More than just guns and mental health: Gun violence is a symptom of Capitalism and White Supremacy

Can we all just for a moment stop talking about the Oregon shooting as if it’s a vacuous and isolated problem that can be cured through gun control and/or mental health screening? That’s an essentialized refusal to see it for what it is–a symptom of something much worse. Mass killings are not a phenomenon that happens at random; it has gotten to the point where it is aggregable, and should rightly be treated as a structural phenomenon. That isn’t to say that it is in any way predictable, but rather that the frequency and severity is following a statistical trajectory, and one that is terrifyingly accelerating. What that tells us, or at least tells sociologists, is that it is socially determined–that it is the symptom of something else, which is itself changing.

In Emile Durkheim’s 1897 work Suicide, he describes the concept of anomie as the “condition in which society provides little moral guidance to individuals,” which is often accompanied by the fragmentation of social identity. While looking then at categorizations of another social phenomenon which was (and still is) commonly treated as individualized–suicide–he noted that rates and types fluctuate with societal changes. That is happening here.

It is certainly tempting to disaggregate these senseless killings, and try to define particular linkages between the shooter and sociostructural change, but to do so would be unhelpful. We can certainly look at a number of high-profile cases–Umpqua, Charleston, Santa Barbara–where there was a stated social motive, but focusing myopically on those cases may also be a mistake. Whereas Columbine and Oklahoma City were vocalized as underdog struggles–a “war of the flea” type attack on the powerful and oppressive, what we are seeing increasingly is quite the opposite: the aggrieved elite, those with power attacking the powerless with the intent of reestablishing the existing social hierarchy. And identifying this trend is the only real use for looking at the particularity of the attacks–in Santa Barbara, it was over aggrieved masculinity; Charleston was about aggrieved whiteness; we are still learning about the circumstances of Umpqua, but it is clear that he had White supremacist idealization, and, despite the apparently contradictory nature of an attack on Christians, one need not look long to realize that neo-fascist groupings have a complicated relationship with Christianity, and may rely on more libertarian or Dawkinsian strands of atheism to support their genocidal intentions. However, those earlier attacks also had White supremacist leanings–McVeigh was a White separatist/survivalist, and the Columbine shooters planned their attack for Hitler’s birthday–albeit couched in more populist rhetoric. Now, the supremacist rhetoric is explicit.

So, what’s causing this? Perhaps that’s a question better left for future generations of social scientists, but that isn’t exactly reassuring for those of us alive now. I can wager a few guesses–White supremacy and capitalism.

The White supremacist argument can actually go a long way to, on its own, undermining the gun control and mental health questions. Mental health is the obvious excuse for these shooters, and applied only to certain classes of killers. Black killers–while even more greatly socially determined and limiting attacks to a smaller number of victims–get jail and are afforded full agency (which is not otherwise allowed to Black folks), while White people are absolved of their agency and personal responsibility under the color of mental illness, despite killing more and more egregiously. While mental health is a major issue affecting all of our communities, blaming mental health is to both affirm White supremacy and stigmatize those with mental health problems (itself, in a way, socially determined or socially constructed, as per Foucault, Deleuze, etc.), and we need only look at disparities in mental health access and resources between Black and White communities.

Gun control is also inherently racialized; while these attacks build the case for gun control, it will be disparately enforced against communities of color rather than White people. Black communities already experience a level of gun control that would give the NRA wet dreams, a level that greatly exceeds even the hyperbolic fear-mongering of libertarians and conservatives. With well over half of Black folks in this country under some sort of intensive supervision–incarceration, probation/parole, school zero-tolerance/SRO/metal detector schemes, familial ties which still expose the unconvicted to random searches, pretextual traffic stops and Terry stops–Black folks can barely buy a gun without having the full weight of the law dropped on them, yet White folks can pass background checks and amass a considerable arsenal.

And those arsenals are being amassed for the same reason that these killings are happening–white people who are disconnected from the White Capitalist power structure, who lack the insulation from social change and economic hardship, who fear having to personally face the type of oppression that has been confronting people of color for centuries. These attacks, then, can be seen as the means of less-powerful yet decidedly still privileged Whites to simultaneously call out to the white power structure for aid along racial solidarity lines, while also taking matters into their own hands because of the ineffectiveness of White liberal/moderate political and economic elites to toe the racial line to their satisfaction. Thus, these killings can be linked directly to the (perceived) changing racial-economic nature of the country. While it is clear that Whites as a whole are even better situated relative to people of color than several decades ago, or even several years ago, there is some superficial powershifting that worries these aggrieved poor Whites. Whether by increased prominence in the media, to selective ascension and glass-ceiling shattering, to demands made upon the White power structure by organized Black social movements, Whites are afraid of any relative shift in power. This plays out not only in mass killings, but also in police and vigilante murders of people of color (and of course elsewhere).

