Loving the whole earth, loving the single place: a long response to Gregory Rodriguez, quoting Abbey and Hauerwas

I normally like the perspective that L.A. Times’ columnist Gregory Rodriguez takes. But he wrote an op-ed eleven days ago that really irked me: Rootless to a Fault. Here’s a portion of it:

Here in the U.S., highly skilled workers and wealthy entrepreneurs from around the globe contribute mightily to this nation’s productivity and creativity. Their presence in our cities, and ours in theirs, has fostered a greater appreciation of global cultural diversity. It has spawned a vibrant cosmopolitanism that broadens our collective concern for people who live beyond our borders.

But this cosmopolitanism is not without its dark side. Increasingly, many of our big cities’ creative elites — both native and foreign-born — see themselves as citizens of the world. Our intellectuals are exploring the declining significance of place in the new globalized world order. And this brave new world cries out for an answer to the question: Does a person who swears loyalty to all cities and nations have any loyalties at all? I’ve always been struck by the fact that the same people who rightly criticize multinational corporations for having no sense of responsibility to place never seem to express the same concern about the equally “unplaced” creative elite.

A few years ago, I was at a fancy dinner party and found myself the only one at the table who held only one passport.

Rodriguez goes on to make a jarringly wrong premise: those who see themselves as “citizens of the world” are somehow dramatically less engaged in civic activity than those whose horizons are smaller and whose loyalties more narrowly defined. He opines:

Without denying the benefits of globalization, we should remember the beauty and strength of parochialism.

It’s all well and good to love the world, but real social solidarity is generally found on a smaller scale. And it’s not just the unskilled immigrants we should be concerned about. We need to find ways to encourage the highly skilled ones to form a sense of attachment and commitment to their new homes. On top of that, we natives must remember that there is no honor in escaping engagement by becoming a citizen of the world.

First off — and I could be wrong — I smell a tiny whiff in Rodriguez’s piece of an old anti-Semitic canard: the notion that the “wandering Jew”, cosmopolitan to a fault, undermines the stability of whatever society in which he finds himself, because his loyalties are eternally elsewhere. Though that is surely not Rodriguez’s intent, there’s no denying that jeremiads against “jet-setting elitists” who have no commitment to place are not new, and that in the past, many of those attacks have been aimed quite explicitly at Jews. Gregory ought to have known that.

But what I resent about the piece is the notion that loyalty to the world and all of its creatures is somehow incompatible with deep concern for the well-being of particular places. Rodriguez posits what is frankly a monstrously false dichotomy: parochial and engaged or cosmopolitan and unconcerned. Indeed, I assure Greg that there are those among his readers who are devoted to Los Angeles and its well-being without feeling any need to elevate the needs of L.A. above those of the entire planet!

I am a dual citizen, holding UK and US citizenship. My brother, his wife, and children hold a serious array of passports: Mexican, Austrian, British, and American. I have many friends who also have two nationalities, and I have a few acquaintances who have three. And no, we are not all part of some transnational global elite. I’ll be waiting a long time for my invite to rub elbows with the super-rich at the Davos Economic Forum. Of course, my dual citizenship is not without significance to me: it not only gives me and my family options about where to work and live, it reminds me that I do indeed have multiple loyalties and multiple commitments. But my devotion to any one place is not less because of a devotion to many. I have been fortunate to have been able to see much of the world, and am fortunate to have friends and family scattered across many continents. But that sense of belonging to the globe rather than to a country doesn’t mean I am any less passionately devoted to the well-being of Pasadena, or to my students, many of whom have never been on an airplane much less outside of the Western Hemisphere. Continue reading

Sunday night thoughts on whiteness

I got home from my run in time to catch most of Jeremiah Wright’s speech at the NAACP convention in Detroit. I’d heard him a few times before, but was mesmerized by what he had to say tonight. I can’t find a full transcript online yet; if someone has one available, I’d be grateful for a link in the comments.

