A Conversation on the Semantic Pedagogy of “Whiteness”
By Christopher Bear Beam
My wife Pamela and I recently saw The Good Shepherd1 at the theatre. In one scene Joe Pesci (playing a great Italian mobster as he is known to do) converses with the American spy Mr. Wilson (who happens to be European American). Pesci’s character says “we Italians have the church, the Jews have tradition, and the n—–s have their music,” and then turning to Wilson asks, “What do your people have?” Mr. Wilson comes back quickly in a totally unfeeling way, “we have the country. The rest of you are just visitors.”
Pesci’s derogatory statement about African Americans shouts loudly about the racial hierarchy in our contemporary, white, “supremacist” culture (and even more so in the culture of the 1950s and 1960s when the story takes place); however, it also silently breathes out a noxious vein of something running much deeper in our acculturated white world that has been framed and crafted by our words, associations, and philosophies. For it is through these dogmas that we have designed our collective reality about difference. Our society has formulated our collective reality around race with a language all its own.
Something else seems “messaged” to me here: there is a non-verbal norm of what appears to be a determined and stratified tier-system of racial dominance within his statement. On the surface it looks like Pesci is saying something positive about each group, but the bottom line is that he calls African Americans the “n” word and they inevitably wind up at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. Historically this has been the case. Even in light of the Civil Rights Act, Brown vs. the Board of Education, desegregation and Affirmative Action, white America has to have someone it can place at the lowest point on the gradient of the hierarchy of oppression. Some possible reasons for this will follow in this article.
In order to get this, we have to come to understand that a European, white-dominated system formulated who would be considered white, and in this way permission was given to some groups to move freely up and down the ladder of social hierarchy developed around race. Each ethnic group cited by Pesci—Italian, Jewish, and African-American—has been stigmatized, made scapegoats, and oppressed in both our distant and recent past. The past has also influenced the present as it continues to exist today. Knowing this must inform how we will shape the future when it comes to understanding, appreciating, sharing resources and exchanging ideas with those who don’t fit within whatever the “white” mold is at the time. Currently this affects most powerfully the lives of immigrants coming from Mexico and other countries to better their lives in the U.S.
The language of racism has created a way of thinking; in brief, it has created a world that is false-to-facts to the way the universe, and our earth’s own natural systems, seem to function–this despite Darwin’s anxiom: only the strong survive. Our human evolution also included the emotion of compassion and belongingness. With us, however, there’s always a “dark” and a “light” dimension inherent in our complexity.
Another way to say this is that we have structured the world by our narratives and meta-narratives about WIGO, i.e., “what is going on out there.” But we seem to have gone beyond that. We too often believe that our words about our world are undeniable, unchallengeable facts. We have turned what Korzybski called ‘consciousness of abstracting,’2 up side down; people have substituted what they think, feel and believe about the verbal and non-verbal universe that surrounds them, for the structure of scientific fact. Humans sense an event non-verbally, label it, then describe it, and finally create generalizations or attitudes about it. In our mis-education we believe our stereotypes are facts in far too many instances. This is how stereotypes begin and are perpetuated for groups of folks that we fear or whom we deem inferior.
A good example of this substituting may be found in a docudrama by filmmaker Oren Jacoby. The short documentary called Sister Rose’s Passion3 follows the later life of Sister Rose Thering, a Dominican nun. In the film, she tells how her father mentioned that there was a new pharmacist in town, and that he thought that the man was Jewish. When he said this, he lowered voice to a whisper, as though he might be found out just mouthing the word “Jewish.” When she got home, Rose asked her mother what a Jew was. She had read in some of her religious education books that the Jews had killed Christ. Her mother didn’t answer at first, but when Rose prodded her again she said, “They killed Christ.”
After going into a convent, Rose eventually came to the point of researching and investigating Catholic teachings about the role of the Jews in the death of Christ. She found Catholic theology and scholarship, as well as at the grass roots level of Catholic lay people, many believed that indeed it was the Jews who killed Christ. For Christians, this meant the Jews had committed deicide or the killing of God.
