Cartesian meditations on racial identity

I’ve been suspected of being a Cartesian, and at least regarding the social sciences, I certainly am.  Clever people like to prove their cleverness by contesting Descartes’ observations that I have privileged access to my own mental states and can be certain of my own substantial existence, but I don’t doubt these truths.  As a social Cartesian, I privilege the insider perspective on any cultural phenomenon.  The participant, not the hostile outsider, has the true perspective on a social practice.

This seems particularly true to me on questions of identity.  Historians and sociologists are always hard at work debunking racial or national identities.  The goal is to convince people that they are wrong to identify as they do.  Historians like to point out that the sortings that seem most salient now were not most salient in the past.  E.g. if people now identify by nation, throw it in their face that centuries ago they identified more by region, language, religion, or tribe.  Historians will point out group boundaries themselves have changed.  E.g. “the Irish didn’t use to be white.”   They’ll point out that the emergence of today’s groupings (“imagined communities”) involved concerted effort by political, religious, and commercial elites operating from imperfectly altruistic motives.  Meanwhile, anthropologists love to criticize racial classifications, showing them to be as much social constructions as biological fixities, as if that somehow made them illegitimate.

To me, all of this is irrelevant.  My identification as “white American” is a directly apprehended social fact.  It is no more possible for people to be incorrect in their identification as white than it is possible for someone to be mistaken about being in pain.  The experience is itself the thing referenced; the usage of racial terms dictates their correct definitions.  If race were a biological category, people could be wrong about it, but it’s the critics themselves who insist that race is a social category, so “what race are you?” just means “what race do you and others think you are?”

Intergenerational survival is a basic human good.  We all want to have descendants who positively identify with our ancestors.  Who is or is not my ancestor is largely socially determined.  Not entirely, of course.  My parents and grandparents are certainly my ancestors regardless of any larger ideological construction.  Going beyond that, to, say, what people if any from the year 1000AD I should identify as my own, just comes from what society tells me I am.

In the West, the importance of racial identity grows and grows.  Before the mid-20th century, many of what we would now call white Americans still had strong ethnic identities.  In Europe until recently nearly everyone was white and most identified primarily by one’s country and language.  Mass immigration and the now-international Civil Rights movement is changing this.  Those who don’t belong to the vibrant and oppressed know that their primary social identifier is white, and whiteness is defined above all by guilt.  A white American is supposed to be ashamed of things done by Portuguese slave traders, British colonialists, Frankish crusaders, and so forth.  If we are to be ashamed of them, indebted to others on their behalf, then we must identify with all these people.  Thus a surprisingly wide identity has risen to prominence.  White people are responsible for the evils of Europeans and European-descended Americans going back over a thousand years, perhaps all the way back to classical Greece.

Racial boundaries have been shifting even within my lifetime.  When I was young, most of us thought that Jews were white.  Only Nazis thought of Jews as a non-White “Other”.  Also lots of Jews themselves, as it turns out, although this realization is only now seeping out into the collective Gentile consciousness.  Thus, I’ll sometimes see someone on the internet cite Jewish physicists as illustrating Western accomplishment and then get corrected by commenters.  If Jews and Gentiles agree that Jews are white, they’re white.  If they agree that Jews aren’t white, they aren’t white.  A people’s race could change in a single year.

We whites can hardly be accused of being opportunistic or inauthentic in our racial identity.  White people have parents who would acknowledge being white.  We’re certainly not just picking ancestors to make ourselves look good.  We didn’t make up this category at all; we inherited it. Plus, our racial identity is experienced primarily as a burden, the burden of inheriting the role of history’s bad guys.  It is nevertheless true that once one identifies with European civilization, one may decide that one’s heritage isn’t all bad.  Whites have their own arts and customs, their own interests and endearing quirks, just like other peoples.  Thus comes the cry of the racist:  “Whites are just the same as other peoples.”  No one would deny it but for the intelligentsia’s double-counting whereby the achievements of Western civilization belong to the world but its sins belong only to whites.

One could argue, I suppose, that the ascendence of race to primary social identifier is a bad thing, that we would have been better off sticking with nationalism or other territorial identifiers.  Those taking this as an argument against white racism should consider that they are also demanding that blacks also stop identifying as black, that Mexican-Americans stop identifying as such, and so forth.  It’s not only whites who would have to chuck their current set of ancestors.  Why should we expect others to trade some of their pride for some of our shame?

White identity in turn can be thought of as an enlargement of European people’s circles of identification from a single nation or sect to the entirety of European Christendom.  In fact, the more intelligent criticism of racial identity is that it is too broad.

I prefer not to play such games either.  As I see it, the religious duty of filial piety tells us to honor our ancestors, but it doesn’t critique how our ancestors are selected, which is taken as a social brute fact, just as the virtue of obedience tells us how to comport ourselves to established authorities without trying to answer the unanswerable question of why political boundaries should be here rather than there or why the crown should go to this dynasty rather than that.

There may well come a time when race ceases to have the salience it now possesses.  Identity has organically evolved before and will continue to do so.  It would would be unwise to try to force the process, though.  To try would be most likely to end up renouncing one’s unarguably white ancestors.  We didn’t ask for the burden of whiteness, and its creation may well not have been a good thing from some cosmic perspective, but our filial duty is just to take the identity we’re handed.

9 Responses

  1. I guess I always wished that Europe had been recreated in North America in the sense of having an English America, German America, Italian America, etc. I would have liked to have exclusively inherited either German or English ancestry/ethnicity rather than both but I didn’t have a choice. So I guess I’m white.

  2. Bruce makes a point I agree with, and such a condition would have been supremely preferable.

    The whole ‘white’ thing presents problems because it is, as you say, defined by opposition. How does someone with Norwegian ancestry bear any responsibility for the perceived wrongs of slavery? Because ‘whiteness’, and the scary thing is, this works in Norway even more effectively than it does in America!

  3. All whites are guilty for the sins of other whites, but to hold other races responsible for the sins of their brethren is extremely racist.

  4. I don’t know. To me, even just wishing I was something other than white (I’m a mix of a lot of European nationalities; the line that gives me my last name comes from Belgium) feels a little bit like a betrayal.

  5. I think it entirely appropriate to question a white *identity’s* significance just as I would reject a *black* identity’s significance.

    There is quite a bit of enlightenment ideology and modernism bound up in this identification with human biology.
    Did anyone, traditionally, identify this strongly with ones heritable biology before *really bad ideas* became increasingly the norm?

    I think that modern deracination is also a critical part of what creates racism: people have nothing left besides their skin color anymore.
    As Bruce points out above, this is an issue.
    I think I can solve it pretty simply: I speak English as my native language. Ergo, soy anglo.

  6. Of course, I am from Texas.

  7. […] Bonald has Cartesian meditations on racial identity. […]

  8. George – its more that the sins of other races are entirely whitewashed

  9. […] by and large see themselves as a separate people.  It would not be wrong for them to do so.  As I see it, identity (above the level of family and below the level of baptism) is a matter of pre-moral fact. […]

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