Tuesday, June 23, 2015

White Identity

Nell Irvin Painter has a peculiar little essay on white identity in the Times, which set me musing again on the crucial questions of how we think about ourselves:
An essential problem here is the inadequacy of white identity. Everyone loves to talk about blackness, a fascinating thing. But bring up whiteness and fewer people want to talk about it. Whiteness is on a toggle switch between “bland nothingness” and “racist hatred.”
Painter is far from the only American who finds a white identity “inadequate;” many of my peers seem to think it means only suburban blandness and an unpleasant history of imperialism and genocide. Not much to love or be proud of.

Which creates a problem for many Americans. Tribalism is a big part of our evolutionary inheritance; most of us are born with a strong tendency to divide us from them, and to assign all bad things to them and the good ones to us. The need to identify as something runs deep, and for many people "American" is just too big, vague, and diverse a category to fit the bill. "Whiteness" is a lame attempt to square this circle, assigning all the good things about America to "real Americans" and the bad things to alien others; but since this is an obvious lie, it has failed to find favor among most of the people.

A tribal identity supplied a huge amount of psychological and sociological support: heroes to emulate, values to practice, a language to speak, food to eat, ideas about marriage and child-rearing, enemies to fight. Especially in times of conflict tribalism could become all encompassing. To some extent this was always an illusion, since tribes interacted with other tribes and were always bringing in new ideas from outside. But to have such an identity is obviously a powerful thing for many and maybe most humans.

By contrast we moderns live in a porous, rapidly changing world, made constantly aware of how much about our lives is new or borrowed. To create an "us" that encompasses all that we value means stretching the boundaries to a huge scale -- to Western Civilization, say, or even to humanity. Such identities appeal to some, but for many they are too big and vague to carry the visceral power of belonging to a tribe. Plus the replacement of myth by history and political science, and the diversity of our worlds, bombards us with messages about the sins of our own people. Anyone who pays attention knows too much about our heroes to idolize them, too much about our ancestors' crimes to believe that our side is always good.

Because modernity clashes so strongly with those tribal modules in our brains, we are, I think, doomed to conflict about identities. There will always be people sickened by cosmopolitan relativism, and some of them will adopt fundamentalist ideas about truth -- whatever disrupts my own story is a lie -- and join identity cults that give them the strong support they need. Since these people live in the big world with the rest of us, they will always be confronted by people with different ideals and different identities, so flash points like the conflict over the Confederate battle flag are inevitable.

I identify as an intellectual in the western tradition; as a lover of democracy; as a man; as a parent; as an American; as a skeptic; as a curious, thoughtful person; as a modernist in love with science and possibility; as a lover of art and beauty, especially in traditional forms; as an environmentalist; as a citizen of the earth. For me this sort of composite identity works quite well, but I recognize that for many others it does not. It seems to me, though, that given what the modern world is, we would all be better off if we could adapt our psyches to our own world, rather than trying to recreate the intense tribalism of ancient days.


G. Verloren said...

Really, if white Americans want more tribal identities, most of them need only retrace their ancestries. If "American" is too broad and cosmopolitan for some, then perhaps they need to return to their European roots.

We already have popularly accepted notions of what it means to be Irish American, Italian American, and Jewish American - why not also what it means to be Lithuanian American, Dutch American, or even French American (distinct from French Canadian, of course)?

Heck, the possibility even exists for extended granularity. "German American" too vague for your tastes? Trace the ancestry even further - you could be Hessian American, Thuringian American, or Bavarian American, among others. Italian Americans could easily instead be Mantuan American, Abruzzan American, or Venetian American, to name only a few. Derive it down to individual cities and towns, if you really want to - who cares?

The world is not lacking in available tribal affiliations. You can even employ surrogates if you want, like being a fan of a particular sports team, or just make up new affiliations entirely. The options are out there.

leif said...

i'd be a fool to say i am without pet affiliations, but in all honesty i just don't buy into it. from adolescence forward, i have not been an ardent fan of anything -- cell phones, sports teams, states, nations, races. i just don't get the draw. the us v. them approach is cloyingly easy for many, and creates significant drag on our societal advancement.

Anonymous said...

Isn't part of the issue here that in America, with "blackness," and an ancestral history that includes the 16th-19th century African slave trade experience, comes the mystery of "where did I come from in Africa?"

Some years back, as I was watching a Henry Louis Gates TV show on ancestry, I was given my first glimpse of the DNA identity of an American whose ancestors had come to the US via slave ships. The hodgepodge of locations was, in its way, devastating, and certainly gave me a new lens with which to view the question of ancestral heritage.

My personal heritage includes grandparents born in villages some 30 miles apart in their birth nation. As young people they immigrated independently to America, joined the New York community of their national peers, met, and married.

Okay, so that was a 20th c experience rather than a 19th c experience, but how VASTLY different than the experience of the "black" American.