Some of the most engaging readings that I’ve explored on my history list so far belong to the genre of cultural history. This is partly because cultural histories tend to encompass unusual subject matter (see my recent post on toilet paper advertising), and over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been able to read about everything from amusement parks and gas station architecture to television. Beyond exploring the quirky stories behind certain these ideas or things though, cultural histories consider broader social or economic issues through the lens of these specific objects or technologies. Through an intimate consideration of a particular concept or object, in other words, cultural histories offer insight into the culture from which that thing originated. Today then, we’ll take a look at some of these readings and what they have to say about American society at large.
An overarching theme connecting a lot of the cultural histories I’ve been looking at has been the adjustment to modernity. In other words, a lot of these historians have explored how the specific objects they study enabled American citizens to adjust to modern life, with its emphasis on speed, instantaneity, mass culture, and a reliance on technology. That is the major theme of the monograph Electric Dreamland, by Lauren Rabinovitz. Focusing on the popularity of electric amusement parks and movies during the early 20th century, she argues that these technologies helped audiences adjust to the unfamiliarity of modern life by taking the sense of danger associated with modern machines and other developments and converting it into entertainment. Concentrating specifically on somatic experience, she posits that roller coasters and other thrill rides encouraged visitors to yield bodily control to machines in order to achieve a sense of excitement. This experience, she posits, played out in other facets of modern society through the growing popularity of the automobile, the increasingly complex infrastructure of cities, and so on. Far from a frivolous pursuit distinct from the more “serious” aspects of modernism, Rabinovitz argues that amusement parks played a crucial role in the shaping of modern life.
I appreciated this book for a couple of different reasons. Rather than focus exclusively on famous urban sites such as Coney Island in New York, Rabinovitz concentrates on amusement parks in more suburban and western areas to demonstrate that the kind of modernity these places promoted was not limited to major metropolitan areas. I also thought that her somatic grounding of the modern experience was intriguing, as it reminded me of Diana Taylor’s discussion of bodily ways of knowing in The Archive and the Repertoire. I also connected with Rabinovitz’s argument on a personal level because I had the opportunity to experience amusement parks first-hand. Last December, Brandon and I went to visit his family at Universal Studios in Orlando. Consequently, I was able to draw on my own experiences of riding roller coasters and walking around fanciful architecture when reading the book.
(For the record, I’m a terrible amusement park visitor by somatic standards; the rides either scare me, make me nauseous, or both. Hot butterbeer at Diagon Alley though? I am totally fine with that.)
Other books take a subject matter regarded as nondescript and emphasize its significance. That is what Gabrielle Esperdy does in the book American Autotopia, which focuses on gas stations and other structures related to the automobile. She argues that these places, far from insignificant, played a key role in the development of modern architecture, not just through style, but rather through space. She posits that the car and its need for wider, paved roads encouraged architects and urban planners to think about cities differently, as they conceptualized spaces adapted to cars. As such, the look of modern architecture, with its emphasis on clean lines and accessible spaces for cars in terms of both driving and parking, is very much informed by the automobile. Consequently, she argues that we should pay as much attention to gas stations and other roadside stops as much as we do the more iconic skyscrapers and other structures.
Still other books highlight new facets of technologies that we thought we understood. Such is what happens in Lynn Spigel’s book TV by Design. While authors such as James L. Baughman have explored television through its relationship with other entertainment mediums such as vaudeville and movies, she focuses on television’s relationship with modern art. She argues that television as it developed in the 1950s and early 1960s maintained an ongoing dialogue with modern art, whether through the abstracted animations of early commercials, the appearance of modern abstract paintings in the backgrounds of television shows, or the hiring of modern artists to design film sets. Through this multi-faceted exploration, she offers new insights into television by aligning it with another medium that often gets analyzed separately from it.
A lot of these readings bear the influence of a specific scholar, Raymond Williams, who introduced a sociological aspect to the study of culture. In early essays like his 1958 “Culture is Ordinary,” Williams advocates for a more anthropological take on culture that considers everyday practices as well as art or theater. He wasn’t the first scholar to argue for scholarly considerations of the ordinary, but the way he synthesized these different ideas has proven quite influential. He would further explore this idea in his 1977 monograph Marxism and Literature, which argues for taking a Marxist scholarly framework and reconsidering it through the lens of material culture. In other words, the state of our material surroundings says a lot about a society. This idea in particular has influenced a lot of scholars, who have explored capitalism, institutional racism, gender norms, and other big concepts through the lens of specific objects.
