One of the most satisfying types of compliments I have received over the course of my life have been when people from very different backgrounds from mine either mistake me for or claim me for one of their own. This has phenomenon taken a few different forms over the years, ranging from a drunk boss saying of me at a party during my teenage teetotaling years, “David’s the sort of guy that when you’re talking to him stone drunk it’s easy to forget that he’s sober,” to Muslim friends who have told me, “You’re really a Muslim; you just haven’t realized it yet.”
When it comes to my actual ethnic identity though, people rarely guess it. Those who do not know me by name can usually (though not always) guess that I come from somewhere in the US, but that I am somehow not a “typical American.” That’s usually about as far as it goes. Rarely do they come anywhere close to guessing that I am a Michigander from entirely Dutch ancestry, or that my grandparents were all staunch Calvinists. At best, if this comes up after some hours of conversation, those who casually hear of my background and who are familiar with this sort of sub-cultural heritage might say, “OK, I can see that.” But to most my background remains somewhat of an enigma, and I am generally happy to have it that way.
There are, however, three aspects of my identity which are obvious to everyone at first glance these days, and which appear to be rather inescapable for me: I am a white, middle-aged man. It would be rather difficult to keep someone from noticing any of the three: no one with functional eyes could possibly mistake me for being young, feminine or of non-European ancestry. Of course this leads to a certain number of stereotypes, both positive and negative.
Most of these stereotypes, I admit, work to my advantage. It’s been a long time since any security guard, policeman or customs official has randomly followed me around, searched me or questioned me about anything suspicious. I also receive a certain amount of preferential service at shops, libraries, swimming halls, etc. just because I happen to look like a white, middle aged man. But these stereotypes often feed into a certain resentment of my perceived advantages as well. Frequently it is assumed that, as someone with social liberal sympathies, I should be using my advantages better to help those without such advantages. At times I feel like Robin Williams’ character in the movie Jack, or Tom Hanks’ character in Big: having the appearance of a middle aged man entitles me to certain things that my peers may be jealous of at times, intimidated by at times, and anxious to take some advantage of at times. All the while this world of appearance-based privilege feels more than a little unnatural to me. Yet even so I have to admit that, relatively speaking, it does work to my advantage.
Among the tributes to Edward Herrmann, the actor who played Richard on The Gilmore Girls, who died rather unexpectedly on New Year’s Eve, there have been collections of his best quotes in that role floating around on line over the past few days. One that is both poignant and disturbing at this point in history is where he says to a pair of bothersome policemen, “Look, it’s getting late, so either shoot us or go away.” Feeling like I might be able to get away with saying something like that to an unfamiliar police officer myself is as close as I come to a sense of white privilege: Whereas I could probably get away with such wise-assery with little more than a rebuke, recent history has shown that that sort of comment could easily get some of my darker skinned friends killed. I get that. I’m not entirely comfortable with the sort of injustice this implies. I’m not entirely comfortable with the paradoxically conflicted position this puts me in.
Economically I am in a rather awkward position as well. If you take the gross global production per year and divide it by the number of people in the world, my income comes quite close to the resulting global average. That means that while I am functionally as poor as they let people here in the Nordic countries get, in a world where the median income is just under 100 € per month, compared to most I am, admittedly, obscenely rich.
This is something that I’ve been thinking about lately, especially over the turn of the year. In recent weeks I’ve faced some attacks from people politically to my left (for a change), accusing me of not being appropriately embarrassed about my whiteness and my masculinity in particular. I also happen to be quite committed to the heterosexual and Protestant Christian aspects of my identity, which for some just makes matters worse. I’m not quite sure what, if anything, I should do about that. I make a point of not acting “entitled” to any advantages which my unearned status gives me. I always try take a stand against those who unjustly abuse others because they happen to be different than I am in any of these regards, whether this be in person on social media. But in spite of acknowledging many prejudices and resulting injustices as “real things”, I am not ashamed of what I am in terms of my masculinity, my age, my heterosexuality, my Christianity or my whiteness; and I find it rather tasteless and absurd when some people imply that I should be.
