A good friend of mine posted a Facebook status recently, grappling with the idea of trying to adopt or construct a cultural identity that is free from the stench of colonialism, consumerism, and appropriation. This topic has been on my radar a lot lately, partially driven by Moshe Kasher’s appearances on The Joe Rogan Experience and Tangentially Speaking podcasts. (They’re both excellent conversations. Highly recommended listening, in my book.)
Decolonization. It’s a tough nut to crack. Sure, there’s a kernel of genuine substance in there somewhere, but there’s also a lot of fluffy, pointless shit that seems to serve mostly as a distraction from the actual important discussion we could be having. Because ultimately, very few people want to ask themselves the questions my friend is asking, and even fewer want to live with the actual implications of following them to their logical conclusions.
I spent quite a bit of time in college studying anthropology. I never finished a degree, but the experience was profoundly formative for me. I learned about ethnocentrism and cultural relativism. I learned to view my own culture through the dispassionate lens of science, and to view other cultures through that same lens, with curiosity overtaking any sense of disgust or disapproval based on my own inherent biases. Of course, no one can do this perfectly. But it’s an undeniably powerful tool in the anthropologist’s (or more generally, the freethinker’s) kit.
Learning these things produced real fallout in my life. I left behind the conservative Catholicism of my family, which I had, at one time, taken very seriously. Over the course of my twenties, I moved through liberal Christianity, Neo-Paganism, and Agnosticism to activistic Atheism. I’ve mellowed a bit in my thirties, becoming more accepting of the human psyche’s penchant for metaphor, despite maintaining mostly secular and atheistic views. I eventually got far enough away from Catholicism to look back at it and see it for what it is, in all its horror and beauty.
A big problem I see with a lot of current Progressive thought, especially frameworks of privilege and anti-colonialism, is that they never get to the point where they can get far enough outside of Western culture to look back at it fairly. It is only allowed to be discussed as The Big Bad. And I get why that is, for sure. For a lot of people in marginalized groups, they still feel that boot on their neck, and I don’t blame them for reacting with anger. But that’s not the whole picture, and in order to understand how Western culture functions, for good and ill, we have to be able to pull out to the level of civilization as a whole, and the universalities of human nature. We have to be able to look beyond the various axes of identity-based oppression to the arc of our journey as a species.
I am not proposing that these ideas exist as a mutually exclusive dichotomy. Quite to the contrary. We need to learn to hold both ideas in tension in our minds if we are to begin to walk a path to something better. I’m not exactly hopeful, but this is the culture war I’m engaged in.
Another problem with these frameworks is that they tend to utterly ignore certain class categories that might cut across others. I’m a white, working class person. Neither of my parents went to college. I spent a lot of time trying to make my way in the academic and intellectual class, even while making my living as a construction worker. (What can I say? I’ve always gotten off on defying expectations.) I could sort of “pass” at first, but it eventually became clear to me that my unpolished bearing and insistence on bringing my working class experience to bear in my writings and discussions among these circles seemed to sow discomfort and awkwardness. One guy, a friend whom I knew well, continually and willfully referred to me as a nuclear engineer in group discussions, despite my repeated corrections that, no, I was in fact a construction worker often employed in nuclear power plants. I suspect he thought he was doing me a favor by “upgrading” my social status, but I found it deeply insulting. It was a willful erasure of a very important part of my identity.
I’ve come to view identity as something you earn, rather than something you adopt or construct. Sure, you can say whatever you want about who you think you are, but that tells me a lot less about you than observing how you actually live your life. (Apparently admitting to such a thing is now seen as gauche. Yes, I judge you based on your behaviors. I’m human. You do it, too. You just call it something different.) Earlier this year, I had a run-in with an ostensible friend, who was incensed at my continued insistence that there might be deeper things at the bottom of our current national crisis than a massive resurgence of cartoonish white supremacy and widespread ignorance. Part of this disagreement had to do with the idea of working class people opposing environmental regulations in order to maintain traditional job prospects. But for all their progressive identity labels, this former friend still lives a consumerist lifestyle and generates mountains of trash. They buy plastic crap and sweat-shop running clothes from Target. They pile up a wake of carbon emissions in their two-car commuting, jet-setting, breeder lifestyle. But they voted for Hillary, so I guess they’re good.
I thought I left behind the magical thinking guilt cult when I left the Catholic church. I honestly see very little difference between this condescending, holier-than thou, guilt-tripping ideology and the dogma of my youth. Privilege guilt is the new original sin. But just as we can acknowledge that humans are born with inherent flaws that come from the messy process that created us without deeming ourselves beyond hope and pleading for miraculous salvation from sky daddy, we should be able to view the messy evolution of culture without writing off the one that happened to come out on top as inherently devilish.
In fact, to say that one culture “came out on top” is a gross misapprehension of how it actually happened. Human progress is a force that acts on a macro- level. We seem, as a species cursed with intelligence and curiosity, doomed to never be satisfied with what we have. Well, more accurately, people who have these traits and cultures that foster them will naturally out-compete those that don’t. To listen to folks like Dr. Christopher Ryan, this isn’t necessarily a good thing. (I tend to agree, but I’m not sure what we can do to stop it, other than try to inculcate values into our culture that try to counterbalance the ugly externalities that come with a worship of innovation and progress.) The individuals carrying it out act on their own behalf based on the biases of their times. It is impossible for us to imagine what, say, Christopher Columbus thought he was doing. I can say for certain that he didn’t view himself as the monster we see in hindsight.
