© 2014 Erica Hernandez, "Untitled"

© 2014 Erica Hernandez, "Untitled"

Thinking Through the Past

//Mark Jay

If you asked me where my ancestors came from, how I ended up in this country, in this position of relative comfort, I wouldn’t know what to tell you. Whenever the question’s come up in the last few years, I made sure to always be ready with a quick answer, though. Portugal. Italy. The south of France. Somewhere in the upper stretches of Naples. It’s strange to know so little about one’s roots, and so I said, “Genoa,” and stared at them with a cow's face until they walked away or changed the topic.

Don’t worry: this is not the beginning of some sentimental tale where my father and I travel to Europe together, moving from one library to the next, unearthing the history of our shared blood, and ultimately find some fleck of meaning that binds us to our past.

The history of my distant ancestors is something of a mystery to me. I am white; I am male; I am American, though I do not suffer from nationalistic (or patriotic) fervor; I am not active in organized religion; therefore, I don’t really relate or feel any particular kinship to any cohesive large group. Though the former characteristics make me more privileged than the vast majority of the global population, this privilege has not translated into a desire to understand and celebrate its roots. To whatever degree I think about my family centuries past, my ignorance causes me to lump it into the larger destructive history of colonialism. I’ve thus rejected, or at least ignored, my past simply because of what I’ve imagined it would mean to embrace it.

As a quick aside, it has to be said that there are two sides to this coin, and the flip side is far more troubling: a nostalgia for what white men have lost. For instance, take Mad Men. Here is a show that unabashedly invokes the fantasy of how great it used to be. (White) men got to be men. They had sex with their beautiful and subservient secretaries, they drank vociferously at all times of the day, they dressed the part. But in this boisterous celebration of the past, is there not an implicit approval, a romanticization even, of the sexism, racism, consumerism, and narcissism that served as the foundation for the show's admen's glorified lifestyles?

Okay. So, there is a sort of paradox or double-bind at work here. To reject one's privilege (defined here as added social/political/economic capital as a birthright) is, at least implicitly, to reject the hard work – often the life's work – of one's ancestors, which is harsh and unappreciative, to say the least, but to embrace one's privilege is to perpetuate a pernicious world order. And while on the surface, working to shed the golden weight of one's privilege seems perhaps the lesser of two evils — when compared to, say, taking that analyst position at Goldman Sachs — I think there’s something sinister at play in each case.

I’m guessing that I’m not the only person to go to college, develop a political consciousness, and return home to berate my parents for the very financial success and hard work that afforded me the chance to go to college in the first place. The problem, besides the ensuing vitriolic (and, trust me, counter-productive) familial arguments, is that so much of the manifestation of today's leftist zeitgeist is rooted in rejection. A rejection of past injustices that are bleeding into the present, a rejection, in part, of themselves: in a word, a life-denying rejection. If I cannot find meaning in my past, if I have no firm ground to stand on and instead feel I have been born into a sort of quicksand, then I become eager, desperate even, to grab onto the first branch that I come across. Perhaps this is part of what James Baldwin meant when he said that the brutal history of the West has made refugees of us all. [1]

And here, I think, is where some nonprofits and social work organizations gain the psychological traction to allow their work to take on the attitude of martyrdom: social work as sublimation. In City Year, a non-profit organization I worked for in 2012-2013 that sends mostly college graduates into urban schools as academic supplements, there was an expectation that tutoring and mentoring was not enough. We stood outside the high school entrances and sang campy and humiliating songs to the arriving students and staff ('Go Bananas! Go, Go Bananas!'), we formed militarized rows and performed calisthenics in public parks, we recited chants and creeds, we watched Karate Kid as a group and compared ourselves to Mr. Miyagi. We were expected to do these often degrading and painful things because of the guilt that always lurked in the shadows of the organization: to complain about our own fate would be to fail to acknowledge the harsher fate of the students we were serving, to complain would be to fail to understand that this is not about us — they need our help!

Such indulgence of privileged people in their potential role as saviors was the subject of a scathing article by Teju Cole published in the Atlantic, titled, “The White-Savior Industrial Complex.” The thrust of the article is essentially to point out the problematic dynamic in white America's reaction to the KONY drama that unfolded two years ago: indulging in sentimental cries for global human rights cannot make up for how one's own lifestyle and politics may be contributing to an inhumane world. How, he asks, can Americans spend their time and energy decrying foreign iniquities (i.e. Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army) while their own country is the world’s largest purveyor of militarization and hegemonic destruction? Cole uses irony to point out the contradiction: “This world exists simply to satisfy the needs — including, importantly, the sentimental needs — of white people and Oprah .... The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.”

His critique is blunt and spot on.

But I wonder if there is also something circular about the Nigerian author's condemnation of the white-savior industrial complex. Even though Cole twice quotes John Berger: “A singer may be innocent, never the song,” he also wants the right to assign culpability: as an outgrowth of our neutered language, he laments that “there is rampant misogyny, but misogynists are nowhere to be found; homophobia is a problem but nobody is homophobic.” There is a sense that Cole is pulling some punches here, but even so, I think the cumulative effect of his piece is to shame a condition which itself, at least in part, is an outgrowth of shame. To wag a caustic finger at those burdened with white guilt does little to alleviate it: in fact, it probably just produces more guilt.

