Go with a smile!

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Patriarchal and Tribal Racism

The rise of the alt right in the USA and of far right parties in Europe have been met with dismay. When I was a teenager I used to seeth at the skinhead Neo Nazis and David Duke. But what happened in the 90s is almost pretty quaint. Of course, there was nothing to sniff at what was going on in the Balkans back in those days, or in Rwanda. But back then, we could still count on the Western countries to behave civilly towards the other people who lived in their midst. Those were pretty quaint days.

Still, while I don't want to give any excuses for the way that a virulently racist form of populism has emerged in the US and Europe, I can start to understand the frustrations of the white people who have been losing ground for the last 20 years. One day, they were citizens of the most powerful country in the world – actually the most powerful that ever existed. Then following the five big disasters of the first decade (9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Katrina, Great Recession), suddenly they looked like a huge disaster in the making.

Especially as a result of the Great Financial Crisis, foreclosures of homes, predatory lending and emergence of this phenomenon called the “working poor” - people who work for a living but live from hand to mouth – the entire lower middle class of America (white ppl form a sizeable amount of that) are in a fairly bleak situation.

So they'll look around them and see that some – not all – black people are ahead of them in the pecking order, some LGBT ppl are ahead of them, some Asians are ahead of them. It wasn't so long ago that many of them remembered what life used to be like. You could “work” for a living, and back then you just had to show up, do just enough, and you'd be comfortably off. Ahhh, the 80s. No wonder there's such a nostalgia for the 80s. You'd have a job, a car, 9 to 5, a nice house in the suburbs. You could be completely mediocre and unremarkable but you could still say you worked for a living and that would feel good.

Things are different now. You got to be exceptional and differentiate yourself from competition from the rest of the world. You got to be smart and talented, or sly and crafty. And a lot of people got left behind. That's why Trump's message resonated with so many people – not just “make America great”, but “make America great again”. Make NAFTA go away. Make the Latino and Asians go away.

The problem is that when the 99% of the people are left behind, you need to pull them back up. But it's very very hard to do that. And the working class whites don't get a lot of love – there's no compelling narrative. They don't get any sympathy because they were supposed to be the privileged (until they stopped being privileged) and now they get blamed – fairly or unfairly for being amongst the most racist demographic in America. They pay for the sins of their fathers, and in a way their forefathers were responsible for some of the most awful episodes against people of other races – slavery of blacks, genocide of Indians, and exclusion laws against the Chinese.

While I still believe that white privilege exists, I don't think it exists to the same extent that it used to. And because of that, I think we need to rethink a few things about race that we're used to.

I think there are two dimensions of racism. First is patriarchal racism. This means that there is a master race, oppressing many of the other less privileged races. For the last few hundred years, there's been more than a hint of that in the relationship between white people and the others. But there is another dimension, and that is what I'd call tribal racism. Under this system, people are prejudiced towards other members of their own tribe, and against members of other tribes.

In a way, due to the preferential treatment for peoples of their own groups, both forms of racism are very similar. But under the tribal racism, there is some acknowledgement that it is possible for less privileged races to be racist against those with greater privilege, and there is an acknowledgement that this is no less of a problem. Tribal racism is recognising that even when you do away with the problems associated with patriarchal racism, even if the races are equal in standing, even if there were no slavery and relative privileges, there will still be problems between races.

That's why the rise of the alt-right is a reaction to this. There is a lot of toxicity in the discourse, it is very nasty, and it is downright racist – racist as in patriarchal racist. But they have one point, and that is that it isn't right that black people have advocate groups, Jewish people have advocate groups, and they're the only guys who aren't allowed to have advocate groups. That can't be right, although they are paying the price for the mental association with the KKK and burning crosses.

In Singapore, it's pretty clear that the Chinese are the privileged race. But there are Chinese assistance groups. There is this notion that Chinese is both a majority group and a minority group, and it depends on what context you see it.

I have a little bit of sympathy for White people who think that their culture is eroding. After living in a western country for some time – and I don't even consider myself that well integrated – I begin to appeciate what a good thing it was to have grown up in an environment where people have some notion of what their culture is. I think America does not have that at all. You could end up feeling like you're lost at sea for a long time.

