Sunday, April 13, 2008

ignore our holocausts

Somewhere down in our guts we understand that in an oppressive system such as white supremacy, the unearned privileges with which we live are based on the suffering of others. We know we have things because others don’t. We may not want to give voice to that feeling, but it is impossible to ignore it completely. And it doesn’t feel good, in part because to be fully human is to seek communion with others, not separation from them, and one cannot find that connection under conditions in which unjust power brings unearned privilege. To be fully human is to reject a system that conditions your pleasure on someone else’s pain.
--Robert Jensen, The Heart of Whiteness

If white folks decide to raise an unpleasant topic or issue, they often preface what they're about to say with these apologetic words: "Now, this might be disturbing, but . . . " People also receive warnings about movies this way, and certain web sites, as well as nearly anything having to do with race. In our current time of war, press photographers are forbidden from "disturbing" us with photographs of the coffins of returning soldiers. Graphic imagery from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also doesn't reach us, since reporters there are "embedded," and thus effectively blinded and muzzled. The horrific images from Abu Ghraib were a mistake, a leak, something else that wasn't supposed to disturb our complacent calm.

But really, what's so wrong with being disturbed? Shouldn't Americans be more disturbed, more in touch with realities that have to do with themselves and that are disturbing?

Shouldn't we prefer, for instance, real images from our current wars to the one that's become its poster image, the photo of an all-American (and thus, white) soldier emanating grit, pride, and resilience?

The man in this photo, US Marine Lance-Corporal Blake Miller, was photographed during the battle of Fallujah, an event that took the lives of up to 50 US troops, an estimated 1,200 "insurgents," and an uncounted number of civilians. One thing that I find interesting about this photo, genuinely "disturbing" in fact, is that the man it depicts has since spoken out about it, and he says that he felt nothing at the time like the stoic fortitude that patriotic fellow Americans read into his portrait.
The former Marine says he now questions the US tactics and believes troops should have been withdrawn some time ago. He said: "When I was in the service my opinion was whatever the Commander-in-Chief's opinion was. But after I got out, I started to think about it. The biggest question I have now is how you can make a war on an entire country when a certain group from that country is practicing terrorism against you. It's as if a gang from New York went to Iraq and blew some stuff up and Iraq started a war against us because of that." (commondreams)
So while our current war should be disturbing and upsetting more of us than it is, we also shouldn't be holding up all-American white men as the most exemplary fighters in it, especially when they hated being there and now regret it deeply, and especially when non-whites comprise such a large percentage of U.S. fighting forces, and especially when hundreds of thousands of Iraqi fighters and citizens are being killed by our soldiers' bullets and bombs. Isn't that a "holocaust" that we're ignoring?

But let's go back, as we always seem to do, to "the Holocaust." Now that's something we all seem to agree is very disturbing, and yet, it's also a major disturbance that Americans all seem to know about, very well. We don't turn away from that one. Could it be that one reason we stay focused on this one is so that we can avoid focusing on other ones?

I've also been wondering, when it comes to white people, do they have some different feelings about the Holocaust from those of other Americans?

Consider for a minute that term, "the Holocaust." White people in particular rarely question the capital H, nor the definite article in front of it--the "the," that is. The implication of that capital H, and of "the" (instead of "a" or "an"), is that there was only one holocaust in recorded history, only one genocide. Or that if there were more, this one is the one most worth remembering. The word "holocaust" comes from two Greek words meaning "completely" and "burnt." Six million or more Jewish people, gypsies, homosexuals, and others died in an incredibly organized, systematic attempt to burn them completely from the earth, and that focused intentionality is indeed peculiarly horrific.

But if white Americans ever stopped to think about the phrase "the Holocaust" in these etymological terms, and then understood how that phrase implies the event's absolute singularity, something buried deep inside themselves would probably start to stir. It might even feel like indigestion. Unsettling feelings would likely arise because goodhearted, reasonably well-informed European Americans are conflicted about this issue. They accept the presumption of absolute uniqueness presented by that term, "the Holocaust," but they also know that unwarranted killing of millions, both deliberately and indirectly, has happened before. And not on some other continent, but here, on their land, and to more than just one group of people. And not at the hands of some other, seemingly crazed people, whose apparent collective insanity is evoked with the mere utterance of one word, "Nazis." Rather, these American holocausts were meted out by people like themselves, at least in name--"white" people.

