Everything is Everything
In the Social Sciences there is a concept that is extremely useful for understanding the difference between ‘society’ as it is frequently used in the Anglo-Saxon American Western world, and the standard definition of ‘a culture’ as used in more generally analytical schemes and frames. When most people talk about “society” in the United States for example, they use it as an overarching referent to all of humanity. Phrases like “Society’s Problems” or “Contributing to Society” or “Strong Social Policy” are essentially meaningless but they sound profound.
The reason they sound profound, especially when used at the appropriate point in a political speech, is because they stem from the common definition of the word ‘society’ being everybody, everywhere. The profundity is in the implication that I’m not just talking about me, or my immediate family, or even my small town of Whereversville, Stateland. I’m talking about absolutely everybody who walks and talks and combs their hair in the morning. I’m talking about (and to) anyone, anywhere, anytime, which is why what I have to say is important.
Thing is, it isn’t true. No one who doesn’t speak my language understands what I’m saying without an interpreter. No one who lives in another environment, or who doesn’t recognize any of the experiences I’m talking about, has any idea what I’m referring to. I, like everybody else on earth, have a view-point that is particular to my surroundings and dependent on everyone else around me to sustain.
In short, I’m writing this in English right now because I can and because you can read it. If you can’t read English, we likely didn’t grow up in the same society. You might somehow get a version of what I’m writing from a translation, but for a few languages it will be virtually impossible to translate accurately, and for most languages it will change some of the words slightly no matter how adept the translator is. I can say “Society” but what I really mean is “My Society” or “Societies Mostly Like Mine”.
Which is where the Social Science term comes in handy: “Lineage Segmentation” sounds complicated but it really isn’t. Let’s say I have a mom (or dad), and she has a mom (or dad), and so on. As I move up the generations, the number of people in my family gets larger. There’s my direct family (brothers and sisters), my mom’s direct family (or dad’s), my mom’s mom’s direct family (or dad’s dad’s… you get the idea). Each of these has a certain level of power over my life. In a segmented lineage system, if I have a problem with my mom’s mom, I don’t go to my sister, I go to my mom’s mother’s sister. The whole family up to that point is now in on the dispute. Plus, the whole family gets to help resolve the dispute. It becomes a giant negotiation and everybody has a say up to a certain point, and no say past a certain point. Social pressures are diffused through the whole system so nobody has to take all of the blame, but there are specific members who can be singled out if necessary for particular issues and functions.
What’s clear from a lineage segmentation chart is that no one person is responsible for all of society. As you go up the chain, the number of people increases until eventually you’ve likely got the whole town involved, but you’ve done it by giving everyone a stake in the proceedings. No one is completely blameless, and no one is fully to blame.
Everything isn’t Everything
Blaming one person waaaaaay up at the top, for something that happened somewhere around the middle ignores all of the people between those two who were involved in the process. This can be applied to most social situations that we commonly reference in the Contemporary West as ‘culture’. Music is not exclusively what we’re told to listen to, it’s also what’s generally available, it’s what of what’s available that we personally choose, and it’s things that aren’t commonly available that we seek out.
One of the reasons ‘Hipsters’ can be prime targets for grief is because they’re not actually “rejecting” social trends, they’re reacting to them. It’s impossible to be haughty about an ‘obscure’ band if they’re not ‘obscure’, and the band isn’t ‘obscure’ if they’re being played regularly on the city-wide pop-music radio station. Which means to be ‘obscure’ the band has to be non-popular. The contradiction being that to find a non-popular band is to be a part of the process of making them more popular, and to be non-popular one must be highly aware of what is popular and take specific pains to do the opposite. The ‘hipster’ is a type of person even though they claim to only be rejecting ‘types’.
People who want to flash their Hipster cred frequently include themselves as anti-cliche, and in doing so they construct a cliche of their own. Accusations of appropriation toward events such as Coachella or South By Southwest or Burning Man (and here, here, here, … oh hell just yahoogle “Indian Headdress Burning Man”) or just about any KC Chief’s Game (to the point that even their home-base complained), stem from the events themselves being steeped in artifice and revelry. Which means they’re taking what could potentially be sacred objects to another culture, objects representing high-tradition, and manipulating them into a glorified Halloween costume. All to satisfy a desire to do the opposite of what everybody else is doing, which is incredibly culture specific. Hipsters help to make Hipster a ‘thing’, every action they take refines the definition, and their reactions are culturally driven just like everybody else. To the point that I can use the term “Hipster” in this paragraph as if it’s a defined term even though I have not once clearly defined it.
So it is with any social concept. ‘Food’ is a universal, specific ‘foods’ are not. Though most Americans would easily identify and consume a burrito, most Filipinos living in the Philippines would have no idea why someone would wish to consume a “small donkey”. Conversely, while a Kalahari Bushman would have no trouble consuming an ostrich egg omelette cooked in hot dirt, most Brits would find the thought decidedly unappealing. All are ‘food’, very few of them are universally ‘foods’.
