFrom Ireland to Canada, people around the world are finally hearing the terrible stories of sexual abuse against children at the hands of Catholic Church priests. The investigative reporting by the Boston Globe in 2002 helped bring this global pandemic of child abuse to the American public’s attention. In Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (2012), Gibney examines the issue as it pertains to one vulnerable group: deaf children.

Beyond the individual crimes of child molestation within the religious institution, the greater sin is the inaction, or sloth, by the Catholic Church and their efforts to hide the crimes. Mea Maxima Culpa examines the abuse of power in the Catholic Church system through the story of four deaf men — Terry Kohut, Gary Smith, Pat Kuehn and Arthur Budzinski — who set out to expose the priest who abused them during the mid-1960s. Each of the men brought forth the first known case of public protest against clerical sex abuse, which later led to the sex scandal case known as the Lawrence Murphy case.

Lawrence Murphy was a priest who taught at the former St. John School for the Deaf in the Milwaukee suburb of St. Francis from 1950 to 1974. He is believed to have molested up to 200 deaf boys before the mid-1970s. Local law enforcement agencies, including the Milwaukee Police Department, the St. Francis police, and the Milwaukee County District Attorney, were informed of the abuse in 1974 by adult graduates of the St. John School for the Deaf, but expressed doubts about the credibility of the allegations and the statute of limitations, and did nothing.

Catholics and non-Catholics should use these revelations as an examination of the power religious institutions wield. When given the holy responsibility of raising its followers children, the Church authorities committed abuse. When this abuse was revealed, rather than take action to stop or engage with law enforcement, the Church moved priests to new areas, allowing further abuse, and hiding past crimes. These failures were known and hidden by all levels of the Church, all the way to the highest office of the Vatican, who had the power and responsibility to act, but did not. The Catholic Church has forever lost its credentials as morally right and a divinely-inspired authority. If only every religious institution was also brought to justice.

 

Wrath

Wrath is a strong vengeful anger or indignation:

“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1)

taxi_to_the_dark_side_xlgTaxi to the Dark Side (2007), an Academy Award-winning film, focuses on the December 2002 killing of an Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar, who was beaten to death by American soldiers while being held in extrajudicial detention and interrogated at the Parwan Detention Facility at Bagram base. The story of Dilawar’s death is an examination of the wrath brought to many nations, including Afghanistan, by the United States, its military and, ultimately, all Americans following 9/11.

The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 signaled a new era in the world. The deaths of 2,977 Americans that day required a response by President Bush. The crimes against humanity committed on 9/11 could have been “approached as a crime, with an international operation to apprehend the likely suspects,” as Noam Chomsky has observed observed. Instead, the drums of war, led by the entire United States Congress to a chorus of ‘God Bless America,’ brought the American military to Afghanistan and then Iraq – another chapter in the history of American intervention in the Middle East.

Taxi to the Dark Side explores the background of increasingly sanctioned ‘torture’ since 9/11 in contradiction to the Geneva Convention. The use of sensory deprivation, is seen as acceptable and within the bounds of the law. Other techniques have required a redefinition of the word torture in order to avoid accusations of war crimes. The film also looks at Guantanamo Bay and how the same techniques were also implemented there.

America’s increasing reliance on military rhetoric and violence in its response to the attacks has not secured America’s safety. The doctrine of escalation of violence as a response to violence encourages terrorists and inevitably lead to further, and bloodier, attacks on innocents in America and around the world. The rise of the Islamic State following American occupation of Iraq for over a decade is a case in point.

 

Envy

Envy is a painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage:

“Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation” (1 Peter 2:1-2)

going clearGoing Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015) looks at another religious institution, Scientology, and its controversial history. Created in 1954 and based on the writing of science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology has become …

Based on Lawrence Wright’s book, Going Clear discusses several elements of the church, from its use of quasi-psychological counseling services to its infiltration of Hollywood to rampant human rights abuses. However, the key message I think that should be taken away from Going Clear is the church’s desire (its envy) to possess the legal status of a religion – and all the tax breaks and other financial advantages that come with that designation.

Hubbard is quoted as saying: “You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion.” He created a number of religious beliefs and practices, each with a price tag. Following Hubbard’s death, one man took the mantle of leader and the power it affords. David Miscavige is accused of intimidating, beating, imprisoning, and exploiting subordinates. Through intimidation, Miscavige was able to get the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to recognize Scientology as a religion in 1993. Elsewhere, Scientology is recognized as a religion in Australia, Portugal, Spain, Slovenia, Sweden, Croatia, Hungary, Kyrgyzstan and the United Kingdom. Its income is tax exempt in New Zealand.

On the other hand, Scientology has been accused of being “a business, often given to criminal acts, and sometimes masquerading as a religion.” In France, Scientology groups have been classified as a cult by some parliamentary reports. Organized harassment of people perceived as enemies and the group’s disconnection policy are two of the many controversial tactics this organisation uses to scare aware opponents and punish its adherents. Scientology is dangerous for society. And it doesn’t deserve government protection.

 

Pride

Pride is the quality or state of being proud – inordinate self esteem:

“Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18)

armstrong lieUnlike the other films, The Armstrong Lie (2013) tells the story of a single man, an institution in himself: Lance Armstrong. In 2009 Gibney set out to film The Road Back, a documentary on cyclist Lance Armstrong’s comeback year after a four-year retirement from the sport. Three years later, on October 2012, a doping investigation led to his lifetime ban from competition, the stripping of his seven Tour de France titles and the voiding off all results from August 1998 onward, and the documentary was shelved. On January 14, 2013, three hours after his appearance on Oprah, Armstrong went back to Gibney to set the record straight about his career. Armstrong also resigned from his cancer-related foundation in 2012.

Lance’s pride got the better of him. For much of his career, Armstrong faced persistent allegations of doping. Armstrong denied all such allegations until January 2013, often claiming that he never had any positive test in the drug tests he has taken over his cycling career. Far from being a model of sportsmanship, Armstrong did everything in his power to win, including lying.

The idolatry of athletes and celebrities by the public is dangerous. Beyond the multiple doping scandals across multiple sports, athletes have been involved in domestic abuse, animal abuse, violence, crime and other damaging acts. The impunity athletes receive for their transgressions and crimes follows a similar trend for the wider world of celebrity. Celebrities, like athletes, receive immense wealth and respect from the public. These people are not perfect and should not be treated as such. They are far from the best role models. They should be treated by their actions and face appropriate consequences when committing wrongdoing.