The Emergence of Race and Capitalism in Colonial Virginia

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American capitalism requires American racism. We can trace this country’s race-based oppression to the political economy of the colonial era. More specifically, to colonial Virginia. By the end of the 1600s, the colonial elite in Virginia had united an unruly society by instituting a racial hierarchy. The combination of private property and anti-Blackness they created became the standard for many of the colonies.

The 1622 Massacre and the Invocation of Crisis

The Virginia Company quickly realized that the best way to accumulate wealth was to rely on tobacco. The new crop was lucrative, but it was also labor-intensive and expensive to harvest. In addition to the expensive cost of labor, the Company flooded the market with tobacco. The resulting overproduction lowered profits. In order to make more money, something had to change.

An opportunity to do just this came in March of 1622 when indigenous tribes from the Powhatan Confederacy decided to launch a combined counter-attack against the ever encroaching settlers. They killed colonists, burned corn crops, and raided settlements. Over ⅓ of the colony died the day of the attack.

The Virginia Company elite used the attack and resulting devastation to clamp down on the colonists. They barred anyone from growing corn or hunting, claiming that these activities left the colonists open to attack. They ordered survivors to abandon their plots of land and relocate to a central position. Living in a centralized location would help guarantee security, they said. The Colony Council then decided that in order to grow corn you had to first have a corn-trading license. They distributed these licenses to themselves and no one else. As a result of the 1622 massacre, a group of twelve Company men were able to seize land, consolidate power, and control the flow of food.

The value of corn skyrocketed due to scarcity. And the only way to buy it was to trade tobacco. Unfortunately the price of tobacco had fallen due to overproduction. Since the value of tobacco went down, the majority of tenants (and the planters they were working for) struggled to make enough to survive.

Colonial Labor and the Transition to Chattel-Bond Servitude

Tobacco was labor-intensive and expensive to grow. In order to remain profitable, the planter elite needed to increase their margins. Since the market had been flooded with tobacco, the only way to increase profits was to decrease costs. The traditional bond laborer needed to be more cost effective.

For the majority of the 1600s, the VA colony’s workforce was made up of primarily English workers. They were referred to as bond laborers because they signed contract agreements with the Virginia Company and its stockholders before they boarded ships to the colony. The typical bond laborer expected to work as a “tenant-at-half.” This meant they agreed to work for a Company planter on Company land for half of the profits. The Company was responsible for supplying bond laborers with clothing, food, shelter, and a plot of land upon work completion (typically 4-7 years).

To reduce labor costs, the VA elite decided to change the established English conditions of bond contracts. After the change, tenants arriving at the colony often found themselves assigned to private planters on private land. Furthermore, workers were now expected to pay for their own food, shelter, and clothing. Since the price of tobacco was so low, tenants were barely able to make enough money to survive.

Rebellion and Social Control

The situation was dire. Food was scarce. Land was privatized. A steady stream of European laborers fed the environment of discontent. No longer could laborers expect to hold public office or find workable and ownable land for themselves. Members of the colony’s workforce began expressing their anger in a variety of ways. Some ran away to indigenous tribes. Others linked up with African slaves and burned tobacco crops to protest over-production.

The various rebellions culminated in Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676. Freemen, slaves, and bond laborers banded together to resist. The plantocracy was terrified. The threat of a united labor force pushing back against the plantation system was immediate. They needed to divide the laborers. They did this by creating a system that allowed one group (poor Europeans) to control the other (African slaves). But in order to make this a viable solution, the planters needed access to cheap labor. They needed someone for this new class of landless Europeans to manage.

In the 1680s, the English gained access to a steady supply of African slave labor by way of a treaty with the Dutch. The unfettered access to African labor was counterbalanced by a marked decrease in the availability of European labor. King Charles II made it harder for the Virginia Company to recruit poor European workers. Colonies in the Carolinas and Pennsylvania opened up, creating a place for poor Europeans to move to. The price of tobacco began to rise, improving the lives of planters and their mostly European tenants.

Prior to the early 1680s, most African slaves came to the Virginia Colony by way of Barbados. African slaves who labored in Barbados were often able to learn some English. This wasn’t an option for the new slaves abducted directly from the African coast. They struggled to acclimate and learn English. They were unable to communicate, plan, and find common cause with poor Europeans workers, leaving the new slaves alienated and alone.