The fellow who introduced Dr. Wright used his first name repeatedly, evidently driving home the point that Barack Obama’s pastor speaks as part of a prophetic tradition that goes back as far — or farther — than the first famed Jeremiah. Those who splutter in righteous indignation at the reverend’s now-ubiquitious “God damn America” sermon would do well to reacquaint themselves with the Old Testament biblical tradition. I’m sure that this point has been made by many others, but it deserves repeating: prophetic language has political implications, but is not the same as political discourse. Only someone with a poorly-formed theology could assume that God will not punish America as he punished His beloved Israel. If God could allow the holy city on the hill, His beloved Jerusalem, to be sacked repeatedly; if he could permit and perhaps even will the first and second temples to both be destroyed, if his prophets could suggest that that destruction was earned and deserved, then it is jingoistic hubris to say that God holds the United States in higher esteem.

Watching Dr. Wright early this evening, I thought about the discomfort so many white Americans have with frank expressions of black anger. I thought as well about this comment by Fred, written in response to this post. Fred:

Maybe it is a matter of semantics, but I do not completely understand your comment on whiteness. “I have willfully refused to reject, renounce, or even seriously reflect upon my whiteness.” Skin pigmentation is an immutable trait, so what is there to reject or renounce. Should people also renounce their “blackness”? Or is “whiteness” some kind of euphemism for being a racial bigot?

When I wrote about “whiteness”, I wasn’t writing about my ethnicity or my skin pigmentation — but rather about a specific kind of privilege. One of the best-known short explanations of what white privilege is comes from Peggy McIntosh: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack. (A few years ago, Amp at Alas, A Blog posted his marvelous update on male privilege, riffing on McIntosh’s work.) When I write about renouncing whiteness, I am not talking about rejecting my European-American heritage; I’m talking about doing everything I reasonably can to avoid unconsciously benefitting from the system that McIntosh so effectively describes. Continue reading

Andrea Smith denied tenure

Brownfemipower has taken the lead on reporting the story of Andrea Smith’s denial of tenure at the University of Michigan. Read here and here, and see the report in the Chronicle of Higher Ed here.

It’s a strange case. Smith had been given a joint appointment in American Studies and Women’s Studies at the Ann Arbor campus; ’twas the latter department that nixed her promotion while the former supported her tenure cause. She’s also the director of the campus Native American Studies Center. Few of us are privy to the details of her file, and the Women’s Studies department at Michigan has not commented on why it has denied Smith tenure. But to those of us familiar with Smith’s published work, the decision is inexplicable. Her book Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide is a master-work of both advocacy and feminist scholarship, and is used in women’s studies courses across the country. (It’s on the short list of books I’m considering rotating in to my women’s history syllabus).

At research universities, the proven ability to publish is a critical part of getting tenure. So many assistant professors struggle to get anything notable into print; Smith has already done so by producing a text that is not just interesting but fundamentally ground-breaking. She’s got another book coming up: Native Americans and the Christian Right, which is available for pre-order.

Of course, being able to publish is not the only prerequisite for tenure. Teaching counts for something, even at mammoth state institutions. But the statement released by faculty and students at Michigan (available here, in PDF format) makes it clear that Andrea Smith has immense talents as a teacher and mentor. Her students and colleagues are asking that letters in support of her tenure case (which has been appealed) be sent to

* Teresa Sullivan, Provost and Executive VP for Academic Affairs, LSA, tsull@umich.edu
* Lester Monts, Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, LSA, lmonts@umich.edu
* Mary Sue Coleman, President, PresOff@umich.edu
* TenureForAndreaSmith@gmail.com

Anyone who reads the feminist blogosphere is aware that the most painful struggle of the past year, played out in so many places, is over the issue of the intersection of racism and sex. A number of prominent women of color have written, time and again, of feeling marginalized or ignored by white feminists. Whatever your feelings on the issue of race, gender, and intersectionality, it’s disastrous PR to have the Smith denial come at the hands of the Michigan Women’s Studies department. To a community of activist women of color, many of whom are already suspicious of the bona fides of white feminists, the Smith decision can only serve to increase a sense of cynicism about the prospects for real inclusion.

I’ve never met Andrea Smith or heard her lecture. I wouldn’t recognize her on the street. But I’ve read her work and been galvanized by it. I’ve chatted with people who have worked with her and heard her speak at conferences. Anecodotally, everyone I’ve heard from says she’s not merely a competent and inspiring teacher, she’s an extraordinary one. Her more than one-dozen published, peer-reviewed essays, her edited anthologies, and above all, her first masterwork “Conquest“, are building blocks of a tenure file that would put those of virtually any other junior scholar to shame. The Women’s Studies department at Michigan surely has its reasons, but until it makes those reasons clear, the shock and anger and alienation generated by their denial of tenure to Andrea Smith will continue to spread. And that’s bad news for all feminists.