Capitalism also plays a central role in all of this. With the economic collapse a few years ago, Blacks were hardest hit, but poor Whites were also hit hard. This meant massive job loss, loss of economic security, and general decrease in status. Because of decades of work to undermine class solidarity in favor of racial solidarity, poor Whites continued to see Blacks as economic competitors, rather than seeing them as allies and turning opposition toward those rich Whites that tanked the economy and raided their pensions to enrich themselves. The fundamental nature of Capitalism depends on this inter-class division along racial lines to maintain the power of the Capitalist class.

It’s easy to ignore the social foundations of this crisis and look to easy fixes like gun control and mental health, but it won’t really address the problem, and will only play into the advancement of the problems that are driving these mass killings. Instead, we have to look to those social theories–those of Durkheim, Marx, and Weber–that have stood the test of time and explain the phenomenon occurring today with the same precision that they explained the phenomena of their own times. We have to look at the policies being implemented by our elected leaders and the widespread collateral consequences they have. And we have to look at the inequities in our society first and foremost to both understand the causes and implement effective, radical solutions.


How NOT to say something racist about what’s happening in Baltimore

From my other blog:

Following the death of yet another unarmed Black man at the hands of police and the continuing protests in Baltimore, many white people are struggling to make comments on social media without saying something racist.  Most of these comments aren’t intended to be racist or offensive, and many are made in good faith, but that doesn’t make the comments any less racist or problematic.  To help white people navigate the difficulties of talking about race, here is a guide for not saying something racist.

Don’t quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at protesters.  Chances are, you’re quoting him out of context — he was publicly against denouncing riots, period.  It assumes that you are more well-read than them (you probably aren’t).  It also imposes on them your way of thinking, because you’re probably selecting quotes that you already agree with.  It also ignores that we admire a number of white men as a society who used violence to solve their problems, e.g. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, etc., so it creates a double standard where it’s ok for white people to be violent, but not for black people.

Don’t assume that MLK provides the only legitimate model for protesters.  When Wolf Blitzer demanded of Deray McKesson, “I just want to hear you say that there should be peaceful protests, not violent protests in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King,” this is an example of white people deciding for black people how they should express their anger and how they should try to create change.  White people can choose any number of white leaders who have often contradictory positions.  It’s why we have primary elections – because people who are often fundamentally in agreement on political goals also often disagree on the specific goals or means to carry them out.  Black people should be able to choose their own heroes and role models, just as white people are encouraged to do.  Some will choose MLK and Rosa Parks, but others will find that the ideas of Malcolm X or Huey P. Newton or Assata Shakur or Marcus Garvey are more appropriate or accurate in the current situation or for their own personal experiences, or they may even choose to follow someone who isn’t Black.

Don’t assume that rioting accomplishes nothing, or that it’s mindless.  See above re: social movement experts.  Some people are angry and the only way they can think of, or the only option they have open to them, is to break windows.  Some people are trying to take advantage of the situation for their own goals, which are usually either to avenge grievances they have against the store and its personnel or to materially improve the quality of their lives.  And so what?  Black people, just like everyone else, are told that their self-worth is measured by the possessions they have.  If you’ve grown up your whole life in a system of oppression and have worked hard since you were a kid but couldn’t save up enough money because of the demands of being poor, but now you have the opportunity to steal a pair of Nikes that will make you feel more like a human being, why wouldn’t you?  Or if you can steal food or toiletries that you and your family need?  Or maybe you’ve been ripped off by the check-cashing place down the street every week for your working life because there’s no banks in your neighborhood and no real regulation of a predatory industry, and you have a chance to cut into their profits.  Or maybe, after a lifetime of you and your friends and family being messed with by the police, you have a chance to throw something at them and feel just a little bit less powerless.  Everyone has different reasons for participating, and as white people we have no right to judge anyone for their own reasons.  You don’t have to agree with it, and you don’t have to do it yourself, but you don’t get to say that black people don’t deserve new shoes, that they shouldn’t be able to put food on their tables, that they shouldn’t do what they can to make a better life for themselves and their families, or that they shouldn’t be allowed to take action against people who have taken advantage of them.  As white people, we have so many more resources than black people do to accomplish these goals without rioting.  (See, for example, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article in The Atlantic)


Stabbing close to the heart

It’s been difficult lately to fully process one act of tragic violence before the next sweeps away the media’s attention. Just as the debates about misogynistic violence and gun control began to fizzle out, the news came out of Wisconsin that two twelve-year-old girls stabbed a classmate, attempting to kill her, in the name of the collectively-developed urban legend of Slenderman. There has been a great effort, as one can imagine, by the media to speculate ad nauseum about what caused it, focusing more on what will create hysteria and boost ratings, rather than on the actual causes, and how to address those so that similar tragedies don’t reoccur. None of this is surprising, though.

The Daily Mail, a British tabloid, went into great detail describing the musical and aesthetic preferences of the parents as well as of the girls. This is the same approach the media took following the Columbine High School shootings just over 15 years ago; then, it was Marilyn Manson and video games. Now, it’s skulls, creepypasta, Slenderman, and halloween costumes.

The Creepypasta website has issued a statement which I think gets much closer to understanding what happened (there is also a good discussion of gendered violence in Isla Vista there).

