#90: In Defense of “Wokeness”

A great deal of scorn and dismay is currently heaped on a movement or way of thinking that describes itself as “being woke” or “wokeness.” The terminology itself may shift, especially when faced with an onslaught of ongoing critique or with attempts to use it for corporate purposes.

Certainly, it is easy to ridicule any attempt at creating a serious social movement of goodwill and progressiveness. Without a certain amount of naiveté, nobody surely would be able to believe that we, as a culture, would be able to change the world for the better. Any grand attempts at changing the way we treat each other in actions and speech, the way we conduct policy and business, and the way we understand and approach our reality must seem maddeningly simple-minded and shortsighted given the vast, cynical history of a world that has never been too kind to its inhabitants.

Any utopian design to build a better planet, any belief that “a better world is possible,” stands in the way of the collective and depressing experience of humankind.

I am not saying that every single suggestion, critique, or demand is something that is yet fully fleshed out. There is still work to do, and we need to recognize that. But there is substance here.

“Wokeness” is something that is serious. It is about the recognition that despite decades, centuries, millennia of human cultural, political, and social development, we are still not where we would like to be, where we would actually need to be to live up to the promises not of politics, but of life itself.

We are all human beings. We are all living beings. We are all living on this one planet, which is dwarfed by a Vast universe. This is it, and this is us. We are all connected by genetics, history, necessity, locality, for better or worse. There is only one human race. There is only one planet Earth, with all the life on it.

We have tried countless ways of being mean to each other, to be downright sadistic, hateful, evil, uncaring, unthinking, indifferent; in thoughts and in actions. Do we want to continue down this path or not?

We are all imperfect beings, we are all fallible, none of us is perfect, but don’t we want to aspire to becoming better, to become more perfect – while still remaining humble?

Are we all not in this together? Do we not need to recognize each other as our relatives? After Cain kills Abel, he asks, Am I my brother’s keeper? It is the clearest accusation ever in one of our earliest texts: Yes, we are our brother’s, our sister’s, our father’s, mother’s, friend’s, or stranger’s relative, and yes, their fate is connected to ours. We have a responsibility to wake up from the lull of indifference, from the coldness of monetized relations, from divisions by class, race, gender, age, or others, and to wake up to not just the possibility, but the necessity to see our world anew, as a place for everybody, including ourselves.

This is what “wokeness” means: the unapologetic desire and audacity to care about each other, and the political will to create a society that is more kind, that knows truth, knows justice, values life and dignity and can be hopeful again that human beings actually have the capacity to grow and transcend our imperfections and past and current sins.

All the details, all the oversimplifications, imperfectly thought-through solutions, provocations both necessary and unnecessary – all of which needing well-meaning and substantial criticism –, all these, however, pale in comparison to the actual desire for a better world, which – naively or not – may indeed bring us hope, and eventually, a better world, filled not with indifference and hate but with compassion and all-encompassing love.

So say we all?

#31: What Is Systemic Racism?

In the last post, which attempted a definition of racism, I addressed the origin and ideology of racism. But there is a difference between thinking and doing, between ideology and practice. The accumulated history of thinking in difference – whether it is on categories of ethnicity, skin color (“race”), class, sex, gender, age, or any other divider that has been utilized to differentiate between people – has affected structures in society, government and culture.

The reason these structures exist is that they either were or continue to be seen as useful to structure society in a specific way. Human beings do think in differences and stereotypes, for various evolutionary reasons. We perceive all kinds of differences, but not all of them have historically been relevant. Contemporary racism exists because discriminating according to “race” was considered useful for the slave trade by Arab and European slave traders.

Slavery typically exists as the result of war, in which captives are made that are then sold as labor. This has not always happened according to skin color, but typically according to ethnicity – because that’s how war has typically worked. Rome used Germans, Slavs, Thracians, Africans, and many others as slaves. Slavery in antiquity, however, also permitted for manumission, and some slaves ended up becoming citizens. Serfdom, a version of slavery that means you do not belong to a master directly but to the land, which then belonged to the landlord, was a development that began in the late Roman Empire and lasted till the early 19th century in most of Europe. One of the few achievements of Napoleon that actually did answer some demands of the French Revolution was the ending of serfdom. Universal freedom for all people is the absolute exception in human history, and even in Europe it was only achieved starting in the 19th century.