And here’s hoping that if Michigan doesn’t come to its senses, someone else (are you listening, USC?) makes a nice offer. Soon.

Denial and recognition: some long thoughts on the Armenian genocide resolution

I have this post about “Nice Guys” (a subject about which many in the feminist blogosphere have written over the years) percolating in my head, but it will have to wait for tomorrow or Monday.

As most know, the House was scheduled to vote soon on a resolution concering the Armenian Genocide. It now appears that vote may be put off.

Mr. Bush, who as a candidate in 2000 criticized what he called a “genocidal campaign” against the Armenians, said lawmakers had better things to do than be caught up in the past, pursuing legislation that has unsettled an important ally.

“With all these pressing responsibilities, one thing Congress should not be doing is sorting out the historical record of the Ottoman Empire,” Mr. Bush said. “Congress has more important work to do than antagonizing a democratic ally in the Muslim world, especially one that is providing vital support for our military every day.”

Backers of the resolution said they would push ahead despite mounting opposition and try to rally support for the declaration, which they said was essential to deter future genocide and protect America’s credibility in speaking out against brutality in places like Darfur and Myanmar.

I teach and live in the heart of one of the largest communities in the global Armenian diaspora: hundreds of thousands of Armenian-Americans live in the Glendale-Pasadena region. My congressman, Adam Schiff (no relation to the fictional Law & Order DA) has been one of the chief proponents of a genocide resolution. Here at Pasadena City College, we have a huge number of students of Armenian descent; I have heard one administrator, speaking off the record, suggest that nearly 65% of “white” students on this campus are Armenian. (My students, who tend to assume that “white = Northwestern European” rather than literally “Caucasian”, generally don’t label Armenians as white. The college does.)

Since 1993, I’ve taught Modern European history here. Every semester, I cover World War One in considerable detail. But when I first started teaching at PCC, my focus was entirely on the causes of the war — and on the catastrophe that was the Western Front. I talked about the Somme and Verdun, and skipped over the eastern campaigns very quickly. World War One was not my primary field (my training was as a medievalist), and my inclination was to focus on the better-known Western story. My second semester at PCC, a very bright and vivacious young Armenian-American woman named Lori came to my office and challenged me: “Why aren’t you teaching the Armenian genocide when you teach World War One?” Lori was in her second semester with me, and had been in the first women’s studies class I ever taught, and had no trouble confronting me about what she regarded as a serious oversight in my syllabus. Continue reading

Vulgar ostentation or justifiable pride: a reflection on hanging academic diplomas

On Friday, I wrote in my post about the perceived preference for Ph.Ds at the community college:

I’m glad I have my Ph.D. (My diplomas are all in a box somewhere, mind you. Our Kind of People never put degrees on the wall, after all; it seems showy and aggressive.)

I’ve been thinking about this issue of not putting the diploma on the wall. One of my senior colleagues here is a woman from, as she describes it, “an Irish working-class family where no one went to college.” One of six children, she was the first in her family to receive a B.A., and after years of hard work, a Ph.D. Her undergraduate and graduate diplomas are framed and hang on the wall in her office. She does insist that her students address her as “Dr. Sullivan” (not her real name).

Dr. S and I are good friends, and after I got my Ph.D. in 1999, she said to me “Now you can hang a new diploma on your wall.” I told her I didn’t think that was going to happen. “Why not?”, she asked.

I told Dr. S (who, among other things, has expertise in sociology) that “in my culture”, “my people” tend to see the display of diplomas as “showing off.” Both my parents had Ph.Ds. from Berkeley; I have no idea where either one of their diplomas is hiding. For them, putting a diploma up in the office would have been like hanging a marriage license on the wall after getting home from the honeymoon! It’s one thing, I told Dr. S, to be privately proud of an accomplishment; it’s another thing to wave the proof of that accomplishment around.

I don’t know which football coach it was who said it, but some grizzled old veteran who counseled against exuberant celebration after a score always said “Act like you’ve done it before and intend to do it again very soon.” In other words, drawing attention to one’s academic accomplishments (and hanging diplomas on the office walll is certainly drawing attention) suggests that one views the acquisition of the doctorate as vaguely miraculous. It also, I told Dr. S, seemed to be inviting admiration. OKOP, I told her, are trained to downplay “that sort of thing.”

