On Healing the Wrongs of White Ancestors and Why You Probably Don’t Want to Do It

Call me a lily-@$$ed bimbo, or a political correctness fascist, but I can’t use the term ‘non-white’ any more, and I can’t quite believe myself how long it’s taken to understand why.

First of all, lumping hundreds or even thousands of ethnicities into a one-size-fits-all term is embarrassingly dismissive. Then there’s the fact that anyone of any colour is described in a term that refers to whites, which normalises whiteness and makes everything else secondary or peripheral.

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Bet you didn’t know how many ethnic groups there were in Indonesia alone. Memorize their names – I’m going to test you on them tomorrow

The fact that it’s shorthand for when you just want to describe the prejudice incurred by this apparent difference – which virtually always involves light-skinned against dark-skinned – might make it attractive, but it is so insanely reductive that it really has no beneficial use at all.

The peaceful determination of the “Water Protectors” movement at Standing Rock has brought with it the sight of white Americans – described in this Guardian article as ‘non-Native Americans’ (what better way to remind ourselves who came first?) – standing in solidarity, and even begging forgiveness, from people who have been brutally repressed by the ancestors of those non-native Americans.

It cuts to the heart of the shame many of us feel at having ancestors who partook in these atrocities. My own great-grandparents on my American side had slaves; after Abolition they were kept on as farmhands, but were paid in chits which could only be redeemed in one general store. Guess who owned it.

Whites have a duty to speak louder than anyone else in the movement to make Black Lives Matter (at the risk of using ‘Black’ in the same broad way as ‘non-white’), partly because so many white supremacists just won’t listen to black people saying it, and partly because we are the inheritors of a poisonous system which we could potentially subvert. Trying to do so proves we wash our hands of the racism which is the source of the problem.

So what’s stopping more anti-racist whites visibly standing up against racism? Where are all the whites at a Black Lives Matter demonstration?

When there is such a brutal asymmetry in power, wealth, privilege, and domination of discourse and representation in favour of whites, it’s understandable that Blacks, Asians, Arabs, or anyone else (see how tempting it is to fall into the ‘non-white’ trap!) might look at white people who want to show solidarity with suspicion.

How can we understand, when we have never experienced the sharp edge of racism? Aren’t we just jumping on the bandwagon because it makes us look right-on? Will we there in the long run, or on the front lines? Can we truly be invested in the struggle when we aren’t afraid our children will be the next to appear on a tragic-but-glib news story about a shooting over a dangerous-looking packet of gum?

All that is true. But whites still need to worry about our children: we need to be concerned that our kids don’t grow up to perpetuate the myth of racial superiority or inferiority. It’s a massive task, one that seems as simple as repeating ‘we’re all equal’, but in truth we are up against a colossus of media representation that causes even tiny children to characterise black dolls as ‘bad’ or ‘ugly’ and white dolls as ‘good’ or ‘pretty’ – whatever their own colour.

What’s more, white privilege is also poisonous to white people. Ever hear parents wondering how come their kids got so uppity, rude, disrespectful and self-centred? That’s entitlement, right there, and while it isn’t necessarily colour-bound, if the majority taking up space in the echelons of privilege are white, going to ‘good’ schools (which are almost always almost completely white), living in ‘good’ neighbourhoods (ditto), whose parents on the whole enjoy better economic stability…when are they ever going to get some perspective on the good things that have basically fallen out of the sky into their milky white laps?

Entitlement is poisonous in various ways. There’s the overriding feeling that you don’t really deserve the favours you’re receiving, because you haven’t earned them. Why do police smile benignly at me, even when I was living illegally in Spain for six years, when they frowned at my Middle Eastern husband who’s done nothing? Paradoxically, it makes you feel inferior for being given handouts without deserving them.

The trouble is that once you are in a privileged position, most people would not be so crazy as to give it up voluntarily. It’s the reason why so many African nations haven’t seen a cent of so many billions of dollars in IMF loans their corrupt leaders squirrelled away in Swiss banks. When you live in a warm, dry, safe, comfortable house, why would you choose to move to a hut with no central heating, A/C or flush toilet?

(For the answer to this question you will have to come to my town and ask the hippies. You might be surprised how coherent their arguments are.)

Most of us live in a bubble, we’ve got to admit it. Even making friends with the Gypsy kids on the next block can seem hard to achieve. But if you don’t take the leap and reach out, afraid that you’ll be rebuffed or mocked or shut out, how will you ever know?

See how quickly the Lakota spiritual healer Leonard Crow forgave the ‘non-native’ Americans who went to them seeking forgiveness: the most wronged have the greatest power to forgive, even the community that hurt them the most. There is so much healing in that act, a bursting open of hearts sealed with guilt and pride. Some of us might not have the traumas of Black or Native American people in our genes, but the consciousness of white people is wounded to the core, and we can’t be happy or free until it’s healed.

No Dessert for Bashar Assad

It is incredible, the insights one gets into the planetary political puzzle, in those rare moments of paying attention to world news that one has between looking after two kids, a house and a veggie plot.

