Friday, February 17, 2017

White ignorance, timeless and multinational. .

Recently I've been reading work done by Dr. Melissa Steyn, who is a professor at a university in South Africa. She's been studying and observing cultural conditions about race there for several decades. In one of her articles I ran across this passage:
It has become a standing joke that since democracy in South Africa one cannot find anyone who supported apartheid. Increasingly some white South Africans claim that they did not know what was happening during apartheid; that it was not their generation that was responsible for apartheid, but that of their parents;and even that it was not as bad for black people during apartheid as it is for white South Africans in post-apartheid South Africa. Yet the system of racial apartheid could not have been functional or sustained for over four decades without the active and passive cooperation of the white population – using separate entrances,enjoying whites only transport, beaches, restaurants and cinemas, paying sub-minimum wages to black employees employed only for menial labour, educating only white children in the schools their children also attended,...
South Africa had a brutal version of Jim Crow racial segregation and legal racial subordination in place (called apartheid) and they didn't have an election where everyone could vote until 1994. That's not ancient history and yet...it's common for white people there to maintain that they 'didn't support' this awful stuff and many claim they "did not know" what was happening in their own country.

It made me think of something that occurred in Germany immediately after the end of WWII.

The photo shows a number of the residents of a town (Ohrdruf) in Germany, where a concentration camp was located, being forced by Allied soldiers to view the victims who were confined in the camp.

Various towns where these camps were located were sites where the residents were forced to view the victims of the holocaust.  ""We didn't know." This was what the German civilian population would say over and over again about the concentration camps...".

"We didn't know", "We didn't know"...sound familiar? Notice that one claim of ignorance is coming from dominant racial group members in Germany in 1945 and the exact same claim of ignorance is coming from dominant racial group members in South Africa some 50 years later.

What's that got to do with the United States? Well, take a look at this passage from an article written in 2014 about the awfulness in Ferguson, Missouri. 
"...whites in Ferguson were often surprised by the racial fault lines exposed by the shooting and the sometimes angry protests that followed. They said they had no idea of the simmering tensions between African Americans and police. They did not know that many black residents felt unfairly targeted by the police and unrepresented by city government. And they bristled when protesters portrayed their town as racist."
Whites in Ferguson were "surprised" and "had no idea" about the brutal and unfair treatment of black residents in their town.

From 1945 to 2014 is 69 years, from Germany to South Africa to Missouri, U.S.A., is many miles...but...it's almost magical? that dominant racial group members from 3 different countries, spanning almost 70 years, manage to either "not know" or have "no idea" about the horrid treatment of members of subordinated racial groups and 2 of those sites of obliviousness were in their home towns. Not somewhere else in their countries, mind you, not some far away or distant place, but they expressed ignorance about what was going on in their own towns where they shopped and went to the movies and lived their daily lives.

Not know? That's bad enough, right? Well, I'm not sure what you would call it when ignorance isn't the problem but an actual reversal of reality is trotted out and presented as "truth".

Look at this quote from that same article from 2014 that's referenced above: "polls found that white perceptions of anti-black bias have diminished to the point where they are more now likely to think anti-white discrimination is a bigger problem than bias against blacks."

Heck, white people in the U.S. not only "don't know" or have "no idea" about the reality of what life is like for African Americans, they are "more likely" to believe they are "discriminated" against more severely than are members of subordinated groups.

Think about that for a moment, members of the dominant racial group...that same dominant group which controls (and has always controlled) every major power and influence wielding  institution (the media, the government, education, health-care, criminal justice, etc.) in their society...thinks they are more likely to be targeted for discrimination than are members of subordinated racial groups. (is this an example of "alternative facts"?)

Here's a tip for you, presuming that you're interested in accurately perceiving reality and working to stay as close to truth as you can, if that characterizes you then I would suggest you be very very cautious when it comes to listening to white people in the U.S. or in South Africa or in Germany about anything to do with what's going on with race or racial issues.

The examples I've provided for you here should help you realize that white folks in these three nations (likely others too, but I'm focusing on these 3 in this post) have some deep and severe problems when it comes to race. The motto about race (apparently in all three countries) seems to be "deny, deny, deny...and if you get tired of that, then lie".

I sometimes try to figure out positive things about white people that I've learned since I started digging into whiteness and such over the past couple of years. It's pretty slim pickings (pretty much nothing).

But...one spot of amusement I've found is that sometimes (not often, but sometimes) I can pick up on when white people are being ignorant (and...well...stupid) but think they're sounding thoughtful and intelligent. It's eerie when that happens (and rare, I usually succumb to white thinking in the moment and only later figure out that it's crap) as it's occurring because I can almost predict exactly what's going to come out of a white person's mouth before they say it.

I watched this video recently and at around 35 minutes into the video the panel gets a question from an old white guy (an old white guy like me, jeez) and about two sentences into his rambling I realized that he was re-inscribing white dominance and also that he had no idea that he was doing that. I had to laugh out loud even though I felt very sad for the African American professor who was exposed to such hurtful obliviousness. She immediately perceived what he was up to and responded briefly and accurately and moved on. She should never have been exposed to such crap though.

I can't feel good about spotting this crap because it's taken me 2 years of pretty intense work and study to get to that point...but...I did get some pleasure from my recognition that my ignorance has subsided (sometimes) to the point that I can fairly quickly detect (sometimes) when serious reality avoidance is going on.

It isn't much of an improvement on my part...but...I'm desperate to see some glimmer of positive stuff on this journey. I keep telling myself that I have to learn to walk before I can run and I still fall down often when I'm trying to walk. Sometimes I don't, though, and that can be encouraging.

Note: if you choose to watch the video and can't figure out what the old white guy was doing with his 'question', let me know and I'll assist you in comprehending what he was enacting (although I suspect he "didn't know" what he was doing because he was thoroughly in the grips of an epistemology of ignorance)



4 comments:

Have Gone Vegan said...

Both of my parents were teenagers in Holland during WWII (and somewhat involved in the resistance), and according to them what was going on in Germany was common knowledge.

So perhaps "not knowing" is prevalent when it's convenient, when the truth doesn't serve you. But yeah, reversing reality takes it up a notch. Although I suppose, serves the same function. So much easier to think that you're the one being oppressed, rather than helping to perpetuate oppression.

veganelder said...

Thank you for your comment HGV. I find myself drawn to examining and thinking about the maneuvers and processes we white people use to disavow and/or "not know" about horrors that our group inflicts on marginalized groups (those with less power). It's intriguing to me, not so much that we claim not to know, but that the mental/perceptual mechanisms (or whatever) that we invoke to wrap ourselves in some sort of faux "innocence" seem to be quite similar no matter which culture/nation is examined. You wrote: "So much easier to think that you're the one being oppressed...". I don't think I understand that...it may be that the operative part is that it is "easier"...but for it to be "easier" then that means part of reality has to be denied and then the question becomes what makes it "easier" to deny reality than it is is to hang on to knowledge about reality? Is accurate perception of reality that poorly valued...so much so that it is jettisoned with ease by so many? I wonder if there aren't learnings we need to dig into about stuff like that? Ya know?

Have Gone Vegan said...

I meant easier in the sense for people who don't want to do the work of digging for the truth. Easier in that it doesn't create cognitive dissonance or tamper with your sense of reality. Easier to continue thinking you're a good person, or not racist, or not another negative thing because your perception of reality, while not accurate, serves you in some way. Easier, but definitely not better.

veganelder said...

Thank you HGV. So you're meaning "easier" in the sense of less work or effort, right?