We live in a culture with a very unhealthy relationship with mental illness. People with mental health issues are frequently dismissed (people who deal with anxiety, depression, etc have almost certainly experienced people telling them that their problems don’t exist and that they should “bootstrap” and just “get over it”), shamed and bullied (consider Miley Cyrus’ tweets where she mocked Sinead O’Conner for acknowledging her own struggle with mental illness and asking for help), and often ignored or denied necessary treatment because people either choose to look the other way when they see symptoms or their attempts to help are met with resistance because the sufferer has internalized all the negative cultural messages about having and admitting to mental illness.

The police, prosecutor, and media all should have recognized some basic warning signs when discovering this case. Two twelve-year-olds tried to kill a classmate to gain favor with a fictional character. Then they intended to walk into the northwoods of Wisconsin with a few granola bars in their backbacks–the equivalent of a 4 or 5 hour drive. Something wasn’t right here.

Yet, the prosecutor is trying to lock them up for 65 years, trying them as adults while he runs for higher political office. That the girls apparently confessed, and the confessions were given to the media, suggests that they were interrogated by police without parents or attorneys present; if they started talking on their own, they clearly did not understand what the consequences would be.

This tragedy hit me harder than the Isla Vista murders or the Boston Marathon bombing because I grew up in Waukesha. I am, as much as I wish it weren’t so, a product of Waukesha. As a relatively intelligent student who, as it was, got into a number of top undergraduate schools, my focus in high school was not doing everything I could to maximize my application and future opportunities and get into the best possible college–it was TO GET OUT OF WAUKESHA AS FAST AS I COULD. Few of my friends are still there, but my parents still live in the same house, so my visits to see them are really visits to the hellish childhood I experienced.

Waukesha is, for all intensive purposes, the conservative base of Wisconsin. The county claims James Sensenbrenner, Paul Ryan, and Scott Walker as our most famous human exports (only after Les Paul and the Hamm twins); Waukesha elected Walker, twice, if not just through our actual votes, then through the creative ballot-counting of our local officials. Class and race stratification and segregation are complex, resembling more closely a suburban deep South than a town with a deep progressive past, once boasting a large socialist presence and frequent abolitionist activity–my family’s church still has the visible scars of an underground railroad stop. This town either destroys you, traps you, or spits you out.

Waukesha is a post-industrial town which originated separate from Milwaukee, but was hit like a tornado by suburban sprawl. Waukesha has pockets of rich and poor, but is a relatively poor pocket compared to the surrounding communities. Class antagonism is there, just under the surface, but more likely downward than upward. All of my problems with the police growing up were in the next town over, Brookfield, a much richer suburb (which formed largely as a white flight tax haven), even though I spent most of my time in Waukesha. Not to make light of the situation, but class antagonism takes the form of the animosity between the District 5 kids (Minneapolis) and the Hawks (Edina) in The Mighty Ducks.

If you don’t have a ticket out of Waukesha (college admission elsewhere and parents who can support you), you’re stuck there. In a town where the most popular activities for high schoolers is to drink liquor and do drugs in friends’ basements, in parking lots, or in parked cars on quiet country roads, because there’s nothing else to do, in a city of 75,000. It’s not just because there’s nothing to do, none of us felt we were worth much, and it’s not like the city tried to convince us otherwise. Changing your brain chemistry just helped us forget what a shitty city we lived in, and how shitty we (and everyone else around us) expected our lives to be.

But I was lucky. I got out. I had a chance to leave Waukesha and make something of myself elsewhere. But even though I’m physically gone, mentally and emotionally I’m not. I still carry the wounds inflicted by that city inside of me, and they have not yet healed. Mental health, or therapy, is not something we “do” in Waukesha. We bottle up our feelings and our problems, because to accept that you have a problem is to realize that you should do something to change it. But there’s nothing that we can do, or at least Waukesha has convinced us of that. I’ve been gone from Waukesha for 10 years now, and I still can’t even begin to confront many of the traumas I experienced; I’ve even done therapy on and off, but living in California it’s too difficult to vocalize my experiences to someone who doesn’t know

When I was about twelve, the SWAT truck was on my block about three times in so many months. A guy two houses down held his daughter hostage in his basement because of a custody fight. He eventually ran, shotgun in hand, out back and into my neighbor’s yard, almost into our yard, before police tackled him (of course, if it were California, he would have been murdered by police). Another man had to be talked down from killing himself. There was another domestic dispute, involving a driver and a cyclist, in front of our house.

When I was about twelve, I was almost stabbed with a screwdriver in a friend’s basement. A few years later, I was assaulted in a tent by a friend, while other friends looked on. Around the same time, another friend was led out of school in handcuffs after stabbing a classmate with a screwdriver. I once tried to hit another close friend in the head with a canoe paddle, which I suppose is as serious as it was ridiculous. As kids, we tried to beat the shit out of each other, because consequences aren’t really much worse than everyday life.