In addition to these larger changes, a newly constituted Virginia Assembly instituted a series of legislative moves to place Africans in a state of permanent chattel servitude. Normally, under English common law, the status of a child drew from the status of the father. The Assembly flipped it so that a child’s status was now linked to the mother. This allowed European planters to increase their supply of hereditary chattel labor by raping their female slaves. Additionally, new antimiscegenation laws meant any European woman who married someone of African descent became property of her husband’s owner.

A Community of Privilege

The Virginia and Maryland colonial assemblies used the law to create a community of privilege bound up in skin color and status. Non-Europeans were unable to vote, own property, testify against Europeans in court, and buy/own anything resembling a weapon. On the other side, European slaves were given “freedom dues,” corn, weapons, and other living essentials. Poor whites were often placed in positions of authority over African slaves. This is because the community of privilege is contrapuntal in nature. Every European privilege is built upon the denial of freedom to Africans.

Those in power needed to create a new class that was so attractive that poor Europeans would see themselves as similar to the English elite. This is the origin of the white race, a legal category that begins showing up in official documents around the 1670s and 80s. The lack of historical precedent over a distinctly white race and the visibly distinct difference in pigment made whiteness a perfect way to maintain social control.

This is the origin of anti-Blackness, capitalism, and white privilege in the U.S.

 

Works consulted for this post:

Birth of a White Nation by Jacqueline Battalora

The Invention of the White Race v.1 and 2 by Theodore Allen

Settlers by J. Sakai

A Changing Labor Force and Race Relations in Virginia 1660-1710 by T. H. Breen

Colonists in Bondage, White Servitude and Convict Labor in America 1607-1776 by Abbot Emerson Smith

 

Image credit:

The Plantation” by

Licensed under CC0 1.0

Original source via Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Temporary Hiatus

I won’t be writing any blog posts for a little while. I’m currently eyeballs deep in educating myself about critical race theory, oppression, education, and the fight for liberation. Until my brain tells me it’s ready, I’ll be keeping my reading, writing, listening, and speaking out of the public sphere. Thanks for keeping up with my posts; I’ll be back.

Waking Up To Whiteness: My Journey Into Race

A small local group of parents, community members, and educators recently invited me to give a presentation on my racial journey. This is what I prepared.

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Waking Up To Whiteness: My Journey Into Race

How’s the Water?

“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’”David Foster Wallace

For those of living in North America, the water surrounding us is made up of racism, structural inequality, and white supremacy. Although these currents affect different people in different ways, they affect everyone. Tonight, I’m going to speak on my journey to recognize the water around me. Before I start, I would like to thank you all for letting me tell my story tonight. My racial journey is unremarkable, but I hope it will resonate with white folks in the room who are looking to get into this work themselves.

An Unremarkable Upbringing of Privilege

I’ve benefited from my family’s status as white since birth. Both of my parents hold advanced degrees and were able to use their comfortable salaries to keep me fed, clothed, and educated. I’ve never had to worry about where my next meal would come from or whether or not I’d be able to afford college. This isn’t to say that everything was always perfect. Like so many others, my family has struggled with depression, substance abuse, and trauma. But unlike others, our whiteness and privilege helped guarantee us access to quality medical care, financial assistance, and whatever else we needed to keep the scales tipped in our favor.

Like the majority of my friends, I grew up in a primarily white neighborhood. The teachers and students at the schools I attended were also predominantly white. This never bothered me, as the inability to understand segregation as a loss is a hallmark of whiteness. The fact that I could live a purely white existence without ever thinking about what was missing speaks to the profound anti-blackness that flourishes in America.

Politically, my upbringing reflected a slightly more progressive brand of suburban liberalism. My parents openly supported democratic candidates, believed in a woman’s right to choose, and disagreed with the wars in the Middle East. They supported affirmative action and interracial relationships. I can’t ever remember my family having extended conversations about race, oppression, or inequality. I do remember that my parents regularly hired an African American man named James to help out with yard work. My father told me that James struggled to get a consistent job because he wasn’t able to drive. When I asked why he couldn’t drive, my dad told me that James had been unfairly targeted by unjust laws. The fact that I remember the conversation nearly thirty years later speaks to the impact it had on me.

Race was almost never mentioned during my childhood. If you had asked me about racism, I probably would have answered that it was bad but not a problem where I lived. I was already being socialized into a post-Civil Rights culture where racism meant saying the “n” word. My friends and I never did that (at least not in public), so how could we be racist? I wouldn’t have been able to talk about my racial identity because I didn’t think I had one. Race was something Black people had. White was the universal norm.

