Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Race as Meme and white privelege

Another blog recently sent me scurrying to wikipedia to read about memes. (a self-propagating unit of cultural evolution)
Karl Popper advocated [meme resistance] in the strongest possible terms: "The survival value of intelligence is that it allows us to extinct a bad idea, before the idea extincts us."
I agree with others that the concept of race has become a powerful meme, a powerful idea that may exist separately from observable testable reality. I also believe the concept of race, the meme of race, has become part of how people identify themselves as part of a group, a very human need, consciously or not, and how people judge others, consciously or not.

Personally, (and at the risk of over simplifying the argument) I think we can't end a meme by ignoring it, or simply saying that it's an unscientific concept. It's become a social concept that is imbued with all kinds of complicated power structures, utilized by people who either don't agree that race is a logically meaningless category, or who believe that race doesn't matter and therefore don't examine how race/identity/racism influences them unconsciously.

I was listening to talk radio the other night on my way home, and a caller, who identified himself as a hard working trucker, stated that you can watch "these people" outside the superdome and know what they're about, that giving $2000 cash cards to "these people" was wrong headed, and that 3/4 of the people displaced from New Orleans were on welfare anyway, so we're just still just paying for them one way or the other.

The (articulate and educated) talk show host didn't contradict the premise that 3/4 of New Orleans was on welfare.

He didn't ask who the caller identified as "these people" or who the caller identified as "we."

So who was the caller referring to? What kind of power to shape public opinion and the very perception of reality does this meme have? I think tremendous, and ignoring it isn't going to make it go away.

My family history of our lives as french/scottish/irish is full of stories of oppression, assault, sub-human indenturedness, and poverty. "Irish need not apply" was a real discrimination that had real consequences. But today when I hail a cab, or a policeman, that Scotch/Irishness hasn't "memed" into something that will interfere with what I'm trying to do. I'm hailing the cab as someone who is perceived as a white person. I'll never be mistaken for Danny Glover. (hell, when hailing a cab, Danny Glover isn't mistaken for Danny Glover.)

The history of slavery in America has turned into something very specific for African Americans in ways the history of Irish oppression didn't.

Personally, I'm with Noel Ignatiev and believe that one of the most powerful things that people identified as white can do to end the meme, or concept of race, is to refuse to use the privelege that comes from whiteness.

The cops that pulled me out of the car did so because they privileged whiteness and assumed that a white person wouldn't choose to ride in a car with 5 black people. They thought they needed to protect me, and, I would suggest, my whiteness.

Several years ago I was in Provincetown with my extended family which is multi-racial, multi-ethnic. The large imposing woman staffing the rest room leaned over like we were friends and asked me, loudly, in front of my two African American god-daughters,

"Are these your foster children?"

I was appalled. I had a foster child at one time, and I loved him, but these weren't him. What, the only reason a white woman would have black children is if their own mother couldn't care for them?

The girls froze, faces full of fear.

I did better than the time the police pulled us over in the car.

I looked the woman straight in the eye and said, "What? No, this is my family. Oh, I see what happened, you thought I was white. Yea, that happens all the time. Have a nice day."

I believe actions like that help to extinguish a bad idea. Refusing those moments when our whiteness priveleges us, or seems to make some kind of special bond between two otherwise anonymous people, that's the best meme-buster.

peace,crankycindy who is pretty happycindy that this conversation is happening.


Clyde Grubbs said...


Your experiences indicate that racism is more than a bad idea that can be ignored and it will go away. The policemen, the person who called in to radio talk show, the talk show host, and the woman who presumed that your god daughters were your foster children all have identified deeply with being "White."

Their behavior is perfectly consistent with their Identity. Can a "white" person overcome their racism without embracing a new identity? Your entry indicates that transformation is possible, but that it won't happen by playing word games.

Michelle Murrain said...

There are several levels to deal with, here. On one hand, we need deep awareness of priviledge, whether it be white priviledge or class priviledge. Awareness of one's own priviledge is an important first step.

But disruption of other people's imbedded ideas is pretty important, too. I've met people who think, for example, black=poor. As an african-american who was raised with class priviledge, it's kinda fun to disrupt that equation for people (it's rather suprising sometimes how imbedded it can be. I have some stories...) It's the same kind of equation as 'black kids, white adult = foster children.' Disrupting those equations is pretty important - because it forces people to question their assumptions, and assumptions are a very important part of the meme of racism.