In her 1987 novel Beloved, Toni Morrison won enormous acclaim with her depiction of a victim of one of these holocausts. When Sethe, an escaped slave, realizes that she's about to be captured and sent back, she decides to kill her own daughter, rather than have her grow up as a slave. To reveal that about the novel's plot isn't really giving anything away, at least not to those who know some history. In 1856, a woman named Margaret Garner escaped as far North as Ohio, with her husband Robert and their four children. As captors surrounded her, she managed to injure several of her children, and then she killed her two-year old daughter with a butcher knife.

That's a tragic death, a most singular murder, but it's not a holocaust. It is, however, part of a larger, prolonged, mass death at the hands of others, a mass death large enough in number that it could be called a holocaust. When white people pick up Morrison's novel and see that it's dedicated to "Sixty million, and more," they may have no idea what that number means, nor that the child killed in the novel was based on one of them, one of the estimated sixty million Africans and their descendants killed in the giant free labor system known as the slave trade. This free labor system did include Africans who kidnapped and sold other Africans, but the majority of the slavetraders, owners, and beneficiaries were white people, who used all that free labor to enrich their social institutions and their own future descendants.

These are horrible, guilt-inducing facts for white Americans, who would rather just forget. In a way, though, they can't, because a countervailing American emphasis on fairness and justice and equality means that such collective racial crimes should be acknowledged, and even compensated for. White Americans, then, are conflicted about their history, feeling a moral confusion that they usually just repress, mostly so that they can carry on with feeling good about themselves.

If you're white, you also might find another bad patch of American history "disturbing." Ask a white American sometime, "What group of people used to own the land you're standing on, or the land that your house or apartment is squatting on?" "Oh, Indians," they're likely to say. "Native Americans." Then ask, "Well, which ones? What was their name, the name of the tribe that lived on the land you now live on? The land that your white ancestors tricked away or just plain stole?"

Embarrassed that I myself don't know the answers to these questions, I asked them recently to a fellow white American. He shrugged them off, saying with a wave of his hand, "Yeah, it was all terrible, it's true, but doesn't it always happen? Isn't history everywhere the history of taking land from other people? And anyway," he went on, "didn't a lot of Indians die of diseases and such?"

Apparently a lot of Indians did die that way, perhaps the majority of them. But enough were left to resist "Manifest Destiny," the seemingly organic Westward expansion across the continent that, according to historian Reginald Horsman, was loudly proclaimed at the time as the inevitable destiny of the Anglo-Saxon race. That is, the real Americans, the white race, an exclusive club which immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Germany and other European countries were gradually allowed to join. "The United States," Horsman writes in his book about race in the mid-1800s, "shaped policies which reflected a belief in the racial inferiority and expendability of Indians, Mexicans, and other inferior races, and which looked forward to a world shaped and dominated by a superior American Anglo-Saxon race."

These ugly historical realities are difficult for the collective white psyche to absorb, too much, really, to even acknowledge. For to acknowledge the enormity of such crimes and, especially, the part they played in elevating white Americans as a whole to the top of the racial hierarchy, where they still reside in so many respects--to acknowledge that would mean acknowledging that America is not the benevolent, fair-minded, justice-seeking land of the free that it claims to be. It would mean acknowledging that it's actually been a brutally unfair place, and that it remains so. And if that's true, then our own moral standing in racial terms, as "white" Americans, isn't as clean as it seems to be.

No wonder us white folks are so repressed. No wonder some of us lash out.

UPDATE: For a solid explanation of how white denial of historical significance works on a broader scale, see Kendall Clark's argument that "one of the ongoing privileges of White Empire is its careful, unblinking avoidance of any responsibility for past horrors." ("The Global Privileges of Whiteness")


  1. Ya bit off a really big piece to chew on here Macon. Maybe if ya busted it up into two or three posts the taste wouldn't get lost.

  2. Interesting. It should also be noted that many of these "Indians" didn't just contract and die of disease by chance. During the French and Indian War (1754-1763), the British intentionally gave smallpox-contaminated blankets to the "Indians", resulting in an epidemic with a 50 percent mortality rate. As with other diseases, the mortality rate was higher for children (who would have ensured future "Indian" population growth) and the elderly.

  3. I do a lot of presentations about what happened to my parents during WWII. They were Polish Catholics who were put in concentration camps and forced to do slave labor.