Early Memories of Race

Race didn’t pop up on my radar until I started sixth grade. All throughout elementary school, Jeremiah was one of my friends. Jeremiah was African American. He, three other boys, and I were inseparable at school. We cracked jokes together, looked up dirty words in the dictionary, etc. We were excited to enter middle school together. But after the first week of 6th grade, I realized that Jeremiah wasn’t hanging out with us anymore. He had been spending his time with a group of African American kids. I remember being a little upset, but the segregation felt natural. 5th grade ended up being the last time the two of us ever spoke.

After Jeremiah, the OJ Simpson trial is my next memory of race. The verdict was announced during my 7th grade English class. Every teacher in the school had turned on their televisions to hear the verdict. When the jury announced the decision, African American kids and teachers burst out of the classrooms and celebrated in the hallway. I remember looking on with irritation and a weird sense of smugness. Reflecting back on it now, I had already internalized the us/them, white/Black binaries that are essential to how Americans think about race. This was their victory and their celebration.

In high school my friends and I would drive around Arlington. Our late night wandering would often take us through Hall’s Hill, an historical enclave settled by newly freed slaves. Everyone I knew referred to Hall’s Hill as “the rat raps.” This is obviously disgusting. It equates people of color with vermin that need to be exterminated. We also frequently referred to each other as “diorgen”s, which is negroid spelled backwards. During college and grad school, I took classes on race, class, and gender. I studied categories of difference, colonialism, and patriarchy. But I was never asked to confront my whiteness. Privilege and oppression remained abstract concepts to study in the classroom, not to apply to my own life.

The Era of Safety Pin Box

I’ve always considered myself a “progressive.” Up until this year that meant denouncing individual acts of racism, vocally supporting affirmative action, and being aware of chattel slavery’s legacy. I hung my head for Michael Brown and the other people of color regularly murdered by police. But it all felt far away. Black death and racism were background static I could keep on mute.

And then the 2016 Presidential election began. News outlets started reporting increases in hate crimes against Muslims and other minoritized groups. The cultural climate shifted. In response, white folks started wearing safety pins as a sign of allyship. The initiative was started by white women and immediately co-opted through Etsy and other online boutiques. I even wore a safety pin to work one day. And then I saw a few posts on social media about something called Safety Pin Box. The posts all carried an infographic comparing wearing a safety pin with subscribing to SPB. It’s a monthly subscription service for white folks who want to do something about oppression. The money you spend goes directly to Black women. Every month the SPB team (all Black women) sends out tasks for the subscribers. Last month we researched the intersections of reproductive justice and the African American community.

Emboldened by my experiences with SPB, I decided to dip my toe into the waters of social justice. So in March I approached a colleague about designing and implementing a unit on identity and race for my 7th grade English classes. He helped me gather resources and agreed to lead the class through some activities. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I felt that I had to do something. The fact that reading a few articles was all I needed to feel comfortable teaching a unit on such complex and divisive topics speaks to my sense of privilege. I just assumed I could do it and that it would go well. At the end of the year, students told me how much they had enjoyed the last unit. I went into summer feeling like a bonafide social justice warrior.

And then the alt-right marched in Charlottesville. I watched the continuous loop of angry white men with torches in a state of shock. How could this happen in 2017? I kept asking myself. I turned to Facebook to voice my outrage. Luckily, Safety Pin Box members were there to call me out. Where was I for Trayvon Martin? Tamir Rice? Michael Brown? And where would I be in another two weeks when the news cycle moved on to something else? For some reason, it all started to click. I was determined to make Charlottesville the moment when I reoriented my life towards racial justice. And nothing has been the same ever since.

You Must Be Fun at Parties

After Charlottesville, I began investigating my whiteness. This meant, and continues to mean, exploring the innumerable ways in which white privilege affects my life. For someone like me who tops nearly every social category, privilege informs everything I do. And as whiteness scholars have explained, those with the most privilege know the least. This is because whiteness is the norm, the default by which all other bodies and perspectives are measured against. Because of my white privilege, I’ve never had to grapple with issues of race. I don’t have to learn how to navigate spaces because every space I inhabit has been shaped by people like me for people like me.  