These writings have definitely intrigued me in a lot of different ways, and I appreciated the multimedia, interdisciplinary quality of these works. Given my own peculiar taste in art, as my blog post on Seal and Polar Bearsuggests, I could see myself doing a cultural history on Victorian business cards and their relationship with nineteenth-century painting, vernacular or otherwise. With regard to my interest in the Community Arts Center project, I could also see myself exploring the kind of art shown through a cultural history lens. So for instance, what kind of subject matter was especially popular among viewers in different regions, and what might those subjects suggest about society at large? How about the history of typewriters and other communicative technologies in museums? What my cultural history readings have underscored is that nothing exists in a vacuum and any topic is fair game so long as you have strong questions that connect your topics back to broader social issues or concerns.
Last week’s post explored some recent texts that examine the growth of the federal state. Today, I’d like to take a look at some works that address the period frequently credited with the development of the modern State: the New Deal.
The driving questions underpinning these texts is assessing the historical impact of the New Deal, a question that’s as historically specific as the WPA itself. During the 1960s, for instance, many assessments were positive, reflecting the optimism of the proposed reforms associated with the Great Society. During the 1970s, in the wake of stagnating wages and the oil crisis, scholars associated with the Marxism of the New Left took a more critical position, arguing that the New Deal didn’t so much transform society as maintain extant capitalist structures. During the 1980s, the New Deal’s influence was further questioned in light of President Reagan’s neoliberal policies and the resurgence of free-market advocacy.
Today, the results continue to remain mixed. On the one hand, scholars working through feminist, critical race, and other lenses have rightly pointed out that the New Deal supported white male workers over all other populations, reflecting the nation’s white supremacy. As a result, the questions have shifted somewhat from asking whether the New Deal was effective, to asking what kinds of structural preferences or inequalities shaped its outcomes. At the same time, the New Deal remains a paragon for the government as service provider and security net because its the most extensive American example we have. Democratic politicians in particular continue to invoke the New Deal when seeking to provide government aid to citizens, a phenomenon that we’ve seen most recently with the Green New Deal as well as Government stimulus checks.
One of my readings, Beyond the New Deal: Politics from the Great Depression to the Great Recession, is itself a response to an earlier volume, The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, published in 1989. Edited by Gary Gerstle (the same person behind one of last week’s books, Liberty and Coercion), this book offers a very different outlook on the New Deal than its 1989 predecessor. Whereas that earlier volume argued that the New Deal era ended as a result of the political and social unrest surrounding the Civil Rights Movement, Gertsle now argues that the conservatism associated with today’s political moment has had a much stronger presence historically than previously believed. In short, the conservatism we see nowadays is a legacy of the New Deal, because there was resistance to it from the beginning.
This seems to be the angle Jefferson Cowie takes in The Great Exception. He posits that the New Deal didn’t signal the onset of a new political era, but rather represents an anomaly within an otherwise conservative political and social history. He argues that the only reason the New Deal worked at all was that the working-class population was more homogenous than usual. This in itself stemmed from restrictions on immigration, policies that favored white male working people, and the continuation of systemic racism in light of FDR’s willingness to ignore the Jim Crow policies of Southern Democrats. As a result, the working class was more open to progressive, labor-focused policies because white men were the primary benefactors. As soon as you started introducing other demographics, the population became fragmented and less willing to agree on different issues.
Other works are decidedly more optimistic about the New Deal, particularly Nick Taylor’sAmerican Made. Published in 2009, the book appeared in the wake of the 2008 Great Recession. Whether he anticipated the recession while writing the book or not, I always find it interesting that the New Deal gets brought up whenever we entered a new economic crisis. The Green New Deal, for example, has been a lot of attention for the last couple of years, and I have no doubt that the New Deal will get renewed attention in the wake of COVID-19.
