“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”
These are the first words Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote in 1762, in his book The Social Contract – a treatise of sorts on the possibility of legitimate public order based on republicanism. When I read this line in my third year undergraduate course on democratic theory I was at once profoundly shaken and moved; I wasn’t sure what I was feeling, but I was sure that this, this, was that academic awakening that all of those timeless and oft-cited canonical authors had experienced so long ago. How wrong I was.
Rousseau wrote these words more than two and a half centuries ago, when slavery was legal in America. The hubris an aristocratic white European must have had to open a book on democracy and republicanism with such dramatic flair amidst such oppression! Lately, anyone ought to be able to look at the world today – and especially in North America, and especially in the United States, to quickly realize that we have progressed along the racial equity line mere inches in 250 years where we should have progressed miles or more. [NOTE: I do not intend to center out the US as ‘the worst’, nor to suggest that Canada is in some way ‘better’; rather, black folks and people of colour in Canada have not taken to the streets yet in the way those in Baltimore have.] But the reality is that most white people do not realize this. I would like to present to you a short historical narrative to elaborate what I’ve been thinking about this observation, and why I was motivated to write this post.
For the last year or so thanks to my having been around a fortuitous amount of enlightened people, professors, fellow students, and a myriad unforgivably horrific accounts of overt/systemic racism in the media (just search “#blackspring” or “blacklivesmatter” if you need a refresher), I began to question my social reality in ways that I have never done before, to try to understand how we could possibly be where we are today – inches ahead of 1762. I have always been aware of the existence of discrimination, prejudice, the histories of slavery and genocide at the foundation of most countries (including Canada and the USA), and of the various forms of racism – implicit, explicit, ‘whitewashed’, systemic, etc. rampant in society today. I have also been reflexive and aware about my own extremely privileged position in society as a result. These processes/institutions have all been widely studied, and many people continue to expand the horizons of this body of research today. I am not one of these people.
I am a white middle-class heterosexual able-bodied male with European ancestry, which makes my pronouncements on race, racism, oppression, and the like extremely problematic at best. Why you ask? Because I have never had to experience the same reality as those who are black, or people of colour, or women, or non-cis gendered, or differently-abled, or living in poverty or war, etc., or any combination thereof, in the context of a society that privileges white middle-class heterosexual able-bodied European males. How could I even begin to speak to the reality of others? It is true that empathy allows one to adopt the position of another, but empathy has no place in this conversation. Empathy applies to innocuous hypothetical situations where, for example, one imagines how it must feel to have something stolen, and then decides not to become a thief. What does have a place in this piece of writing is the theory of constructionism, and this is what I want to talk about.
For those who may not be aware, constructionism is a theory that argues that social reality is not some objective ‘thing’ – that is, it does not exist outside of our perception or experience. Instead, social ‘reality’ is something that is constructed as a result of iterative social processes that occur in our day-to-day lives. (check out the book Constructing Social Problems by Spector & Kitsuse, 2006 ). But as sociologists are quick to point out, social reality comes from society, something that we are all a part of. Thus, our own personal realities are also heavily informed by broad social ‘realities’ – things like discourses, narratives, histories, media, even global politics. Racism would not exist outside of a broader ‘society’, since it is constructed by groups of people within society. It only exists because white people make it exist. This is similar to the old question, “If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” The answer is no – the tree definitely does not make a sound, and racism definitely would not exist. (seriously, you can go to this blog post to read up on the quantum physics involved in the tree falling question.)
I have been absolutely blown away seeing white folks commenting on Facebook posts about riots in Baltimore or Ferguson, or on videos of black folks being beaten or shot, or by hearing conversations between white people about the state of race politics in North America. People say things like, “well he was clearly struggling/resisting/running… if he would just do what the police say he wouldn’t have been hurt/beaten/shot”. White people comment on the posts of aggrieved black folks arguing that they are pulling the race card, or accuse them of always making things about race. When black folks confront these people, they become defensive and argue that it is in fact them (the black folks) who are being racist against whites. Not only is this impossible, it is also incredibly ignorant, misinformed, and frankly quite frightening. How can these white people see reality in this way?
One of these people is a very close friend of mine, and I was surprised to hear her evaluation of the ‘state of things’ given that she is incredibly perceptive and intelligent, and often underestimates her own potential to grasp the broader social conditions surrounding seemingly local phenomena. I tried to take stock of her reality – in our circle of friends and family, there are very few black people. There are also a number of law enforcement individuals. “Aha!” I exclaimed, I had figured out why my friend was defensive and sympathetic to law enforcement. So, I went about trying to discuss with her the systemic racism inherent in law enforcement, given the racial divide in wealth distribution, education achievement, housing and ‘ghettoization’, all resulting from socio-political policies and histories built on the foundation of slavery, all built by white heterosexual men. Surely my perceptive pal would be able to reflect, to see how her perception of reality was extremely biased and wrong. But this emphatically did not happen.
