Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Columbus-ing Around: Columbus, The Borg, and the Great White Devil

History is portrayed as a science. And yet popular history remains as much subject to emotion as reason. History may be consciously rewritten; much more often, it simply evolves. ... The present is a consequence of the past. But the past is an invention of the present. (Empires Apart.) 
In the process of doing research for the next Fallen Cycle book, I've been taking in quite a lot of history-related books. This has gotten me thinking more lately about race and culture, as all identity and meaning is ultimately historic. (See also: Beyond Narrative: Systems Theory and the Unveiling of History)

One thing keeps sticking out to me, and that is the image that forms of what “whiteness” is. We speak so frequently about the problems and experiences of whites and not-whites, and yet it is arguable if those categories are meaningful beyond the sense that we insist on continuing to use them. I'd like to look at the mirage of whiteness, and the very real history that produced that myth. 

Like all Modern Mythology articles, hopefully it'll at least get you thinking about these things in some new ways, all with the point of better understanding the myths (collective narratives) we use to understand ourselves. As always, nothing here is meant to be final or definitive. Productive comments are welcome in the comments section.

Let's begin with a curious manifesto from “Race Traitor,”

Whiteness is not a culture. There is Irish culture and Italian culture and American culture - the latter, as Albert Murray pointed out, a mixture of the Yankee, the Indian, and the Negro (with a pinch of ethnic salt); there is youth culture and drug culture and queer culture; but there is no such thing as white culture. Whiteness has nothing to do with culture and everything to do with social position. It is nothing but a reflection of privilege, and exists for no reason other than to defend it. Without the privileges attached to it, the white race would not exist, and the white skin would have no more social significance than big feet.Before the advocates of positive whiteness remind us of the oppression of the white poor, let me say that we have never denied it. The United States, like every capitalist society, is composed of masters and slaves. The problem is that many of the slaves think they are part of the master class because they partake of the privileges of the white skin. We cannot say it too often: whiteness does not exempt people from exploitation, it reconciles them to it. It is for those who have nothing else....
The white race is neither a biological nor a cultural formation; it is a strategy for securing to some an advantage in a competitive society. It has held down more whites than blacks. Abolitionism is also a strategy: its aim is not racial harmony but class war. By attacking whiteness, the abolitionists seek to undermine the main pillar of capitalist rule in this country. A traitor to the white race is someone who is nominally classified as white but who defies white rules so strenuously as to jeopardize his or her ability to draw upon the privileges of whiteness.
(Race Traitor.)
This concept of whiteness as function rather than people or culture is presented surprisingly clearly in the character of the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation. They are a perfect metaphor for whiteness not as race but as force of hegemonic appropriation, as you can see in the first episode they appear in, “Q-Who?”

This idea of appropriation seems central to what the Borg do—they show up in a star system, assimilate all the people on the planet into their distributed network so all individuality is removed, any resources or knowledge the culture has is all sucked up and taken in by the Hive, and the Borg move on. This idea of the distinction between “light skinned people that we generally call white” and “white” as a concept, a standing-in for a myth, or macro-narrative if you prefer, of appropriation. You see, and this is absolutely essential, the Borg themselves may have once been dark skinned or or blue skinned, they might have come from Alpha Centuari. It doesn't matter. Once they became Borg, their history was erased. 

In the real world, many would say this process first began in the New World with Columbus arriving in the West Indies, an event now couched in myth: either the myth filled with genocide and oppression, or a myth that led the nation, not long after, to a collective sense of Manifest Destiny that spread from coast to coast. The recently popularized Columbus-ing can help us further unpack this, while it simultaneously points toward some of the obvious confusions that are going to arise when we short-hand a national history of oppression and a race and risk making them more or less synonymous. Columbus-ing, which if you somehow missed it is when a white person ‘discovers’ something that’s been around a long time before them. Or, as described by NPR
If you've danced to an Afrobeat-heavy pop song, dipped hummus, sipped coconut water, participated in a Desi-inspired color run or sported a henna tattoo, then you've Columbused something.
Columbusing is when you "discover" something that's existed forever. Just that it's existed outside your own culture, nationality, race or even, say, your neighborhood. Bonus points if you tell all your friends about it.
Why not? In our immigrant-rich cities, the whole world is at our doorsteps.
Sometimes, though, Columbusing can feel icky. When is cultural appropriation a healthy byproduct of globalization and when is it a problem?
Columbusing is significant within the context of a possibly unique element to United States history, when compared to the identity of most other nations; unlike other nations, the US history begins not through a line of cultural ancestry, but rather as if born out of whole cloth, when mostly European settlers “discovered” the New World, ignoring the fact that quite a few civilizations had existed there for a considerably long time.
Most nations take their histories back as far as possible. King Arthur is part of British history, even though countless invasions have wiped out most of the gene pool, language and culture of Arthurian Britain. America is almost unique in claiming no such historical continuities. ... Only in America could pyramids constructed nearly four thousand years after the pyramids of Egypt and a city that flourished a thousand years after the glories of Rome be described as 'prehistoric.' In America history starts with Columbus; before him there was no America. (Empires Apart.)
This kind of ex nihilo origin myth is surprisingly akin to that of creationism, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say that connection is intrinsic, seeing as many other cosmologies feature an ex nihilo origin. But historically it is unique, for the preexisting civilizations were so successfully erased that to this day many Americans are shocked to discover that Columbus didn’t discover anything. Civilizations were quite literally paved over, and those that survived could only do so by white-washing themselves.

