January 15, 2007

White Privilege Through Lenses Red & Black

This blog entry is my response to Nelson Hawkins' General Call, issued last week over at Pottawatomie Creek, for bloggers to take the occasion of the Martin Luther King holiday to "Blog Against White Supremacy." I was thrilled.

For one thing, I've been doing some of that myself, in part to promote a splendid new book: The Cost of Privilege: Taking on the System of White Supremacy and Racism is due out by the end of this month. There's a rudimentary website here which will, I understand, be bulking up with an order form and much cool content in days to come. I'd advise bookmarking it.

For another, some of those who've pledged to blog are new to me, tweaking my curiosity, and some, like the one-woman wrecking squad of white supremacy, Yolanda Carrington over at The Primary Contradiction, are guaranteed to have some intriguing insights to offer. Collect 'em all! (Centrally linked at Nelson's site, I assume).

Now to cases. This is going to be an explicitly Red entry. I am going to excerpt, with only minor commentary, what I consider the most important section of veteran US communist Nelson Peery's autobiographical Black Fire. It's short but very rich.

Let me set the stage. Peery is a GI in a segregated unit, occupying the Philippines after the defeat of Japan in 1945. He is contacted by a couple of white CP members who urge him to help get the Black troops into building the "Home by Christmas" movement, a campaign which will thwart the drive by US capital to start a war with the socialist USSR.

I could feel the surge of adrenaline and the hackles began to rise. White folk look out of their blue eyes at the world and they see only a reflection of themselves. They don't see that there is a white army and there is a black army and they are equal only on payday.
The whites, in the military as in civilian life, would ask us to unite with them on issues that concerned them a lot and us a little. They would never unite on issues that concerned us a lot and them a little.
Peery has just spent chapters detailing racist violence and other outrages perpetrated against the Black troops by both the white brass and Klan types in the ranks, as well as the omnipresence of G-2 Army intelligence snooping around for unrest in Black units.
Yes, we wanted desperately to go home. But the men could not be convinced that the way home lay through mutiny.
And here the importance of the long memory of the African American community, that most valuable of survival mechanisms, is subtly shown. Peery refers to lessons learned from a mutiny thirty years before as the US finished a decade and a half of combat to consolidate its occupation of the Philippines.
The last Black regiment to try that in the Philippines spent the next twenty years cleaning white soldiers' toilets at Fort Benning. The white soldiers were glad they didn't have to work the "sugar run" and most of them figured it proper that blacks clean their toilets anyway.
Now, having laid out the contradiction in the starkest terms, Peery brings it back to the human level.
The white communists I had known were dedicated to the struggle against discrimination. The problem was, they seemed to think we would become equal if they individually treated us as equals. They had to get the sheriffs and the generals to do that too. Instead, they constantly preached to the believers. We were too sophisticated to go for that.

Now it was my turn to size up my comrades and get my thoughts together. How can you tell a person he is being strangled by an evil he is too decent to see? It was sad and frustrating and insurmountable.
And here, to thump the editorial lectern briefly, is the enormous value of the development of white privilege theory. It gives the "decent" white folks a set of lenses ("They Live"!) with which they can see--and try to figure out how to deal with--the contents of Peggy McKintosh's "invisible knapsack."

But the true kicker in this short section of Black Fire (pages 296-298) is yet to come. Peery (who has hooked up with the red-led guerillas of the Hukbalahap and is giving them aid) finishes his risky meeting with the two.
Watching them walk back through the company area, I felt more than understood something new. For the first time I got a muddled and disturbing sense that the merger of antifascism with communism had produced two kinds of Communists. Communists had led the fight against fascism in Europe. The anti-Fascist war was the practical side of the European and American Communist movement. In the euphoria of victory they were emerging as the social vanguard of their nations.

In Mindanao, in Alabama, in Rhodesia and Brazil and Shanghai and Calcutta, the war had just begun. Freedom, national freedom, the self-determination of nations, the unity of the colored colonial peoples--this was the new war. The tactic of one brand of communism was the struggle for peace. for the other, the task was preparing for war.

Too schematic? 20/20 hindsight? A big leap from white privilege in an Army camp to a global perspective? No doubt, no doubt. But these insights have flavored my thinking since I first read them when comrade Nelson Peery's book came out over a decade ago. I hope you find them as intriguing as I do.


haisanlu said...

I read some of Nelson Peery 30 years ago your post has reminded me about him.


Anonymous said...

Jimmy, this is a very interesting excerpt, and since (I must admit) I've never heard of the book, I'll have to track down a copy and read more.

A lot of what Peery is writing about here sounds all too familiar to experiences that I've been party to. One group tries to push well-intentioned campaigns onto the agenda of other groups without any real understanding of the history or priorities of those groups. Privilege (usually racial) stands at the center of the attempted coordination, rather than active solidarity. (Sad to say, it's as part of the pusher groups that I've participated in this.)

So as much as progress may have been made thanks to white privilege theory, I think there's a lot of potential power that remains undeveloped because learning and using that theory isn't taken up as a central task by the people who ought to do just that.

The idea about the two kinds of communism is very interesting, and will probably keep me scratching my head for a while.

By the way, the link to the "Cost of Privilege" site seems to be broken.