The particular paradox that I am faced with in practice, however, is not dealing with the hatred of those who can’t resist the urge to hate (and there are plenty of such people on both sides of all “difference” questions), but rather the challenge of how, from where I sit, to go about trying to make the world better in these regards. As I see it there are three primary approaches possible to righting historical wrongs of these sorts. All of these approaches can be necessary under given circumstances, but none of them is without its own inherent risks and fundamental flaws. These approaches would be: 1) revolutionary reversal of dominance patterns, 2) voluntary aid programs and 3) educational assistance initiatives.
There are certainly times when revolutions of various sorts are the only way to overcome particular patterns of abuse. If one group of people is using their accrued power to systematically deprived another group of basic human value, essentially treating them as inferior animals, sometimes the only solution to the problem is to forcibly remove the dominant group from power. The most obvious positive example of this within my lifetime has been the overthrowing of Apartheid governance in South Africa. Yet how far the post-Apartheid governments of South Africa should have gone in stripping that country’s white elite of their traditional power and privilege compared to what they actually did about the matter is a balance question where they could be fairly critiqued in either direction: On the one hand control of the mining sector of the economy remains firmly in the hands of white managers, leading to the deaths of miners protesting for more humane living and working conditions still in this generation. There is some justification possible for indigenous people going farther in stealing back the natural resources that those representing colonial powers stole from their ancestors a couple centuries ago. On the other hand there are many aspects of everyday administration where playing on resentments of what has gone before has been used as a means of distracting from problems of corruption and flat out incompetence in the current administration.
For all of its problems, the vast majority of the people of South Africa, of all races, see things as far better now than they were a generation ago. Elsewhere on the African continent, however, many of the “new bosses” who theoretically represent the formerly oppressed majority, seem to be making things at least as bad for their people as the colonial “old bosses” did. Sadly, Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe seem to be far closer to the post-colonial norm for African leaders than Nelson Mandela.
The same dilemma faces all revolutionary initiatives hoping to improve the lot of oppressed people. It is not good enough to say, “Those [whites, men, Christians, heteros, whatever] have been making life horrible for us [blacks, women, non-believers, LGBT folk, etc.] for centuries; so now it’s time for us to show them…” Bitterness over previous abuses is not a functional basis for improving people’s lives. Yes, radical power transitions may be necessary, but assuming that will be sufficient is a highly flawed theory. As painful as it may be, each revolution needs to look not only at what the old guard did wrong, but what they did right, both morally and logistically. Revolutionaries who have the cool-headed composure to “win the peace” after the battle are a rare commodity indeed. To do so, more often than not they need to turn to those they’ve vanquished for help in the practical running of things, which can indeed lead to deep questions of what the point of their struggle was if so little changes. To say that it’s complicated is a bit of an understatement.
The opposite end of the spectrum from revolution is simply for those in power to give as much assistance to those under their de facto dominion as they feel inclined to give. There is much to be said for voluntary charity, especially when it is based on a sincere desire to build personal contact with those on the receiving end, and when it is intended to bring about lasting good in their lives. The problem, of course, is that charity is frequently used as a means of protecting and reinforcing the systems which put the disadvantaged people at a disadvantage to begin with. Nicolas Wolterstorff tells of how seeing “generosity” used as a means of justifying gross injustices in pre-Apartheid South Africa fundamentally changed his perspective in such matters.
Even when the donors and volunteers are not trying to maintain some repulsive status quo, there is still the risk that they may be assuming, and/or reinforcing an assumption, that those whom they are trying to help are fundamentally incapable of getting by without their help. Too often in a post-colonial charitable context the hidden message given by charitable organizations and charity organizers is one of, “Yes, our conquest of these people may have been morally questionable, but we were able to do so because they were fundamentally weak to begin with. Their culture was fundamentally dysfunctional before we got here, which is precisely what enabled us to colonize them all those centuries ago. For that matter, once we took over the technical improvements we brought into their lives rather balance out the damage we may have done with what we stole from them. And now, even if we were to stop exploiting them in any way –– or even if we were to restore a significant part of what we took out of their land –– they would still be an inherently weak people in need of our help.” Offering assistance without this sort of hidden message attached is often far easier said than done; doing less harm than good with our charitable efforts can turn out to be a rather complicated matter.
