Saturday, October 06, 2018

Gerry Hannah writes again

It's nice to see a passionate (yet reasonable/ rational) new piece of writing from Gerry Hannah. He blogs pretty infrequently - his previous post was from before Justin Trudeau was elected - and he hasn't been coming round with the New Questioning Coyote Brigade lately (his roots-oriented rock band, which offered twangier arrangements of Subhumans classics, songs from his neglected but excellent solo album Coming Home - which I interviewed him about here as well as the occasional surprise cover; last I saw them, the Byrds' "Wasn't Born to Follow" was in his set, and he was talking about a reworking of Steppenwolf's "The Ostrich," which was a song I actually didn't know. I've since bought a few of those more political Steppenwolf albums and appreciate the tip).

I have about fifteen minutes before I have to get in the shower to get ready for work, so I don't have much time to contribute to the discussion, but the thing that hit home the most for me in the article was the section dealing with racism, in which Gerry talks about trying to have a reasonable argument with someone on Facebook in response to an article entitled "Don't Kid Yourself, All White People Are Racists." Gerry writes:
I found the second half of the headline disturbing and I said so. My comment went like this: All people are racist. In other words; all people have racist tendencies. The difference is that some folks acknowledge it, accept that it’s undesirable and work to change it, while others don’t—regardless of their race. I went on to say, that I don’t believe in what I called “racial essentialism”. By racial essentialism, I meant the attributing of a wholly subjective, negative quality, to a particular race. And I pointed out that this reminded me of early separatist feminism, when men in the Left were unequivocally told that “all men are rapists”. I said it’s time to move beyond such unhelpful rhetoric.

Amen - though a friend of mine points out that Gerry may be trying to "reason with a fever," here, which will probably be the best turn of phrase I've heard all day. But his writing brought to mind a very striking, if brief, discussion that I had with some people on Facebook myself (it actually involved someone Gerry may or may not be familiar with, if he paid attention to the later incarnations of Tunnel Canary; the new vocalist for the band Mya Mayhem, was one of the responders, though she posts under a different name on Facebook. She was part of a large article I did during the time of these reunions, so I'd interacted with her before, though had had no cause to disagree with her).

In any case, someone had posted an article - I think dealing with Black Lives Matter; hell, it might have been the same article Gerry  mentions - that argued, "essentially" - I will try to do justice to it, though I may fail - that because white people existed at the top of a historical hierarchy, using racism to put and keep people of colour down, and benefitting from this injustice, only they could be racist. It was impossible for people of colour to be racist against white people, the way the concept was being defined, because people of colour - whatever they might say about white people, were punching up, so to speak - they were addressing the long history of systemic injustice, so whatever they might say about white people, it wasn't actually "about" race; it was about the systemic, historical injustice, which they had been on the receiving end of. So they could say whatever they liked.

I did a deep double-take. It seemed like an interesting move, but a deeply dodgy one, and it brought to mind all sorts of prejudices that I've encountered over the years, having lived in Japan, and worked with ESL students over the years, that I had chalked up as non-white racism, ranging from a Japanese confiding in me that they thought black people were scary to a Brazilian student (who I guess technically was white but his accent and darker complexion would have marked him as a racial other in North America) trying to engage me in discussion about The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (which he'd read in translation). Or what about Jews saying nasty things about Arabs? Or what about Arabs saying nasty things about Jews? Would groups who weren't white saying prejudicial things about groups that were also not white not count as racism? I had always understood racism as a behaviour that people from any group could partake in, by overgeneralizing negatively about another group, white or not.

Understand: I actually agreed with some of what the original poster was saying - it IS a different thing for someone from an oppressed minority, from someone who has been on the receiving end of systemic injustice, to make an overgeneralization. For example, when a pissed-off Japanese accused me of "having won the war" at a bar, referring to America's victory in World War II, which he held me, as a white person, responsible for, I didn't get all hostile and indignant (I believe I retorted, "won the war? I was born in 1968!" - but I didn't hold it against the guy, actually; it happens he was a prick, in other ways, but that particular bit of  prickishess was kind of understandable and interesting to encounter). For another example, when Robert Fisk was nearly beaten to death by rock-wielding Afghan villagers, as a representative of the enemy race, he was quite able to forgive them; he understood where they were coming from. Racial hatred IS a different thing when it's coming from victims towards perceived victimizers. I had no problem with that. But it's still racism, and it seemed really, really dubious to try to define "racism" as something that only white people could do to non-whites.

