Thursday, October 01, 2009

The Mind and the Color-Line


Photo of John McWhorter

Linguistics Professor and cultural critic John McWhorter has a piece on African American studies that is worth reading. The essence of it is the need for intellectual diversity in the way courses in these departments are taught. While I frequently disagree with him, I have long admired his thinking and enjoyed reading what he had to say. There was a particular portion of the essay that reminded something I've wanted to write about for some time:

"However, equally central to honest engagement with "black thought" are modern figures often considered controversial by the campus set, such as Shelby Steele, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Debra Dickerson, and Stanley Crouch. (I will refrain from putting myself on this list, but will mention that my work is not uncommonly assigned to college students and seems not to leave them deaf to America's sociological imperfections.) Also useful, given that African-American Studies syllabi typically include some white writers, would be Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom, Lawrence Mead, Dan Subotnik and Peter Wood.

There is an argument hardly unfamiliar in the halls of ivy that black writers of this ilk are irrelevant to serious discussion because they are traitors to the race. Those charges must be permitted as free speech - but have no place in any brand of academic inquiry. All of the writers I have listed are careful thinkers deeply concerned with the fate of black America."

It reminded me of a conversation I had during the Gates-Crowley incident a couple of months ago. I mentioned that a well known Asian American commentator was critical of the President's remarks about the incident and supportive of Crowley. One listener responded that the person in question was an embarrassment to Asians. Another wondered aloud how much they "must hate themselves". I found these remarks troubling as I always do when people start talking this way. Why not simply disagree with her ideas? Why make it about her being Asian? Having been on the receiving end of similar comments most of my life, I thought it wise to hold my tongue.

The common thread between what I heard in that conversation and the reference to traitors to the race made in McWhorter's essay is a largely unchallenged assumption that your race or ethnicity obligates you to think in a particular way (liberal or progressive). People with this viewpoint seem to believe that thought is, or at least should be, determined by the color of your skin.

As a Baha'i, I believe that just as the soul has no race, neither does the mind. This is important because the way we talk about race, like so many other issues, reflects our assumptions about who we think we are. In "Who Are We Anyway?" I wrote:

"Stated simply, so called racial identities represent not who we are but rather something that is done to us and which to varying degrees we do to ourselves. I would go beyond race though and say that we are likewise 'gendered', 'sexually oriented', 'ethnicitied', 'nationalitied' and on and on. All of these dimensions of our human experience are at best descriptive but are not definitive. The soul has no race, no sexual orientation, no ethnicity, no nationality, no class. We are more than the sum of these social constructs. I believe the degree to which these so called 'identities' have assumed a primacy in the way we think about ourselves and others is a measure of the power materialistic assumptions about reality have come to exert in our lives. My point is not that these aspects of the soul's journey in this world have no meaning, they may even be said to facilitate our spiritual development in important ways. Rather, it is a more subtle issue of maintaining a balanced understanding in which the soul remains at the center of our self-concept..."

The idea that our thoughts should be determined by our skin color reflects a view of self and others where the soul has been de-centered and materialistic conceptions of "identity" reign supreme. As such, it is an ultimately dehumanizing and thus oppressive idea.

In addition, this way of thinking about race tends to fuel the discourse of disunity through encouraging people to demonize difference of opinion. As I've mentioned, difference of opinion is essential to the advancement of civilization because it is a necessary element of truth seeking. How could it possibly be beneficial to racial or ethnic minorities to engage in "race traitor", "self-hater" rhetoric that discourages diversity of thought about who they are, the meaning of their past, and the possibilities for their future? Speaking to and about each other in these ways keeps the mind imprisoned by the color-line.

O OFFSPRING OF DUST! Be not content with the ease of a passing day, and deprive not thyself of everlasting rest. Barter not the garden of eternal delight for the dust-heap of a mortal world. Up from thy prison ascend unto the glorious meads above, and from thy mortal cage wing thy flight unto the paradise of the Placeless. (Baha'u'llah, The Persian Hidden Words)