Most of the texts I’ve read take a more ambivalent stance, reflecting the complexities that intersectional scholarship seeks to underscore. While a lot of scholars know that the New Deal did accomplish things, they also argue that it was systemically flawed due to policies that favored white men over other populations. As a result, the long-term impacts of the New Deal were always going to be limited because its reforms maintained the social status quo.
At the same time, we still live with the ongoing effects of the New Deal, even if a lot of the social programs associated with it have been dismantled. Typically we think of Social Security when we think of ongoing New Deal legacies, but Jason Scott Smith takes a more concretized approach in Building New Deal Liberalism, which focuses on the actual infrastructure that was developed during this time. He argues that we continue to live with, and rely on, New Deal infrastructure, including roads, dams, and other projects, for better or worse. As somebody interested in traveling to structures and their role in the production and consumption of our, I found Smith’s book particularly interesting.
In terms of recent scholarship the most interesting work doesn’t address the New Deal itself directly, per se, but rather the response of conservatives. As scholars such as Angus Burgin observe in works like The Great Persuasion, the conservative strain in American politics was not a radical outlier during the New Deal and Great Society eras. On the contrary, it remained a prominent part of American politics throughout these eras of reform and government expansion.
So why study the New Deal then? In terms of urgency, a lot of historians continue to look to this era, and the conservative response, for the roots of Trump and his policies. Trumpism, they argue, is not anomalous, but has developed from decades of conservative mobilization in terms of advocating free market, neoliberal policies and courting a disenfranchised white male population. Looking at The New Deal and the Great Society through the lens of conservatism reveals that this approach has been an underlying current throughout America’s political, cultural, and economic history. In this regard, the emphasis in recent scholarship is not so much the growth of big government (although that is still a prominent aspect) but rather the growing conservative reaction against such expansion. It’s not so much an abandonment of one topic for another as it is a shift in perspective from the New Deal’s supporters to its opponents.
As someone interested in the New Deal era, I naturally found these readings interesting, even if my own focus is on the arts rather than politics per se. Nevertheless, it is important to understand these political arguments because they impacted the Community Art Center Project. The broader arguments about political reforms, big government, and individual liberties, moreover, continue to affect the current cultural landscape, something that I’ve been following through the museum world in particular.
As a lot of smaller museums and cultural institutions struggle financially in the wake of COVID-19, difficult questions are being asked regarding whether some museums will ever reopen. On the one hand, the idea that a museum should be able to sustain itself financially reflects classical liberal ideas of the free market taking its natural course. Museums that cannot support themselves, according to this line of thought, should be phased out so that better, more efficient institutions can take their place. Conversely, non-profit museums require a substantial donor base in order to subsist, and such donor bases usually only exist in larger cities. Consequently then, allowing smaller museums, especially those in rural or otherwise underserved areas, implies that poorer populations don’t deserve museums, an attitude that runs counter to the philosophies of the Community Art Center Project. To complicate things further, museums themselves are problematic institutions (art museums are particularly complicit in white supremacy, given their collections), so we need to have some difficult conversations before we scramble to save them. In short, like everything in our society, the issue is complicated and raises all kinds of questions about what kinds of institutions we need.
Ultimately this narrative is still ongoing, but having a better sense of the political background of the New Deal, and especially the conservative reaction to it, will provide context for my future research.
Today I wanted to get started with talking about my third reading list, but don’t think that we’re finished with talking about antiracism here. I’ll be sharing a new book here on the first of every month, so we can keep learning together. More importantly, we need to keep taking action through donating money, protesting, voting, supporting black businesses, and more. For a list of things you can do, click here.
Whereas my first two reading lists focused primarily on theory, the last two address more historical content. Yet historians also use different methodological and theoretical questions to frame their work. Over the next few weeks, we’ll tease out some of these major themes and inquiries with regard to the study of U.S. history today.
The first section I looked at focused on the state, or the institutions, policies, and mechanisms of the federal government. Regardless of how you feel about the size and scope of the state, whether it’s too intrusive on individual liberties or not proactive enough with regard to helping the citizenry, we can all agree that it’s grown and changed a lot over the last 200+ years. Indeed, a common inquiry running throughout these texts with regard to the state is, to paraphrase Talking Heads, “how did we get here?”