As sociologists know, one theory cannot explain the world and everything in it, and constructionism is certainly not an exception. It is obvious to me that there are psychological or cognitive processes at work in situations like this, and in the minds of all those commenters/posters/conversationalists I mentioned. Admitting that their reality is wrong threatens the very identity that they have inculcated – “surely,” they say, “I’m not racist – I’m an accepting and loving person!”. But stop for a minute and consider that if you are not willing to put your own taken for granted assumptions of reality at the center of your questioning, then you are in fact not accepting – at least not of the possibility that your reality is fundamentally unjust and oppressive to millions of other people.
Today I watched The Truman Show, a movie about a man who is born into a false world, which is televised 24/7 to everyone else in the ‘real’ world. *Spoiler Alert* He eventually figures out the ruse and sheds the yoke of his false world, entering into the real world once and for all. At the end of the movie I felt sad and hollow, hopeless, and generally disgusted with humanity because I knew that if Truman were a real person, he would be entering into our society – our reality of diverse ‘realities’ held by various groups of people, most of which are inimical to one another and often combative. I looked out my window for a while at the suburban sprawl below my 6th floor room, trying to clear my thoughts and decide what exactly I had been feeling. And then I saw it…
A bird, soaring through the sky on the afternoon thermals that whip up the winds that keep me up so many nights with their constant howling. “Fuck that bird,” I thought; “it has absolutely no conception of any of this shit humans create. It just flies and eats and fucks other birds, and tries to live as long as possible. Fuck that bird.” I have never been so ornithologically envious in my entire life. And it’s true – we humans are the only species to be so intelligent that we are able to live within unique and discrete realities that compose one grand whole, and that are polar opposites. We can do all manner of seemingly impossible things, but I cannot get my extremely smart friend to see the pernicious systemic racism underpinning North American society, even with the unprecedented amount of incontrovertible evidence that continuously pours over us every day. I can’t jump the coop and fly away, so what can I (and other white people) do in this case?
First, let’s tell them all to watch The Truman Show, because I think it provides a good heuristic device with which to refer to when speaking about white realities. Truman’s world is an incredibly astute analogy for whitewashed North American life, complete with the token black neighbour narrative, which holds that even black people can make it if they try hard enough (read, if they act like white people). It’s a good way to try to explain to a white person how their reality is constructed around them, and how there is still other realities outside of their own. Furthermore, the movie can act as a bridge to show them – as Truman finds out – that their reality might not be the whole picture. Everybody in Truman’s world collectively takes part in keeping him from discovering the truth, because if he were to, the whole ruse is up and this ‘perfect’ world crumbles. Moreover the movie can be used to illustrate how, from the outside, people are often distracted by ‘realities’ and exciting or provocative storylines manufactured by those in power, as Truman’s loyal following of viewers were. This may be an accessible way for some people to grasp the concepts of media bias and selective reporting of riots etc.
I realize that this is merely a drop in an ocean, and I am in no way arguing that The Truman Show is the answer to white supremacy, implicit racism or media bias; nor is it the key to applying sociological theory. I do not portend to understand the reality of black folks or people of colour, or any other marginalized, undervalued, or otherwise characterized populations. I also do not claim to speak on behalf of all white people who are aware of the current state of racial politics, and awake to their own place in racialized social systems. I am merely ‘reflecting out loud’, and offering my thoughts on how one white person might be able to enlighten another not-so-enlightened white person. I now understand Rousseau’s words in a different light: we are all born into realities that are constructed largely outside of our own volition, but we are obliged to become aware of our reality, how it is related to other realities, and the injustice that occurs within them to sustain our own. In many ways white people are confined – either by will/bigotry/racism or by ignorance – to their privileged reality, and are unable/unwilling to see beyond it. Even those of us who are aware of our white positionality are still confined, given that we exist in a racialized social structure making the possibility of us becoming true ‘allies’ extremely difficult, if not impossible. As I said before, my rambling is a drop in a sea: but a sea is simply a multitude of drops. If my ideas can help one white person to better understand all of this, then I’ll be happy. If lots of white people take up this challenge, perhaps the way white people perceive things could change; though I sincerely do not think this will happen. Even if this miraculously did occur, white people cannot (and should not) be the solution or the impetus of change to the racial social politics in North America – black people must bring about these changes, and with force if need be. But white people can at least begin to understand how we are so very wrong.