This term Columbusing is generally used to represent white privilege and appropriation, in the very literal sense that something quite simply doesn’t exist until a white person has claimed it as known.

However, this idea, like the concept of privilege, is likely to turn from insight into another tool of divisiveness. There may be a fine line between privilege and ignorance, in the sense that one can have the privilege of ignorance—for instance the piece of mind to not know depressing truths. But there is a difference between Columbusing a flavor of ice cream or even art form, and willfully erasing multiple civilizations for the sake of Empire. 

It’s still argued how much or how little Columbus knew, or didn’t, but what’s inarguable is the result of his voyages. (Forget that he was also hardly the first European to land in the New World. History is fickle.) It is interesting to note that in the earliest colonies Africans weren't the most common slaves—too many died in the passage to make it viable. And native Americans were too liable to flee or revolt. So the earliest slaves were often Irish or other white skinned but lower class people essentially tricked into taking the journey and then stuck in indentured servitude in the other end. Only once the tobacco trade really started to pick up steam was it economical to import more Africans. In other words, systems of power will put bodies of any color in the meat grinder, if it is to their benefit. The bones that built Saint Petersburg or the Great Wall share more in common with those who harvested cotton than the color of the skin that once clothed them.

Although the underlying imperial motives are generally based on self-interest and consolidation of power, there is nevertheless no argue that this was leveraged some hundred years later along racial lines, and this is the history that loads some of our understandings of what race “means."
Although the increase in slavery was driven entirely by economic considerations, the political implications of having an alien minority in their midst was not lost on the governing oligarchy. On the one hand, having a significant new working class element with even more reason to rebel was a real threat. On the other hand, this threat could be used to frighten the rest of the lower orders into supporting the establishment. Dividing the working class was achieved by the quite conscious introduction of institution racism. (Empires Apart) 
In other words, we don't need to look far to see that the “myth of whiteness” is a narrative based on a real history of oppression, of slavery, and so on, but none of these things are themselves unique to cultures that are generally labelled as "white," and there is an even further distance between the average white person and this history. These divisions were manufactured and they divide the lower classes against one another to this day.

This is an issue really from every side. Getting a laugh at ignorance hardly makes up for the crushing weight of that history. The troublesome possibility isn’t that white people’s feelings are hurt, it is that what “white” is gets further buried in the lie that there are a “white people” who share this, or really any particular common heritage. 

Not to Columbus myself on a well paved train of thought, but the ignorance of white people toward other cultures is based, if anything, on the erasure of their own origins. (And let’s not pretend only Caucasians can be culturally ignorant). The re-enforcement of the idea that there are a singular white people only strengthens the very things those fighting for diversity would wish for. Whereas whiteness refers to light skin, it is racially ambiguous at best — plenty of Hispanic, Indian, (etc etc etc) people feel the backlash of this as a result of happening to be light skinned, and thus their ability to “speak for their people” is questioned from within. President Obama has experienced various sides of this; to some black Americans he is suspect as an agent of the hegemonic powers that be not because of his corporatism, but because he's “too white.” At the same time he's attacked by most of the opposition for being of some nefarious and dubious origin, and Republican pundits used every means possible to convey the veiled and not-so-veiled terror of his dark Otherness.

Making ideological judgement based on something so arbitrary as skin color isn't necessarily always racist in the structural racism sense, but it certainly restricts the amount we can understand someone's identity as a human being. It's not as if the genetic markers for skin color actually mean much, even in terms of long-term ancestry. (Implications of Correlation Between Skin Color and Ancestry, PDF). In fact, the idea of “race” itself has long since passed any sense of scientific legitimacy, even though it continues to be used within most cultures. (The Race Concept Within Six Regions.)

This is of course where history and culture play a far greater role in what we call “race,” since it is these narratives that we associate with a shade of skin or range of facial features that wind up holding all the meaning as race. Genetics is in this sense something of a red herring.  

None of this is to say, then, that “race doesn't mean anything,” in the sense that people speak of it socially, even though it doesn't mean anything scientifically, and this is bound to create an intractable confusion and misuse of terminology. To those that hold to a sense of racial identity, the claim that race is meaningless shows the kind of facile miopia attributed to Liberalist populism, and so “I don't see race” can be seen from this perspective as another instance of erasure. It's not that they're lying when they say they don't see race, though maybe they are. It's that they are assuming their experience speaks for all, which is the part of the “white myth” that haunts America's collective legacy. When people are forced to think in terms of skin color because they've been oppressed, that identity (“not being one of them,” and pride in that Otherness, etc) doesn't become less meaningful. It becomes more meaningful. The underlying message of Martin Luther King clearly wasn't about hate, it was about reclaiming the pride and dignity that has been taken, and doing it in a way that people might retain some of their culture, not be assimilated, as it were. 