A close friend from high school had to go into rehab while in high school; his tragic life carried him out to California, just like me, where he was killed over something so inconsequential as to matter only to the destitute, to those who have little else to live for. A classmate killed another classmate over something, I’m sure, equally as inconsequential. A female classmate killed in an alley next to a dumpster for refusing sex. An Olympic athlete while still in high school, whose trip to Sydney was looked upon with jealousy because so few of us had ever seen a foreign country, much less left the state–several years later fell from grace and lost his job as a coach after assaulting a cab driver. These stories are more well-known than the stories of Waukesha natives who escape and become successful; they’re more numerous, too. More importantly, they’re the examples we’re given to follow, because we’re not taught to aspire for anything greater.

In the neighborhood where both girls lived, near David’s Park, those occurrences are more common, aspirations even more tempered.

Many of my friends growing up, when I was twelve, lived in that apartment complex. People there were so poor that, maybe paradoxically, race stopped being important. A disproportionate number of kids were mixed-race, and interracial relationships there were common. But just as common were broken homes. A lot of single parents, a lot of working poor parents who don’t have enough time to both put food on the table and come up with rent, and give their kids enough attention; but that’s not to say they don’t try, and some are more successful than others.

David’s Park is also in the district for the middle school I went to, Central. That both girls attended Horning anyway suggests something else: housing instability. Almost always, when you’re going to the “wrong” school (i.e. a school other than the one you’re by default assigned to based on location), it means your family moves a lot within the city. Which implies relocation based not on job changes, but on difficulty making ends meet, thus the need to find cheaper housing, or new housing if you’re evicted. Not always, but most of the time. The exceptions are predictable.

A little understanding of the class and geographic structure of Waukesha points us in the direction of poverty when attempting to understand this case.

It’s hard to truly grasp what happened in that park I used to play in, even though I know exactly where the third girl was stabbed, where she crawled out to the road to find help, the bathroom where the girls had originally planned to carry out the murder. For all that I went through in that town, I still can’t, and could never, agree with what those girls did. And how could I, or anyone? The purpose of the murder was not something grounded in reality, but logical only in the mind of two troubled young girls.

But I can sympathize with who they are, what they’ve been through, and their break from reality. “Sympathize” is an understatement–I KNOW who they are, and what they’ve been through. Up until the moment the knife punctured the other girl’s skin, they weren’t any different than me or my friends at that age. What led them past that point, I can only speculate about. Even horror stories sometimes sound more desirable than continuing to live there. And when you want to leave Waukesha–as the girls planned to do, physically–sometimes the only avenue to do so is through fantasy. Their fantasy was carried so far, that the legal system will grant them their wish. If the District Attorney gets his way, they may not ever be allowed to set foot in Waukesha again.

Waukesha is unique, but there are Waukeshas everywhere. Waukesha is maybe more a state of mind than a geographical place found on a map. There is at least a little bit of Waukesha in all of us, and there is a little bit of those girls in all of us as well, more of both than we should like. For some of us, though, Waukesha is all-consuming, and no matter where we go, we can never escape.

Thankfully, the other girl survived. It is miraculous that she has been able to recover. But I hope for her sake she is able to leave as soon as she physically can.

I also want to take the opportunity to share more of the Creepypasta statement I linked to above, because it is so important, and much better said than I could hope to write myself.

My point here is just this: if you are finding yourself suffering from any sort of mental health issues – depressing, extreme apathy, anxiety, etc – and/or having trouble dealing with anger, violent/destructive impulses, self-harm, the desire to hurt others, and so on – please know that there is no shame in admitting this to people and asking for help. It’s not fun to deal with issues like that, and you don’t have to go it alone. There are so many people out there who won’t judge you or hate you for having problems and will do their best to help you find the treatment that will help you feel better! Sometimes it’s enough just to have someone who cares enough to listen so that you don’t have to bottle everything up. Some issues are caused by simple chemical imbalances – nothing you could possibly be blamed for – and finding the right medication and/or therapy under the guiding hand of a trained professional will help so much that you find yourself feeling like the weight of the world has lifted from your shoulders. Disordered thinking can be terrifying and stressful and I just want to reiterate: if you think you might be suffering from any sort of mental health issue, know that you are not alone and that you can find help. I encourage you to take that step and talk to your parents, a guidance counselor, your favorite teacher, your doctor, a friend that you trust, family members, even a friend’s parent if you don’t feel comfortable talking to your own – reach out and do your best to find the right solution for YOU. Don’t worry about the people who think mental illness is a joke or not real; they’re not the ones who matter in this situation – YOU DO. Your mental health is of higher importantance than the other people’s ignorance!

If you’re worried that someone you know may be suffering from such issues, please talk to them. Many mental illness sufferers do so in silence because they feel too suffocated by the cultural stigma surrounding therapy or counseling to take the step on their own. If you’re a parent, pay attention to and listen to your child. I know that, as adults, it’s so easy for us to write things off as “silly teenage issues” or “phases” that will pass, but it’s important to remember that kids and teenagers are people too and not exempt from all the issues, problems and emotions that come with it. Make sure they know that they can come to you about anything – I remember having friends that were afraid to go to their parents when they were depressed because they thought they’d get in trouble! If you believe that your child is having problems and is unwilling to talk to you, consider asking a trustworthy friend or theirs or a teacher that they trust to help look out for them. Basically, build a support network and make sure that it’s functional so that people don’t fall through the cracks when they’re having problems.