‘Race’ is another liminal category that floats more than it solidifies, especially when it comes to discussions of social and government entitlements as well as objections to/reifications of social and institutional power. Unfortunately, much like “Food” and “Society”, “Race” may be a universal concept but “Races” are not. Trevor Noah, the current host of The Daily Show following John Stuart’s retirement, has performed a stand-up routine specifically titled “Trevor Noah: African American”.
Noah is South African, he is not a US citizen. In no way is he ‘African American’, he’s African. But he hears the prefix “African” bandied about awfully casually and finds it hilarious. During his routine he tells the joke, “I’m in LA, and this guy finds the darkest guy in the room, and goes ‘You from Africa??’ and the guy answers ‘I’m from Detroit!’, then he looks at me, does a quick calculation, realizes who I am… and he gives me this speech about the ‘motherland’. ‘That’s where we gotta be man… I gots to go home. You tell ’em man, I’m commin’ home!’ And all I can think is: ‘I got news for you, we’re not waiting’.”
“African American” has no meaning in Africa. Especially since Africa is a continent, not a country. Saying “I’m going home to Africa” is roughly akin to saying “I’m going home to Europe”. What “Home” would that be? What he, what we really mean by “African American” is ‘black’ and that could be Haitian, Trini… In England, people from India are called “Asian”. In the US, “Asian” frequently only means people from east of India. Which is particularly amusing as “Asia” involves China and Japan and Korea (the people usually included in the US definition) and India (the people included in the British definition) but also Russia, which is supposedly full of ‘white’ people. “Race” isn’t even remotely universal.
Racism, therefore, is differentiating individuals based on pre-determined characteristics which are totally arbitrary in order to categorize them as belonging to a set that is itself arbitrary. Most Americans don’t call Pakistanis “Asian” for example, they also don’t call Egyptians “African” generally.
A Solution in Search of A Problem
Which means addressing the issues surrounding Racism may or may not be about power, but it’s not necessarily about “institutional” power, it’s about the power we exert every day in our own lives. If I talk about Black Liberation am I talking to my Trinidad great grandfather? Am I talking to my Haitian friend? It’s not likely. Those terms don’t mean anything outside of their Contemporary US context. There is no purely Black Experience any more than there is a Brown Experience, or a Yellow Experience, or a Red Experience.
We use those terms because they have meaning to us. Which is fine, talking about “Black Liberation” may be perfectly accurate to someone living in Los Angeles or New York. What can never be forgotten though is that it is gibberish to someone living in Orenburg Oblast. What also cannot be forgotten is that by doing so we are asserting that we are willing as a group to decide that certain characteristics are important (skin hue) and others are less important (the actual country one is actually from and how far back, am I a Trini because my great grandfather was?). In that way, “society” is a really really big lineal segmentation. It is a building on the ideas that have come before, and a repetition of those ideas in the current time.
Blaming “Society” for any particular problem is to concede the Third Man Fallacy. Plato first used it as a tool against failed logic, he said any time you invoke something bigger than yourself to blame for why you think something, you’re basically asserting you don’t know the definition for yourself. You’re foisting all the responsibility on to some nebulous Third Man whose existence is impossible to prove. Do that enough times and you end up with “Because God Said So” and then everybody’s screwed.
As soon as I ask “But who determines ‘Black’?” I have to come up with something bigger than myself that defined “Black” for me. As soon as I do that, I have to come with something bigger than the big thing that made “black” and “white” as definable characteristics. Suddenly “Black” and “White” become immutable universal laws that are impossible to change. I believe Plato’s answer to that is: Every mix-race baby ever.
For Plato this was a big deal and a major flaw in reasoning because it made it impossible to escape the paradox, it made the definition of “Black” logically nonsensical. Handily, we don’t have to worry about Plato or the Third Man so long as you accept that we all do this all the time. The moment you accept all ideas are relative to all other ideas you begin to understand why human problems must have human solutions, because they can only have human solutions. They can’t depend on “Society” being fixed, because “Society” is just us.
That’s where the segmentation comes in, the second you do what the Third Man told you to do you took the responsibility on yourself, you brought the problem down to your level. Every member of the lineage is a participant in the lineage. If racism exists, it’s because we’ve all agreed to it either a lot or even just a little. If something is ‘food’ it’s because we all agree it’s edible. If someone is “Asian” it’s because we all agree they ‘look’ Asian.
Foisting the responsibility for all racism, foodism, ableism, sexism, whatever-ism onto a single third party is convenient, but it’s a lie because it removes our role in the process. Not surprisingly, it also garners mostly resentment from whoever the blame is foisted on because they readily recognize they didn’t personally gas any Jews or hang any Native Americans.