The reason for the victory of freedom was the realization that utilizing all of a nation’s workforce, and giving them the freedom to maximize their potential, was one of the demands of increased capitalist production. Ideally, capitalism means freedom. Well-paid free workers are best motivated, best customers, best citizens. But at any point when the economic system can be cheated by introducing even cheaper labor, this will be done. Globalization after the end of the Cold War unleashed a new availability of cheap labor; and slavery – while it may not exist directly in the West anymore – continues to exist in practice when societies rely on the availability of cheap, expendable, desperate workers that have no choice but to work under otherwise unacceptable conditions. This may or may not be tied to “racial” or ethnic considerations, but it can be.

While “race” as a category may not be real, racism and the experience thereof very much is a reality. It is most visible not by examining people’s attitudes but by looking at structural effects of racism. Specifically, this means that there exist a major gap for most “racial” or ethnic minorities with regards to pay, inter-generational wealth, individual and inter-generational education, global perspectives and outlook, the assumption of innocence when confronted by police and the justice system, likelihood of incarceration, availability of a healthy diet, prevalence of drugs in communities, availability of good housing in safe neighborhoods, etc. It is a long list that we all have known about for quite a while, and have been slow if not reluctant to act upon.

In the United States, racism has of course been worse in the past. But it is still an issue that is a very real experience for non-white people. This should not be surprising. The Civil War, which ended slavery by 1865, was followed by another 100 years of sabotaging reconstruction efforts. The Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s started a process of improvement of race relations. Native Americans gained citizenship in 1924, but the status of reservations is still continually under threat, and full religious freedom for indigenous peoples was only granted in 1978. Migrant workers, whether from Mexico, South and Central America, China, India, Pakistan and other countries, have experienced discrimination at several times in history, just as even European immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and Germany have experienced in the past to some degree; none, however, as bad as slavery or genocide. All these historical events have had lasting efforts, which continued for generations. While for some groups (mostly Europeans), such structural discrimination has ended, it continues for many if not most non-white groups.

Just imagine, if you wanted to be born in the United States today, and had a Rawlsian choice of which group and which location to be born into, which group would you choose to belong to, and which would you hesitate about? Which skin color would you want your child to have? I think you know. As long as we have to think about these matters, the structures we have been trying to overcome for a long time still have too much power on all of us.

#30: What Is Racism?

Racism is not just a mild disliking or misunderstanding of someone else because of some superficial difference. Someone may dislike people from group x, but still not wish the worst to them. Racism should be understood in a more substantial way.

First, racism believes in the idea of race holding a significant enough meaning to divide people against one another. Biologically, this is nonsense, and has been accepted as nonsense for more than a century. There is no science of “race”, only pseudoscience. Every human being on the planet has virtually the same DNA, and difference between members of so-called “races” are typically greater than those between different “races.” Among all human populations, skills and abilities are distributed similarly.

Furthermore, the pseudo-scientific interpretation of biology – or rather pseudo-genetics, namely eugenics – which abhors mixing between races, is built on the fallacy that purity is better than mixing (wrong: intermixing creates stronger and more resilient populations, while incestuous patterns with a focus on purity only lead to well-told jokes about the declining state of nobility…). Just as pure one-species forests are more prone to serious damage when disease hits, while mixed forests are much more resilient, so do human societies and countries do best when infusions of genes, ideas and experiences from other cultures can enrich one’s own.

Racism is firstly the belief that “race” is real in a (pseudo-)biological sense, and that its (pseudo-)biological sense automatically leads to a hierarchy between those who are seen as more and others who are seen as less advanced than others. Now we have arrived at the incorrect understanding of evolution. No race is more (or less) evolved than the other.

But if there was the belief in a critical difference between “race” A and “race” B, there was automatically the belief that one race was inferior to the other, which was then used up in unspeakable ways.

Racism is a strategy of domination, subjugation, and the denial of humanity of the victims. The assumed gain is the so-called “eugenic” purification of the main society, which would then remain allegedly unimpeded by so-called “lesser peoples”.