For all the readers who are school-age, please do the same for your friends. If you have a friend who you feel might be suffering from disordered thinking – whether it’s the extreme anger, racism and misogyny that the UCSB shooter displayed on YouTube or some friends that are so obsessed with Slenderman that they start talking about killing for him – please tell someone that you trust about it.

I suppose my overall message is this – look out for one another, and please don’t partake in behaviors like shaming people for admitting to their problems or trying to get help.


Salon: “Is the South more racist than the North?” YES, but…

From Salon:

The New York Times recently ran a story describing the Savannah, Ga., defenders of Paula Deen. Deen, of course, is the recently disgraced television chef who was fired by the Food Network due to her admissions of casually using racial slurs and planning an antebellum plantation-themed wedding for her brother. […]

Few would question that the South was home to some of the world’s most virulent white racism just a few decades ago, but similarly, few would doubt that the region has made tremendous strides to overcome that legacy. Is there still more prejudice in the South than in the North?

Well, the short answer is yes. But… Continue reading

What will it take to walk in peace?

I know in many ways its hypocritical for me to criticize what other people are doing, while I don’t take an active role in organizing like I have in the past. There’s a lot of reasons for this: in large part because I’m having difficulty reconciling my anger with the impotence of most activism, because most activism is feel-good and the whole world is shit, because I see so little redeemable in the world. Because I don’t see any possible action as being effective.

Very few people know this about me, but my “model” movement isn’t Indian Independence led by Gandhi, not the Civil Rights Movement, not Women’s Suffrage, not South African Apartheid, not the Global Justice/Antiglobalization Movement, not Occupy. What I’ve always been fascinated by, inspired by, is the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance. More than any other movement, in my opinion, it demarcates the difference between victimhood and resistance; it is the example of unequivocally understanding what needs to be done and then doing it, at great risk to many who had passing or dominant privilege. It is also a blatant example of how such movements are whitewashed after the fact to restore the narrative to what is most convenient for the hegemonic society. I don’t mean to suggest that there weren’t problems, that it couldn’t have been carried out more effectively.

Most of my opinions and ideas about nonviolence and violence in resistance are shaped by this singular case (though also influenced by many more). When I began training in Krav Maga, I did so for similar reasons. While, again, without its problems (such as the training method for occupation forces in Palestine), it is intricately tied to the history and legacy of the Warsaw Ghetto–I’m now reflecting on it in this way because it has a connection to George Zimmerman’s murder of Trayvon Martin. Krav Maga (hebrew for ‘contact combat’) was created by Imi Lichtenfeld in the late 1930s, to help the Jewish population of Bratislava defend itself against racist and fascist attacks. Most training takes the question of nonviolence vs. violence as irrelevant, distraction from self-defense and survival. The major moral/ethical guideline in Krav is: end the attack with minimal effort and maximum effect.

When an attack is anticipated, the surest way to defend is to avoid the attack outright. If that’s not possible, one deflects or deter the attack. If an attack is imminent, you end the attack by ending the attacker. If your life is threatened, there is no such thing as ‘fighting dirty’–you attack whatever weakness you can: attack the beitsim (groin), attack the larynx, attack the kidneys, attack the eyes and nose, attack the solar plexus, attack the brain stem. It is understood that some of these attacks can kill or maim your attacker. But they are attacking you, your survival is in jeopardy, what happens to your attacker is of no concern to you so long as the attack is ended and you can continue living. Again, no moral quandary over violence and nonviolence, no judgment of right and wrong, just the simple mantra: ‘so that one may walk in peace.’

All of this is to say that even if Trayvon was highly trained in Krav, he still would have been seen as suspicious, he still would have been followed, he still would have been murdered, he still would have been found guilty prejudicially even as Zimmerman is set free. Trayvon was not allowed to walk in peace. So long as a black man is murdered by police or vigilantes every 28 hours, people of color–and black people especially–cannot walk in peace, for they are always guilty, always suspicious, always eligible to be lynched or murdered without warning or cause or opportunity to deter or defend against the attack.

But I think that the lessons of the Warsaw Ghetto and the philosophy of Imi and Krav Maga can offer something important as we all struggle to understand what happened in Sanford, Florida, and what is left for the rest of us to do now. The recurring debates about violence vs nonviolence, vandalism vs rallies, whether we should petition DOJ or boycott Florida or the Koch brothers, what hashtag we should all use, whether photos of Trayvon’s lifeless body are appropriate, whether we should repeal Stand Your Ground or arm the hood… these all come second to the basic question of how we are to survive another day. Because we are not surviving. We’re losing more black and brown bodies to racism and the police state every single day. We’re seeing the gains of anti-racist movements scaled back constantly, we’re seeing the anti-racist movement atrophy. We’re focusing on everything but basic survival, because we’d rather have martyrs and victims than survivors. We’d rather look like we’re doing something, feel good about doing something, than risk everything to actually do something that contributes to survival.