Later while doing graduate work for her doctorate she looked at the facts of biblical and historical interpretations surrounding the crucifixion and found that it wasn’t the Jews who had killed Christ. Sister Rose’s research revealed that the tyrannical Romans were known to use crucifixion for punishment, but the Jews apparently never did. To add to this, many Christians feel that the Gospels are eyewitness accounts, while in fact they were written anywhere from fifty to one hundred years after Jesus’ death. The Gospel writers wrote in such a way as to distance themselves from the Jews; it also should be remembered that Jesus was a Jew who lived among Jews; the apostles were all Jews, and some of the most contentious issues took place at a time when Jews hated this sect that came to be called Christianity. Sister Rose concluded that it was no wonder that the early church fathers and other redactors would propagandize the myth that the Jews killed Christ (for another interesting take on this, one contemporary film, The Color of the Cross,4 poses the idea that Christ was an African man who was hated by both Romans and Jews, and was thus removed from the scene by racism).
So for hundreds of years a myth was substituted for fact, a scapegoat was found for the death of God, and within a large, collective unconscious the words “the Jews killed Christ” were seen to be the truth. Sister Rose was one of the key players in the Catholic Church who caused a change within the globe-circling system of Catholicism when Vatican II finally recognized very clearly that Jesus was not killed by the Jews. This led the Roman Catholic Church to renounce centuries of myth, lies, and ignorance. Along her journey she was resisted by many, companion Catholics, not only because she was a woman but because a system will resist and deny objectionable truth until it can no longer wiggle out of it.
As an aside, I’d like to mention that I grew up in a suburb north of Chicago, in a neighborhood divided between Catholics and Protestants. There was an “uneasy truce” between both sides. Somewhere, early on in my life, had been planted the idea that the Jews killed the Messiah, and this was both subtlety and blatantly reinforced as I grew up in my Protestant home. Some of my family lived in, and the message was more pronounced in that region. This unconscious notion rattled around in the darker, unseen areas of my psyche for years until I came to discover the facts about it. The accompanying attitudes I had ingested about Catholics definitely an unaware bias and prejudice them as a group of people
Just catching a glimpse of the inside of a neighbor’s home, with its mysterious icons and symbols of sainthood, or peering inside the huge, dark, mysterious, and voluminous St. Joseph’s Catholic Church at the top of the street, added to the air of secrecy that lingered between me and the Catholic friends I had in the neighborhood. The realities that I felt inside my head about the differences between me and them further erected a wall of suspician, misunderstanding and mistrust. Anything in our milieu that isn’t put on the table and talked about openly breeds mistrust and dialogue won’t be forthcoming. The wall of separation is buttressed higher and higher by stereotypes and self-fulfilling prophecies about the “other.” The maps inside my head about the territory of Catholicism were not an accuratey reflection of the human beings who called themselves “Catholic.”
One teacher of general semantics, Irving J. Lee, gave a paper at the Second American Congress on General Semantics in 1941 (compiled and edited by M. Kendig in 1943), titled Mechanism of Conflict and Prejudice.5 In it, he refers to Aristotle’s philosophy, including many racial myths Aristotle taught his students: some groups were slaves, and some free; some were rulers and some were ruled. Aristotle’s reason? That this was the eternal order of nature and God; harmony could only be attained if the oppressed were ‘kept in their place.’ Aristotle and many other classical traditionalists have been the shapers, movers and shakers of our present day worldviews In colonial times it was believed that the United States of America was bequeathed this legacy as well, especially in the light of its fundamentalist, patriotic battle cry of “Manifest Destiny.”
The philosophy of dualism is primarily a notion of Western, European culture and academia. Dualism has been the hard, inner lining of so much of our religious, educational, and social education. We thought it kept us warm against the cold chills of uncertainty and ambiguity. Today we still feel it provides a security against the fear of the “other,” and the changing complexities of the world. European American society has fashioned a buffer zone-based on Dualism- that has been used to create our world of order. “Fear and anxiety are the dominant psychological states of the human mind. Behind the fear lies a constant longing to be certain. We are afraid of the unknown. The mind’s craving for confirmation is rooted in our fear of impermanence.”6
Aristotle’s notion of Dualism premised leads to our present method of “either-or” thinking. He formulated a worldview that people, places, or things were either to be categorized as A or Non-A. In the natural system world, a tree is a tree, and what is a non-tree can’t be a tree no matter how hard it tries. Dualism structures a world that is characterized by rigidity, extremes, good or bad, lower or higher, etc. Dualism creates a thought structure, once chose by its adherents, positing reality as a series of events, actions, occurrences, outcomes, failures or successes at the extremes on a linear axis. Dualism allows no “both ands” within a dynamic process of tractable non-opposites.
