Talking about race, part 3

The transatlantic slave trade: what do you know about it? As I explore the impacts of racism in the United States and understand how I can work to reduce systemic racism, I’ve come across more information about the transatlantic slave trade.

The first bits of this information came from the book “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi. This led me to read and explore more on the subject.

It is safe to say that one element of white privilege is not having to learn about, or live with the direct legacy of, the full scale of the transatlantic slave trade. Yes, I knew a bit about it from school but, honestly, that knowledge was superficial – perhaps because the teaching of the subject was superficial and also perhaps because there wasn’t an imperative for me as a white person to really learn about it.

Better late than never. Let me share a bit of what I have learned and what it means to me. I am curious what you have learned about this subject in school – or even afterwards. And if some of this information is new to you, I am curious what your response to it is.

Slave trade goes back at least 2,000 years before the birth of Christ. Much of it was centered in the Arab world, which was then the crossroads of much of civilization. Crucially, though, the transatlantic slave trade created a racial hierarchy – something that was not a feature of the Arab slave trade and the implications of which are still very much with us.

In the early 1440s, Henry the Navigator, a Portuguese prince, sponsored Nuno Tristão‘s exploration of the African coast as Portugal worked its way down to, and eventually around, the Cape of Good Hope.

Prince Henry also sponsored Antão Gonçalves‘ first hunting expedition to Africa. Both Tristão and Gonçalves brought back African captives – the first enslaved Africans in Europe. Within a few decades, there were more than 900 enslaved Africans in Portugal. The Portuguese (and, eventually, other European states) had an opportunity to circumvent the Arab slave trade.

Prince Henry’s biographer, Gomes de Zurara, wrote in his 1453 book “The Chronicle of the Discovery and Conquest of Guinea”, of a savage people (the ones in Africa) who were distinct and different from people in Europe – inferior and worthy of enslavement.

To create this hierarchy, Zurara described them as, “like beasts, without any custom of reasonable beings.” In 1481, French poet Jacques de Brézé introduced the term “race” – first referring to different breeds of dogs. In 1606 French diplomat Jean Nicot added the word “race” to the dictionary in reference to distinctions between different groups of people. Race was a purely social construct, but one that served to give name to a characteristic by which humans could ranked. No surprise, but the “white” people who came up with the ranking system put themselves at the top.

Now, it is my understanding that many if not most creatures in the animal kingdom create dominance hierarchies. Lobsters, which have been around 350 million years, are a well-studied example of this. Lions have a leader of the pride. Gorillas have a dominant leader.

Those hierarchies are usually about how individuals rank or the relationship between different families, tribes or other small groups. What catches my attention about humans – particularly what these western Europeans did – is that this construction of a racial hierarchy was so broad, so arbitrary, so nonfactual – and yet it has had so enduring an impact on our species, one still felt more than 500 years later.

At some level I can understand a feud between people of different religious beliefs – a fight over doctrine. Or even people in one state versus another – a fight over territory. But to take an entire continent’s worth of people and construct a rationale to explain how they are less human than yourself and, therefore, it is okay to enslave them? That seems incredulous.

By the second half of the 1400s, African enslavement was already commonplace by the Portuguese. This was out of a desire for profit and power.

In 1510, Spanish lawyer Alonso de Zuazo justified the enslavement of Africans in Spanish colonies in the new world, writing, “General license should be given to bring negroes, [a people] strong for work, the opposite of the natives, so weak who can work only in undemanding tasks.” (By “natives”, de Zuazo meant the indigenous people in Spanish colonies in the Americas.)

In 1526, the first ship departed across the Atlantic bound for Brazil with a cargo of enslaved Africans. Eventually, the Portuguese were joined in this trade by the British, Spanish, French, Dutch and Danes. Their involvement in the trade was roughly in that order, based on the volume of enslaved people traded.

For most of the 1500s, most slave trade was to South American colonies. But this was eventually as little as three percent of the total slave trade across the Atlantic.

From the 1600s, almost all of the transatlantic slave trade was to the Caribbean and North American colonies. As Kendi puts it, “Slavery was an economic phenomenon given a racist rationale.” The Caribbean and Southern colonies produced commodities that required hard labor in harsh conditions: cotton, sugar, tobacco, molasses and rum.