This is well and good until the oppressed becomes the oppressor, often of another group that the white monolith has singled out. So you sometimes as a result see bigotry between groups that might find greater freedom through cooperation. One might even hypothesize this internal conflict and hatred was a part of the hegemonic plan, and maybe it is; however, you see it the world over in very different historic and cultural contexts.

The simple conclusion of this process is polarization. Any idea that increases identification with one group risks enhancing hostility toward another. We can't even agree about how to distinguish or categorize, or what those categorizations mean. This becomes charged with additional emotion when those categories relate to the identities we hold for ourselves. These histories and feelings are real, but they are divergent and often in conflict. This may be the simple answer to the age old question of why we can’t “all just get along.” It might be a war over territory but the real battle is ideological.

So while it may be useful to point out how white “discovery” is a device of appropriation, there is a larger issue at stake here. Who are the individual “whites” that conduct the, pardon the absurd term, Columbus-scale Columbus-ing, and is the color of their skin actually relevant to what they have done? Can we find similar instances of erasure and abuse, appropriation and apartheid outside the history where it is a uniquely white phenomenon?

Certainly there are plenty of instances of just that within Asian and Middle-Eastern cultures in times and contexts that had little to do with white-skinned oppressors. This shouldn't in any way put lie to the history wherein Europeans are the ones slaughtering the Mayas and the Incas, the Lakota and the Apache, but perhaps oppression is not actually a function of whiteness, and the term leads to more trouble than it lends, much as that history should be known and talked about. 

The real systems of power and oppression (hegemony, oligarchy, etc) may use the illusion of racial differences to keep people biting at one another’s heels, but lines of commonality and difference are drawn along class lines. (In any sense that can be measured outside our heads, or that has any sociological impact. The "meaning" of race is rooted entirely in ideology.) That those lines can hardly be distinguished from those of culture and race thanks to the forgetfulness of history is I think the true “problem” that the myth of whiteness depends on. The moment a person starts to look back more than 100 years, mindful of the drawing and redrawing of lines on maps based on the interests of the power class, it becomes clear how pervasive and strange this myth actually is. And since neither colonialism nor imperialism are uniquely white phenomenons, the myth of whiteness becomes based on a purely circular argument. 

Whiteness, then, is little more than a phantom, as it isn't a real race, it has no culture, and even the myth of it as a unique force of appropriation is suspect in the terms already laid out. 

In conclusion, I want to share a little of why I'm actually thinking about this. As I mentioned, it's research for a book. Some may find it strange that this is what I'm exploring when doing research for a speculative fiction / fantasy novel. But my goal with fiction really began with the first book I ever read, Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings," and much as I have no desire to emulate it, and much as I have issue with the underlying mythology of his work, his apparent aims with mythology and folklore remain absolutely paramount for me, whether or not I ever reach any degree of real proficiency. 
The mental power of image-making is one thing, or aspect; and it should appropriately be called Imagination. The perception of the image, the grasp of its implications, and the control, which are necessary to a successful expression, may vary in vividness and strength: but this is a difference of degree in Imagination, not a difference in kind. The achievement of the expression, which gives (or seems to give) “the inner consistency of reality,” is indeed another thing, or aspect, needing another name: Art, the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub-creation. For my present purpose I require a word which shall embrace both the Sub- creative Art in itself and a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression, derived from the Image: a quality essential to fairy-story. I propose, therefore, to arrogate to myself the powers of Humpty-Dumpty, and to use Fantasy for this purpose: in a sense, that is, which combines with its older and higher use as an equivalent of Imagination the derived notions of “unreality” (that is, of unlikeness to the Primary World), of freedom from the domination of observed “fact,” in short of the fantastic. I am thus not only aware but glad of the etymological and semantic connexions of fantasy with fantastic: with images of things that are not only “not actually present,” but which are indeed not to be found in our primary world at all, or are generally believed not to be found there. But while admitting that, I do not assent to the depreciative tone. That the images are of things not in the primary world (if that indeed is possible) is a virtue, not a vice. Fantasy (in this sense) is, I think, not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent. (On Fairy Tales.)
Tales From When I Had A Face's theme is the forgetfulness of history and how personal myth and cultural myths are redrawn again and again, but not on a blank slate—going much deeper, hopefully, on that idea of palimpsests which shows up in book 1.) I’m excited especially by the prospect of getting at these ideas through fiction because when you talk about them in terms of “real” history, (nevermind its narrative roots), people get hung up on their own struggles and prejudices. So telling the tale of the Im’ari and Mibab’i tribes for instance, not as likely to wall people off than dealing with the same issues re: Palestinians and Israelis. (And the issues of the white monolith I’m dealing with through the Eldarians, though in the history I have now that have an actual cultural heritage, in a tribe that was itself erased).

On the other hand, there’s a good chance no one will take it seriously for the same reason. “It’s only fiction,” nevermind that everything remembered is a story.

[Take a Trip with us... Mythos Media.]

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