By Tom Motko
I wake up each morning to wrestle with the Beast. The Beast lives inside me and refuses to die. I’ve managed to weaken and sedate the Beast over the almost 65 years of my life, but the Beast never dies. Whenever I think the Beast dead, a claw pierces my heart and I know the Beast still lives. For many years, I fooled myself, I was smug, I bragged about it: I thought I’d killed the Beast. But, no, the Beast is a malevolent phoenix, always rising again from its own ashes mingled with those of the people it’s ravaged.
I wake up each morning to wrestle with the Beast. I thought the Beast was just a plain old bird. But, the Beast is a murderous crow and it caws and claws its way into the craw of my consciousness. Every Beast needs a name. Let’s call this one Jim Crow. Jim’s a fiery crow that rises back up each time we think we’ve killed him. Most crows are fine, intelligent birds, but Jim has drunk too much of blood; Jim has become pure evil and has nested up in each of our souls, whether we want to acknowledge him or not. Jim’s a slippery old son of a bird.
I wake up each morning to wrestle with the Beast. And, when the whistle blows, I wonder what we are to do…because this Beast will not die, not for me, not for you, not for anyone. We try to send it back to from where it came. Our problem, though, is that it came from right here, where you read, where I write. It’s as if the Beast’s chromosomes were mixed into the slurry of semen and ova before we were conceived. It seems unslayable. It’s a Goliath and I’m a David ever facing him on a plain where there are no stones for my sling. It hovers over everything we do, flapping its shrouding wings, drizzling the blood of centuries from its crooked beak, echoing the screams of the brutalized, raped, and lynched which our suspect brains somehow translate into if only those people would be more like us. And, it’s the Beast, that constant demonic, supremacist whisperer, who keeps repeating “them” and “us” until we can no longer hear the truth that we are all us. Its hypnotic, never-silent hum in our ear keeps schooling us over and over that “we” are better than “they”, that “they” are their own problem as well as “ours” (in the sense that “we” have to deal with the mess “they” make for “us”), that “they” are this or “they” are that and always Other than “we”.
A Little History
The American (by “American” in this piece, I mean North American and, most specifically, those who have been enculturated into the social milieu of the United States) context with race is the evil sorcery tainting each of our consciousnesses and too few of our consciences. It devastates anyone who can’t pass for “white”, or as a well-behaved “non-white”, or who’s “white” but affiliates with the racist target du jour. That some people are able to adapt to this devastation and function reasonably well in the greater society does not diminish the devastation; their “success” is in spite of or, in other words, if they get lucky. I call it sorcery because most of us, regardless of our skin colors, don’t want it, never asked for it, don’t know from where it came, would love to get rid of it but can’t, but it keeps rising up like an acid bile even when we think we’ve been absolved. If it’s not sorcery, it must be a curse earned by our ancestors and left for us to figure out; this curse, apparently, lasts longer than seven generations. It seems as if it came from somewhere else, somewhere outside of our selves, implanted by an evil alien force. We are both victim and victimizer with our constant conscious and unconscious measuring of skin tones as if they should mean more than mere color when it comes to one’s rights and privileges in society. We are all victims/victimizers in this damning of cultures that differ from the one we were handed to adore, as if from a deity, at birth.
I can’t honestly argue that this race-biased world view is exclusively American, but, as American capitalists often have pointed out, “we” (they mean “white people” but seldom say so) came to this brave new world and set about “improving” everything (gently slipping past mass murder of the natives while waving the tattered pages of Deuteronomy – our free pass for genocide). It was in what became the United States that racism was strengthened, refined, and “improved” into the Beast with which we will be wrestling for generations to come.
Consider this: My people are of Hungarian-Slovak origin and immigrated to the United States in the late 19th Century during the great migration of Slavs to the New World where, they imagined, the streets were paved with gold. They were Catholic Slovaks from what was then Upper Hungary who settled on a farm, now long gone, southwest of Cleveland, Ohio; the sons went to the steel mills in the city as the 20th Century rolled in like pig iron out of a blast furnace. This was life for Slavs all over Ohio, Pennsylvania, Illinois, etc. The men worked themselves to death as they drank themselves numb while the women, also headed to an early grave, birthed themselves to death and raised more fodder for the machine. One of those women was my grandmother.
