This one’s long overdue. When I first planned out this blog my intent had been to have all of my key articles written beforehand, so that I could load them up right away as the first 5-6 posts. What I hadn’t counted on was what a huge leap this blog would be in terms of effort and motivation. Short version, I agonized over starting this thing for way too long, then just began writing and posting as a way of forcing the issue. As a result my best laid plans fell by the wayside pretty much right from the get-go, and foundational articles like this one didn’t get written.
Well, it’s time to fix that.
So you may or may not have noticed that, in this blog, I put the word ‘white’ in scare quotes whenever I’m referring to a person’s apparent race. That’s deliberate for this blog, and it’s a central part of my life philosophy. Basically, ‘white’ is a bullshit term that we need to get rid of, and the scare quotes I put around the term is my way of delegitimizing it.
Yes, I’m aware that, as a social construct, the concept of ‘white’ exists for the simple reason that we make it exist. Even if I hadn’t studied this in school, the fact that I don’t have any stories about being randomly hassled by cops (while many of my black friends do) would have clued me in anyway. What I’m saying is that, as a social construct, it’s bullshit and it needs to go.
Part of this idea comes as an answer to the recent resurgence of white supremacy in North America. Specifically the ways that white supremacy has been repackaged so that our latest generation of useless nazi punks can try to escape the baggage that comes with taking up goose-stepping as a hobby. I’m talking about the whole ‘white nationalism,’ ‘European heritage,’ and especially that pathetic ‘western chauvinism’ thing the Proud Boys throw around. Concepts like these don’t survive a basic historical education and a few minutes of serious thought. The fact that they haven’t withered in the harsh rays of public scorn doesn’t speak well of the current state of our society.
So here’s the thing: I’m white. More than that, my background is Finnish, which means I’m about as saltene white as it gets. Blonde hair, grey-blue eyes, skin that could burn from moonlight, the whole deal. According to the white supremacists, this is my one and only necessary characteristic. Nothing else is required. Now, some characters talk about superior genes, but they don’t really mean it. Nobody actually mapping out anyone’s genome, otherwise we’d be grading people by their susceptibility to cancer, heart disease, and other inheritable traits.
Now because I got white skin, I’m automatically assumed to have more in common with someone who’s got the same colour skin than anyone else. So my family, which include multiple generations who immigrated, should automatically find kinship with an Anglo-Saxon family that’s been here since the British took over from the French in Canada.
Uh…no. Not really. Not necessarily at least. Other than the fact that we’ll both speak English as our main language, it’s completely random as to whether we’ll have a lot in common. I come from multiple generations of immigrants (including veterans from both sides of the War) and my parents’ generation was the first one to go to university. I got a university degree of my own, but for some reason I joined the army as an enlisted man and hung around long enough to become an NCO. Overall I’m kind of a geek and these days I got a blog.
So is this English guy with the same colour skin like me? Maybe. What about a geeky black guy from an immigrant family whose parents are first educated generation of their families? He won’t look like me, but will he have more in common?
***Actually I’m describing a good friend of mine from when I was a kid who’s family immigrated from Uganda. Not only were we good friends, but my Mom (as a naturalized Canadian citizen) got along great with his Mom (also a naturalized Canadian citizen). Surprise!***
So while there’s something to be said about embracing your ethnicity and the specific circumstances of your family history, limiting yourself to skin colour is probably the most ignorant way of doing it. Looking at your personal history can put you in the same boat with some very different-looking people in this life.
Then there’s the idea of ‘western civilization.’ As a general descriptive term, yeah, no big deal. But more and more I’m seeing it used as a synonym for ‘white’ civilization, the definition of which becomes nebulous enough to allow white supremacists to claim credit for more than they deserve, and to include people who, traditionally, weren’t considered a part of it.
Traditionally western civilization is seen to have begun with the Classical civilizations, ancient Greece and Rome. That way they can claim stuff like inventing democracy and so forth. The modern tendency to view these as ‘white’ civilizations probably owes more to shows like Spartacus than anything else. As much as they want to claim a lineage going all the way back to Socrates, most nazis would freak the fuck out if their sister started dating some swarthy, olive-skinned greek with more hair on his chest than the nazi has on his head. There’s also the problem that most of what “Greece” (mostly Athens really) contributed to the world were ideas already in circulation in the civilized world of the time. So really we’re talking about refining and perfecting existing ideas rather than inventing stuff. So if you want to go searching for the origins of these ideas, you’re often going even further back into the brown-skinned civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia.
So the origin of white/western civilization wasn’t that white, and drew heavily from the east. Then the white skinned people came along and wrecked everything.
Yeah, the guys who sacked Rome were white-skinned Germanic tribes who’s only real contribution to civilization was trashing everything and plunging Europe into what became known as ‘the Dark Ages.’
Rome collapsed, its sole remnant being Byzantium, a surviving Christian Empire centred around -gasp!- modern day Turkey! These were Christians, but predominantly olive-to-brown skinned Christians living in what many of us would consider to be the Middle East. The white part of Christendom carried on, but in terms of ‘progress’ things were moving at a snail’s pace for nearly a thousand years. The main defining characteristic of western civilization as a whole was largely about who “we” wanted to fight with (mainly the expanding Islamic world).
The Renaissance is the point where we start seeing things picking up again, and as the name suggests, this period was marked by the re-discovery of the work of our older civilization. Much of which was only preserved because Muslims recognized their value and held on to it. That’s the thing the ‘western chauvinists’ want to paper over (assuming they’re aware of it at all): Ideas travel, get exchanged, and get adapted and modified. It’s very rare for a civilization to give rise to something completely on their own.