Plus it leaves the accuser blameless, when in fact the accuser is engaging in the same blanket generalizations as the accused. To simplify, no single ‘white’ person in the US today is responsible for the Armenian Genocide, even though that genocide was entirely racist and bigoted. So no, ‘whites’ are not the only ones responsible for racism, and ‘non-whites’ aren’t free from blame. Idi Amin was not ‘white’ by anyone’s definition. Idi Amin also wasn’t from the US and didn’t live in the US. Applying ‘Black Liberation’ in Compton through the lens of Idi Amin is absurd.
Calls for revolution are also much easier when it’s all the other guy’s fault. Faulting language for bigotry denies that we all speak collectively and if I wasn’t using words you understood, you wouldn’t understand me. So-called “White Guilt” is a key manifestation of the phenomenon. A person accepting their ancestors were slave owners is not the same as a person accepting forgiveness for slavery.
Personally, I know for a fact some of my ancestors fought for the Confederacy, I also know some of my family members fought against it. I won’t take anyone telling me “It’s not your fault”, I know it’s not. It’s also not my fault that slavery happened, and it’s not my fault that slavery was abolished. I wasn’t there. If it’s not my fault it started, and it’s not my fault it ended, there’s nothing I can do to ‘make up’ for it. Me apologizing for any of the process is me using a trick of language to inflate myself and my role in history. Others using my ancestors actions against me is doing the same thing.
Which means I can’t ‘make up’ for it by hiring a darker-skinned employee. If I hire someone who is darker than myself specifically because I say I’m making up for slavery and they are darker than myself, I’m an ass who has just reinforced the racism I’m claiming to be fighting against. I have specifically judged someone to have a skin hue different from myself and categorized them as having descended from that slavery, even if they may be Trevor Noah and have no relationship to anything I’m talking about.
Does that mean it was wrong for me to hire someone darker than myself to screw with the all-white Board of Directors? No, but it does mean that I’m as much a racist as any 1850s bigot. What I’ve done is make that racism contemporary. I haven’t corrected for slavery, I haven’t somehow fought for the Confederacy. I’ve been a racist today, right now. As is anyone with a hue darker than myself who assigns to me all fault for all slavery or all institutionalized racism. It’s not all my fault, it’s not all their fault, it’s our fault together and we both agreed to it. No Buffalo Soldiers were involved.
That also doesn’t mean a person with lighter skin should somehow ignore that people with darker skin tend to have a shitter life statistically and help out where they can to up-end the system. If we’re gonna change things everyone has to contribute. A ‘white’ person can’t walk around with some bizarre savior complex where all things that ever happened in the history of the world are their personal responsibility (talk about grandiose!). On that same coin, a ‘non-white’ can’t go around expecting that every white person they meet is personally accountable for Trayvon Martin.
If anything, that kind of ‘it’s a black thing you wouldn’t understand’ / ‘whites must fix all of the things’ thinking is what made it possible for Rachel Dolezal to pull her minstrel act (which, incidentally, she justified by referring to herself as “trans-racial”). If it’s all ‘white’ people’s fault, and ‘white’ people must obliterate ‘whiteness’ to allow everyone else to flourish, what better hero than a woman who literally made herself un-white? And yet, she was immediately (and I think rightly) called out for appropriating the pain of others and painting her face, rather than representing an authentic person standing against bigotry.
Everything Is Specific
The solution to this is pretty straightforward: Get over anything that happened more than 4 generations ago. It’s really that simple. We’ve got problems right now, today. That means we need to address them right now, today. If slavery happened, which it did, then know that it did and that it likely had a very powerful effect on the literature and society in which it occurred that resonate today.
Find those elements in your own behavior and work on them. Help others to work on it in themselves. Don’t let them take credit for everything bad that ever happened (and therefore leaving them as the only way to fix it) and don’t blame them for everything (leaving you a completely helpless victim of circumstance with no consciousness and no capacities).
The key is to avoid at all costs playing the Oppression Olympics where various people compete for whose ancestors are most screwed by history. After all, even if you win what’s the prize? It can be convenient, especially in an internet setting, to distance one’s self from the day to day enforcement and repetition of these behaviors.
Frequently authors take on a third-person omniscient voice to maintain the pretense of an objective view, or a second-person narrative style to place the onus on the reader (very occasionally saying “we” but still putting the bulk of the responsibility on the uncounted readers and not the finite authors). Both styles I deliberately circumvent in my writings not only because this is my blog, but because I’m not pretentious enough to believe I’m somehow writing a universal tome for all humankind. I won’t let anyone make everything all my fault, or leave me completely devoid of agency, and you shouldn’t either.