And because of globalization, it almost makes it seem as though holding on to something you call your own tribal identity is a bad thing. That is the message of the melting pot. At least if you're a White American, you have a great deal of influence over your own culture. (But remember that American pop / rock music, whether performed by white or black people, has a dominant African American influence). But it's pulling in many different directions now, and there can be a bit of confusion about who you are. If you are a stickler for the rules, and a follower of norms, it can all feel very disorientating.

Everybody knows – or at least this is the conventional wisdom, that in the middle of this century, white people will be less than half of the people in America, that America is turning into a truly multi-racial country. Nobody really knows what it means, and a lot of people are anxious. Every culture has anxieties that they're going to be cast away into oblivion. People are going to see that Australia is swamped with Asians, Europe is swamped by people from the Middle East, and North America swamped by people from everywhere else, and because several White majority places have some of the most open immigration policies, the character of these societies are changing too quickly for their liking.

But I'm not here to do a rah rah thing on White nationalism. I'm just here to point that everybody has their own problems. If you slam the door on immigrants, people assume (correctly) that you are racist. But if you open your doors wide, you might end up with a big mess and you don't necessarily want that either. I don't think white nationalism has to be equated with racism. I think everybody has the right to talk about which parts of their culture they're proud of.

Yes, white privilege still exists, and by and large, in spite of the great steps backwards many white ppl have made over the last few decades, they're still doing better than most other groups of people. But gradually, we can no longer see everything through the prism of white privilege, even though now, more than ever, that notion has gained currency. It is ironic that at this point in time, when this idea has gained more and more traction, it has increasing been the case that it's no longer sufficient to describe the reality.

I would say the way to go forward is that people have to manage this aspect of tribal racism. Manage the kinds of issues that arise when White, Black, Asian and Latinos meet each other as equals. Not necessarily as monolithic group to monolithic group, but people have this way of mentally sizing you up when they see you for the first time. Yes, it has become possible for other groups to be racist against white people. Yes, you have to be a little careful lest you dismiss certain groups of people as “white trash”. Yes, you would want to extend a helping hand to people who are left behind. Communities that face high unemployment, or underemployment, or the opiate scourge.

There needs to be some kind of acknowledgement that the USA is one country united, but very often that does not appear to be the case. It is very difficult when people do not associate certain groups of people with the American flag. There is this unspoken assumption that you're don't really “belong” yet if you're not white. People don't really associate the government of the USA with the nation of USA (not like Singapore). So there's not really much that can be said or done to change peoples' perceptions top down.

The difference between patriarchal and tribal racism is that for the patriarchal view, it's almost impossible for black people to be racist towards white people, because it's almost impossible for the less privileged group to do anything that would harm the more privileged group. Whereas the tribal view acknowledges that wrong can be done on both sides.

It is still very much the case that white people in general live better than black people in the United States. But there are huge enough swarths of white people who are living in times of severe economic duress, and they're apt to compare their plight to a few privileged blacks, especially those in the entertainment industry who are the most visible. And the political will for making life better for minorities is simply not there, as contrasted to what we had in the 60s, when life was good for the vast majority of white people, and that was when they started thinking about levelling the ground for first black people, and then women.

Then again, for Americans, the civil rights movement which was an alliance of the white liberals and black civl rights leaders took place because the white liberals had this abstract concept of fairness. But there wasn't this consciousness that they belonged to the same nation as each other, and perhaps that was a fatal flaw in the civil rights movement. It was a lot of “we'll make things fair for you, and for everybody, but after that we'll leave you alone.” In Singapore it was different: the government wrote it into the pledge that Singaporeans are Singaporeans, “regardless of race, language and religion”.

You would never have the Singaporean equivalent of a Colin Kaepernick kneeling before a US flag. The language of symbols is very different. A Singaporean minority would still complain about unfair treatment, but their allegiance to the flag would not be in question, (although for the last 10 years, it has to be said that the allegiance to the Singapore flag has been, to say the least, extremely compromised). There was a time when Singapore nationalism has always been big enough to embrace everybody. Amongst those who eventually became citizens, you did not question their right to belong, although in the recent years, there have been a lot of citizens who left and a lot of foreigners who came in.

In America, though, the nation is almost too large for you to grasp. There will always be a large swarth of Americans who “aren't really American”. There will always be some people who you suspect don't belong, because you don't ever get to know them or see them. That is the difficulty for Americans. That is the reason why it's easier to make divisions amongst Americans.


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