I don’t know what we should do. The attacks we are facing, that black people in particular are facing, are far beyond anything we train for in the gym. They’re far beyond my academic or experiential knowledge–maybe that’s a good thing; after all, it’s not my struggle to lead. But we need to talk about it and figure out what to do. For all the articles and photos about Zimmerman’s acquittal, about black rage, about if Trayvon was white and George black, about the other cases of SYG in Florida, at best 1% of the discussion and posting about the case has actually begun to address where we go from here.

If it’s black rage, we need to allow it to run its course. If it’s community organizing, we need to understand to what end, and fight the parasitism and opportunism and branding that often accompany organizing. If it’s burning down the banks, which ones, and then what? In short, the question really is: how do we prevent this from happening again? How do we make sure that people of color, everyone really, can walk in peace?

White Like Tim

For some time now, Tim Wise has gained a following as “that white guy who talks about white privilege.”  So much so, that a few years ago, UCI’s Cross Cultural Center brought him in to keynote the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Symposium.  His following was equally split between people of color and self-proclaimed white anti-racists.  This isn’t to say that white people shouldn’t be outspoken about racism and white supremacy; in fact, there’s not enough.  But Wise has gained such a prominence that he’s often invited to speak to people of color about how they experience racism.  And while a few folks, myself included, have criticized and confronted Wise about his role as mouthpiece for people of color, Wise has taken a barrage of criticism over twitter over the last few days from people of color, particularly writer and activist Yasmin Nair, over comments Wise made regarding people of color and Edward Snowden.

What Wise has failed to account for each time he’s confronted, is that by him speaking, he’s both speaking for people of color, and taking the microphone from them.  In those cases where he actually uses his fame to promote non-white voices, the spotlight is still kept on him, he validates their comments with his own, or, even, interrupts a table of black men to explain their experience to the television audience:

In the case of the UCI talk, not only did he monopolize the microphone and discussion of race, but he surely accepted a speaker’s fee that could have gone to a person of color, to speak about their experience with racism.  So, instead of just white-splaining racism, he’s also profitting from anti-racism and white privilege.  What’s more white-privileged than using your white privilege to make money talking about your white privilege?

The additional problem with speaking at the Cross Cultural Center at UCI is that the Center itself, or at least the administration there, isn’t exactly the vanguard of anti-racism or progressive politics.  For example, when Vice Chancellor Manuel Gomez made a joke about being a “wetback” (because it was raining), the Cross staff defended him.  When Jesse Cheng, a UCI student and UC Student Regent at the time, was accused of sexually assaulting a female student, the Cross staff were among the first administrators to circle wagons around him and attack the survivor and her supporters.  The Cross staff have been more interested historically in pacifying militant students of color and preventing them from criticizing the UC and UCI administrations than addressing actual racism on campus, such as the Pilgrims and Indians party, the Compton Cookout at UCSD, or rapidly declining enrollment and graduation of Black and Latina/o students.  Even just a few months ago, a UCI fraternity got in “trouble” for making a video with a student in blackface. (For a much more in-depth look at UC’s racism crisis, see my previous post on the subject)  When the student body erupted in outrage, the Cross staff has tried to bureaucratize that anger, by funneling energy back into student organizations that depend on the good graces of the administration for funding.  So, for such a center to welcome Wise as “a phenomenal speaker and writer with the extraordinary gift of empowering others”, whose “message will undoubtedly remind us why it’s so important to recognize and celebrate Dr. King’s work,” we really have to question whether he is the Great White Hope that some anti-racists make him out to be.  Or, similarly, at an event subtitled “Reigniting the Dream Through Activism,” whose dream is being ignited, and what does activism really mean in this context.  Because, as those of us who are committed to ending white supremacy know, the activism encouraged by the Cross is not really activism, and the “Dream as interpreted by a white guy” is axiomatically not the Dream of Martin Luther King.

If this weren’t enough, Wise is also speaking at a Teach for America training. There’s a lot to say about TFA–that it’s essentially a temp agency for liberal college students, that having teachers with so little training in the poorest classrooms in the country does little for those students, that poor students and students of color are used to pad the resumes of future grad students and non-profit staffers, it provides the shock troops to privatize public schools and bust teachers’ unions–but it should suffice to say that TFA is not helping poor black students, or shaking up the racial hierarchy in this country.  As Mark Naison, a Professor of African American Studies and History at Fordham University describes the organization:

“the most objectionable aspect of Teach For America — other than its contempt for lifetime educators — is its willingness to create another pathway to wealth and power for those already privileged in the rapidly expanding educational-industrial complex, which already offers numerous careers for the ambitious and well-connected.  An organization which began by promoting idealism and educational equity has become, to all too many of its recruits, a vehicle for profiting from the misery of America’s poor.”

Naison also points out that only 4 out of 100 Fordham students, many of whom come from the very communities TFA deigns to serve, were accepted into the program, while 44 out of 100 Yale students were accepted. The reputation of the universities and the qualifications of the students are beside the point: TFA only wants a certain kind of teacher–white and middle/upper-class.  Similarly, Julian Vasquez Heilig, an Assistant Professor of Educational Policy and Planning and African Diaspora Studies at UT-Austin, points out: “Recruits with five weeks of training are good enough for poor whites and students of color, but they are glaringly absent from affluent schools in places like Scarsdale, N.Y., or Westlake, Texas, districts seeking well-qualified career teachers for advantaged children.”