Obama’s stick-shaking, attempting to drum up support for air strikes on Syria (because killing Syrians will definitely teach Syrians to stop killing Syrians) on the MORAL issue of ‘crossing a global red line’, and therefore the MORAL issue of us lovely civilised nations to show them how it’s done, is a case in point.

Journalists have described it as a threat of punishment. It’s a word, in this context, that instantly makes me think of Lenny Henry’s comedy sketch about his mum being so tough on behaviour “she could discipline whole nations. ‘Iraq, put Kuwait down!'”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7OvMA–APzc

Not wishing to make light of the situation, which could clearly tip the Middle East – and therefore a whole lot of US and European vested interests (and boy are there a lot of those) – into unholy disarray, let me just say that I cannot help but see political leaders as small boys in shorts and mud-streaked T-shirts, guiltily hiding slingshots behind their backs while the sounds of splintering glass resounds around us.

They might seem more like shape-shifting lizards from another planet, but really every leader in the world was a naughty schoolkid once, who picked his nose, wet his pants on many occasions and probably did godawful things to frogs in his spare time.

So this idea of punishing a rogue nation isn’t lightyears away from basic parenting practice. Don’t we wish we could tell our prime ministers ‘How would you like it’ when they slash welfare, health or education spending? See, the principle is exactly the same, no reductionism whatsoever.

To return to my point. There are many parenting experts (no, not the sort who tell you to leave your screaming baby alone in a dark cupboard til they learn to self-soothe) who are now advocating moving away from a punishment/reward system of parenting. This is on the basis (and I think it’s a sound one, if difficult to practise) that a) it doesn’t work in the long run, and b) it doesn’t teach children WHY they shouldn’t do what you don’t want them to do, or why they should do what you want them to do, which is itself the reason behind a).*

Think about it for a moment. If someone, let’s say, your spouse, or your boss at work, were to randomly yell at you, “Stop doing that! What the hell are you playing at? No. Just no. Now go sit on the naughty step for five minutes” would it a) rile the hell out of you and make you want to yell back at them, b) encourage you to comply while you work out how to get back at them, or c) prompt a military ‘Yes, sir/ma’am!’ and your immediate obediance, never to repeat the offence in question?

 

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Banksy says “boo”

Children are crystal balls of human nature. What is so wonderful and so infuriating about them is that we see ourselves reflected back at us, whether we wish to accept the lesson or not. It takes a very big kind of a person to be able to recognise that it is their own impatience that makes them freak out at their childrens’ impatience, their own lack of discipline that has given their children a template for their lack of discipline, their own rudeness to others that has taught their kids to be rude.

Yet on a political scale, this same principle seems to be conveniently overlooked. Obama is quite happy to call out Syria for using chemical weapons while maintaining hundreds of suspected terrorists in inhumane, tortuous conditions for up to a decade without trial or even a shred of evidence against them, in a military base so notorious it has to be sited outside of the US on an island accused of acts of inhumanity to its civilians by America itself. The hypocrisy is so glaring it seems that surely nobody is taking Obama’s threat of punishment as a sign of his genuine humanitarian goodness. Call me a cynic, but I smell an agenda.

Meanwhile, what’s there to do at the Cave but carry on cleaning up mess, separating fighting children, finally withholding the promise of ice-cream if better behaviour is forthcoming…in short, doing exactly what I am preaching against. The trouble is that punishment and reward are the easiest weapons we have to hand for conflict. The alternative to the domestic equivalent of sanctions – “No dessert” – means sitting down and talking things through, which is liable to bring up all sorts of reciprocal hurts, grudges, old grievances and a decent dose of hypocrisy being called out. And regardless of the ache of going through all of that, most people are just too rushed off their feet to have time to work through it.

But as any parent tired of punishing their child for the same thing for the hundredth time understands, it’ll only work as long as it takes for the foiled child to come up with something worse. In the case of a humanitarian crisis already about as bad as it is in Syria, that is not a logical consequence anyone wants to invoke.

 

* See Happy Children by Rudolf Dreikurs, or Positive Discipline by Janet Nelsen for this line of parenting philosophy

The Bloodless Button

Syria is being bled white.

The metaphor is painful:

red paints all our inner 

skins in just the same shade –

liquid ruby. In

the dripping out of all this worth

they are wan and weak

minds wandering fleet

tall strangers in navy suits

make bleak press conference

speeches saying We Can Help –

but look at this aid: it comes by way

of dropping bombs from 

bloodless planes, no ruby drink

to risk losing, deaf to the howls, 

dumb to reply to the question;

How did you think this would help?

And the whiteness that somehow survives

standing, walking in its nice navy suit

is watered by some other red

replaced the day he swore to represent

his voters – not as his fellow humans, only as

the holders of the pens that ticked the box

beside his name. And then

he’ll call on human values, courage,

compassion, heroism, moral codes

while his own moral code is lying

in a pool on holiday sipping champagne.

This bloodless lust for throwing in

another explosive device and calling it

compassion, better than standing back

and doing nothing, is the creaking of

machines in need of oil; there’s no soul 

in there to suffer for their lie, only 

the shine of brass buttons on navy suits

a team of hairdressers and make-up dusters

to ensure the message comes across,

that the machine passes for human.