Dr. S and I were and are good enough friends to have this sort of “cross-cultural dialogue.” Dr. S wasn’t in the least offended by my reluctance to hang my various diplomas, or by my willingness to confess to her my reasons for keeping the damn things tucked in a drawer. But she also offered her own perspective:

“Hugo”, she said, “I don’t display the diploma to show off for myself. My mother and father worked terribly hard to put me through school. My husband sacrificed enormously so that I could work on my doctorate while our kids were small. No one in my family or my husband’s had ever gotten a Ph.D. before. And after all that collective effort, if I act as you do — as if a Ph.D. is ultimately not important — it makes it seem as if I don’t appreciate all that they did to help me achieve this goal. When my eighty-year old mother comes to my office, she gets to see that diploma and it makes her feel incredibly proud. Your mother, Hugo, already has a Ph.D, and though I’m sure she’s proud of you, she doesn’t need to see it the way mine does.”

Dr. S reminded me that the “OKOP dislike of ostentation” is in part a manifestation of privilege. When everyone in the family goes to college, and lots of people get Ph.Ds, and parents don’t have to work double shifts at the factory to pay for graduate school for the kids — then the newly dissertated and hooded ones can afford to be nonchalant and self-deprecating. Dr. S argued that in her case, as a woman from a working-class Irish Catholic background, she was both entitled to a greater degree of display and indeed required to “show off”. To do any less would be to disrespect the extraordinary sacrifice of her loved ones.

I’m also aware of something that Dr. S didn’t mention. We teach on a campus that has a high percentage of non-white students, as well as a majority of folks who are first-generation college students. These students need reminders that a Ph.D. is possible for them too. Those professors who hold the doctorate — and are themselves members of ethnic minorities or were, like Dr. S, first-generation college students — thus have, perhaps, an obligation to display the diploma in order to inspire the young.

I have another colleague in another department; like me, he holds a Ph.D from UCLA. He is also African-American, and he began his academic career right here at PCC. On the wall in his office, he has diplomas from each stage of his career in higher education, starting with the associate’s degree from Pasadena all the way up to the doctorate itself. Those diplomas, which hang behind his desk and stare his visitors in the face are not just there to swell his head — they are there, I suspect, to send a message to those students who look like him (but not like me) that academic success is possible for everyone if they work hard enough. Though I’ve never discussed it with this man, I suspect that this is his reason for displaying the evidence of his academic prowess so boldly. What OKOP sees as aggressive and vulgar showiness, others may see as much-needed inspiration for the next generation.

I know my diplomas are somewhere in a box in the garage. I last saw them in 2002, when I was packing up after my divorce. I have no intention of throwing them out, of course. But in all honesty, I’m not really sure what to do with them. I don’t want them on the wall in my home, or on the wall in my campus office. Perhaps I’ll just keep them tucked away forever, in the same sort of place where I keep old tax returns and insurance papers. But let me be clear that I no longer cast aspersions on those who choose to hang the evidence of their achievements for all to see. For some, perhaps, it isn’t ostentation or insecurity that drives such display: it’s the desire to honor all those who made the achievement possible. And it’s the desire to inspire a new generation to achieve similar goals. In the end, there’s nothing vulgar or showy about that.

A note on white privilege

Thanks to Barry (Ampersand) the 16th Erase Racism carnival is up. It’s there I found a link to this powerful post from Naima: “It ain’t privilege, it’s injustice”. It begins:

a particular phenomenon in the immensely white Leftist circles at yale is a rhetorical and ideological obssession with the notion of White Privilege.

it is not uncommon to hear a white liberal campus organizer at yale say something along the lines of, “we white students at yale walk around enjoying a great deal of privilege because of the color of our skin – it is because of this privilege that we must work to uplift the citizens of new haven.”

…as a blactivist at yale, i have found it rare to emerge from an organizing conversation or meeting with a white peer without a guilt-stricken or self-righteous allusion to “White Privilege.”

I have a hard time believing that in 2007, any “white liberal campus organizer” would use the verb “uplift”, unless they did so with tongue planted firmly in cheek!