    About 6 Million Poles died during the war in the camps and elsewhere. Millions of other people died during that war also. I think the number is something like 50,000,000 altogether. (If you want to read what I said at my blog about all these numbers, you can find the piece at

    When I mention these numbers, people pretty much can't believe it, and don't want to believe it.

    Thinking about The Holocaust allows them the opportunity of not thinking about all the other deaths.

    People don't want a lot of bad news in their lives. If given a choice between knowing that there were and are a lot of holocausts and knowing that there was one Holocaust, I think that most would say they are happy not knowing about all the evil that has been done in the world and all the evil that continues to be done in the world.

  4. Thanks for your insights, John, and I think you're right, especially about the psychological utility of "the Holocaust." I do think, though, that there is a relation between American holocausts and American white folks that differs from that between American holocausts and non-white Americans.

    I believe you're right about what people in general like to think about bad news. As for me, I'm trying to pinpoint on this blog some general tendencies among a group of people who are generally unaware of their own group's tendencies. One bit of "bad news" for a lot of people of color in American is that white folks haven't spent much time yet dealing honestly and sincerely with what it means for them to be classified as white. It might also do themselves some good to think more about that.

  5. Thanks for the Jensen quote, Macon. I love him. He gets it.

    btw, is your moniker in homage to Macon Detornay? :-)

  6. *breathing a sigh of relief* that there actually are some white people who see it, get it and are not afraid to say it. Thank you. Perhaps you can share your thoughts with Elizabeth Hasselbeck (sp) and Barbara Walters from The View.

  7. Actually yes, Deb. Good eye! I'll have to do that book some day for a Saturday Book Rec. Yes, Jensen is really good at keeping a firm grip on his moral compass.

  8. don't forget about the several holocausts that are happening right now. darfur, uganda, and the congo to name a few are all in a state of extreme distress right now due to civil unrest and government corruption, and that has resulted in the deaths of millions of innocent people.
    while there are campaigns such as save darfur that do try to relieve the situation in africa, these campaigns are almost like a passing fad, where people can buy a t-shirt where a fraction of the profit will go towards helping a black child, which can then be a consumer's good deed of the day.
    in fact, many americans aren't even aware of the genocide and mass murder that are taking place right now in various parts of the world. it is so far away from us and we rarely even see it on tv.
    why is that? because white people control the media. and again, white people don't want to be "disturbed" by what's going in the real world. if millions of americans were faced with the images of dying men, women, and children in africa, we would turn the tv off. ratings would drop. death that isn't heroic, dramatized, or filmed in Hollywood does not make for good ratings.
    maybe you could do a post on how some white people in america (such as rupert murdoch) use their power as media tycoons to deceive the public and why they do this?

  9. Thanks, most-recent anonymous, that sounds like a workable suggestion for another post. I do agree that the connections white folks in America have to current holocausts are also different from the relations non-white Americans have with them.

    Centuries of white supremacy led up to many conditions that still exist today, including almost exclusively white ownership and control of the corporate conglomerates that own the major media outlets, which "set the agenda" and thus largely determine what counts as noteworthy news for most people. I also have no doubt that a certain white or Eurocentric filter, or perceptual framework, determines what counts as news, and how that news is portrayed. The "Missing White Girl Syndrome," whereby the corporate media clearly care a LOT more about missing white girls and women (especially "pretty" ones) than they do about missing non-white girls, seems like another example, although I suppose that if newsmakers get called on it, they say that the audience itself is mostly white, and thus inclined to care more about, and watch more often, news outlets that sensationalize stories of missing white women and ignore those about missing non-white women.

  10. I was going to comment here and then saw that you brought up my favorite topic, the "Missing White Girl" syndrome. yay.

    Followed trackbacks here and I really like what you're doing.

    As for the Holocaust, I think it's become entirely too singular a focus and it does allow Americans to feel that, once again, they're better than other people. Those Germans did that, we never would (except we did, and even while that was going on we were interning Japanese-Americans).

    And because of the huge psychological importance put on the Holocaust, the Jewish (and I am Jewish) community's fear of persecution is normalized, while black people are supposed to "get over it." You can't be a politician in this country and say that what Israel is doing is wrong, even though the Jewish population is so small.

    as I noted, I am Jewish and I certainly want to make sure that what the Nazis did is remembered. but part of that Jewish identity and that awareness leads me to more sympathy with others who suffered similar or worse fates, and not this tendency to claim some exceptional level of persecution.

    huge topic, little time to write about it. and I'm writing on very little sleep. thanks for the link, and the food for thought.