On a more serious note, I first wrote this post several weeks ago, before the Black Lives Matter protests really got going. In light of the systemic issues these ongoing debates and protests have raised however, the following readings remain relevant with regard to the government, its power, and what it will or will not do for its people. In short, who does the state actually serve?
The books I looked at can be grouped into three clusters, though they all overlap given their common broad interest in the state. The first group takes what I call the long view of history. They examine the development of the state from the founding to the present while trying to ascertain a common quality or characteristic underpinning its various expansions and changes.
For Gary Gerstle’sLiberty and Coercion, that quality is an ongoing tension between the preservation of individual liberties through the limitation of the federal government, and coercion as granted through the police powers of state and local governments. According to Gerstle, the framers of the Constitution developed the three-branch federal government in an effort to limit the central authority, reflecting their disdain of monarchies. What people tend to forget, however, is that the framers, recognizing the government’s obligation to protect its people, granted the police powers traditionally granted to kings, surveillance, martial law, and so forth, to the state governments. As Gerstle argues, this kind of power has subsequently been used to perpetuate racism and other forms of discrimination, as demonstrated through the Jim Crow laws of the South, among other examples. This tension between liberty and coercion has also influenced the growth of the federal government itself. Again taking the long view, Gerstle traces the growth of the state through a series of what he calls improvisations, with the state more or less inventing loopholes to circumvent limitations, with exemptions (e.g using wartime to justify federal action because the conditions are unusual), surrogacy (substituting one service, like supervising the mail to limit the circulation of pornography, to act on other interests, like enacting morality), and privatization (using private businesses to enact federal interests, like the railroad companies to construct a national infrastructure). The result of these methods is a piecemeal rather than comprehensive approach to the federal government, a profound public misunderstanding of the state’s role in daily life due to a conflation of state and federal roles, and a seemingly unbreakable gridlock between Democratic and Republican politicians due to their different understandings of the state and its function in society.
If Gerstle’s work focuses on the historical paradoxes underpinning American government and politics, Daniel Immerwahr’sHow to Hide and Empire reinterprets U.S. history through a more geographic lens. He argues that the United States has long exhibited imperial ambitions, but due to its ostensibly republican values, has never stated these interests explicitly, substituting terms like territories or commonwealths for colonies. The result of this murky treatment is that territories like Puerto Rico or Guam tend to get ignored altogether in the U.S. cultural imagination despite their historical and demographic significance, which, as Hurricane Maria has demonstrated, can have fatal effects. Immerwahr then sets out to correct this by writing a narrative of U.S. history that includes its territories.
A second group of works takes a more focused look at U.S. history, with an interest in identifying the critical moment when the modern federal state began to emerge. For Nancy Cohen’sThe Reconstruction of American Liberalism, that moment occurred during the Gilded Age. Whereas we often see parallels between our society and the Gilded Age for monopolistic operations and extreme wealth inequality, Cohen argues that we can also trace a lineage to the modern state, and more specifically its ability to step in an interfere with the market. While historians have traditionally traced the beginnings of the modern state to the Progressive era and the demand for more humanitarian treatment of workers through imposing limited hours and other rights, Cohen argues that the expansion of the state began earlier during the Gilded Age. Reacting to the mass democratic possibilities stemming from Reconstruction and the expansion of suffrage, intellectuals and politicians debated whether it was more important to protect mass democracy or private property. They ultimately opted for the latter, and advocated for a government capable of interfering with the market to prevent crashes and other financial disasters. Cohen looks at the rise of the modern state through the lens of capitalism, with the government’s ongoing support of corporate capitalism being one of the major legacies of the Gilded Age, for better or worse.