White folks struggle to have informed discussions about race because we’ve never had to. For the most part, we live, work, and enter into relationships with other white people. We feel entitled to extreme racial comfort at all times. White folks’ inability to handle racial discomfort is termed white fragility. We have been able to completely insulate ourselves from race-based stress. As a result, whenever race comes up, we become frustrated, upset, confused. When pressed, we can become outright incoherent, stammering, stumbling over our words and speaking in circles. In an attempt to combat this, I try to dedicate time every week to study race, whiteness, and critical race theory. Like with most topics, the more I learn, the more I understand just how little I know.

My journey has come with a fair amount of personal, professional, and familial stress. Waking up to whiteness means finding myself at odds with almost everything around me. School curriculum, the police, generational wealth, who lives where, who is in power. It means forcing myself to see white supremacy in everything. I’ve strained my closest friendships. My friends on social media have turned away from me, no longer engaging with or commenting on anything I post. I don’t blame them. I’ve bugged them to pay reparations, to get behind Black women, and to denounce white supremacy. I’ve even slipped photocopies of essays about racism and white privilege underneath the doors of white people I know who live in my building. If I don’t do these things, then I feel the narcotizing sleep of white supremacy creep back in.

For a long time I believed that I had the choice to either perpetuate white supremacy or fight it. Racism doesn’t function at the level of the individual, however; it’s structural. This means that as a white person I have essentially no choice but to perpetuate racism and white supremacy. This can be tough to swallow. So many of us have grown up thinking that we’re not racist. That as long as we keep the “n” word out of our speech and value diversity, we’re in the clear. But now I know that’s not the case. There is almost no way I can detach myself from systems of racial dominance.

But I can educate myself. I’ve learned about the origins of whiteness in colonialism. How our founding fathers used pseudo-science to claim African Americans were biologically inferior in order to reconcile the reality of slavery with the rhetoric of equality. I know that Bacon’s Rebellion drove colonial elites to grant special privileges and status to poor whites, creating America’s first racial caste system. And perhaps most importantly, I now understand that race isn’t an identity; it’s a status conferred upon you by society. Whiteness is property, it’s citizenship, it’s a way to maintain privilege for some at the expense of others. It is a destructive and toxic club that must be abolished.

Life is a work in progress, and this is where I am now. Learning about whiteness so I can denounce it. Learning from and following Black women/femme in the pursuit of liberation. Constantly making mistakes, having my white feelings hurt, and then coming back for more. Thank you.

Trying To Make It Fit: Nine Weeks In The System

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For the last few years, I’ve been one of those “I just close my door and teach what I want” teachers. I’ve outright rejected the pedagogical norms of my school to pursue my own path. I’ve refused to create common assessments. My hermitude became a badge of honor. I saw myself as an outsider fighting the good fight.

It wasn’t until I began working on an essay with Julie Gorlewski that I realized the fundamental error in my thinking. The essay explored the dual roles of teachers: we are both and always agents of the state and agents of change. Closing my classroom door to the world granted me autonomy, but it alienated me and hampered my ability to work with others. I had turned my back on my colleagues and on my community.

So when this school year started, I decided to try and work within the system. This has meant a slew of changes. Some of the switches were small. For instance, I now begin every class by leading students through an “I can” learning outcome. Although I agree with Joe Bower and Jesse Stommel that fixed outcomes cut off authentic inquiry, my administration expects them. Other shifts have been more dramatic. For the first time in years, I’m now teaching what I’m officially supposed to be teaching. I even signed up to be part of a curriculum writing team. What better way to have the social justice and anti-racist curriculum I craved?

The process has not progressed as I thought it would. Faced with more academic standards than could possibly be taught with any level of depth, I’ve struggled with making social justice a priority. Our next unit is 3-4 weeks long. In it we’re supposed to teach students to use context clues; identify prefixes, suffixes, and roots; distinguish between fact and opinion; analyze persuasive techniques in media; identify organizational patterns; make inferences and draw conclusions; identify the main idea; and use text features to skim a text. This is on top of the general English Language Arts stuff of developing a love of literacy and reading and writing authentically.

It’s certainly possible to pursue these outcomes in a way that helps students read both the word and the world, but it takes a committed effort. It has to be the thing, not something extra. Butting heads with my colleagues has given me ample opportunity to reflect on Robin DiAngelo and Ozlem Sensoy’s reminder that “Because dominant institutions in society are positioned as being neutral, challenging social injustice within them seems to be an extra task in addition to our actual tasks” (141).

