Saturday, August 8, 2015

Imperialism, Whiteness, The Republican Contenders and Me

Whiteness (M.A. Reilly 2014)


In the foreword to Everyday White People Confront Racial and Social Injustice, Paul Gorksi offers this sobering insight about being White,

"...on subjects like White entitlement and bigotry, I am well groomed. When it comes to deflecting responsibility and exerting White supremacy implicitly or to participating actively and unapologetically in a hyperracist corporate-consumer capitalism even as I pretend to despise it, my family, teachers, caches, and others equipped me with an impressive spectrum of expertise and skills" (ix).

Gorski outlines three shifts in consciousness related to how racism is often situated by Whites. The first shift is from understanding racism as only an interpersonal matter to understanding it as an institutional matter. Racism is bigger than matters related to individuals. I think here of that insipid 1971 Coca-Cola ad from my youth about teaching the whole world to sing (in perfect harmony). Yes, such sentiment felt somewhat good--against the then recent race riots and the continuous shipping of young men to Vietnam, but it largely deflected attention and responsibility from more pervasive manners of racial and economic injustices that remained present, rooted--regardless of relationships and the notion of harmony.

The next shift Gorski references is from understanding racism as an institutional matter to understanding it as a by-product of imperialism.  Recently Rob and I have been recalling the many posters we were required to make in response to elementary school assignments. You may have memories of these too. These were geography assignments that had us gluing cotton balls, coffee beans, and pennies to poster boards to indicate the 'by-products' of other countries--most often those located in the Southern hemisphere.

I can still recall gluing a copper penny within the lines that signified Chile. At the time I was gluing that bit of copper to the map, the copper industry in Chile was undergoing a change in ownership. In 1971 when Coca-Cola was teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony, the newly elected Allende government in Chile was exercising its rights to nationalize copper mining. Up to that time, the mines had been owned and operated exclusively by North American mining companies. President Allende said,
This is maybe the most important act since our independence declaration, because it entitles a modification to the political constitution that accentuates and gives strength to the national feeling of our country…to nationalize and preserve for the state our country’s basic richness (from here).  
Preserving a nation's national richness would not be accepted without response.  And response came in the form of General Augusto Pinochet who assumed power in Chile following a United States-backed coup d'├ętat in 1973 (ironically 9/11) when he overthrew President Allende and ended civilian rule. Pinochet would rule as a dictator for 17 years and his economic policies would be informed by neoliberal economic advisers, dubbed the Chicago Boysbecause they had been educated at the University of Chicago under the influence of Milton Friedman. The Pinochet-dictatorship created favorable policies for foreign trade by privatizing state-controlled industries and social security, restricting labor unions, opening global trade markets, slashing government support of public education and providing government funding for private education companies to put in place for-profit schools. (Does this not seem familiar?) Yet none of that history was part of the "geography" lessons learned. Those early lessons ignored the many ways U.S. covert operatives serve corporate interests. We learned that American political, military and corporate actions that were not hidden were allowable and preferable. These acts against others were considered benign and often situated as being good for others. I'm reminded here of a speech given by Edward Said (1993) in which he explains that sense of American specialness.  He said,
so influential has been the discourse insisting on American specialness, altruism and opportunity, that imperialism in the United States as a word or ideology has turned up only rarely and recently in accounts of the United States culture, politics and history. But the connection between imperial politics and culture in North America, and in particular in the United States, is astonishingly direct (York University, 1993, from here).
Imperialistic power are often the policies of empires and they always require racial, gender, and economic imbalances. Michael Doyle, the historian defines empire as
a relationship, formal or informal, in which one state controls the effective political sovereignty of another political society. It can be achieved by force, by political collaboration, economic, social or cultural dependence. Imperialism is simply the process or policy of establishing or maintaining an empire (as quoted by Edward Said at York University, 1993).
The last shift in consciousness for Gorski is more personal, more of the moment. This is the shift that stays with me the most, connects me most directly to racism.  He writes that it is in understanding racism as a global act of imperialism that is reinforced by White privilege and consumerism. Gorski understands how his daily acts of consumerism make him complicit in the exploitation of disenfranchised communities. Again, I think here of Said who explains that even though the age of direct colonialism is over, the influence of empire remains.  He said,
imperialism lingers where it often has been in a kind of general cultural sphere as well as its specific political, ideological, economic and social practices (York University, 1993). 
Consumerism and White privilege are expressions of political, ideological, economic, and social practices. The way I live via the the entitlements I am afforded and to some degree still covet are actions that reify racism and allow the "economic top" 20 percent of Americans to live lives well beyond the rest of us on the planet.


I was thinking about the difficulty that living White and privileged produces as I viewed the Republican debate this past week. I was wondering whether the public outcry via Ferguson and the many Occupy Wall Street movements might prompt at least one question about economic and racial justice. Did none of those Facebookers want to ask about race? Economic injustices? After hearing the presidential contenders volley Tough on Isis utterances and the many ways they would defund Planned Parenthood for what felt like more than the first hour, I began to doubt if the more pressing matters of privilege and race would be discussed.  Apart from asking Ben Carson, the only Black candidate, in the closing minute of the debate what he would do to heal America's racial divides and a quick response before the cut-to-commercial from Scott Walker about police brutality, this debate was mute about matters of poverty, economic injustice and race.

D.D. Guttenplan in The Nation summarizes the importance of this when he writes,
One of the reasons elections matter is because they hold up a mirror to the kind of country we are—and the kind of country we want to be. On tonight’s evidence America (or at least that portion of America represented by the Ohio GOP’s invited audience) is a country that applauds a bully, fears all foreigners, knows that the system is rigged to favor the rich—and will fight to the death to keep it that way.
One might think to look to the government to help move the country from maintaining at all costs security and wealth for the few to seeking economic and racial justice for the many.  But that does not seem likely. We seem hell-bent on sacrificing our selves or at the very least, our neighbors, in order to keep consuming what we can ill afford.

Why do we do this?  How can we stop this behavior?


Earlier this year I was making a piece of art (see below) and I wasn't necessarily sure as to why I combined the image with the quote from Deleuze and Guattari.  Now my understanding is more certain, better coded.

1950s (M.A. Reilly, 2015)

White privilege as expressed as consumerism abhors being in the middle of things. By necessity,
privilege is a top-down view.  Being in the middle of something requires a very different way of seeing and being. Eliminating the middle is in many ways a way to maintain injustice.

And perhaps this middle space is one I need to remind myself to occupy more frequently.  Being in the middle affords me and you a space where we can be more critical of our lives and the effect those lived lives have on others and ourselves.

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