James T. Sparrow’sWarfare State locates the emergence of the modern state to the mid-twentieth century, and specifically during the Second World War. Like Cohen, Sparrow is also redefining the moment when the federal government as we know it began to grow and coalesce, but whereas Cohen recenters the state from the Progressive Era to the Gilded Age, Sparrow refocuses it from the New Deal to World War II. While twentieth-century scholars have often regarded the New Deal as the era of big government, Sparrow argues that its actual impact in terms of taxation, particularly on the rich, was primarily symbolic. By contrast, the Second World War not only ushered in mass taxation for the first time in American history, but also employed millions of more people than the New Deal’s programs ever did. Additionally, the federal government took on a much more prominent role in the daily lives of Americans, whether through taxation, selling war bonds, or even propaganda against gossip. The key to this expansion, Sparrow argues, was the conflation of nationalism and civic duty with the new government demands and roles. Blurring the homefront with the battlefront, the federal government used patriotism exuded toward soldiers to the benefit of its own programs by arguing that taxation, buying war bonds, and other forms of government action were acts in civic duty. Conversely, as the public became more familiar with the federal government’s presence through taxation and war bonds, they came to expect more of it in terms of providing jobs and other services. This mutual dialogue, Sparrow argues, enabled the growth of the federal government both during and after the war, particularly with the Cold War prolonging the crisis mode of the previous conflict and justifying extreme measures.
The third group of works seeks to expand understandings of government history by integrating gender and sexuality into political history. Margot Canaday’sThe Straight State explores the intersection between the growth of the federal government and the emergence of homosexuality as a legal definition. She begins her book by observing that the United States has long been more interested in defining and curtailing homosexuality compared to its counterparts in Europe. She notes that homosexuality as a medical and psychological definition developed at the turn of the twentieth century, around the same time that the federal government began to expand into its modern bureaucratic form. From that observation, she argues that the federal government used its changing perception of homosexuality as a testing ground for defining its own institutional powers through laws and other means. Whereas institutional racism has been interwoven with the government since its founding and earlier, homosexuality emerged in concert with the modern government, and as such played a crucial role in the state’s understanding of both itself and the kind of citizenry it wished to cultivate (i.e. a heterosexual one). As a result, Canaday argues that LGBTQ history, far from a fringe interest, actually constitutes a core aspect of U.S. history and government and should be treated as such.
Robert O. Self’sAll in the Familyalso explores gender and sexuality as part of a broader discussion of the conservative political turn that has taken place in U.S. culture since the 1980s. Taking the Great Society as his launching point, he observes that the white, nuclear family, originally a symbol of government liberal support, has become emblematic of conservative, patriarchal values, a shift that both coincides with, and enables, the neoliberal political turn. He notes that during the 1960s and 1970s, black freedom advocates, gay activists, and feminists critiqued the nuclear family as too confining, and demanded for greater representation in terms of both identity politics and equality rights such as parental leave and abortion access. Conservatives, in turn, reappropriated the nuclear family not as a unit needing the assistance of government programs, but as a traditional, timeless value in need of protection from government interference. They argued that rather than interfere in society, the government should promote a free market system that could play out naturally, a system that would inherently come out in support of the family because it is moral and inherently right. The result of this shift, Self argues, is a government willing to recognize negative rights via identity politics (I acknowledge your identity as gay, black, feminist, etc), but less willing to impose positive rights that actually provide equality. As one example, the government is willing to allow women to pursue careers, but will not offer paid leave, birth control access, or other means that actually enable women to feasibly pursue careers (or at least, not without taking on the additional burden of domestic labor and childrearing). In short, the American government favors liberty over equality, which is in keeping with the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality that defines the neoliberal turn. Like The Straight State, All in the Family argues that gender, sexuality, and race are critical elements of political history, and should be analyzed in conjunction with government development and legislation.
As someone interested in the Federal Community Art Center Project, exploring the history of the state from different perspectives will benefit my future research. Considering how the state developed and understood itself could be crucial when looking at the kinds of exhibitions it chose to circulate among the states, for instance, especially when it comes to the exhibitions’ role in propagating a national art identity. Additionally, works like All in the Family underscore the importance of considering the significance of women, and more broadly gender, to the Project. Women exhibited their work through the program, women worked at community art centers, and most significantly, a woman, Mildred Holzhauer, selected and compiled the exhibitions that traveled to them. Taking a closer look at the role of women to the Community Art Center Project in its various dimensions could be a very fruitful way of synthesizing the feminist ideas I’ve been exploring in my previous reading lists, as well as provide a focus to the state itself.