This racism, which is foundational to most societies, is foundational for America as well. It believes in putting people in their place. This was the system America followed for several years till the Civil War in 1861, then it created a revised version of the system by which slavery is illegal, but racism still structured society. Only after World War II, after Black soldiers worked with White soldiers as brothers, the newly found brothers in arms would find a place to return to a home which made them drink from separate water fountains. The outrage over this praxis led to the Civil Rights Movement, and onward to today.

One of the ways to see how racism is not natural is the monikers used to describe people. No so-called “white” person has a literally white skin – it’s piglet pink. The only way to get a light-skinned person look white is white powder and white wigs – which was indeed done in Early Modernity when modern slavery was created, but it was a marker mainly of upper class and function in European societies. From the beginning, “race” and class need to be seen as intertwined. Maybe caste would be a better term.

No person is black either. The black-white dichotomy is purely ideological, following a Manichean pattern of opposing sides, the dark and the light; white being a sign of purity, of beauty, black being a sign of the opposite (Ironically, in antiquity, white was the color of sadness and death). Native Americans were described as red probably because of face paint, Asians are yellow probably because of the colors of Buddhist robes, curry, etc. None of this makes sense biologically, only culturally, ideologically.

We need to overcome this way of thinking. And yet, such a notion is probably too utopian. Human beings seem to be very much needing to distinguish between peoples and put them into different categories. If it’s not skin color, it will be something else. Skin color was just a facile way during the colonial period of distinguishing between Europeans on the one side, and indigenous peoples and imported slaves from Africa on the other. We are still with the effects of that; it’s a complex history, based on a simple unethical decision to decide whose lives matter more than others.

#29: Black Lives Do Matter

When people say “Black Lives Matter” it does not mean that “Only Black Lives Matter.” Such an interpretation is grossly misleading, creating a scarecrow argument in order to discredit the issue. Nobody, typically, is saying or implying this.

Of course, all lives matter indeed. Who would disagree with that! Nobody calling for Black lives to matter (or, with regards to other movements, Native lives, or Latinx lives, Asian lives, LGBTQ lives, even Blue lives) excludes the call to respect and protect the lives of every single human being. But we need to focus on Black lives for a good reason.

“Black Lives Matter” means that there has been insufficient attention and care paid to the Black community. Black people – for various reasons – have historically and presently been treated as expendable, as “less than” other people. Everybody probably knows this. If you seriously claim not to know, it should not take much to read up on history.

Denial of history (such as Holocaust Denial, or the denial of racism) is not acceptable. We do need to educate ourselves about historical and present injustice always. We need to stop the pretense that we can afford not to acknowledge historical responsibility in order to make the future better. It is part of the social contract of every country to know about its darkness and pursue the light. America may well have done better than most countries in that respect, even though it is not yet perfect. At least we have been talking about it for quite a while. Racism is not an American domain either and can be found in every single country on the planet, sadly.

Simply calling out that “Black Lives Matter” means to call out to stop the outrageous and racist treatment of Black people. Nothing else. Nothing sinister. Nothing objectionable.

We are all human, we all matter, but when it comes to minorities such as – in this case – Black people, that realization has not set in universally. That’s why we need to pay special attention now and remind everyone – globally – that Black lives matter just as much as those of everyone else. Nothing else. Is that too much to ask?

Notwithstanding that, we can of course disagree about the steps that need to be taken about this matter. Violence, of course, is not a solution, neither is weakening the legal protections for every single person in the country against free speech, against crime and suffering, neither is discrediting the need for vigorous and civil debate, neither is disregarding Public Health measures in times of a global pandemic.

There are no easy fixes for the problem, otherwise it would have been fixed already. Let a national debate happen about the best solutions, but do not let any agitators – well-intentioned or not – dominate the discourse and mandate pretend fixes which will do nothing to solve the actual problem, namely the presence of racism and thinking in racial terms. We need to be united in this.

But the first step to solving the problem addressed by the legitimate (i.e. truly peaceful) protestors is to recognize that indeed, Black lives do matter.