So what is Wise doing there?  Maybe he genuinely believes that he can shape these temporary teachers to challenge racism in the classroom.  It is clear, though, that in a way, he is killing two birds with one stone, for the people who will listen to him speak in Charlotte are by and large the same people he panders his white supremacist anti-racism to–those people who take action or take a stance or read one of Wise’s books to feel better about their privilege, while leaving unexamined the consequences of their own actions.

When community educator Ivan Illich was invited to speak before a similar group of do-gooders, he concluded his remarks by saying, “come to look, come to climb our mountains, to enjoy our flowers. Come to study. But do not come to help.”  Wise would do well to similarly frame his own remarks before the new cohort of TFA teachers.

A Revolt Against Actuality: Stephen Dedalus and Ireland’s Troubles

A Revolt Against Actuality: Stephen Dedalus and Ireland’s Troubles[1]

[NOTE: This is an essay for an English lit class that I wanted to air out]

Stephen Dedalus, of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, adopts an ambivalent ideology as a defense against colonization—particularly colonial pressures in the form of religion, politics, education, and nationalism. While colonialism and nationalism in Ireland usually are considered vis-à-vis the British occupation, for Stephen these other institutions become colonizing forces through the Catholic church. In order to realize his self-actualization as an artist and discover what it means to be Irish—free of the filters of colonialism—he must ultimately “free his feet from the fetters of the reformed conscience” (Joyce, Portrait 180) and leave Ireland for the distant but autonomous vantage point of mainland Europe. Such an action represents not only a desperation on the part of Stephen but also a diagnosis of the broader Irish society.

Stephen feels stifled first and foremost by the Catholic church and its domination over religion and education. The church’s relationship to the Irish people has been difficult at best (and has, elsewhere, played a central role in colonization and conquest). Mr. Casey asks, “didn’t the bishops and priests sell the aspirations of their country in 1829 in return for catholic emancipation?” As a result of open practice and the requirement of political conservatism, the church has imposed itself on the Irish, governing morals and even politics. He also decries how “the priests and the priests’ pawns broke Parnell’s heart and hounded him into his grave,” and eventually declares: “No God for Ireland!… We have had too much God In Ireland. Away with God!” But this religious colonization extends directly to Stephen as well: as a boy, Stephen is not allowed to play with the Protestant Eileen; and, just before Stephen’s departure, Cranly recognizes that his mind “is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve.” Even disavowal cannot shake off the fetters (38, 33, 39, 240).

At school, Stephen faces more catholic subjugation. In his Latin class, he is paddied by the prefect arbitrarily and capriciously, how punishment is often exacted against the colonized. “It was unfair and cruel because the doctor had told him not to read without glasses and he had written home to his father that morning to send him a new pair. And Father Arnall had said that he need not study till the new glasses came… It was cruel and unfair to make him kneel in the middle of the class then” (51-52). When he is later accused of heresy in an essay, “he could feel about him a vague general malignant joy” after this “public chiding” (79), in which he is forced to revise his intellectual ideas about theology to conform.

British direct colonialism plays a major role in daily Irish life. However, the reality of military occupation only appears once, in a mention of “the terror of soul of a starving Irish village in which the curfew was still a nightly fear” (181). Where the consequences of British rule become most apparent is through its mirror, Irish nationalism. Nationalism thus places itself in opposition to all of the colonizations Stephen faces: Protestant nationalist Parnell[2] challenged the church, as did Simon Dedalus and Mr. Casey, and nationalism offered Irish against the Catholic schools’ Latin.

Yet, for Stephen, nationalism is not the right antidote to colonization. Stephen counters Davin’s attempts to recruit him to the cause of independence by joking about when they fight “the next rebellion with hurleysticks” (202), though Davin responds with the common nationalist slogan, “our day will come yet, believe me” (203). Even within his family, Stephen felt estranged from the political divisions: “He wondered which was right, to be for the green [nationalists] or for the maroon [loyalists]… Dante was on one side and his father and Mr Casey were on the other side but his mother and uncle Charles were on no side” (16-17), though their neutrality in a way represents another side; in fact, they both play an active role in attempting to pacify the now-vicious argument.

Despite Stephen’s “independence” from the independence movement and the church, he still grapples with the prescient question of what the Irish national identity is. When Howes writes, “in Joyce, colonialism and nationalism constantly carry us inward, to the fantasies, divisions, and traumas of the individual psyche,” the reader can picture Stephen caught in this paradoxical ambivalence. Stephen’s Irishness is called into question by Davin: “What with your name and your ideas… Are you Irish at all?” But Stephen himself recognizes his distance from “Irish culture,” whatever that may be, and seeks to discover “the hidden ways of Irish life” (Howes, “Joyce” 269; Joyce 202, 181).