Another angle would be to consider the kind of work the state chose to circulate. Beyond stylistic preferences, what did the art exhibited say about the kinds of values the state promoted? Is there an inclination toward domestic subjects, rural or urban settings, or heterosexual identities? What did these works have to say about race, or gender identity? How did these selections compare to more locally-arranged shows, and what do they say about local and national identities? All of these questions could be explored in greater detail.
I’ve only just started this list though, and I’ll doubtless be thinking of other potential angles as I keep working through these texts.
In the spirit of last week’s post, I’ve been working to better educate myself about white privilege and systemic racism. This is ongoing work that will never be finished, but it’s important for us white people to be willing to learn and embrace change when it comes to our attitudes about racism. With that in mind, one book that I’d like to talk about today is Robin DiAngelo’sWhite Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Race. If you’re a white person who’s new to thinking about race and privilege, I recommend it because it’s a succinct, clearly-written, yet thorough introduction to white fragility. It’s less than 200 pages, so you’ll get through it in a couple of days. It’s also an instance of someone using their white privilege to positive ends, as the author is a white woman talking to white readers about systemic racism and how we’re all complicit in it. For white readers who want to learn about systemic racism but are feeling intimidated about confronting their own privilege, DiAngelo’s text can get you acquainted with some of the major questions and issues before you begin exploring the engaging, challenging work that Black scholars have written.
Before we go further, let me clarify that we’ll be talking primary about white privilege in relation to Black lives, as that is what DiAngelo concentrates on. Also, let me also emphasize that this book is an introduction when it comes to thinking about race. Don’t think that you’ve mastered antiracism when you finish it. Instead, you should continue your education by reading the numerous books out there that Black scholars and other academics have written. Check out last week’s post for some reading lists. DiAngelo also includes a list of resources.
DiAngelo frames white fragility as the emotional reaction white people have when confronted with race. She argues that as people raised in a racialized society that privileges whiteness as the norm, white people are not well-equipped to talk about race because we haven’t been socialized to think in racial terms. Because we live in a society where we are welcomed as the norm, we assume that our experiences and perspectives are universal when it comes to being human. Compounding this naive outlook is an oversimplified view of racism that we conflate with personal prejudices. Essentially, white people view racism as a good/bad binary. During the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, white viewers saw violence against Black people on TV, were horrified, and decided that overt racism is bad. If you say something racist, you’re a bad person. We don’t want to be seen as bad people, so we say we’re not racist, calling ourselves “colorblind” or proclaiming that “all lives matter.” (as Brandon puts it, we’ve been taught to conflate any racist expression with being a part of the KKK, so rather than examine our responses critically we retreat from them altogether).
What makes this so insidious is that this behavior actually masks racism. As DiAngelo points out, as humans we practice discrimination because that’s what human behavior does. We notice when people don’t look like us, and make judgments about that. Because we’ve been taught that racism is bad, we don’t articulate it. But since we’re human, we implicitly judge, which again makes us feel bad. Since we don’t like feeling badly, we retreat from thinking about these issues altogether and tell ourselves that we’re not racists. This is further compunded by our individualistic values. Because we’ve been taught to believe that we’re unique and special, white people feel uncomfortable being labeled as a group that practices group behaviors, even though that’s exactly what we do when we look at other racial groups. Couple that with the guilt we do experience when we witness the suffering of Black people, and the comfort we’re used to experiencing as the benefactors of white privilege, and you’ve got a group of people who aren’t well equipped to discuss race at all. Instead, white people tend to deflect with dismissive statements like “but you always make it about race,” which turns the onus of racism back on Black people, or resort to emotional outbursts like crying or anger that puts the attention back on them, thereby restoring the system. Not helpful responses at all.
The only way to address this, DiAngelo asserts, is to have white people learn to recognize their white fragility and work past it. We need to recognize that we live in a racist society that privileges whiteness, and that as white people, we have and will make mistakes when it comes to talking about race because we haven’t been taught to think through a racialized lens. We need to distinguish personal prejudice from systemic racism, and realize that we are complicit in racism even if we proclaim that we don’t feel prejudiced toward Black people or other groups that don’t look like us. Rather than react with feelings of defense, anger, or guilt, we need to learn to be uncomfortable with our racial standing as white people, stop making everything about us and our feelings, be open to feedback from Black people and other people of color, and learn to change our behavior. We also need to accept that this work will never be complete, and that we’ll have to continually strive to be better when it comes to racism. Most importantly, we need to use our privilege to demand real systemic change, because as white people, we’re the ones who have the power to make it happen.
