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Can a white man achieve identity heaven?
More and more I am forced to think of myself as a white man. It’s no longer sufficient to be an American. The glory days are past. Work needs to be done to salvage what remains of a positive identity for a person like me.
The racial offensive, beginning when I was quite young, has changed the political landscape in America. This has been an era of resurgent minorities. But I am not a minority. I am a white male, born in an upper-middle-class household. I am white, not black. I am male, not female. I am not associated with the GLBT community but am plainly straight. So where does this leave me? Am I to be on the losing end of someone else’s heroic struggle for equality?
At one time, white people in America could be comfortable in their identity, not as members of the white race but as Americans. But then the Civil Rights movement came along presenting a grievance first on behalf of black people and then disaffected women and then gays and lesbians. Their common oppressor was, of course, white males. The drum beat of discrimination charges grew stronger. What was a white man to do? The political conversation did not seem to permit his point of view.
Maybe we whites in America have run out of opportunity. Our lives are directed along a narrow path leading from education to careers to retirement. Religion, once potent, is on the wane. There is little room here for the expansion of things that feed the soul. Lacking the initiative for further personal progress, we become a target for condescending messages about “white privilege” and our propensity to “discriminate” against others. Is this all that our culture can provide? Whites need new and better ideas.
Is the answer to develop a hostile, defensive stance toward groups that make us the butt of their struggle to succeed in society? I think we are capable of something more. But what is it? That is the question of our time. It is a question that in this mediocre society is never asked. White people must lead the way to a transcendent culture.
I think there can be a heroic struggle for someone like myself. It may not have to do with advancing myself or my type of person at the expense of another in personal or group terms. So what should it be? The search for a positive self-definition can itself be heroic but there should also be something more.
A good beginning might be to identify with the so-called “white racists”. In this day and age, they are not persons who overtly oppress black people but ones who stubbornly cling to their white identity while under cultural attack. The challenge is to do this without hating someone else. Proudly acknowledge that you’re white but not as a declaration of superiority. The struggle is to improve yourself in whatever situation you may be. For your own sake as a social creature, try to do this in the company of like-minded persons.
Be proud of your parents and grand-parents going back a long time. They had a different kind of struggle but came through. Being white was then not such an issue for Americans. However, it is an issue for you. Times have changed and you must shift your arena of struggle. If you cannot find pride in your whiteness, you will not find it anywhere else. It would also be good to respect other people’s struggles pursued in their way. Live and let live. Whoever you may be, find your own way without invidious comparison to what others are doing.
Now let me shift gears from platitudes to something more specific. I think white Americans, in particular, are caught in a trap that starts with the educational process. Yes, we all need a certain amount of book learning. But education should not become a holding tank for a society without vision. A society without vision is one where each person strives to become better than someone else.
Education should enhance personal identity rather than collect dues in advance from those on their supposed way up to success. In my view, it’s disgraceful that our society encourages young people to run up tens of thousands of dollars in personal debt so that they can get to the starting block of the career steeple-chase. What ever happened to the pursuit of truth? Is not its reputation being misused?
Controlled by money, the democratic process is managed by career politicians with their own interests mainly in mind. Hedge-fund managers, managing vast assets, pay themselves billions of dollars in management fees each year. The job market shrinks as more and more employment goes to low-wage countries in east Asia and elsewhere while free-trade policies guarantee unrestricted access of imported goods to the U.S. market. Today’s young Americans must wonder if they have a place in their own society. If foreign labor hasn’t yet taken the nation’s productive jobs, robots will.
I think of the drug epidemic plaguing our society. The first response is to criminalize the use of illegal drugs. But what of the overprescription of legal drugs? Each day we are bombarded by television commercials suggesting that drugs are the key to a healthy and happy life. No wonder so many people are addicted to pain-killing medications. Drug abuse is becoming as American as apple pie. And it’s respected, educated professionals, mainly, who get rich from pushing these pills.
So I’m going to associate myself instead with the uneducated or miseducated wretches of society and, in particular, the "white racists". We can be despised by others but proud of ourselves. We can be proud if we choose our own positive identity and stick to it in the face of ill-meaning criticism. We can be proud if we set our own goals and achieve them, no matter what others may think. Depose the official identity makers and remake yourself as you would want to become.
In this way, a new society can be created. People will self-consciously choose who they want to be. They will choose the company of others with a similar aim. We will have a new kind of aspirational literature that points the way forward to a society where we more truly feel at home. It will not be a society filled with racial or gender demons but one that allows each to find his or her own true being. We can each appreciate the struggles of others seeking to become better persons in self-chosen terms.
Start talking about this. Start thinking of what this concept means to you. I have few of the answers at this point but, with further discussion, hope to have more. Will you share your answers with me?
Identity is the next big thing in our culture. It’s within your power to make this into a positive force that will unite people rather than divide them. It’s in your power to remake society along those lines so everyone can belong.
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