On my first day of studying anthropology two years ago my professor told the class that if done effectively this class would shoot some of our ducks. We all had our ducks in a row and anthropology done effectively would challenge our preconceived notions about the world. The other day in class half way across the world from my first anecdote, my professor told us that anthropology- the study of human beings, should make us terrified of ourselves. This is a story of me learning to feel terrified of myself and of academia.
My first duck was shot when I realized I was blinded by my white privilege as to why capitalism can never work. It was around the time of the occupy protests. A topic of discussion that came up often at occupy was whether or not capitalism could be reformed. An argument often brought forth to support the reform of capitalism was that during the 1950s and 60s capitalism had a so-called golden age. In this golden age capitalism had a “friendly face” and its worst excesses were curbed through union/government/capitalist partnership. Or so I was taught, even in my radically left leaning high school.
I was aware at this point of the way the capitalist system has functioned. I was aware that development requires underdevelopment. That the reason I had it so good was that people in other places had it so bad. And honestly I think it was my white privilege that prevented me from seeing that the reason that the golden age was so golden was that it was made golden on the backs of people of color. It seems so obvious to me now but at the time it was revolutionary.
I recently read an article by Susan Buck-Morss, called Hegel and Haiti and it made me think more about these ideas. In it she argues that Hegel wrote his master/slave dialectic with Haiti and the revolution there in mind. I personally agree with Michel Rolph Trouillot who argues that Haiti has been a blind spot for people in Western academia. Buck-Morss disagrees but I think, given some of Hegel’s racist writing that blames African slaves for their slavery, Hegel was most likely writing about the French revolution.
It is to this propensity for white and Western academics to have a blind spot to the suffering of people of color I wish to turn my attention. I think the most interesting part of Buck-Morss’ argument is that she points to how enlightenment writers wrote about freedom as a “root metaphor of Western political philosophy,” but without slavery the enlightenment would not have been possible. And this phenomenon of writing about freedom while ignoring the unfreedom of massive groups of people is not confined to the enlightenment.
I am currently reading Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. In it they briefly mention Alexis De Toque Ville’s writing and his observance of the equality in America. And they put in brackets that it was just for whites.
A book about equality put that in brackets.
What happens when the suffering of people of color in order to provide “equality” and “freedom” is put in brackets, is beside the point? What do freedom and equality mean in this context?
Buck-Morss puts forth the argument that this paradox happens because, “When national histories are seen as self-contained or when the separate aspects of history are treated in disciplinary isolation, counterevidence is pushed to the margins.” I find this to be a powerful argument for an un-disciplinary approach to knowledge. The further in academia that I go and the more coded the works I read are the more I feel strongly that academia would benefit from writing more simply and being more open to inter-disciplinary approaches. I don’t feel that I have gained anything if I can read something that someone in high school cant. I feel I have gained something valuable if I can write in such a way that a high school student can read and understand my points. I don’t think academia should be a private club that maintains middle class white privilege.
It shouldn’t have happened that I was able to make it to 21 without an understanding of why capitalism’s golden age was not so golden. But this is what happens when facts and knowledge are separated by disciplines that reflect racist power relations. This is what happens when I am able to talk about freedom without acknowledging how it is I got to where I am. Sitting in a lecture hall, talking about freedom and equality and brushing off discordant facts. But even if I included these facts and these other voices would that change my privilege? Does it even challenge it?