Still, I smiled when I read this. I had impeccable liberal credentials during my undergraduate years at Berkeley in the mid-1980s. My freshman year, I participated in anti-ROTC and “divest from South Africa” demonstrations. Later, I worked with groups that sought an ethnic studies requirement for graduation; that mandate was eventually put in place my senior year. In my ethnic studies classes (where I was often one of the only white men), I alternated between being adversarial and apologetic. Both served a purpose. When I was adversarial, I provided a helpful foil; when I was apologetic for my white privilege, I was demonstrating my good intentions, if nothing else.

I grasped quickly that white privilege manifested itself in a variety of ways. It had never occurred to me to question why it was that store managers never followed me around, worried that I would shoplift. It never occurred to me that it was unusual to have the first police officer to pull me over for speeding (when I was 17) address me as “sir” and let me off with a warning. It never occured to me that it was a huge confidence-booster to have most of my classes taught by professors who looked as if they could be my uncles or aunts. Realizing that the color of my skin gave me this unmerited privilege was eye-opening.

Of course, I quickly became adept — as many well-intentioned and earnest young white liberals invariably are — at bringing up my white privilege as often as possible. I said things like “I’m really becoming aware of how privileged I am” or “I never knew how many things I could take for granted because I was born with white skin.” I also began to believe that if I pre-emptively apologized for having this privilege, I could redirect the anger of “people of color” away from me and towards those “other white people”, the ones who weren’t as enlightened as I.

It’s almost axiomatic on college campuses that a significant percentage of white progressives are eager to expiate real or imagined guilt. One rather simple (and to many people of color, exasperating) way for white people to prove their progressive bona fides (and get rid of that pesky guilt) is to throw some acknowledgement of their own white privilege into virtually every sentence. It’s similar to what some young men do when they first start discovering feminism. These anti-racist newbies (of which I surely once was one) imagine that approaching virtually ever situation with an “I’m sorry” on their lips is one road towards the acceptance they crave.

The problem is that many young white liberals value expiating their own guilt over really getting rid of race-based privilege. Naima:

if the world were organized by “White Privilege” rather than “Racism,” a police officer might be especially kind to white people while nonetheless providing people of color with legal protection, aid, fairness under the law.

and so the white Leftists who think they are down because they have got the courage to lamentably declare, “We’ve got White Privilege,” it would be more accurate and truthful to say instead, “We are beneficiaries of racism,” or “We participate in a racialized system of oppression.”

how much more reluctant is the race conscious white activist to admit that his “privilege” has a consequence, that his whiteness is more than merely a personal reality about his own social power but is also an agent of violence.

Bold emphasis mine. That was me for a very long time. Talking about one’s own “white privilege” and, better yet, claiming to “renounce” it (as if that were genuinely possible), is immensely satisfying. It’s also more than a little self-centered. Reading this post, I’m reminded that all too often, the language of “white privilege” serves to re-center the discussion of racism away from its victims and back on to the sensibilities of the privileged and the powerful.

I don’t make apologies for my cultural whiteness any longer (see my “Happy White Boy” and first OKOP post on that subject). But of course, no one was ever asking me to apologize for preppiness or a long-term subscription to Town and Country. What the activists of color I’ve worked with have asked me to do is, first of all, be honest as North Star asks the white Yalies to be honest. It’s not enough to cop to white privilege — we who benefit from that privilege do so at the expense of others. In this case, privilege is a zero-sum game.

And of course, the real problem is that talking endlessly about “white privilege” reinforces its power. Endlessly lamenting something you think you wish you didn’t have simply makes it seem all the more potent.

Wishing Cho Seung-Hui had been Billy Bob Johnson: the VA Tech shootings and anti-Asian stereotypes: UPDATED (Again)

It appears as of this morning that yesterday’s horrific shooting at Virginia Tech began with a young man killing his girlfriend before moving on to massacre dozens of fellow students and at least one faculty member. As has often been the case in the past, a mass shooting seems clearly linked to one man’s colossal rage at an individual woman or women. There’s a long and evolving discussion of many aspects of this event at Feministe. Here’s the post I wrote after last year’s awful Amish school shooting; as the facts unfold about what happened in Blacksburg, these words may or may not prove relevant once again:

As a pro-feminist gender studies prof, if there’s one topic that depresses me more than almost any other, it’s just how widespread male rage at women seems to be in our culture…We live in a culture where rape remains ubiquitous; where sexual harassment is a nearly-universal experience for many women in the workplace; where pornography that features the narrative of teenage girls being raped, overpowered or even murdered is ever more available and popular. I don’t know what specific factors inspired these two three shootings, but I do know that they are, in some as of yet inexplicable way, emblematic of a larger cultural problem…

The shooter has been identified as a young Korean-American man, Cho Seung-Hui. My first thought upon hearing that the killer had been described as “Asian” was “Damn, why couldn’t it have been a white boy?” Please understand, I don’t think the race of the shooter played a vital role in these tragic events. If he had been white, the horror of what happened would be no less (and no greater.) But I teach at a campus where over a third of our students are Asian or Asian-American. Pasadena City College awards more AA degrees to Asians than any other junior college in the United States. And I am deeply concerned about the possibility of anti-Asian backlash, particularly in those areas (and on those campuses) where Asians constitute more of a minority than they do here in the San Gabriel Valley.

In my men and masculinity class (I’ll be teaching it again in the fall after a two-year hiatus), we spend quite a bit of time talking about race. We talk about deeply-held stereotypes about men of various ethnic backgrounds (I’ll bet my readers can think of a few in a matter of seconds.) And over and over again, I’ve listened to the anguish of more than a few Asian male students. We live in a white-dominated culture that exaggerates the athletic and erotic capabilities of black males at the same instant that it denigrates those same possibilities within Asian men. We know the nasty stereotypes: Asian men are invariably near-sighted; always slight of build and small of penis; good at science and math; emotionally inarticulate (even more so than white men); inscrutable. These painful, cruel, inaccurate assumptions do real damage.

One other stereotype that may have a very small bit of truth within it is one I hear repeated quite a bit on my campus: young Asian men, particularly from competitive Korean and Chinese families, may be under tremendous pressure not only to do very well academically but also to keep virtually all emotion repressed. The last time I taught my men and masculinity class, a young Chinese-American fella said something like this:

Prof. Hugo, you ever wonder why Asian guys like video and role-playing games more than anyone else? It’s because black, white, and Hispanic guys get to express their anger so much more than we do. We’re supposed to not get angry. We’re not given the same outlets, not encouraged to play sports as much. So we — I — like video games. And I really like the violent ones.

This led to heated discussion — there were a number of Asian-American men and women in the room, and some vehemently disagreed with what their classmate was saying. Others vigorously supported him.

It’s obvious from the history of mass shootings that most killers — the Dylan Klebolds, the Marc Lepines — have been white males. And we almost never attribute their murderousness to their whiteness. We focus on their misogyny, their alienation, their easy access to guns. But whether or not there is any truth to the stereotype that young Asian men are often under particularly great familial and cultural pressure to succeed (and to do so without expressing any rage or frustration), I am very worried about the legacy of Cho Seung-Hui. I am worried that on many campuses — particularly those where Asians are a very small minority — other students will begin to shun their Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese male classmates. I can hear the jokes now, the ones that have an ugly edge to them: “Hey ____, did you bring your gun to class today?”

I saw what was done to many of my Muslim students after 9/11. And though what happened yesterday was no 9/11, these murders in Virginia are receiving an extraordinary amount of attention. “The worst mass shooting in American history” has a terrible resonance to it, and it will be all most of us talk about for the next few days. For some within our society, the temptation to displace some of their own feelings of anger, sadness, and powerlessness onto others will be overwhelming. And I am deeply worried for my students who share the shooter’s ethnic heritage and outer appearance. And though it wouldn’t change anything in the long run, I am wishing this morning that the trigger had been pulled by a good ol’ WASP boy named Billy Bob Johnson rather than by the late Cho Seung-Hui.

UPDATE: Please don’t devote your comments to a discussion of how white men are actually as victimized by stereotypes as men of other ethnic groups. If I were to do this post over, I would have titled it Wishing Cho Seung-Hui had been William Robert Johnson IV, in order to avoid the sense that I was stereotyping working-class white southern men. I’ve read through a lot of Colombine coverage (most folks are comparing this event chiefly to Colombine); I haven’t found many folks talking about how whiteness played a part in what Harris and Klebold did. I’m already seeing some anti-Asian commentary showing up in my comments section and elsewhere.