Making the cognitive and perceptual leap from “we have to cover these standards” to “who benefits from these standards, who loses out, and how can we prepare for democratic citizenry?” is as difficult as it is essential. But until everyone in the room acknowledges the inherently political nature of teaching and learning, ‘finding room’ for social justice and anti-racism is all but impossible.

The way we discuss and envision critical thinking and democracy must also change. In my experience, schools tend to define critical thinking as the process of identifying problems and inventing solutions. This frames students as capitalists and problem solving as opportunities for entrepreneurship. In a social justice context however, critical thinking refers to “a specific scholarly approach that explores the historical, cultural, and ideological lines of authority that underlie social conditions” (1).

And when it comes to democracy, mainstream education casts schools as instruments to educate for democracy. Schools produce democratic citizens by informing students about history, the importance of peaceful protest, and the power of voting. In contrast to this, Gert Biesta discusses education through democracy. A continuous process of learning to value and exist alongside those who are fundamentally not like us (120). Schools can support society in this work, but they cannot create, sustain, or save democracy. And what this would even look like in a public school classroom, I have no clue.

Back inside the classroom, I’ve had a much easier time implementing aspects of culturally responsive/culturally proactive teaching. My students use a variety of discussion and response protocols, combine their out-of-school interests with traditional academic skills, and build knowledge through collaboration and discussion. But most of this gets at the how, leaving the what largely intact. And the what is what I’m interested in changing.

I don’t know how to reorient my classroom around social justice and anti-racist pedagogy, yet. For now, I’ll continue teaching the official units, working with the curriculum team, and looking for ways to exist in that interstitial zone between thesis and antithesis, as an agent of the state and an agent of change.

 

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Photo by Hans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash

Writing Alongside My Students

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Jorge jiggled his knee as I read over his story, his anxiety palpable. “It’s just… I mean… I know there’s a lot,” he said as he raked his hand through his spiky hair for the third time in as many minutes. He was right. By the end of the first page I counted at least eight characters and four drastically different settings. For feedback, I told him two things. First, that as a reader I was having a hard time figuring out who to focus on. Then I told him to listen as I read his story back to him. Which part of his story excited him the most? He zeroed in on a character (Tommy and his magical Book of the Dead) and left the conference with a more manageable scope to his story.

The rest of last week’s story conferences proceeded along similar routes. Sometimes the feedback was easy: insert a piece of dialogue that foreshadows the character’s conflict. Other times, it wasn’t. Helping writers nurture their strengths is a complex constellation of skills that I will probably never master. Anytime I felt stymied, I reached for Angela Stockman‘s fantastic Talking with Writers 2018Talking with Writers devotes a section to responding to common problems in student writing. The strategy I used with Jorge came from Stockman’s work.

The ease with which I was able to apply this type of “See X? Try Y!” logic to student writing took me by surprise. As a committed member of the Northern Virginia Writing Project, I’ve always advocated for the power of writing alongside my students. And, following the work of Paul Thomas, I’ve also labored to try and become a scholar of writing. I’ve pursued composition pedagogy and history, written blog posts, and lead in-service trainings about the importance of knowing your theory.

However it wasn’t my understanding of composition or my status as a writer that helped me help my students. At least, I don’t think it was. Framed by schooling’s twin ideologies of efficiency and outcomes, every conference was compact and results oriented. Here’s what I see; here’s where you need to go; here’s a strategy to get you there. Does being a teacher of writing who writes provide any sort of advantage in this situation? Is this even the question to ask?

Normally, if my students are writing, so am I. It’s become an important part of my practice. It reminds me that writing exists outside of high-stakes accountability and the testing trap. It shows me that writing cannot be contained by formulaic essay constructions or meaningless assignments. But this method of instruction takes time, a teacher’s most valued currency. Every minute I spend writing alongside students is a minute I don’t have to confer with them.

During this last realistic fiction unit I chose not to write with them. I went with the more common alternative: work on something at home and bring it in as an example. I had more time to meet with my students, but I also felt disconnected, like a detached head floating above my students.

The debate over how best to spend class time isn’t new. In 1990, Karen Jost set off a firestorm within the secondary Language Arts community by arguing that the cost of writing with students outweigh the benefits. Students are best served by a teacher who meets with them and provides feedback, not by a teacher who labors over their own manuscripts. Jost lists the dizzying array of duties administrators and families expect of secondary teachers. With this list in mind, it is hard to imagine how teachers can confer with students, give daily instruction, provide written feedback, attend school functions, etc. and still find the time to sit down and write.

