What Does It Mean to Be White?

This is anothe post from my Critical Whiteness Studies class.

the neoabolitionist

Is not this the record of present America? Is not this its headlong progress? Are we not coming more and more, day by day, to making the statement “I am white,” the one fundamental tenet of our practical morality? Only when this basic, iron rule is involved is our defense of right nation-wide and prompt. Murder may swagger, theft may rule and prostitution may flourish and the nation gives but spasmodic, intermittent and lukewarm attention. But let the murderer be black or the thief brown or the violator of womanhood have a drop of Negro blood, and the righteousness of the indignation sweeps the world. Nor would this fact make the indignation less justifiable did not we all know that it was blackness that was condemned and not crime. – W.E.B. DuBois – The Souls of White Folk (1920)

I’ve been accused at various points through my life of being…

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An Age of Enlightenment

image

Paris in Morning

Sleep now.
The city of lights has gone out.
The shining beacon
The guide through the night
Of our fantasies, gone.
The Tour looms
A sleeping dark giant
The only sound, the wind in its frame.
The Arc is heavy
And silent and grave
A tomb for the gaiety
Lost in one day.
The metro is still,
The Opéra is dim,
And Our Lady sleeps
And weeps in the stillness
As she wades through the Seine.

And so you too are gone,
My light, my love
My shining beacon
Who guided me through this night called life.
My city of lights has gone out
Forever.
Yet, once again it is dawn
And the morning has begun.

(For the people who lost loved ones in the recent Paris attack.)

Seeing the images from Paris makes me weep.  I’m brought back to that day when I was standing on a London street watching the twin towers collapse.  Or the summer in DC when I heard of the London bombings…or Madrid…or the Boston Marathon.  I find myself, as a spiritual leader and writer asking so many questions.  What are we fighting? Do we even know?  Why?

I am also a student of the Enlightenment.  As such, I have learned that during the 16th – 18th centuries, “identity” became fixed in the Western world as something that could not only be personally defended, but as something that could be collectively defended and celebrated as a “nation.” In an age where we saw the birth of “race,” “nationalism” and “political parties” these social constructs took on the functions that had previously been ascribed only to religion and family. This development of national “identities” created the foundation for the current state of war in which we exist.

The horror and grief over the Paris attacks is extremely accessible to us in the US.  Not only as a result of the 9/11 attacks, but as a Western nation who’s identity is in large part directly a result of the French identity, we feel this pain immediately. But ISIS is not playing the same game of “identities.” Theirs is not, as some would have us believe, a simple question of wanting to supplant the French or even Western identity. Theirs is a question of a total world view and I believe is rooted in the broader question of how they see existence. Most unfortunately, this idea about existence and the nature of human life on earth for them is rooted in their gross mis-interpretation of Islam.  We must be clear, the people behind this violence are not evil because of Islam. Rather, they are using Islam for evil purposes. To grasp this concept, you might consider turning the situation around and thinking of an organization or ideology like the Westboro Baptist Church or even the KKK.  Both are legal organizations in the United States, and both organizations would happily exterminate those who do not believe as they do (in the supremacy of white heteronormative Christianity.) A homegrown terrorist like Dylann Roof should be a reminder to us that there is little difference between ISIS and the Aryan Nation.

But, religion, specifically Islam, is not the problem here. The problem is fundamentalism that we have in part learned from religion.  Yet,  fundamentalism does not need a religion to hang itself from…although it has clearly been done in the past and will surley be done in the future. In our increasingly secular world, religion has frequently been supplanted by everything from capitalism to liberalism to atheism and even vegetarianism. The term “fundamentalism” must be viewed through a broader modern lens and as a result our current state of crisis must be as well. We are choosing the language and the tactics of “war” to counter a “nation” that is not fighting a “war” with us as much as it is reinforcing its view of existence. This is in no way an apology for ISIS/ISIL.  On the contrary, it is a call to action for us to be truly smart in how we prevent any further senseless loss of life.

The call to action will begin with the right conversation and the right questions.  Why are Western targets being attacked; why is this extremism attractive to young people, abroad and at home; why do the leaders feel like this kind of violence is productive to their ends; who are the targets…really? Part of the right conversation forces us to examine where we stand in terms of our own Western “fundamentalism” and what role we play in this conflict. No one is entirely free from accountability. We don’t want to see innocent people blown up and gunned down, but we tolerate regular mass shootings because gun companies want to make money.  We want to shelter refugees from “radical Islam” but we squabble over how to provide refugees from our own border the same protection.  We talk about police brutality and race and give little or no protection transgender people who are targeted simply for being alive.  We are horrified by the violence of people blowing up ancient shrines, yet we carved of Mt Rushmore into a sacred Native site and continue to desecrate native land for oil. We criticize somem cultures for oppressing women in the style of dress but we live in a nation that lets men legislate women’s bodies.  We cry “All Lives Matter” in a nation where blacks are 12 times as likely to be murdered than whites.

ISIS is completely and utterly wrong in what they have done. There is no excuse for the attacks in Paris or the other sickening global violence inspired and perpetuated by both ISIS/ISIL and Boko Haram. They are not Islam.

But in our response as “Western nations” we must remember that the only true victims are the dead and those they loved.