His perception of Irishness is largely based in language and the image of the peasant woman. Speaking with the English Dean of Studies, Stephen notices that “the language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine… His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech” (189). However,

Stephen’s estrangement from the language in which he writes marks a classic colonial condition, in which the colonizers try to force their language and culture upon the colonized. That condition has several components: Stephen recognizes his identity as Irish, conceives of that Irish identity in opposition to Englishness, and recognizes his Irishness as a divided condition, so that English is both ‘familiar’ and ‘foreign.’ The sense of dispossession and resentment generated is a catalyst for the period’s Irish nationalism. (Howes, “Joyce” 257)

Because of this, Stephen still continues to distance himself. When Davin asks, “why don’t you learn Irish?” (202), Stephen responds, “This race and this country and this life produced me… I shall express myself as I am… My ancestors threw off their language and took another… They allowed a handful of foreigners to subject them” (203). Through ambivalence, Stephen is able to simultaneously acknowledge his subjugation while shirking responsibility.

Similarly, Stephen views a fetishized notion of the peasant woman as representative of Irish culture. Following a story Davin tells him, he “reflected in other figures of the peasant women whom he had seen standing in the doorways at Clane as the college cars drove by, as a type of her race and his own” (183). Again, Stephen separates himself, this time by his passing location in a car. From this perspective, “it has become possible for Stephen to see the ‘peasant women’ of villages like Clane as representatively Irish figures and himself as part (however problematically) of the national community they embody” (Howes, “Goodbye” 336).

Stephen, then, finds himself able to create and occupy what Homi Bhabha terms the “in-between” space, where he can be both Irish and non-Irish, colonized and free, tied to Irish history and independent of it. In short, he has created for himself a means to create his own identity, free from colonization and the scourge of nationalism. “These ‘in-between’ spaces provide the terrain for elaborating strategies of selfhood – singular or communal – that initiate new signs of identity, and innovative sites of collaboration, and contestation, in the act of defining the idea of society itself” (Bhabha 2).

Despite this seclusion, Stephen is still trapped within Irish life. “Stephen contemplates his ambivalent relation to the category and ideology of the nation—his rejection of nationalism, his separation from the national community, his desire to learn ‘the hidden ways of Irish life’ and to ‘hit their conscience’ to help revive his nation” (Howes, “Goodbye” 336)—and he realizes he needs to leave Ireland. Stephen tells Davin, “when the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets” (Joyce 203), and indeed, like his namesake, he does.

At first glance, his flight away from the problems of his home appears to be a childish escapism, as a younger Stephen almost convinces himself not to complain about his punishment to the rector by telling himself that “it was best to hide out of the way because when you were small and young you could often escape that way” (54). In reality, though, this is an act of courage, giving up everything and taking the risk of being alone, “not only to be separate from all the others but to have not even one friend” (247). When Stephen finally leaves to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” (253), he performs a diagnostic function for his culture. As the Algerian psychologist Frantz Fanon describes in writing about his own people’s struggle for independence, “a society that drives its members to desperate solutions is a non-viable society, a society to be replaced. It is the duty of the citizen to say this” (53). Stephen plays the role of both the desperate member and the citizen. While he leaves despite the objections of his dear friend Cranly and his mother, he does so for the benefit of his “race,” of Ireland. Paradoxically, this act of leaving seems to fulfill Seamus Heaney’s plea, from his aptly-named poem “Kinship,” to “Come back to this / ‘island of the ocean’ / where nothing will suffice” (Heaney 133-35).

As Stephen matures, he finds that the only way for him to create his own personal identity is to carve out a space separate from the colonizing forces at work in Ireland—church, state, school, and race. Each of these he finds prohibitive and restrictive, obscuring the true character of Ireland and the Irish people, in addition to himself. By leaving Ireland for an outside, unclouded view, he intends to discover himself and his nation, while providing to the latter a warning that all is not well on the island.


Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Fanon, Frantz. Toward the African Revolution. Trans. Haakon Chevalier. New York: Grove, 1967. Print.

Heaney, Seamus. “Kinship.” North. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1975. 33-39. Print.

Howes, Marjorie. “’Goodbye Ireland I’m Going to Gort’: Geography, Scale, and Narrating the Nation.” James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: A Casebook. Ed. Mark A. Wollaeger. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. 319-42. Print.

—. “Joyce, Colonialism, and Nationalism.” The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce. Ed. Derek Attridge. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 254-71. Print.

Joyce, James. “Ireland: Island of Saints and Sages.” Occasional, Critical, and Political Writing. Ed. Kevin Barry. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 108-26. Print.

—. “James Clarence Mangan.” Occasional, Critical, and Political Writing. Ed. Kevin Barry. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. 53-60. Print.

—. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Penguin, 1964. Print.

[1]             The title comes from Joyce’s “James Clarence Mangan: “Poetry, even when apparently most fantastic, is always a revolt against artifice, a revolt, in a sense, against actuality” (59).

[2]    Joyce also wrote of Parnell: “perhaps the most formidable man ever to lead the Irish but in whose veins not a single drop of Celtic blood ran” (“Ireland” 115).