- 10 Nov - 16 Nov, 2018
FANTASY WORLD OF WHITE AMERICAN RACIALISTS
- 21 Jul - 27 Jul, 2018
- A Letter From America
Lately I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be a white, middle-class American. Reading Rafia Zakaria’s righteously angry recent essays, which I recommended in this column a week ago, has been one spur. Another was the widely shared video of a white man verbally abusing a Puerto Rican woman in a park in Chicago because she was wearing a shirt with the Puerto Rican flag on it – the island of Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, and Puerto Ricans are full U.S. citizens – while a white policeman stood by, apparently indifferent to the woman’s safety and even to her explicit requests for him to intervene. There have been a number of similar incidents recently, all around the country.
Then there’s the right-wing new Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, who was introduced to the nation in part via an op-ed article in the Washington Post about what a great “carpool dad” he apparently is. The message of that article – widely and rightly ridiculed in social media – seems to have been to emphasise what a nice, normal, middle-class, indeed white sort of fellow Judge Kavanaugh is. Indeed photographs do reveal Judge Kavanaugh and his family to be very white. Which leaves me feeling embarrassed about being associated with him in shared whiteness. (It’s also galling to me, although exactly why I’m not sure, that Kavanaugh is almost exactly my age.) Anyway, in the United States, presidential nominations of Supreme Court justices must be confirmed by the Senate, and the Republican Party controls the Senate, albeit barely. The battle over Kavanaugh’s confirmation, probably already underway as you read this, is likely to be – had better be – bitter and hard-fought. If it’s not, it will mean the Democratic Party has simply given up.
At times it feels as though America is on the verge of an all-out race war, and I’m on the wrong side. Not ideologically, mind you – like any good liberal I believe that America is and should be a pluralistic country, built and defined by immigrants – but rather racially, because I’ll never be able to cease being white. And, to be honest, I don’t want to; I enjoy and appreciate being who I am.
But who am I, actually? I could sketch for you my family background and upbringing, and those go a long way in defining who in particular I feel myself to be. But it’s also true – much as it irks me to be lambasted about it – that real privileges, including a substantial measure of physical, social and political safety – accrue to me, in America, simply because I’m white and male. That’s something I have to put in my pipe and smoke, as the saying goes, every time I see a video like the one of a 91-year-old man from Mexico, visiting his family in California, who was hospitalized after being assaulted by an American woman (a black woman, as it happens).
So what has it meant to me to be a white, middle-class American? To me personally, the most important thing it has meant has been the ability to travel worldwide, beginning at a young age, and thus to achieve a measure of genuine personal cosmopolitanism. That’s not every white American’s aspiration, to put it mildly, so it’s paradoxical. But it’s true that what made that possible for me were the relative financial security and stability that my grandparents and parents and their middle-class salaries and home equity made possible, as well as the cultural and personal confidence that go with those things. I didn’t understand any of this when I was young, but now I think I do.
I got my first inklings of my privilege when I was living in Bangkok and traveling almost constantly around Asia, including Pakistan, as a journalist in the 1990s. What got me a lot of interviews and meetings that I sought, as well as social invitations that I welcomed, not to mention out of a number of dicey situations in Kashmir and Peshawar and Haiti and Zimbabwe, were two things: my white skin and my blue passport. I can say that, to my credit, I made the most of those assets, unearned though they were. My mentor and role model James Fallows says that journalists get paid to learn, and I certainly learned a lot during my years of relentless ground-level travel and reporting.
And of the many things I learned, the most important were that the world is of a piece; that in truth there are no borders between countries or real differences between people or peoples; that we’re all graced and afflicted by the same human nature and subject to
the same material as well as political and economic forces. We’re all, in the end, equally vulnerable and equally obligated to face our mortality. And, when I returned to live in America in 2006, after 13 years of almost constant travel elsewhere around this planet, I brought those truths home with me.
So, in the end, what the privilege of being a white American, and the uses I made of that privilege, taught me was that there’s nothing special about being a white American after all. Because here I am, in middle age, living and working back in the very heart of middle-class white America, more or less exactly where I started (socio-politically if not geographically), and the stability and security that I and millions like me took for granted all those years as our birthright are looking increasingly ersatz, temporary and conditional. And, believe it or not, that’s a good thing.
What I mean by saying that is something I don’t have word count here to explain in full, but mainly I mean that it’s better to live in reality than in a concocted fantasy world. And a fantasy world is what America as I knew it growing up turns out to have been. That fantasy is what Trump and his minions want to enforce, but it’s not enforceable. •
- 03 Nov - 09 Nov, 2018
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