Give me a man in tatters

alive and hurting

let me hear the things he says

unshepherded by press release

and gleaming teeth; let me

perceive the rotten pieces, scuffed shoes,

zits and second-hand coat –

I want to know he knows the end result

from bitter experience

before he tries to make me see

the need to push

that bloodless button.

Sieving Metaphors out of Concrete: the Battle between One and All

I’m still bothered about this Shafelia Ahmed killing. After 4 hours sleep I’m already buzzing. There is something huge that needs to be said about it, so if you don’t mind me burbling on, here goes.

There is a fundamental imbalance at work in belief communities – whether they be religious or political – all around the world. It’s a tug-of-war that goes back perhaps to our earliest experiences of human society, a tug-of-war between the well-being and growth of the group (which individuals are dependent on for their own safety), and the well-being and integrity of the individual (each one of whom makes up the whole).

I could rummage around for hours looking for ‘expert’ quotes on this matter but I don’t think there’s any need – we can see it all around us, all the time. A society clique has its own interests at heart, so people instinctively take on its ‘dos and don’ts’ and most of them will not cross the line for fear of being cast out of the gang.

This is totally primordial. We might not remember it but there was a time when wild animals threatened our live and there was safety in numbers. But the bigger the group is, the more difficult it is to maintain any kind of homogeneity; greater differences of space and time give rise to variances in culture and language. Our climates and landscapes offer us different challenges.

When there is a hierarchical power structure, or just a lot of people with enough will or need to maintain the group intact, repressive tactics begin to emerge. Dissent, whether it be in the form of a teenage schoolgirl wanting to have a boyfriend or a group of social activists campaigning for change, is suppressed – sometimes violently.

This is when the balance between group and individual has been thrown out of whack, and it’s given us Communism, Fascism, repressive Muslim regimes, and vigilante acts like ‘honour killings’. The sacredness of life is subjugated to the survival of the group.

There have always been, in the history of every tribe, pioneers who sense the need for movement, be it through a change in physical conditions (a spring dries up, so they have to move), or disagreements with elders, or simply the overpopulation of a group and the need for fresh space. So a smaller group splinters off and finds a new way – but this doesn’t necessarily mean they cut their ties with their old group, or that they suddenly give up their language and customs.

Humanity is in constant flux. Historical linguistics shows a fascinating story of Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, a place where few written languages have long histories and so the movement of people and the interfaces between cultures are tracked by words that have been borrowed and grammatically absorbed by one or other of the 2,000 languages indigenous to Africa. Few languages are used ideologically; you don’t lose your language when you move upcountry – it evolves.

But when this idea of movement and flux is applied to religion and politics, infuriatingly often we find that a shell of customs, ideas and dogmas handed down from one generation to another becomes encrusted over people and they cannot think creatively enough to see when conditions have changed and so modes de vie also must.

The spirit of Islam is finding the ‘Middle Path’ (not unlike Buddhism); the Prophet Muhammad (s.) always advocated looking for a intermediate path between two extremes. The extremes in his day were a diseased kind of tribalism and religious zeal. Today there is a different disease, composed of fashion, market forces, hype, spin and consumerist herd thinking; today’s religious zeal can now be seen in extreme adherence to one’s patria, religion, racist ideology, political party, football team…the tribes are proliferating all the time.

In the first extreme, behind a smokescreen of development and progress there is deep, grave injustice. Children and young mothers forced to work in mines so people in consumerist societies can buy new technology. Children sold to sweatshops to sew sequins onto dresses. Indigenous peoples displaced from their homelands so the natural resources in them can be pillaged. All of this happens so that certain priviledged individuals can have the freedom to buy whatever they want (or are encouraged to want), whenever they want. This is neo-liberal capitalism. This is extreme individualism.

On the other hand, there is the weight of tradition, sometimes (or often) woven and warped into a heavy helmet of you-must-think-this and you-must-do-that, otherwise you will be harming or disrespecting your group in some way. The alternative, for these people, is a dangerous individualism; the threat of losing their identity as a member of that group is so great that they consent to horrific abuses taking place in the name of Nazism, Communism, tribal culture or a repressive Islamic state. In a way, both extremes are nothing more than herd mentality.

The founding principle of Islam, of balance and harmony over chaos, is absolutely dependent on Muslims being confident and creative in the way they apply it. The detritus of the past does not have to be carried forward on our backs. It is stupid to live according to conditions that no longer exist. Would we wear winter clothes in summer?

The individualism we are accustomed to now is isolating; with no need to look after their neighbours or even their own families, people become emotionally detached and capable of doing extraordinary acts of cold-blooded cruelty, or simply neglect. It is unhealthy for the individual to ignore the whole that surrounds him, just as it is unhealthy for a society to ignore the needs and rights of the individuals that make up its whole.

The extremities facing us in today’s world, here and now, might have resonances that go back to a Biblical era – that’s where religion becomes a fountain of wisdom, a body of past experiences that can be observed and learned from – but without the independent thinking that knows how to sieve the metaphor from the concrete, the lesson from the teaching material, it is worse than having no guidance at all.

The balance between all our extremes can be regained, but it will happen one conscience at a time.