It is late at night but I am too angry to sleep. I’ve been holding this blog in my body for the past few weeks, wondering when I could filch time to write from summer bbqs, family visits, river rafting, term paper writing, poetry manuscript reading, and freelance computer work. I was catching up on my reading tonight for an online class on spirituality and ecology when I discovered I had to make time.
Wendell Berry. I’ve loved him as a poet. When I told my wife, a Kentucky native, that we were reading his agrarian essays for my ecology class, she sighed. What? I asked. She rolled her eyes. Nothing, she said. I persisted, finally gleaning that when Wendell taught at the University of Kentucky while she was growing up it was – you know – that old white guy thing.
Ah yes, the old white guy thing. The no-women-exist-in-my-view-of-reality thing. Got it. Still, he IS a fantastic poet. I started the essays in optimism. There were no women in the first chapter (evidently Kentucky was “settled” entirely by men with plows; they must have begat themselves like God the Father) but I trudged on anyway. The next chapter looked promising: “Racism and the Economy”. Finally…complexity! We’d spent the first four weeks of my class studying the exploitation of the earth with barely a reference to how capitalism intersects with a gendered view of the earth, the genocide and romanticization of indigenous people, slavery, and environmental racism.
I read the essay and must confess that I, a writer, fantasized about matches and the flammability of paper. Book burning. Yes, I considered it. Deeply. Wendell Berry’s essay “Racism and the Economy” was bad. It is so bad that I refuse to quote it, except to say that a white male writer using racial epithets in the late 1960s is bad enough, but that a publisher, re-printing the book in 2002, believes that frequent use of n-word or redskin is vital to our understanding, is somehow even worse. There was much more, but I am literally trying not to vomit, so I will move on.
The point of this blog is to be helpful, not just to rant, so I wanted to talk briefly about the “we” thing. You know, that thing where when white people say “we” or “us” or “American” or “everybody” it really just means white people, white perspective, white experience. I sometimes catch myself doing it. Now that I have been hanging out with these old white guys, I can’t escape it. It is SO OBVIOUS. It is everywhere. It is infuriating to read a scholar describe the “American” experience and have that experience be pioneers and fur traders and gold miners and railroad tycoons. No Chinese. No Africans. No Chumash or Nez Perce or Sioux….except, of course, as objects, one-dimensional characters who the “Americans” react against. (See the recent movie “Meek’s Cutoff” for a classic example of this kind of storytelling…the Cayuse man in the film is an object, not a subject.)
My issue with Wendell is the arrogant, condescending attitude he employs toward all non-whites and non-males in his critique of racism and economics. He begins with describing how “we” enslaved the Africans (economic motivation only; no mention of white moral decrepitude) and by the time he gets to acknowledging that he is white (in his attack on busing and its harmful damages on his white children), the damage is already done.
“We” the people, “we” the subjects of history, are white people. When white people write history, it is for other white people. When white people say “we” without labeling it “white”, our speech erases and silences people of color. We are pretending to talk about “everybody” but it is a trick. When the only subjects in our stories are white people, the experience and reality of people of color is made invisible.
Why can’t I expect that a white man writing about racism would identify his audience, reflect thoughtfully on the color of his own skin, question whose experience he describes, consider how his language deeply disrespects people of color? I do expect it. I hold the white academic community accountable for the ways it perpetuates racism through silence and sleight of hand speech.
I demand that the scholars who teach and the publishers who promote their work radically revise their speech. It was a revelation when feminists realized that by using “he” in all the history books, the experiences and reality of women were rendered invisible. It ought to be a revelation now that when white people use the word “we” in history books, people of color are made invisible…because white people can’t say the word ‘we’ without saying white. White in we is like the k in knife…silent. But when I read these words aloud, I can feel the blade just the same.
What do you think? Should we prohibit the use of “we” and “people” for a generation and make everyone locate themselves on the socio-political-racial-scale? What’s the answer?