In 1619, the first enslaved Africans were brought to the colony of Virginia. Originally classified as indentured servants who would be set free after seven years of labor, the laws were soon changed and their bondage became permanent.

In 1641 in the colony of Massachusetts, the first slave law was enacted. By 1656, chattel slavery was legalized in the colonies. In 1662, the law was further changed, making children born of enslaved people the property of the slave owner. This is notable, because it was again an effort to further the racial hierarchy, to use racial rationale to achieve power – and to maintain it.

In 1688, four German Quakers in Germantown, Pennsylvania, wrote a petition against slavery, the first public document of its kind in the colonies. The petition, ignored at the time, would resurface more than 150 years later.

By the time of the Revolutionary War, 20% of the colonial population were enslaved people – as high as 40% in Virginia. There is an interesting paradox that the colonies were fighting for freedom while preserving the enslavement of other humans. This issue was a matter of great debate: ironically, Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, attempted to include a paragraph in his Declaration of Independence attacking slavery, only for it to be struck out by the Continental Congress.

Some blacks, mostly free, did fight for the colonies’ independence. But the last governor of colonial Virginia, Lord Dunmore, issued a proclamation announcing that any slaves who ran away from their plantations and fought for the British would be freed and given land after the war.

Between 3,000 and 4,000 runaway slaves signed his ledger, now referred to as “The Book of Negroes”. After the war, Dunmore kept his promise and these formerly enslaved people were resettled in Jamaica, Nova Scotia, and Britain.

After the war, some founding fathers worked towards the abolition of slavery. William Whipple, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, set his slaves free. Alexander Hamilton had a hatred of slavery. Benjamin Franklin, who had slaves, founded an abolitionist movement in Pennsylvania.

By 1804, northern states had abolished slavery, although some converted enslaved persons into indentured servitude. In 1808, the importation of enslaved people was outlawed, although slavery and the domestic trade of slaves was still allowed.

In 1844, the Quaker petition from 1688 resurfaced and became fodder for a growing abolitionist movement.

The Civil War was fought not so much about slavery but about the preservation of the Union. Abraham Lincoln was not a fervent abolitionist – as early as 1849, he advocated a program of only gradual emancipation – and he expressed racist ideas about the supposed inferiority of blacks. These were the prevailing sentiments of the time and, one could argue whether it is fair to evaluate Lincoln through the lens of modern mores. Still, I think the lesson I learned growing up was that the war was about slavery as much as it was about preserving the Union and that isn’t correct.

Still, Lincoln did sign the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. This did not free all slaves in the United States, only those slaves in states not under Union control. William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, commented, “We show our sympathy with slavery by emancipating slaves where we cannot reach them and holding them in bondage where we can set them free.”

On December 6, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution was ratified, abolishing slavery in the United States.

An estimated 12-12.8 million Africans were enslaved and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean over 400 years. An estimated 10-20 percent perished on the voyage. And the racism constructed as a rationale for this slavery, has so deeply stained western culture (and, to an extent, all of humanity) that its impacts are still felt today.

The stories that we hold, halfway unconsciously, about black people – and even the idea that there is such a distinct thing as “black” and “white” people – is a legacy of the transatlantic slave trade.

For me, understanding a bit more about this history helps me see the intentional and systematic nature of racism. And this makes it all the more clear that making a conscious choice to be anti-racist is necessary to dismantle the system and rectify the injustice. Because one can’t just be neutral on matters of justice.

Talking about race, part 2

Continuing the conversation about race which I started here, I finished reading Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism“. There were many points in the book that easily rang true. And there were many other points that challenged me to stop and think – and to think differently. Let me share a few of them here.

I invite you to share your thoughts and engage in a constructive conversation with me.

The first thing from the book that challenged me, was the idea that two key ideologies of western culture are individualism and objectivity. And because of these, we (White people) are hard-pressed to step back, recognize and critique the way we are socialized by society.

Individuality is the belief that each of us is unique. And objectivity is the belief that it is possible to be unbiased.