In our contemporary world of Quantum Physics consciousness of life as process has emerged. Both life processes and actors in the events are integral parts of this dynamism. This new way of viewing the building blocks of life has created a radical shift in the understanding of reality. Life may be viewed now more as a fluid, non-static, ever-changing energy flow with every interdependent form of life in our universe, animate and inanimate, as part of the process. Viewing the structure of life through these lenses suggests that a rotting tree isn’t good or bad, worse or better, but just a part of the joie de vivre of the cosmos.
What I’m driving at here is that this new view invites us to ask ourselves the question that dualism encourages: is it true to the structure of life to say that some ethnicities are by their very nature, less civilized, less intelligent, less spiritual, less concerned about the lives of their families? Is this logical and true-to-facts? Can we determine intelligence, morality and civilization solely by a single line drawn between races?
Is this a statement of fact or science? Science has evidenced that there is no biological basis for race, and anthropology has taught that race is more a social, political and economic construct of what’s going on out there.. Genetically speaking all humans are probably 50th cousins. To argue that one people group is, by nature, is less autonomous, is at the very least this idea runs contrary to our current understanding of what we can presently observe, hypothesize, and know.
The European American idea of white “supremacy” is indeed a “false-to-facts” ideology, a sincere fiction (see below for Joe Feagin’s definition of this term), and the story we invented about race. This philosophical phenomenology suggests that the world of humanity is a dualistic and closed system that results in a form of circular reasoning leading to an un-sane way of seeing reality. Contained within this paradigm is the notion of white superiority and non-white inferiority. This idea is fleshed out in a closed, deterministic loop because it rests on a dogmatic assertion that “white is always right,” and that no other schemata is true or workable in life. In other words, it’s closed because the only reasonable answer to our human condition is that white “supremacy” is the only answer, period. It’s THE ABSOLUTE TRUTH. Religious people might say, ‘It’s God’s will.’
Within its tenets (and premise that “whiteness” is the real “normal”), life can never change, people can never change, cultures never change, genetics are forever set, etc. It is life within a boundary of expectations for one group (whites) and expectations for the “other” (non-whites). This rigid ideology is transformed into a system of white privilege, power and possessions. To say that European American capitalism is good leaves out many facets of conditions extant in the world today such as environmental racism, generalized racism, false values of beauty and sophistication, rabid consumerism and materialism at the expense of peace, joy and contentment, as well as bloodshed on many continents in the name of democracy and freedom.
On the other hand, when we see that humanity is compounded from many cultures, religions, resources, cultural history and traditions, ethnic assets and values, we can begin to see that all life is dying even in the process of being born, in the words of Bob Dylan. In this non-static manner, our dynamic world is always changing, with the old being replaced by the new; nothing is permanent, and space, matter and energy are in the flux of change. At first we might see this as disconcerting, but when we really get it, it presents a global universe without fixed borders and worldviews.
As Dr. William H. Pemberton writes, if we are to solve international conflicts, there is no room for a singular, dogmatic worldview, common only to one, supreme group7. With impermanence comes change, and with change comes an appreciation for the novelty of life and the diversity of other human beings; a worldview propelled by white, European determinism is one of the major causes of insanity, conflict, the push and pull of the ‘better and the worst,’ and much suffering for both the oppressors and the oppressed. A worldview of interdependency is admittedly the cause of unpredictability, but it spawns new creative movements and ideas, and a respect for other cultures who simply view life differently, not deficiently. Interdependency is indeed the ‘true to fact’ way of science. Conflict which rises out of interacting with other people groups, who are dissimilar to us, may be a source of creativity to explore ways to foster better cross-cultural relationships, thus leading to more productive and healthy outcomes.
Our task, then, as whites, and especially as European Americans, is to get used to seeing the world as an habitation, flowing with the yin and yang of both instability and certainty that is forever changing. Just think of planting an apple seed in your yard. Although growth is a possibility, it’s not a certain fact until it occurs. We have no control over sunlight or other weather factors. There are many variables that can affect the conditions of the seed in its growth stage:. Weather, Insects. The type of soil in which it’s grown. Fertilizer. Growth is always messy, just as healing is. Growth is unpredictable and invisible at times. The apple seed is a part of an interdependent ‘organism-as-a-whole-in-an-environment’ embraced by change and instability. If the seed grows into a tree, it may produce a hybrid mutation or it might produce luscious fruit. It behooves white Americans to understand this about the growth of this nation and others on the globe.
