A Podcast Recommendation

Doing this as a “let’s all listen together and discuss” thread was tempting but I think the way they explain things is so solid that there’s not much left to say except “Wow, I didn’t know that.” Which is something I said a lot; perhaps a tribute to my ignorance.

Scene on Radio did a series of episodes called (collectively) Seeing White, which is about the creation of whiteness in America. With anything involving America’s horrible racist history, you can expect that there will be a certain amount of jaw-dropping “OMG” content, and it doesn’t disappoint. I like to think of myself as fairly familiar with it, but I still had a lot of jaw-dropping moments. My already low opinion of the country’s early oligarchs and founding fathers leapt into a manure-pit with a shovel and dug itself up to the neck.

There are high points of clarity that I really value. Unfortunately one of them is sub-sampled pieces of a talk given by a Suzanne Plessik from the Racial Equity Institute – I wish I could find the whole talk, somewhere: [episode 2. @4:27]

There is more genetic variation in a flock of penguins than there is within the human race. There is more genetic variation within groups that have come to be called ‘races’ than there is across groups that have come to be called ‘races’. It is statistically likelier that I am closer to to you, genetically (Suzanne is white, and points toward a black man) than I am to you (and then a white woman). Anthropologists finally say that ‘race’ is anthropological nonsense.

Is that the same thing as saying “it’s not real?” No. Because is powerfully real. It is politically and socially real.

Elsewhere, she anchors the entire program, for me, with a single observation:

The history of racism in America is the history of labor in America.

The show doesn’t become a marxist critique (Marx already did that) but the first few episodes keep looping back to the way that early Americans solved their unique problem of manpower: they were in the process of eradicating the original inhabitants, who weren’t very interested in cooperating with the project, so they created a unique labor pool in the form of a legally sanctioned permanent underclass. Elsewhere, they discuss the open and deliberate way that the American upper class used “divide and conquer” between the lower classes, on racial lines. It’s shameful and enraging.

I found the show’s approach to explaining racism as an economic phenomenon, and why it only appeared the way that it did in North America when it did, as particularly enlightening. It’s especially enlightening, today, when our politics have been hijacked over racist/white supremacist labor problems thanks to capitalists exporting jobs so they can make more money on thin profit margins found abroad. It’s a slap-my-forehead, “well duh” moment for me. One of the interviews is with Nell Irvin Painter, who wrote The History of White People [wc] which I also recommend; to put it mildly, it’s interesting stuff.

Production-wise, the show is almost too hip; the format is a white guy (the main narrator) trying to piece all of this stuff together, asking people and talking about their perspectives. The thing is, the interviews are really great, and so is the editing, so it works. Each episode begins with the narrator exploring an issue and it often ends with him discussing it with Chenjerai Kumanyika, whose contribution is amazingly perceptive, strong, and subtle.

The episodes are short, in accordance with modern marketing perception of the current generation’s attention-span; personally I wish it was a great big 4 hour-long wad, like one of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History episodes. I know how the pause button works.

Race is about power, and political control. It’s facile to dismiss racists as ignorant chucklefucks – especially when you see the kind of knee-jerk reactions that we often see from white people. “Oh, let’s let bygones be bygones.” And, “I was not even alive at that time.” The second to last episode is one of my favorites since it dissects American history and reveals how every social program was tilted toward white people (the goverment reneged on the GI Bill for black soldiers, “30 acres and a mule” land grants were re-appropriated if issued to black people, etc.) When white people today say that they don’t favor racially targeted advancement programs, they are not self-aware enough to realize that the entire country is a racially targeted advancement program for white people. I found myself sitting in my car making cringy-paw movements with my toes. We don’t realize it because it surrounds us.

Chenjerai Kumanyika’s final comments are reminiscent of James Baldwin: [scene] @45:00

When you have set up an institutionalized power arrangement that creates paths of least resistance – that means that you’ve set up the society in a way where all everybody needs to do is go through it in the way that’s least hard, that’s convenient. Everybody has to wake up and do what’s convenient, they’ll be reproducing that system.