Just to use a couple of popular examples, our numbers and basic system of mathematics comes from the Arab world (algebra is derived from Arabic), and gunpowder was imported from China.
Now from this point, for a couple of centuries, it can be said that European based civilization had the ball and ran with it. From around 1500s until the 20th century you can see European-based civilizations making remarkable leaps and bounds. The operative word being civilizations-plural. If you tried to tell an Englishman that he was essentially the same as a Frenchman or a Spaniard, you’d probably get laughed at.
The same goes even more so with the other peoples of what we now call the United Kingdom. English, Welsh, Scot, Irish…these were not groups that got along and certainly not groups that would naturally consider themselves one people.
And as long as we’re on the question of who’s in and who’s out, are the Jews a part of white/western civilization? Because there’s no denying that the Jews, as a people, have had a disproportionately huge impact on the world. But try calling them white…
…well, it’ll depend on what internet forum you’re on, but there’s a good chance you’re in for a spirited debate.
***In Canada we’ve had a long history of white people drawing some very sharp dividing lines between English and French speakers. These days it’s mostly language based, but in years gone by it also included some pretty nasty Protestant-Catholic animosity (the French here are predominantly Catholic). These days we’re seeing increasing ugliness aimed at immigrants and refugees (especially Muslim ones), so…maybe there’s a chance that the bigots on both sides will bury their differences in order to hate on brown people? Uh…yay?***
So for a period of maybe two or three centuries, European-based nations hit that critical mass of technology, population, and economic might to make themselves the world changers of human civilization. During this time ‘western civilization’ made enormous and remarkable strides in terms of human progress. It also decimated the population of the Americas, enslaved millions from Africa, ran a drug empire in China, and almost annihilated the human species via nuclear war, just to name a few things on the ‘Con’ side of the list.
So while there’s the issue that ‘white’ and ‘western’ civilization being unclearly defined, there’s also the issue that it’s products are, at best, a mixed bag. Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon, and as he was taking those steps, his colleagues in the USAF were dropping napalm on Vietnam. You can’t have one without the other.
By this point the ‘western chauvinists’ are probably writing me off as a self-hating SJW, but I put that last sentence in italics for a reason. You can’t have the good without the bad, but you can’t come down on the bad without also acknowledging the good. While American pilots were burning Vietnamese people out of their huts, one of their colleagues walked on the fucking Moon!
And he did it ‘for all mankind!’
Things like racism, imperialism, colonialism and so on are human qualities. Just look at the comments by David Ahenakew from my last post if you don’t believe me. I think if ‘white’ people get the lion’s share of the blame for these evils, that it’s largely because white/western civilization was the first to hit that level of global hegemony and that it’s a current, ongoing situation right now. If somehow China had been the first nation to genuinely span the globe and colonize all other civilizations, we’d be laying many of the same charges at their feet instead (and maybe it would have been white folk who invented the blues).
So this, in a nutshell, this is the reason I use ‘white’ in scare quotes for this blog. White is a social construct which makes it a real thing in that it will affect the way we live our real lives. But as a social construct it’s something we created, not a force of nature like gravity. We made it, and if enough of us decided we could change it. I choose to define myself by the very specific circumstances of my life – my job, my family and my ethnic heritage – but I can’t pretend that the term white doesn’t apply to me. This makes me the unwilling inheritor of a ton of ugly baggage that I never asked for and (mostly) don’t deserve, including a legacy of racism. I don’t want it, but it’s there and I can’t pretend otherwise.
So I put ‘white’ in scare quotes because it’s a real thing, but I don’t want it to be. I think this needs to change and this blog is my own tiny effort to move us all in this direction. When it comes to issues of ‘race’ overall, I think we gain our best understanding when we zero in on smaller and smaller details. Instead of sweeping generalizations about entire races, our best chance at understanding comes from looking at regions, communities, small groups, families, and individuals.
When we limit our understanding to skin colour, our understanding will be just as shallow.
 That’s one of the fun things that the heritage dicks don’t like to talk about. Pretty much every ethnicity out there has some kind of dark side to it. For Finns, there’s that awkward fact that the motherland was an Axis nation during WW II. Bit awkward, that.
 Fun fact: My paternal grandfather served in the Canadian military during the Second World War, during which he was deployed to Italy. As the child of Finnish-Canadian immigrants living in Norther Ontario, he actually had a working knowledge of the Italian language because that region (the Sudbury-Timmins area) was also home to a lot of Italian immigrants.
 That also doesn’t take into account the fact that a lot of Greeks are a lot darker than olive in the complexions.
 One of the really hilarious terms we’re starting to see here in North America is the concept of ‘our shared Anglo-Celtic heritage.’ Yeah, that’s a thing now.
 And then there’s the fact that Judaism, as a belief system, has adherents from a broad spectrum of ethnicities. In addition to the classic ‘light olive skin with dark curly hair’ you got blonde haired European Jews, ethnically Arab Jews, and African Jews (who are actually black, not just light-skinned people born in Africa).
 One of the things that really annoyed me was conservative pundits whining about how the recent movie First Man didn’t spend more time adoring the American flag. It’s like: “Did you not get the point of what Neil said at all?”
 As it stands right now, we may be entering a period of Chinese global hegemony. If that proves to be the case, here’s hoping they learn a lesson or two from us honkies who got there first.