Even in the production of a chocolate bar, there are many factors and compounds that go into creating the end result. And even then some people are allergic to chocolate. Dogs are for sure. A life of diversity is one that implies commitment, understanding difference, knowing the mechanisms of prejudice and racism, accepting unpredictability, and resting in uncertainty. The advantages, however, are more available resources through more cultures working together in community and bringing unique talents and skills to the common goal of keeping our planet alive and well.
Nationalities, cultures and ethnic groups are also forever changing despite having some long-held traditions and practices. There are always exceptions to this rule. Indigenous, Native Americans were very sophisticated in their system of governance prior to the coming of Europeans to the Americas. Women were highly respected and honored, and had positions of other-centered power in their tribes. Many were considered wise and sagacious elders in their families and communities. Native Americans ruled their territories, lived and died on their land and sacred places, practiced their spirituality, had families and lived life for hundreds of years, yet now many of them find themselves living in conditions that can only be likened to crowded chicken coops and what can only best be described as ‘developing world’ reservations.
European immigrants who settled in the Americas are now the ruling majority (although demographics are changing quickly) and have imposed a system of social, political and economic enrichment for their own hegemony. And what’s more, too many of us consider only people who look like us, talk like us, make money like us, believe like us, dress like us, to be the “real” Americans.
The language and thought processes of racism, particular to our American culture, are filled with what Joe Feagin calls “sincere fictions”8 These “sincere fictions” are the stereotypical notions of how non-white groups are of lower intelligence, less civilized, less hard working and not as moral as whites. Feagin writes, “Today, as in the past, the distorted white framing of society is generated and supported by more than childhood socialization. It is supported by a lifetime of moment-to-moment reinforcements within a long series of interactions in recurring and supporting social networks.” (Ibid., p. 44)
Whites view non-whites through a “white racial frame” as all humans view life through the window of their own unique perceptions and cultural models. In one of Feagin’s dialogue workshops,9 he emphasized the need to view this white racial frame from a psycho-historical vantage point. Our social conditioning and perceptual awareness of others doesn’t arrive out of thin air. It is formulated in the mix of our semantic environment, consisting of its diverse layers of biological, social, intellectual, historical, psychological, economic and spiritual factors. If one draws a time line of our national history, one finds that ninety percent of our history has consisted of slavery and legalized segregation. Clearly, white Americans have held these conditioned worldviews for a long time, thus, they are deeply embedded.
The white racial frame includes racialized emotions that are tied to cognitive stereotypes and powerful, neuro-biological images. Breaking this down, Feagin writes:
Whites typically combine racial stereotypes (the cognitive aspect), metaphors and concepts (the deeper cognitive aspect), images (the visual aspect), emotions, (feelings like fear), and inclinations (to take discriminatory actions) within a racist frame that is oriented, in substantial part, to assessing African Americans and other Americans of color in everyday situations, as well as to assessing white Americans and white institutions (Ibid., p. 27).
As long as white Americans continue to use language and thought processes which are disparate to the structure of the real world, we will perpetuate our pathogenic system. But even if one piece of a system begins to change, despite the resistance that is all too natural, the entire system can shift. One small example of this is the use of the terms “minorities” when referring to non-whites. In point of fact, non-whites are not “minorities” (in the global context), yet with a multitude of changing factors in the U.S., whites in America are becoming a smaller percentage of the demography. This means that we have to change our maps of the territory we call America, both in terms of demographics and how we wish to anglicize the systems within the communities where we live.
It appears to me that the proclivity for white domination may stem from the drive to keep ourselves on top, and not to become extinct–in other words to survive. It’s our survival mode. But this is the mode of the old, ‘hunter-gatherer brain.’ Our anxieties relate to our fear of the “others” taking over, turning the tables, and our own annihilation as an ethnic group. It used to be said that the sun never set on the British Empire, but we only have to look at a map of the world today to conclude this statement to be false. Realistically and rationally we can also conclude that the Brits gave the world some healthy contributions, but also some unhealthy ones, namely colonialization with its genocidal motivations.