Or for instance - and this was the story I actually posted on the Facebook page - what about me? I explained in a brief post that when I was in Japan, I briefly explored the dating scene; I was somewhat shy and tentative at the time - I was kinda awkward with women from the same culture, and even less certain of myself in a totally different one - but at one point, I put an ad in an English-language magazine, saying I wanted to date Japanese women. I got two responses very quickly: both from Japanese men, writing nasty notes telling me that they didn't want foreigners dating their women and that I should take my evil white ways home. Yankee Go Home, essentially.  I can't quote exactly - it was 20 years ago, almost - but surely such notes (I wrote on Facebook) counted as racism.

Mya answered - quite reasonably, though my mind reeled at her response - that because what I encountered was not SYSTEMIC, but isolated incidents - it was bigotry, not racism. Racism could only exist in the context of systemic injustice.

I out Mya here because hell, maybe she could explain this further (I have no issue with her). I continued the discussion by saying that seemed like an odd act of hair-splitting to me, and that I was quite comfortable thinking of racism that someone from any group could do to someone from any other group, by overgeneralizing in a negative way; it didn't seem necessary to me to re-define the concept. It might be more forgiveable and understandable if someone was punching up, but it didn't make it less racist.

That's when one of her friends weighed in - someone whose name I had forgotten, save that it was on the hippy-dippy side, like "Cheerful Unicorn" or "Whispering Rainbow" or something like that - to wave their finger and say that one does not "explore" relationships with people of colour, and that if that was my attitude, I deserved what I got.

At which point I exited the argument. It was, in fact, an interesting argument, and it would have been nice to pursue it, but it seemed like in fact, the point was not to have an intelligent discussion about anything, but to build in-groups by waging war against out-groups, such as the one I was clearly a member of. Well, whatever: fuck these people, I thought.

Anyhow, that's what Gerry's piece made me think about, but there's a lot more to it than that, so go read his original post, linked above. Nice to see you writing again, Gerry! (Any new music coming out?). 

1 comment:

Gerry Hannah said...

Thanks for the plug Allan. Yes, your experiences seem very similar to mine. And I'm sorry; it's really frustrating to try to have a rational discussion with people that subscribe to this type of dogma.

The one thing that really stands out to me as being completely erroneous thinking by the people you mention in your example, is this idea that, put in the historical context of white oppression, only white people can be racist. In my opinion, exactly the opposite is true; put in historical context, we clearly see that any race can be racist. Yes, the vast majority of people who currently hold the reins of power, and have created and continue to maintain structural racism at present, happen to be white. But it certainly wasn't always so and its very unlikely that it will always be so in the future. Two thousand years ago, white people (Europeans) were running around in animal skins without cities or written language, let alone imperialist capabilities or aspirations. Up to that point it had been mostly Egyptians, Persians, Mongols, Babylonians, etc. (people of colour), that had carved out empires, brutalizing, enslaving and slaughtering those they deemed to be of a inferior races along the way.

And what of today? If only white people can be racist, how do we explain the Japanese colonization and brutalization of Manchurians? How do we explain the persecution of Muslims in India by fanatical Hindus? Or the genocidal slaughter of Armenians by the Turks? Or the persecution of South Asians by Ugandans during Idi Amin’s rule? Or the genocidal slaughter of Rohingyans in Myanmar by Buddhist fanatics?

Yes, I know that some of these examples, technically, are examples of “religious” persecution as opposed to examples of racial persecution. My position on this? Bullshit. In the context of this discussion, racism can be seen in its essence as fear and hatred of the "Other" and by seeing the Other as less than human. As author Umair Haque states, “The real adversary is racism. Or at least it is for me. Because the interesting and damnable thing about racism is that it goes on and on and on. We somehow keep making the same old mistake of making each other the enemy, not racism itself.”