It’s largely forgotten that we Slavs were not considered “white” at first. We were Bohunks and Pollacks, Catholic, poor, dirty, criminal, illiterate, street urchins, couldn’t speak correct English, and often darker-skinned than the Anglo-Protestant masters of industry and capital. By the time we got here, the embedded racist system, borne out of the Deep South slavery system, had allowed the offspring of Irish immigrants to become white (they weren’t considered “white” at first either) and they, naturally wanting to preserve their seat at the feast of crumbs, targeted Bohunks, helped keep us under the boot, beat us, jailed us, sometimes shot us down like the dogs their masters told them we were, and never answered for it. That they shared our religion didn’t seem to matter: They went to Holy Name; we went to St. Ladislas. The racist system trumps religious faith. We kept to ourselves and took care of each other as we struggled to become white (not that we actually knew then that was what we were doing). In the city, many Slovaks gravitated to the Buckeye Road area, then an ethnic working-class district a little south of the Hough (the Hough would become the African-American ghetto). And, it didn’t happen that way only in Cleveland.
My grandfather never seemed to recover from this (has anyone?). Although after World War I, Slavs (that is, Slovaks, Poles, Bohemians, Slovenes, Hungarians, et al.) were allowed to become white through the marketplace magic of the powers that were (and still are), whiteness was for them a privilege held onto as tightly as a winning numbers slip from a Mayfield Road bookie.
Grandpa worked his way out to the then suburb of Maple Heights where I spent a chunk of my childhood, but he had a lifelong (a life made incredibly short by the poison of the steel mills and alcohol) virulent, deadly, ugly hatred of the people we now call African-Americans. Now, as far as I know, no black person ever did him injury or discourtesy, so, one has to wonder what the source of his vitriol was. A cursory look at history may help us: As the descendants of kidnapped and brutalized Africans increased their migration out of the fire of the Deep South and into the cauldron of Yankee-style ghetto racism, it became the usually unspoken and seemingly permanent truth that there was an easily identifiable group of other than white people to stand upon as we newly christened whites reached for the sacramental gold. We were taught, often subliminally, that if we didn’t keep them down, they’d take what little we had – as if basic human rights are a consumable substance with only enough to sustain some of us.
Thus, the great con of American oligarchic capitalism became increasingly operative: Keep working class and poor people busy competing against each other for apparently limited resources so that the People (most of us) could never gather enough power of solidarity to bring an end to the enduring, painful reign of the (usually) white oligarchs of America. Color has almost always worked (especially when expanded to include other than black “non-whites”); but, when it hasn’t worked, isn’t there always another way to make the People distrust each other and splinter into noisy but ineffective sub-groups while those in power laugh lavishly?
Part of an oppressed mass with an education acquired by happenstance and bruised knuckles, my grandfather, like many other oppressed working “white” people, protected his hard-won “whiteness” by doing what he could to keep people under him who would absorb the brutality of the dominant caste/class instead of him. The people to be kept down were black people (or, depending on where one lived, it might be Native Americans, Latinos, or Asians). To be fair to Grandpa, he never thought of it this way in his brief 60 years; to him black people were simply poor, dirty, criminal, illiterate, street urchins, wouldn’t speak English like him, darker-skinned than swarthy Bohunks, and, very important, niggers. That’s as far as his education took him: He felt the crosshairs leave his neck and did what he could to keep it that way. Thus, through him and many other victims of capitalism, racism industrialized and settled in as that dim Beast within us all.
I tell this story not to shine an apple on my shirt and say “what a good little white boy am I” compared to those other white people. No. I’m about as pink as one can be and I’ve been born and raised and indoctrinated and propagandized in the same racist system as every other U.S.-born American regardless of one’s perceived race. It’s inescapable and it injures us all, no matter with which race we identify or are identified. The likelihood of injury to one’s soul and its seemingly race-based variances can be argued by the experts in soul, but, I believe our racist system of social control visits spiritual/psychological injury upon us all.
However, as Bertolt Brecht, the great German poet and playwright said, “Grub first; ethics later.” While the injuries to one’s soul (and America’s collective soul) are vicious and real, the likelihood of injury to one’s material being is clearer and more immediate, whether through nearly insurmountable imposed poverty; or, because of the systematic destruction of solidarity beginning at the family level; or, all too likely, the actual implied intent of all these lesser injuries: Death. And, by “death,” we should infer genocide. The intensity and frequency of these material outrages seem to increase with the perceived darkness of one’s skin. One could very well argue that what has come to be called white privilege is not the acquisition of rights/privileges that non-whites can’t acquire; rather white privilege might be the absence from one’s own life of the systematic, institutionalized, internalized outrages and the fear of those outrages visited upon others for no reason other than their color.