Folks, emotions are raw. Be kind, be judicious, and take a second before hitting the “publish” button. I’ll be moderating.

UPDATE II: I just checked my stats. At 2:10PM PDT, I already have more unique visitors and hits than I have had on any single day since I started this blog. Welcome, all of those of you who typed Cho Seung-Hui into a search engine.

UPDATE III: I’m done arguing in the comments section, at least for today. I just did a lengthy phone interview with Newsweek, and my comments may appear in a story there in the next couple of days. I’ve got a gym to hit and papers to grade…

More on white privilege, reparations, and the sins of our ancestors: a rambling response to Carl

Carl at Young Anabaptist Radicals found several things troubling about my “Dukes don’t emigrate” post last week. He posted a couple of comments below my piece, and then wrote his own lengthy response here.

In my comments section, I had written:

We need to be honest about the mistakes of our ancestors. We also need to see those mistakes in a historical context, and avoid the tendency to mythologize and glamorize those who were the victims of colonization. Cruelty is a human universal, and sin — at least the capacity for sin — is found in every tribe and nation under the sun. Collectively, some have inflicted both more harm (and perhaps more good) than others.

Carl, politely but firmly, found that response wanting:

I can’t count the number of times that I’ve heard something along the lines of “cruelty is a human universal” from white people as a blanket dismissal of the idea that Euro-American culture might have anything significant to learn from indigenous people. Same goes for the tired bit about “don’t mythologize the victims of colonization.” You don’t have to be a romanticizing, mythologizing, self-hating fool to be willing to simply look at another culture and say, “You know, I value many of the things my ancestors taught me. But I think these folks have some things figured out about how to live on this earth that my ancestors once knew, but lost somewhere along the way.” In my experience, the resistance to this idea is huge – and the cliches in your paragraph are a key piece of that resistance.

That’s fair enough. I’m quite prepared to believe that indigenous groups in the Third World had “ways of seeing” nature and reality that were — and perhaps still are — immensely valuable. I don’t know how well I live out that conviction in my own life, however. Sure, I go to the health food store and stock up on homeopathic, “natural” remedies that were (so the advertisers say) the secrets of indigenous peoples. In recent years, I’ve spent lots of time with my wife’s family in rural Colombia, enjoying their “simpler”, more “pastoral” life. I’m never allowed to do any actual work when I’m on the finca, however. Despite my often sincere attempts to pitch in, my status as a guest (and perhaps, my status as a — comparatively — staggeringly affluent white man) means that despite my protestations, I’m generally waited on and catered to and told to lie in a hammock. Generally, I get a week or two to observe and to witness a different way of being. I come away appreciative for the tremendous hospitality of those who have so little, and filled with gratitude for the extraordinary privileges I have.

I’ve also been on a number of “mission trips” to Mexico, doing the usual things affluent white Christians do down there. Lots of short-term bursts of hard work (hey, I learned how to use a cement mixer in rural Sinaloa a few years ago), lots of prayer, lots of pious and hackneyed sentiment about how we Americans had “so much to learn” from those who “have so little.” Forgive a touch of cynicism, but after you’ve done a couple of these weeks south of the Border with a group of earnest teenagers, it’s hard not to poke a bit of fun. I’m aware, deeply aware, that no matter how much I try to humble myself, I’m still going to be the affluent white man waltzing into an impoverished community for a few days, bringing a bunch of chattering teenagers who come to do just a little bit of work. It’s easy to find oneself slipping into the role of the munificent bwana, filled with self-congratulation because I’ve left behind the air conditioning and the high-thread count sheets for a few days of sweat, dirt, ranchera and frijoles. I do make a sincere effort to avoid that role, but it invariably seems to be thrust upon me. Perhaps I unconsciously insist on playing it.

Carl also deals with the issue of reparations for the “sins of the ancestors”:

Many people talk about privilege and “working for a more equitable society” entirely in the present tense, without any reference to the critical role of accepting _real responsibility_ for the sins of our ancestors. Responsibility in this case means recognizing that we benefit from our ancestors’ sins (i.e. owning slaves, stealing land), and then making things right. This choice has very practical implications. Here in South Dakota, there are plenty of well-meaning white folks who will say, “Yes! Let’s work towards a more equitable society!” The unspoken implication is: become a part of my society, on my terms, and I’ll try to help you get your piece of the pie. There are far fewer white people who are willing to hear Lakota people say “We don’t want your society – we want you to give back the Black Hills that you stole, and then leave us alone.” Doing the latter requires an understanding that the theft of the Black Hills is not ancient history, it’s of critical present-day relevance. Same goes for slavery – it ain’t ancient history, folks. We don’t just need “a more equitable society” – we need to make actual, physical reparations! Until there’s been real recompense, the wounds of the past are still open and bleeding – they are, in fact, the continuing wounds of the present.