I like the way that Stewart Holmes explains a way of thinking about difference as it applies to human beings10. He describes how he formulates the word “reality” to the universe and our contextual place in it. The universe, what we may call the non-verbal composites of life, he names Reality 1. The verbal part of “reality,” that which we describe and talk about (but which isn’t the reality itself), he names Reality 2. “Reality 2” exists within our limited brains, our limited senses and our limited language. It is the reality we formulate within ourselves.
Including reality in this model means that we tend to separate ourselves from the rest of life or the whole, interdependent universe. This is one of those elemental landmines cropping up in our path suggesting feelings of separation and alienation and human being’s struggle for meaningful identity and belongingness. Because we see ourselves as separate, we project that anxious isolation onto other groups and initiate one of the mechanisms of conflict, prejudice and racism. This is also a consequence of dualistic thinking, a closed system of reasoning; thus, we have placed ourselves within a circle and everyone else (who doesn’t look like us) outside the circle. We describe and assign what’s inside our circle as possessing “+s” and what’s outside “–s.”
Many schools of science, philosophy, and religion paint a canvass of an open universe; that in actuality the “world out there” is all within the circle and this is the “real” deal, what we can call the “circle of life.” At the same time all life is changing as we speak, shifting like the earth’s plates beneath our feet; all life is building up and disintegrating, conserving and dying, and all energy is being transformed into other energy in ongoing cycles. Shouldn’t we then develop a new language and a new thinking that would accommodate this universal change? Could this not help us to displace an older form of Dualism and Aristotelianism bring about a new “multivision and superodinal multiculturalism” of humanity and life?
This new way of thought needs to be congruent with WIGO, i.e., “what is going on out there?” My hunch is that it needs to be more congruent to an open-ended, fluid, changing, non-static, and diverse universe in which all forms of life are giving and taking to keep the fire of life alive, productive and respectful. A new conversation and language around the issues of racism is one way of structuring a new model for the discussion of these vital topics in our age of diversity. It’s the author’s view that it is crucial for European Americans to engage in this conversation and help to create it, as well as to repudiate the history of European American dominance and oppression in our culture.
Author’s note: this article was written and published for the journal, Etc., published by the Institute of General Semantics (www.generalsemantics.org); when the author searched online for the article, the search turned up no results; IGS moved from Fort Worth to New York City not too long ago so this may perhaps be the reason for some of the confusion and disorganization; if anyone finds a way to find the date the article was originally published, please let me know. The author’s email is: email@example.com–feedback is very much appreciated.
1 The Good Shepherd. (2006). Directed by Jeannine Oppe; distributed by Morgan
Creek Productions; actors: Angelina Jolie, Matt Damon, et al.
2 Korzybski, Alfred. Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantic. Englewood: Institute of General Semantics. 1994. Chapter 26
3 Sister Rose’s Passion. (2004). Directed by Oren Jacoby and produced by Oren Jacoby,
Petter LeDonne, Steve Kalafer; New Jersey Studios & Metropolitan Film Board and
Storyfilm Films Productions.
4 The Color of the Cross. (2006). Director and leading role by Jean-Claud La Mara; Produced by Ken Halsband, Jessie Levostic, and Cecil Murray; distributed by Twentieth Century Fox.
5 Lee, Irving. “A Mechanism of Conflict and Prejudice.” Institute of General Semantics, http://www.time-binding.org . 1941
6 Khyentse, Dzongsar Jamyang. What Makes You Not a Buddhist. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc. 2007
7 Pemberton, William H. “Conflict Resolution for Major World Religions.” ETC.: A Review of General Semantics (Summer 2000).
8 Feagin, Joe R.. Systemic Racism: a Theory of Oppression. New York: Routledge. 2006.
9 Dialogue with Joe R. Feagin.” Presented by The Center for the Healing of Racism, Houston,
Texas. October, 2006. “Dissecting Racism: Deep Roots, Systemic Realities, and WorkingSolutions.”
10 Holmes, Stewart W. “Zen and the Abstracting Process.” ETC.: A Review of General Semantics (Spring,1991): pp.70-73.
© Christopher Bear Beam Revised March 31, 2013