In between the extremes of revolution and voluntary charity then we have the alternative of a structural enabling approach, especially focused on education. The premise here is that one of the main things keeping certain groups at a disadvantage is that they have not had the chance to investigate and develop the sort of systems and methods which have brought relative stability and prosperity to others, particularly those who have the greatest power advantages in the world today. This basically assumes that those in the disadvantaged group are not inherently weak in terms of learning abilities and problem solving skills; just that historical systems of oppression have prevented them from realizing their capabilities in these regards. By teaching them the understandings, approaches and techniques which have enabled people elsewhere to properly thrive, we can help disadvantaged people to help themselves overcome their current disadvantages.
This approach is also far from trouble-free. It tends to assume that there are certain “right understandings” of all elements in the curriculum, regarding which those in the disadvantaged position must be ready to submit themselves to the “expertise” of their (former) oppressors. This can perhaps best be illustrated in terms of gender relation conflicts in the West: Ideally both sexes should be allowed to venture into the other’s traditional territory without having to completely conform to the other’s norms for how things “have to be done”, but in practice it tends not to work that way. Men have clear cultural advantages over women in terms of their positions in business and political power structures. While women now increasingly have opportunities to learn these skills and compete in these fields, many women are justifiably resentful of the idea that in order to be respected in business or in politics they have to learn to do things in a typically masculine way or according to masculine expectations. On the other hand, women have significant cultural advantages in terms of respect for their nurturing abilities, and while opportunities for men to participate in care-taking professions and in the active raising of their own children are progressively increasing, many men are justifiably resentful of the way in which respect for their contributions in these fields depends on their compliance to stereotypical feminine standards.
The same principle of respect for the other’s perspective on things needs to be applied to the teaching of social sciences and other “western” academic disciplines in post-colonial contexts. This too is far easier said than done. The problems of “Orientalism” and respect for cultural autonomy in relation to the formulation and application of basic human rights is a long debate unto itself.
Yet even with these risks and underlying tensions taken into account, I still believe that the educational empowerment approach might provide the best chance to overcome problems stemming from historical abuses of power, to build mutual respect between those on opposite sides of the old power struggles, and to initiate a constructive orientation towards the future. It is not safe to assume that peace and justice can be brought about merely by removing a particular group of abusers of power, nor by trusting the good will of those who have historically abused power. The best hope is to be found in respectfully enabling those who have been traditionally disempowered to work together constructively with those who have traditionally held exclusive rights to power, and to do so in a manner that respectfully considers the contributions offered by those who have previously been excluded from the processes in question.
This is how I, as a white, middle-aged man, still hope to improve the world I find myself in. Accuse me of patriarchy or ethno-centrism if you must, but I still believe that some of the knowledge and skills I have acquired over the years are potentially useful for people around me, and not only in a European context. I realize that in sharing what I have to offer I have to be ready to carefully listen to others’ perspectives, but that does not mean that what I have to offer is without value.
To the limited extent to which I am able, I will also try to keep offering direct material aid to those in greater need than I am, and I still offer what moral support I can to revolutionaries with hopeful, constructive orientations in their revolutions; but for myself I don’t see those as primary means of reducing injustices, helping those in need or making the world a better place.
My personal concrete starting point in this regard for 2015 is to do what I can to help empower some of the poorest people in Kenya, beginning with the personal contacts I was able to make there last June. Anyone who would like to join in this particular project is more than welcome to get in touch with me regarding details. Meanwhile I wish all my readers and fellow idealists a blessed and productive new year. May all your dreams of this year finding ways to leave the world a better place than you found it come true.