by Ed Kinane / March 9th, 2010
Anonymous knows that recovery requires acknowledging one’s illness;
denial cripples recovery. What follows isn’t about drinking, but about
a more cunning disease. Before I say more, I want to introduce myself:
“My name is Ed. I’m a racist.”
No, I’m not flaunting my bigotry, nor succumbing to guilt. I’m
acknowledging that I’ve been deeply conditioned by a society permeated
with racism. For a white person raised in the U.S., racism recovery
demands persistent mindfulness. It’s the task of a lifetime.
Admitting you’re an alcoholic is hard; likewise admitting to racism.
Conveniently, our standard notion of racism features behavior we avoid.
We “know” we’re not racist because we shun ethnic slurs; we wince at
The flipside of this (necessary but insufficient) standard is our
widely held, but rarely examined, notion of anti-racism. Again, we
“know” we’re anti-racist because, in my case for example, back in the
eighties we organized against South African apartheid. Or because
recently we contributed to Haiti earthquake relief.
But such notions of racism/anti-racism don’t go deep enough. It
takes work to fathom racism’s breadth and subtlety and to perceive the
social and economic forces fostering the de facto segregation that
warps our social fabric.
Equally essential, we must recognize and resist the racism pervading
U.S. foreign policy. The Pentagon’s current military adventures –
whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia — were
foreshadowed, in the 19th century, by relentless Indian wars and by
U.S. invasions of Mexico and the Philippines.
Financed by federal income taxes, this generations-old war machine
has never had much use for the lives of peoples of color. It’s no
accident that its numerous invasions and interventions invariably
target non-white people.
In my first 14 years of school I had only two black classmates;
despite over 18 years of schooling I never had a black teacher. I was
19 before I had a personal conversation with a black person. My early
college days were spent in a lovely ivy enclave set off by walls and
rent-a-cops from the black and brown ghetto at its gate.
Demoralized by the irrelevance of my courses, I dropped out. Thanks
not only to family connections, but also to the sixties building boom
in my hometown, I could work construction. In Syracuse’s 15th Ward,
“urban renewal” drove thousands of blacks out of what was becoming
prime real estate. The forced relocation demolished a vibrant black
Despite that boom, few blacks could break into the construction
trades; there wasn’t a single black in our union local. None of us
challenged the arrangement. Forty-five years later not much has changed
here: few black contractors can bid on even modest building jobs.
It’s no wonder that in the early eighties when I hitchhiked through
South Africa, it seemed like home. And last spring when I spent a month
in Israel and the Occupied Territories, that European colony also felt
like home. [See my July ’09 Peace Newsletter article, “Life in the Bubble: At Home in the Israeli Settler State.”]
Basic to these segregated societies and to our militarism is what poet Adrienne Rich calls solipsism. In philosophy solipsism is the theory that the self is the only reality: you exist only as a figment of my imagination.
Rich speaks, in particular, of white solipsism: a cultural egoism,
which assumes — quite unconsciously — that only white history or
discovery or suffering or interests have merit and standing. Most white
folks — whether in South Africa or Israel or here — grow up in white
neighborhoods going to white schools and consuming white-controlled
media. This is how we internalize white “reality.”
For many of us the solipsism that denies or demeans or destroys did
not originate with racism. It began, historically and personally,
before we were exposed to ethnic diversity. While being molded for
roles defined by gender, boys acquire the parallel male solipsism of a
patriarchal culture. Sexism precedes racism, grinding the lens that
makes our racist outlook second nature. Sexist behavior provides an
ongoing rehearsal for our racist performance.
When we were young we had little control over our enculturation and
so weren’t to blame for such tunnel vision. But now that we’re grown,
we are responsible for the kinds of callousness and exclusivity we
choose to honor. Many of us eagerly — or obliviously — float along the
mainstream that invalidates the lives of people of color. Their labor
and their living conditions, their needs and their pain, their gifts
and their rights, are systematically negated, rendered invisible,
White solipsism helps explain the foreign policy double standard
which regards only political violence aimed at whites as “terrorism.”
Since World War II few whites have been victims of aerial warfare: no
wonder few here see such warfare as the cowardly terrorism it is.
Although the pundits glibly link “terrorism” to Islam, they never
call Congress or Bush/Clinton/Bush/Obama terrorist when they squander
billions invading Islamic oil lands or when (say) U.S. drone aircraft
assassinate those resisting the invasion and occupation. Or when those
unmanned drones kill civilians willy-nilly.
In the moral calculus of white America the tens — maybe hundreds —
of thousands of slain Iraqis or Afghans barely exist. Even we who
actively oppose U.S. militarism in West Asia and the Mid East often
ignore the racism at its heart.
To overcome our “isms,” we could curb our over-consumption and our
over-eager embrace of privilege. We could shed our patterns of
exclusivity, bursting the bubble of self-reinforced segregation. We
could withhold and re-direct our federal taxes – without which U.S.
militarism would soon exhaust itself.
Through cross-cultural study and solidarity work we could better
understand the human condition – especially that of the huge majority
of our species who aren’t white, who aren’t affluent, who don’t
blackmail the globe with aerial warfare and nuclear terror.