The white people that push back against this argument don’t see how suborned they are, because they think that all the advantages they got are their due (i.e.: “entitlements”). If someone proposed to take half of my money to use for reparations, I’d be shocked because it’s my money! I worked for it! But I also know for a fact that I worked nowhere near as hard as black woman would have had to, and – if I’m honest with myself – the majority of the opportunities I’ve had would be closed to her. She’d never even know they existed. The history of racism in America is the history of labor.

This is an important show, at this time, in this place.

[Scene on Radio, Seeing White series]

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I used to regularly speak at a conference for the Midwest Security Alliance (Secure/360) since the first conference they held, until 2 years ago. The first conference(s) were small – a room full of people – and were held at Fort Snelling, in Minneapolis. I did not know then, what I know now, that Fort Snelling was a concentration camp where Lakota were held in horrible conditions, before they were marched off to Dakota. Many died there. The history of Fort Snelling features in one of the episodes, which is a heart-wrenching exploration of how the native tribes were treated. As I listened to it, I realized that I had delivered keynote talks about firewalls and security policy, standing in what would be equivalent to Bergen-Belsen for a Lakota.


  1. says

    Discrimination is surprisingly easy to not notice when I’m not the target of it.

    Some years ago, I assumed that racism was no longer a problem in Germany. For me melanin concentration in skin seemed like something that should no longer be an issue in 21st century, after all, people had already figured out that racism was a really stupid idea. And then I befriended a black women who told me about some cases where she had experienced discrimination. I was like: “Oh shit. I had no clue.”

    I also assumed that asexual people weren’t facing any discrimination. For me other people’s sex lives seemed like something that shouldn’t be an issue, after all, everybody is free to do (or not do) whatever they want in bed. And then I talked with an asexual woman who told me about the discrimination she had experienced. I was like: “Oh shit. I had no clue.”

    The obvious conclusion from this kind of pattern is that one should pay attention and listen whenever somebody complains about discrimination.

    When you have set up an institutionalized power arrangement that creates paths of least resistance – that means that you’ve set up the society in a way where all everybody needs to do is go through it in the way that’s least hard, that’s convenient. Everybody has to wake up and do what’s convenient, they’ll be reproducing that system.

    I like this quote, especially because it also applies to all sorts of other problems besides racism. Paths of least resistance explain why we perpetuate things like gender norms, or even environmental pollution.

  2. says

    Andreas Avester@#1:
    Paths of least resistance explain why we perpetuate things like gender norms, or even environmental pollution.

    I think a great deal of bad stuff can be explained in terms of paths of least resistance. If you have a white supremacist society and it makes life easier to go along with for both the whites and the blacks, then it is effectively suborning the whites and suppressing the blacks.

    A few minutes after that speech, Dr. Kumanyika points out that he knows he’s part of a system of oppression in which his comfortable life as a professor is built on the inequality that allows a place like a university to exist. It’s inescapable and it makes us paralyzed because the only way to overthrow it is to hurt ourselves.

  3. says

    It’s inescapable and it makes us paralyzed because the only way to overthrow it is to hurt ourselves.

    A few years ago I had to decide between two options: (1) tell everybody a fake bullshit story about how I wear male clothes only because they are more comfortable and have pockets; (2) come out as genderqueer.

    I do want to overthrow a transphobic society that insists on everybody behaving in accordance to the gender norms for whichever sex they got assigned at birth. Yet back when I was trying to decide what to do, the main question that I was thinking about was the following: if I come out as genderqueer, how much it will hurt me, how many job opportunities will be denied for me? I didn’t want to hurt myself by going against the social norms.

    Ultimately, I decided to just be open about my gender identity issues, because, apparently, I lack a strong enough self-preservation instinct. The second reason was that I just happen to be argumentative and I assumed that the emotional aspects of being seen as a freak shouldn’t hurt me much; after all, I can take insults without caring about them.