Ideally, we would do both. We would workshop their pieces with our students, in the process modelling authentic purposes, purposeful revision, and the writing life. As we did this, we would confer with students and do our best to guide them through the infinite complexity of composition. But there is not enough time to do both.

There is no answer. Or if there is, I don’t know it. But I do know that what we do shows what we value. The pedagogies we enact are inextricably linked to who we are as teachers, writers, and professionals. We make sure to share our reading lives with students. We give book talks, do read alouds, and converse with our kids about the books that matter to us. Can we say the same about our lives as writers?

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-Image credit: CC0 Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

White Supremacy and Learning to Reread the World

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Dominant groups have the most narrow or limited view of society because they do not have to understand the experiences of the minoritized group in order to survive; because they control the institutions, they have the means to legitimize their view. (DiAngelo and Sensoy, 48).

White supremacy is blinding. It obfuscates our perception of the world, distorting some truths while burying others. The funds of knowledge I’ve attained over thirty-six years represent only a tiny sliver of what’s out there. Only now am I coming to grips with just how little I know. 

I’ve always associated myself with perfectionism. I’ve written about it, read countless self-help books on the topic, and attended out-patient support groups for it. As a result, I’ve bought into the standard explanation that perfectionism stems from an unbalanced combination of nature, nurture, and external factors. I attacked it with therapy and medication. I took my failure to “get rid of it” as just more evidence that I had it. And then I came across White Supremacy Culture by activist, educator, and author Tema Okun  

In the article, Okun discusses the various ways white supremacy influences individual personality traits by favoring certain ways of thinking, knowing, and being in the world. The article explores fifteen personality traits including perfectionism, a sense of urgency, defensiveness, quantity over quality, paternalism, individualism, and objectivity.

Okun explains that these characteristics are damaging because “they are used as norms and standards without being proactively named or chosen by the group.” She explains how these norms and unexamined traits damage everyone. Certain traits on the list such as individualism, fear of open conflict, and objectivity have all made appearances in various books and essays I’ve read. But I’ve never seen anything that positions perfectionism as an outgrowth of white supremacy culture.

Perfectionism is only one example of my recent unlearning. Every few days seems to bring some new revelation that causes me to reread the world. Consider the recent shooting in Las Vegas. In the past, I’ve responded to similar white-on-white terrorism by calling for stronger gun reform and excoriating the gun lobbies. And then I read this Twitter thread from @Queersocialism. That led me to look into the relationship between the Black Panther Party and modern gun laws. I’ve existed on this planet for three decades without being exposed to this perspective on gun violence and gun control. 

My understanding of reproductive rights is another example of how white supremacy breeds ignorance. Growing up in a staunchly pro-choice household, I’ve always considered myself to be informed on the topic of abortion. And then I began researching reproductive justice and Black women for this month’s Safety Pin Box assignments.  What I’ve learned about eugenics, the history of violence against pregnant Black women, and women of color’s contribution to family planning does more than offer “another side” to consider. It demolishes everything I took to be true about how the world works. It forces me to see what I’ve been allowed to ignore. 

Turning back to perfectionism, when I posted the article on social media, a number of my white colleagues voiced their disagreement. They said that the traits discussed in the article are just that, individual traits. Aspects of someone’s personality uncoupled from larger social and historical factors. Where the article saw ideology, they saw a sort of agnostic and deracinated individualism.

Understanding perfectionism as a component of white supremacy asks many of us to take a theoretical leap of faith. We can’t connect the dots until we’re willing to reconsider everything about the way we’ve been socialized to see the world. For many of us, we’ve come to understand white supremacy as something that happens when bad white people do things like march with torches on Charlottesville. But this limited understanding of white supremacy as local and individual acts of explicit racism misses the point.  It lives everywhere and it informs everything. A metanarrative of systematic oppression that’s been able to render itself all but invisible to so many of us white folks.

In Darren Aronofsky’s 1998 film Pi, a tortured mathematician struggles to reconcile genius, the divine, and numbers. Towards the end of the film he comments that “If we’re built from spirals, while living in a giant spiral, then everything we put our hands to is infused with the spiral.” This strikes me as an apt description of white supremacy culture. We were born into it. We live within it. And without relentless and careful introspection, everything we do perpetuates it.

 

-Image credit: CC0