The American racist system was developed, institutionalized, and implemented (whether through conscious intent or otherwise) by those people who still hold ultimate power in the economy and politics of the American nation-state, and it’s by no means as simple as black/white or any of the other racial dualisms with which we wrestle. Outside the Deep South, where it has been almost always people of African descent under the whip and gun, the ruling-class scam to scapegoat a group of people who can be easily identified by their physical attributes or life circumstance continues unabated, keeping us fighting one another rather than the oligarchs who call the tune. Those who are not of the scapegoated castes (whether the caste of African-Americans, LGBT people, the poor, workers, women, native peoples, et al.), but who speak up against abuse are treated much the same as the scapegoats themselves.
This set-up acts as a mechanism of social control in order to maximize profit and social/political power for a tiny elite. That’s why the oligarchs who were then the plantation bourgeoisie invented the “white race” in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Later, when our so-called democratic republic was founded, based in large a part on this politically and monetarily profitable dis-equality, the racist system was embellished and nuanced and changed in order to continue to divide and conquer working class people of all colors; the resulting division is embedded deep in our collective psyche wrapped around our fears of the Other. Thus, we’ve gone on internalizing and externalizing the oppressor, and turning our energies against one another rather than against our common enemies.
What Can European-American Do
There have been a lot of bytes out there recently about what “white people” should do to help bring an end to our insidious personal and systematized racism towards African-Americans (and Latinos and Asians and Muslims and anybody else the people in power can find to kick around and make the rest of us fear). I have some thoughts of my own. They’re not my only thoughts and tomorrow, after I’ve wrestled with the Beast again, I might very well have others. These are merely my thoughts for today about what those of us who have been permitted to achieve “whiteness” in this sick, sick racist culture might do to bust open this shell game.
I suggest that we all, regardless of how we identify racially, have the racist Beast inside us sucking our souls like a carcinogenic parasite. It’s different from where one stands and from inside which skin color one lives on the racist, tilted, twisted turf of America – but everyone who stays here has internalized racism in some way and it keeps telling us that either we’re better than others or that we’re not good enough – both due to the irrelevancy of our skin color or ethnic heritage. As true as this is, we need to remember that mainly people who are identified as “white” reap most of the crumbs the oligarchs drop.
Keep in mind there are no white people in America who are not racists. Not you. Not me. Not anyone. One can be white in this white-dominated culture and be an anti-racist, but you are not going to absolutely expunge the little racist within. Maybe a saint could, but you are not a saint (if I’m wrong and you are a saint, please contact me right away). It will take many generations just as the progress to date has; when and if racism dies, you and I will be in a place where this earthly collective psychosis makes not a whit of difference.
Before you go to that place, teach your own children well, but quell the notion that you have something to teach people of other branches of the human race about themselves or about how one is supposed to be; they’ll let you know if they need your complacent white pedagogy. Meanwhile, get off your high horse. Lose the smug, self-satisfied, holier-than-thou, I’m-better-than-those-other-white-people bullshit.
Own your racism and wrestle with it every day. Every time that Beast Jim Crow rises up, find a way to kill it again. Realize you’re going to fuck up sometimes and hurt someone even if you don’t mean to. Be courageous enough to apologize to those you’ve hurt, try to right the wrong, and keep fighting your personal Beast within. Keep in mind, too, that the notion that some people are not as good as others based on skin color has been internalized not only by the oppressors, but by the victims of oppression as well as by all the people who delude themselves that they’ve risen above it all. Practice compassion.
Oppression is the daily experience of every dominated group. Racist oppression is only one form. We should recognize that oppression keeps working because it operates on the individual, day-to-day level: In this case, it is the concrete oppression by a “white” person directed against a “non-white” person. Oppression may be an unspoken policy, but its real work is done when, say, the bullet fired by one person pierces the flesh of another person.
The place of struggle against injustice is always exactly where we stand at this moment. That is where each of us can make a real change while we try to wrestle our way through this racist sewage that poisons and stunts all of our potentials as full human beings.