Ta-nehesi Coates’s book on racism was one of the most provocative books I read last year. Mr. Coates grew up an impoverished black child in Baltimore, Maryland, managed to escape with an education, and wrote this very revealing book about what it is like to grow up under the tyranny of racism in ’70’s and 80’s America. One line that really grabbed me a class of people who learned to “think they are white” and the power that comes with that understanding. For, being white in America did carry, and still does to a large degree, implicit assumptions of power, i.e. prerogative. Growing up a poor white boy in Arkansas I clearly remember discovering early the “black-white” distinction in my culture, the blacks being known, of course, as “N…….s” and viewed with great scorn and contempt. Looking back I now recall distinctly how important this was as a poor white, having a class of people who were lower on the totem pole than we were though we were very low socio-economically. Learning to “think I was white” was one of the most important early discoveries of my life, very much a formative part of my identity the early stages of which involves drawing distinctions between self and others, including between my group and other groups.
But Mr. Coates’ observation, “thinking they are white” really cut to the quick with me, conveying to me what he had seen about the smug observations we make early in our childhood which become solid bedrock in our cognitive grasp of the world. And with my grasp of my “whiteness” I knew that though I lacked many things, no one could take away from me my “whiteness” and with that status came the power of eating on the right side of the diner, using the nicer bathrooms, drinking at the white water fountains, and going to the better white schools. It was nothing I thought about…consciously. It was a given, a basic assumption, an implicit part of the template through which I viewed the world. I had a power that many others did not have, regardless of how powerlessness I might feel otherwise in my life.
Though I have long since gone beyond this racist view of the world, I know the template is still there in the depths of my heart thought quite faint. In the past decade as I’ve aged I have recognized faint racist imagery and thoughts creep into my consciousness, an experience which has not alarmed me because I see them for what they are. The earliest imprints from our culture, even those “burned in” on our pre-conscious soul, never leave us. People may vehemently deny being racist but very often their behavior and passing thoughts betray them. For example, note the Republican Party which is quick to deny racism but has systematically and persistently sought to deny blacks the right to vote in recent years.
Racism is only the surface of a deeper problem, an intrinsic dimension of identity formulation already alluded to. For an identity to begin to organize and to escape the matrix in which it first existed, that “blooming, buzzing, confusing world of sense experience” spoken of by William James…it must draw distinctions between it and the “other”. Blacks in my early life, and in most of my generation, was one of the earliest “others” that we found and when we “othered” them it was done with great emotional intensity.
So racism is merely an essential part of American identity and all cultures and tribes have some similar process at the bedrock of their collective psyche. But I’ve discoursed here only as an introduction to my next blog post, the Christian faith utilized as a contrivance for identity formulation and, devoid of maturation, serving only to “other” masses of people.