Because of the ideology of individuality, we believe the efforts and merits of the individual outweigh the effects of being a member of any particular group. Thus, we believe that any success we have is due to our own, individual hard work and merit. We do not attribute any of that success to our status or membership in a group.

“If I am successful, ti is because of me individually – not at all because I was born a middle-class, White American male.”

Likewise, individuality holds that a person’s failures are due to them, personally, and can not be ascribed to their being a part of any group. Even if that group has been historically, demonstrably disadvantaged.

“Your failure is because of you, not because you were born a poor, Black American woman.”

The insidious extension of this logic is to then see larger negative results (the drop-out rate of Black high school students is higher than of White high school students) as a consequence or failure in the effort or character of those individuals.

“Blacks must be lazy or unfit for school, otherwise why would their dropout rate be so high?”

Dr. DiAngelo writes, “Setting aside your sense of uniqueness is a critical skill that will allow you to see the big picture of the society in which you live; individualism will not.”

This was a big eye-opener because while I think I am pretty good about not drawing negative conclusions about groups by seeing their situations as a result of individual character flaws, I can see that I underestimate how un-level the playing field is for members of various groups in society.

So the thought “If you just try hard enough, you can achieve anything” needs to become, “Despite trying hard enough, you may still not be able to overcome the obstacles society places in your way.”

. . .

As I write this, I paused for several minutes to reflect how deeply this idea of individuality is wired in my brain and how much work it will take to unwire it. Just reading the previous paragraph, I have an instinctive, gut-level reaction that says I am letting people escape personal responsibility for their situation in life, by “blaming” society.

And that, right there, is White privilege. I cannot readily see that my own point of view is biased based on the advantages I am given because I am White. I assume that the playing field is the same for everyone else but cannot see how it is angled to my advantage.

. . .

And that segues nicely into the second western ideology of objectivity. Objectivity, besides allowing us to not see the advantages we enjoy in our society, also allows us to construct fictions like “I don’t see race” or “I am color-blind.”

There is no such thing as a single, universal, unbiased human perspective. Each of us is shaped by our experiences in life and those experiences are significantly shaped by the broader groups in which we have membership.

Your view as a woman differs from mine as a man. My view as an expatriate living in Thailand differs from my husband’s as a native-born Thai. And my view as a White person differs from the views and experiences of Black people.

Because these views differ, they they are inherently subjective. Objectivity does not exist. to maintain the pretense of objectivity does two things:

  • First, it provides cover to perpetuate racism (and sexism and xenophobia, etc.) If I deny something exists, how can I confront and change it?
  • Second, it absolves me of my complicity, however unintentional, in perpetuating systemic racism.

To put it simply: we view things differently and we are viewed differently, based on the groups to which we below. The ability to see myself only as an individual, and to claim objectivity about racism, is “a key privilege of dominance” as Dr. DiAngelo puts it.

People of color do not have the privilege of being seen as individuals. When a White person sees them, that White person will first evaluate them based on their group identity – the identity the White person assumes they have.

This is based in large part on familiarity. Those closest to you are the ones you will see as individuals. Those further from you, you will see first as generalizations. This has been well-studied and is known as the cross-race effect or the in-group effect.

My own experience confirms this: growing up in a high school where, despite having a racially diverse student body, most of the students in my classes were White or Asian, and after having lived and worked in East Asia for fifteen years, when I meet a White or Asian person, I quickly see them as an individual and don’t see them so much as a member of such-and-such a group.

But when I meet someone who is Latinx or Black, I find myself starting with generalizations. It is only as (and if) I make the effort to get to know them, that they start to be seen truly as individuals. And where do those generalizations come from? They are mostly based on ignorance, stereotypes, and impressions I have from the media.

Now, I’m sure that many of you would have a knee-jerk reaction that everyone you meet, you immediately start seeing them as individuals. That was my instinctive reaction, too. But if I’m honest with myself, if I reflect deeply, I recognize that when I meet someone from a group I am less familiar with, I am starting from generalizations (read: stereotypes) and then filling in the details.