    Last month, I faced the exact same question once again. As I was putting together my new website, I had two options: (1) I could write blog posts exclusively about art and not mention anything about my personal issues; (2) I could openly talk about gender issues in any blog posts I might want to write.

    Once again, I feared that me adding queer content to my website might alienate some prospective customers. My primary purpose for having a website is to sell my artworks and to offer information for clients who might commission drawings from me. What if there are some Maine Coon cat breeders who want a logotype and like my artworks, but decide not to buy my art after finding out on my website that I’m openly queer? Once again, I apparently lack a sense of self-preservation—one of the very first posts I published was about my attitude towards gender norms.

  4. cartomancer says

    It is revealing in itself that the economic basis of the early US slave society is rarely mentioned in the US today. Economists and historians have understood it for centuries – you mentioned Marx, but ancient historians of the 19th century working on slavery realised quite quickly why Greek and Roman slavery were different from the American form they could observe first-hand – and it had everything to do with the economic situation of the societies involved.

    Roman slavery was, usually, a temporary condition. It was the custom to free your slaves after you had got ten years or so of work out of them, then buy a younger model to cater to your needs. The freed slave could then get on with a life as a not-quite-full citizen, having established a place in society, learned a trade, and made some powerful connections to the sorts of people who could afford to buy lots of slaves. And their children would be full Roman citizens in their turn – embedded in the traditional pattern of clientship and patronage like everybody else and indistinguishable from Romans whose families had been free for generations. It was far from perfect, and some slaves were never freed, but compared with what enslaved Africans and their descendants went through in the US it was streets ahead. Roman slavery was almost a kind of apprenticeship into Roman society. The reason they could do this is because Rome was constantly fighting wars and taking prisoners. Slaves were cheap and plentiful, and there were always more coming in. Meanwhile the lives of citizens tended to be short, particularly in the city of Rome itself, which was huge and unsanitary, so Rome was in constant need of new people to keep its population stable. There was no shame in having ex-slaves in your family. Everybody had them somewhere. Indeed, Rome’s founding myths emphasised how the Romans were descended from seafaring Trojan refugees, and exiles and runaway slaves from other Italian cities. There was a ruling elite, but it did not frame itself in racial terms. Also, most work was not divided into slave jobs and jobs for free people – slave builders worked on sites with free colleagues. Slave farm workers ploughed fields alongside free workers. Family businesses were run by household slaves and family members together. It was even reasonably common to free and marry one’s slaves, as many tombstone inscriptions attest.

    US society, meanwhile, stopped relying on imported slaves quite early on, as the transatlantic trade dried up. Thus it began to maintain a native population of slaves as a permanent underclass, which it maintained by keeping them rigorously separate from free society. Mixing between slave and free on equal terms was a threat to the underlying economic order, because it threatened the distinctness of the underclass from the ruling class.

  5. voyager says

    Looking at racism in America through an economic lens makes a lot of sense, but I’m not well informed on the subject so I’ll do some listening before I say much else. I will note that divide and conquer seems to be the current state of affairs in the U.S. and I wonder if there was ever a time that it wasn’t.

  6. springa73 says

    One book about slavery in the US that I found very good is called The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward E. Baptist. It mixes firsthand accounts of the horrific conditions slaves worked under with analyses of southern slavery’s central role in the economy of the whole US (and less directly of some European countries, especially Britain). It also explains some of the ways that slavery changed in the southern US between the late 18th century and the American Civil War. One of the key myths that it sets out to debunk is the idea that slavery was a “pre-modern” survival, an outdated and inefficient system that was a drag on the US economy. Rather, Baptist argues, slavery was central to the rapid economic growth of the US in the decades between independence and the Civil War, and slaveowners were an integral part of the growing capitalist economy not just in the USA but in Europe as well.

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