I’m not familar with the Lakota struggle (beyond a cursory knowledge from American history classes.) I am curious to know how many of the living Lakota have European ancestry themselves, however. When one is descended from both colonizer and the colonized, isn’t it cherry-picking to identify with only one aspect of your heritage? Isn’t it odd to demand reparations, when that means your mother’s side of the family ends up paying your father’s? Perhaps it isn’t odd at all; I’ll admit I’ve given it remarkably little thought.

As for reparations for slavery and other injustices, fine. On my mother’s side, my ancestors certainly owned slaves. (Though one branch of the family first came to California in the early 1850s, selling their plantation in East Texas and freeing their slaves, following the patriarch’s sudden revelation that slavery was immoral. That’s a feather in our family cap, one we periodically display.) Whatever modest wealth my mother’s side of the family was able to generate was at least in part built on slave labor. Here in California, my great-great grandfather made a living as a lawyer, serving as counsel for the railroads, “foreclosing on widows and orphans”, making money, I acknowledge, on the backs of Chinese laborers. Some of that money (not much) has trickled down to my generation.

Do I feel guilt because my ancestors owned slaves or served as hired legal guns for Southern Pacific? No. Do I admit some of my material benefits may have been connected to those acts of exploitation? Yes. I tithe on what I have and on what I inherit. I vote Democratic and support affirmative action. I am willing to support, with my money and my vote, programs that seek to redress historic inequities. But what else am I supposed to do? Shall I play amateur geneaologist, track down the descendants of slaves my ancestors owned, and send them a check? Shall I demand that we sell the small piece of land my family has owned in the Northern California hills, bought well over a century ago with money derived (in part, not in whole) from the largesse dispensed by the railroads? It was once Ohlone Indian land, and there are no Ohlone left. Shall we find the one or two folks who still have a drop of Ohlone blood, get on our knees, and make a personal and abject apology?

I’m not trying to offend, but I’d like some clear-cut clarification of what is asked of me. I give my first fruits to God and his work. I support government and private programs that seek to offer redress. If you want to raise my taxes to fund a massive reparations program, sure. I’ll write the check gladly. What else is there?

My favorite spot on earth is my family’s ranch in the hills northeast of San Jose. My family has been in those hills since Rutherford B. Hayes was president, and though most of what we once owned has been given to the public park system, a few very small parcels remain in our hands. In our old ranch house, pictures of my great- and great-great and great-great-great grandmothers and fathers hang on the walls and sit upon desks. I love looking at those people I never knew, knowing that they were the ones who crossed the plains in covered wagons, came around the Horn in storm-tossed boats, who longed for something new and bigger and better and different. There is a restlessness in the northern European, WASPy soul; a restlessness I see in my family’s history and in my own life. The longing for the new and the different runs deep in some of us. Call it the “pioneer spirit”. And it is, I fully acknowledge, a mixed legacy. Lord knows, that restlessness runs deep in me.

I love these ancestors of mine. I don’t worship them, but sometimes — as unChristian as it may seem to do so — I talk to them. I walk the hills and canyons of my truest earthly home, and I feel a cloud of witnesses hovering nearby. I talk to old “Albert Alfonso”, who first built the ranch houses. I talk to “aunt Jacqueline”, the family’s near-legendary matriarch. They died before my mother was born, and yet I still feel them to be a part of me, and I feel them most when I am on the land that they loved. Do I judge them perfect, blameless? No. Do I think that the means by which money came into their lives to have been so sordid that it vitiates any other good that they did? Of course not.

Do I know that the land I now call “mine” and “ours” once belonged to a native people, long since wiped from the earth? You bet. Do I grieve that? Yes. But will renouncing my heritage, giving up that land, right an ancient wrong? No. I don’t believe it. Perhaps I don’t want to believe it.