So what does this all mean for me? First, I have to recognize my own bias, which is to see “others” as generalized perceptions, indistinct from the group to which I think they below. Second, I have to recognize that because of my ignorance and lack of first-hand interactions with “others”, my generalized perceptions are uninformed and, likely, wrong.

So I need to get a lot better informed and get to know more people from groups with which I am less familiar.

I will continue this conversation and invite you to join in.

I need to start talking about race

I’m a white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, university graduated, middle class American man. Granted, I am gay, but other than that, I’m pretty representative of the dominant culture in the United States. And somewhere in the process of growing up, I learned the message that I shouldn’t be racist but also that it isn’t really my place to talk about race. After all, that’s something that African-Americans or Latinx or Asian-American people are better placed to talk about. After all, what do I know about racism? It would be racist of me to talk about race, wouldn’t it? I’ve come to realize that, quite the opposite, it is necessary for me to start talking about race.

The realization began with a question. After reading the news of the brutal, senseless deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and then George Floyd, I asked myself, “What is it going to take for things to change?” And somewhere in the silence that followed that question, instead of just shrugging my shoulders and moving my attention to the next story, the first strains of an answer started to enter my mind.

These first strains started to unlock something in my mind. They started to stir my heart. And they started to dissolve the scales on my eyes. Because I realized that nothing will change, so long as people like me have the passing thought, “Oh, that’s a shame” in reaction to stories of racist brutality and then move on to the next story. Nothing will change, until people like me start to give a damn. Nothing will change until people like me really act like, if all lives matter then black and brown lives matter, too, instead of just saying it.

And by “people like me”, let me be clear that I mean white people.

So this is the start of my journey. In talking about race, I am going to make a lot of mistakes, to unintentionally insult people and to demonstrate my ignorance many times over. But that’s okay, because we don’t learn by staying in the comfort zone. I can already see that this journey will require a lot of courage, because it quickly becomes clear: I am part of the problem. We (white people) are part of the problem – a big part! And thankfully, we can also be part of the solution. In fact, we have no choice.

After I asked that question, “What is it going to take for things to change?” and started to realize I needed to look for some answers instead of letting the question be rhetorical, I found my first resource: Dr. Robin DiAngelo, a sociologist who for many years has worked in the fields of multicultural education and whiteness studies. Her 2018 book, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” was revelatory and challenging.

You can watch an 80-minute talk she gave in Seattle where she outlines the book or you can watch this five-minute video that hits the key message. There is a lot to unpack in the book and I’ll start sharing my thoughts on that in my next post.

In the meantime, I’ve started with two steps: educate myself and start talking about race. I’m reading and watching and listening to new and different sources of information. And I’m speaking about race, asking questions and listening to the answers in conversations with friends, family members and others around me.

And I look forward to sharing my journey with you.

Do You Touch the Third Rail?

At the birthplace of the United States Tuesday afternoon, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama addressed the issue of race in America as part of the Presidential campaign.  Race has always been one of the “third rails” of American politics: you can use it, hint at it, or ignore it, but don’t touch it!

Obama Philly Senator Obama’s speech was one of the most honest and informative on the topic that I’ve read.  Instead of trying to follow politically expedient routes, he instead talked about the issue in a way that I think all Americans can relate to. 

Regardless of our racial identity, almost all Americans have in their hearts a complex web of conflicting thoughts, feelings and experiences as it relates to race.  Even the most liberal-minded among us are tainted by the fears, innuendo, and racism we’ve been exposed to in our lives.

Even though the nature of the campaign for the White House encourages us to think about race in very reductionist ways, the issue is one that very much exists and very much influences our lives.  And yet, as the Senator points out, it is time to “move beyond some of our old racial wounds.”

“The comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have not yet made perfect.  And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education or the need to find good jobs for every American.”

Regardless of your political persuasion or, for that matter, nationality, I’d encourage you to take fifteen minutes to read the full text of Senator Obama’s speech.  For Americans, it gives some much-needed food for thought.  For people outside of the US, it provides an interesting insight into how the issue of race uniquely affects our country’s culture and politics.

The full text of the Senator’s speech is here.