  11. Unlike most 'capital H' holocaust describers you do include gypsies and homosexuals but you did forget disabled people/other 'abnormal according to Hitler' folks. Most people forget too that the total estimate is 9-12 million; 6 million only refers to the Jews.

  12. I grew up with "You're either a Jew or you're white" and "Why would you wanna be known as white?"

    So my question is why do so many Jewish people cling to the white lable?

    I need a different p.o.v. as my professors also don't consider themselves white.

  13. Anonymous, I'm not Jewish, so I don't know if I can answer your question, and you're also not providing much evidence--DO so many Jewish people cling to the white label? Don't a lot instead cling to the Jewish label?

    It's still the case that "white is right" in so many ways in America, so standing out as Jewish can seem less than "right," less favored, in many situations. But your question is so broad that it's hard to answer. What you're asking about depends on the situation.

    As Karen Brodkin has shown in a book, How Did Jews Become White Folks?, many Jewish Americans became accepted as sort of provisionally white after WW II, an acceptance that made many fortunate recipients of what she calls one of the largest white affirmative action programs in U.S. history, the GI Bill, which many non-whites (and women) were effectively excluded from. "Clinging to whiteness" made sense in a material way at that point.

    A lot of people who can pass as white, not just Jewish people, prefer to blend in, for a lot of reasons. I think it's still the case that wearing one's Jewishness openly can make a person feel noticeable, and a lot of people don't like that.

    On the other hand, a lot of entertainers are Jewish and most people wouldn't know it (as Adam Sandler pointed out in a song awhile back), and that assimilation into whiteness made them bigger stars. A lot of others, like Sandler himself, seem comfortable being openly Jewish, and they can make it as big stars too.

    So it depends on the situation. There's more to say, but your question is so broad that it's hard to answer. Do you want to be any more specific about it?

    By the way, are your professors Jewish, or ?

  14. Yes the professors I was referring to are Jewish. I suppose I was mainly looking for sources that would help explain how the assimilation came to be, and whether it was out of necessity and so on. Thank you for mentioning Karen Brodkin which is more than I can say any of my professors have done.

  15. First off, I am not saying that you do not bring up important points.

    But do you not see the irony in your words? As a white person, you are imploring all white people to understand all holocausts, besides the World War II holocaust. You proceed to name 2 Holocausts, both of which happened on American soil or while people were being transported to America.

    But as you have also argued (and I completely agree), race is just a social construction of reality. It is at heart a method of categorization, much like drawing borders between countries and defining differences between these people.

    So, I do not understand as while you call on white people to understand the holocausts that did not affect them (because as you have also noted from that book, Jews have become pretty assimilated with whites), you ignore holocausts that do not affect American people in general. You could just as easily have mentioned the Cambodian Holocaust, which differed from the World War II Holocaust only because it happened after the US exited Vietnam and not while the US or its allies were fighting. You could have mentioned the current holocausts that are occurring in places like Rwanda, or the "ethnic cleansings" that occurred in Eastern Europe.

    To have a true understanding of your place, you cannot focus on remedying the effects of a particular bias of yours, you have to work on remedying the bias itself. Becoming conscious of racial politics and ignoring global politics is essentially displaying the same bias, though it manifests itself in different ways. I am not claiming I have achieved this either, but basically, before you can teach what you know, you have to acknowledge what you do not know. Otherwise, it just does not seem like a genuine approach (at least to me).

  16. I recently found this blog and have been "absorbing" it with great relish for the past three days or so. I am currently enrolled in a Race/Ethnicity course that does nothing to challenge the minds of the White students in the class. This situation is what led me here, though. Thank you for your courage.

    I want to respond to the previous comment... yes, race IS a social construct. However, it has real and tangible effects on the people categorized by this construct. It becomes real because people think it is—like borders. Also, it seems to me that the points addressed in this blog are geared toward particular American racial issues and White denial of race, all of which is relatively unique to the US and hard to disentangle... race discussions in this country are a hot mess.

  17. Welcome, Tim, glad you're finding things here a good supplement to your course materials. If you're interested in other such resources, you could send me an email (or I guess just keep reading the posts on this blog, many of which refer to other useful sources on whiteness).

    unmakingmacon at gmail dot com


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