After reading Cole's article, some part of me immediately wanted to send it on to some higher-ups at City Year and say, "Aha! Don't you see now how messed up your worldview is!" But what would that really accomplish? Cole's article, finger-pointing in general (see, among so many in this emerging genre, this article mocking hipster racism) is reductive: it equates diagnosing a problem with helping to solve it.

The allure of postmodern thought seems to be the ability to deconstruct everything, to indicate problems, in essence, to reject — to see things like privilege or white supremacy (etc.) and say, problem! But if this rejection is not rooted in something that can provide a better roadmap, then its result is the same futile righteousness that it makes out to condemn. It makes critique function less as a helpful guide forward than simply as a display of the critic’s intelligence.

Such blunt condemnations of a person’s privilege, or their privileged worldview, does not liberate them from their perch; in my experience, it only creates extreme, paroxysmal reactions which in turn lead to either a) dogmatism or b) a cathartic renunciation of one's privileged history. And if the former is futile, then the latter is dangerous — dangerous because it can easily lead to the false idolization of the other. My own rejection of the vanity and cultural vacuity of the suburban lifestyle into which I was born led quickly to a mystified view of gritty urban life; my rejection of corporatism led to a romanticized view of protest movements like Occupy; my rejection of western hegemony has at times made me to look East, starry-eyed towards the mythic Orient [2]; the rejection of my wealth led to my glamorizing the struggles of the poor, and this kind of thinking led to the ethos of grandiose organizations like City Year, which attempts to vindicate its own blatant paternalism by pretending each Detroit youth it serves is some thwarted incarnation of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Dr. Ben Carson.

It is not enough to look at my manifest worldview and cringe and say, problematic!, because this doesn’t help me transcend the problem — it only condemns it. And here again, I think, is evidence of the circularity of Cole’s methodology. Scathing assessments like his are in part responsible for the neutered dialogue that he complains about. Let’s take, for example, racism. Specifically, take the example of the white person who is walking down the street at night and sees two black teens walking towards him or her and feels an inclination to cross the street. We cannot pretend that this inclination doesn’t exist for some people, even in those who identify themselves as anti-racist or liberal. So if we limit the conversation to diatribes about how bad racism is, to labeling people and their actions as Racist!!, then we deny the complexity of its existence. Isn’t this reductive? To be racist is to be bad, and thus all racism in good people must end at once. If there is no outlet for people to publicly countenance racist impulses that linger despite their attempts to be fair and just, despite their desire for a fair and just society, then, for fear of castigation, people will likely not talk about these impulses, they will repress them (hence the mirage of a post-racial society), and thus be burdened with even more guilt, the manifestations of which Cole or another critic will write a scathing article about.

Perhaps to this you’ll say, After everything white people have done, we now have to coddle their post-colonial angst? — and you’d have a point. But you only get so far explaining the condition of an urban pauper by analyzing the structures around him or her if you aren’t then willing to explain the mindset of the wealthy charity worker by the conditions that have surrounded him or her. Admittedly, to equate the obstacles facing them both would be ridiculous, but to pretend that the “winners” and “losers” of our violent history have created natural conditions for their respective ancestors to be happy and sad, to be virtuous and not, is equally farcical.


“When you're young, you know the world, but nothing about yourself, and as you get older, you know yourself very well but you know nothing about the world." [3] There seems to be some truth here. But the border between the individual and the collective is more porous than this statement suggests. It's only by really knowing one's self that one can begin to affect the world in a meaningful way, and vice versa, and therein lies the problem with repressing my past, with breezing through the step of introspection and moving quickly into the realm of social do-gooding, with rejecting elements of my past in the hopes of replacing them with some other, in my case, the synthetic world of corporate-financed social work.

It is tempting to argue that global warming and escalating inequality and perpetual war have created urgent conditions where introspection is all fine and good just as long as it leads to some action, and quick (i.e. the Peace Corps tagline, “Life is calling”). However, while I’m not denying the urgency of some of the world’s problems, I take solace in the fact that the vexing dynamic between the collective and the individual is not new. People have been grappling with this issue since at least the time of Socrates: his advice to the ambitious young Alcibiades was that it would be absurd for him to try to influence others until he had a thorough understanding of himself. The path to inner-knowledge was not a solitary effort, however. In order to understand himself, Alcibiades needed the help of society. [4]

To try to apply this advice more than 2,400 years later, it’s important to learn about my ancestry, rather than just projecting what life must have been like based on my own anxiety. And if I don’t have many answers as to how to transcend the problems I’ve laid out, to the Chinese finger trap interlocking man and his troubling history, then I think I'll do well to go hat in hand to my grandma’s apartment and sit and eat plastic-wrapped hard candy, and listen and cede to the wisdom that accrues with age and experience.

//Mark Jay is a co-founder of The Periphery.

Special thanks to Ben Ward and Levent Sipahi for their editorial advice and psychoanalytic help.

[1] Baldwin, Just Above My Head, pg. 565.
[2] For more on this, check the seminal Orientalism, by Edward Said.
[3] http://www.interviewmagazine.com/culture/zadie-smith/print/
[4] http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/greek/plato/alcibiades1.html 


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