While I’ve encountered facets of DiAngelo’s argument in different sources, her book offers a succinct synthesis, so it’s a good resource for white people who are looking for a place to start learning about their privilege. She also makes an effort to teach white people to recognize that their experiences as white people are not universal. She also distinguishes between prejudice and racism, and disrupts the good/bad binary of systemic racism by suggesting a continuum model. Rather than be ashamed of our racism or try to hide it, she argues that we acknowledge it, and critically, be open to change. As she puts it, Black people aren’t buying it when we claim we aren’t racist, because we’ve been raised in a racist society and are complicit just by living in it. By recognizing that complicity and realizing that systemic racism extends beyond a simple good/bad binary, we’re much more likely to be open to feedback and change. Instead of concealing or ignoring our racism, we need to dedicate ourselves to a lifetime of learning and change.
An analogy that I’ve found strangely helpful when thinking about this book is Purgatory as described in Dante’s Divine Comedy. According to Catholic doctrine (though it’s by no means universally agreed upon), Purgatory is the place you go to after you die to work off your sins. As creatures of sin, we are imperfect and prone to mistakes. Unless you have the faithly fortitude of a saint, you probably won’t be good enough to get into Heaven when you die. But rather than be condemned outright to Hell, you go to Purgatory, where you slowly get purified to worthiness. Like Hell, it’s torturous and grueling, but instead of being stuck there for eternity, you gradually ascend to lighter ordeals as your soul gets purged of sin. If the primary emotion defining Hell is regret or doom, what underpins Purgatory is hope.
It’s not a perfect analogy (not least because of the danger of slipping into a white savior narrative or saying that a less racist society can wait indefinitely), but I see parallels when it comes to striving toward antiracism on an individual level. As white people living in and benefiting from a racist society, we’re all racist and we’re going to make mistakes when talking about race, even if our intentions are good. That’s a given. But rather than retreat into feelings of guilt or self-righteousness, which may be self-soothing to us but useless when it comes to enacting change, we can consciously work toward a less racist society through learning and activism. It’s hard work that makes us uncomfortable, but through that work we become better people and work toward a more equal society. Will you or I become fully antiracist in our lifetime? Probably not, but we can consistently work on making ourselves better by looking beyond our own emotions to see how our words and actions affect Black people and other people of color. We can learn to recognize our privilege and check it. We can teach what we’re learning to our children so that they become less fragile. We can donate to organizations that support Black lives. We can protest. And we can use our privilege to amplify Black voices and enact change.
White people, if you’ve read White Fragility, what are your thoughts on it? If you haven’t, what antiracist texts or media have you been using to educate yourself? And if you haven’t started with your antiracist education, what are you waiting for?
I was originally going to start discussing my history reading list today, but in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the ongoing protests calling out systemic racism, I wanted to use this blog as a space for sharing resources about race and antiracism. Learning about systemic racism, and dismantling it, is critical work that we all need to do, especially if we are white people who haven’t been conditioned to see all the myriad ways in which society benefits us. The list I have going here is by no means comprehensive, but it should help get you started.
If you’re into DH and want to see a good example of a project that addresses race, the Colored Conventions Project is one of the best works out there, not only for its subject matter, but its willingness to credit the labor of its multiple contributors.
White people, we can and must do better. Be willing to learn about white privilege and how you benefit from it. Be willing to listen to black people and other people of color. Don’t make it about you; close your mouth and open your ears. Be willing to use your privilege to advocate. Help create a platform for underrepresented voices, and then step aside to let them speak. Be willing to vote against systemic racism. Be willing to challenge the infrastructures that benefit us at the expense of everyone else. Be willing to continue learning and to refine your views.
This is hard, uncomfortable, and ongoing work, but it’s critical that we do it. Black lives matter; it’s way past time our laws and social norms reflected that.