And yes, horrific atrocities were committed along the road that got us here. And they shouldn’t be forgotten or minimized. But too much time and energy is being spent agonizing about the bloody footsteps behind us, and who among us alive today holds how much of the blame, than on what we can do to effect real systemic change that accounts for human nature and the mechanisms of cultural evolution. It’s true that the culture that dominates a large swath of this planet continues to damage people and our prospects for continued survival. But it’s also true that this culture has created an undeniably unprecedented rise in overall human prosperity and well-being. The problem we face at this juncture is how to even out the distribution of that prosperity and counter the huge environmental externalities we’ve created getting here. It may be a problem beyond our ability to overcome. But I honestly don’t think we could have done it any other way, because we are what we are, for better or worse. The only way to move beyond that is to accept it. And no, that’s not exoneration. It’s just the facts. All we can do now is try to learn from our mistakes going forward. Because we will keep going forward. It’s all we know how to do.
So, back to the idea of Decolonization. Can we deconstruct our inherited culture to the point where we can void it of any and all evidence of the traumas piled up along the road so far? Is that what this is really about? Removing the reminders to assuage the guilt? Again, that sure sounds a lot like the way my Catholic mother thinks about abortion: if it’s illegal, it can still happen but she won’t have to think she has anything to do with it.
Mind you, none of this is to say I don’t think cultural appropriation is a real thing that can be a valid topic of discussion. Just this week I became irate when I saw a particularly egregious example of elite adoption of working class “authenticity” – pre-dirtied blue jeans. For $400. The rants I wrote in my head, I’m telling you…
So yeah, I have a tiny inkling of how a more marginalized person than me must feel when they see some clueless white asshole sporting a garment that carries with it a cultural attachment to their particular struggle. I’m not saying we shouldn’t talk about these things. But I think there’s a difference between calling for sensitivity or pointing out how maybe you should know what you’re doing as a white person from the suburbs when you put on a Native American headdress at a festival, and trying to remove appropriated garments or practices that have essentially become part of American culture at large. We’d be left with basically nothing.
Because white identity itself is constructed from all the different cultures that have become part of it, through peaceful and violent means, going back millennia. This is why white supremacy is so ridiculous. My ancestors were German and Polish. When they came to this country, in the late 1800s, they weren’t considered Americans. They didn’t speak English, they kept to their own groups, and they maintained their own cultural traditions. Five generations in, by then fully American, I still grew up making German pretzels, eating homemade sauerkraut, and waking up on St. Nicholas Day to find candy in my shoes. Were there major instances of oppression of German-Americans along the road to assimilation? Well, nothing like genocide or slavery, but thousands were rounded up and put in camps during the world wars. So should people with no German ancestry stop eating pretzels and kraut? I think we’d all agree that’s ridiculous.
To me, the legitimate discussion to be had here is over cultural items that are in the process of being appropriated into basic American culture without the peoples they come from being welcomed along with them. (Of course, this is by no means clearly delineated – cultural groups are not monoliths.) But the end game of the more radical decolonization endeavor would seem to me to lead to segregation. Is this what we really want? Ultimately, we’d only perpetuate the same kinds of oppression, but with kinder labels. Fetishization is not respect, and placing other people’s cultures on pedestals to try and keep them out of reach of the corrupting grasp of the Western monster is just a different kind of racism. It’s a Noble Savage ideology. It’s the worst kind of exoticism. It denies non-white people the basic commonalities of the human experience.
And no, I’m not suggesting we adopt a White Savior ideology, either. But there is a middle path to be found that allows people to assimilate themselves and their practices into American culture on their own terms. There’s a gravitational interaction that happens – both bodies pull each other toward something a little less white and a little more brown as they merge. I’d argue that a large number of Latin American people in this country are currently engaged in just such a process. And no, it’s not a universally smooth or poetic path, and we’ve definitely got some baggage to work out, but it’s happening, and in my experience anyway, many people from those groups view it as a positive development.
So, having delved into all that, what does it mean to be a white person in the United States in 2017? From what can one build a culture when one’s own has been voided of substance, both by consumerist capitalism and by postmodern deconstruction? When we turn to the obscurities of our own ancestries, white people run the risk of being accused of some brand of identitarian heresy. So you can’t be ethnically white, except in a generic, empty, American, football, apple pie, and Walmart way, and you also can’t pick and choose things that work for you from other cultures, lest you risk trodding on someone’s feelings with your massive privilege boots.
Which brings me to the crux of this whole thing: the fact that my friend is even spending their time and energy on this question points to the cruelty of the particular dogma much of the social group they find themselves a part of. This person, who struggles with a chronic illness and the lack of income that so often comes with such a condition, is using up spoons trying to suss out who they are allowed to be, culturally, as a white person in America today. Because no matter what other intersecting categories of oppression affect this person’s day to day reality, their whiteness makes them ultimately culpable, and nothing they will ever suffer will relieve them of that guilt.
To my friend: The fact that you are thinking about this points to the fact that you are an amazing and compassionate person, and it’s one of the reasons I think so highly of you. But you know what? You don’t need absolution. You need to know that you’re enough. You don’t need to put on a hair shirt. Just keep being the thoughtful and considerate person you are to the actual humans in your life. Sure, keep asking questions about current attempts at appropriation as they crop up. But you don’t have to flog yourself over whether or not a particular item you keep in your cultural knapsack came to you honestly. Research these things, if you like; learn their history (I assume you already do this, being you). Find out the story of how these items came to be yours. Honor the people they came from by telling those stories to others. Use the wisdom of cultures that don’t put all their eggs in the innovation and progress baskets as you try to build a sustainable lifestyle for yourself. Name them in your outreach efforts. Don’t take them for granted.
Of course, you’re not the kind of person who takes much for granted. And that’s why I like you. If that’s not enough for these holier-than-thou hypocrites, then they can fuck right the fuck off.
That goes for the rest of you, too.