Sunday, April 20, 2008

Meditation on White Male Psychology

I picked up an interesting zine today with the windy title, Tools for White Guys who are Working for Social Change and other people socialized in a society based on domination.

I found the zine interesting and accessible in that it is written in a style that is common in pop culture magazines: the Top 10 lists, the conversational self-help style, the focus on communication and perlocutionary speech-acts. The primary aim is to shift the locus of white male dominance from reinforcing negative power relationships into creating positive relationships and situations where the white male can practice social change through group communication with others.

The author, Chris Crass, admits reassuringly that he is himself "a white guy who talks a lot." I've experienced many group discussion settings like the kind the author is talking about, where awareness of socialization into roles of dominance is encouraged to promote better communication. And as a white guy myself who like to talk a lot, I try to use these sorts of "tools" without actively acknowledging them as tools. Yet on a few occasions, I can recall a white male or two standing up and saying to everyone else that they feel too contrived and then questioning whether the others are too sensitive for him. This is something that is not usually addressed, but more often not even said aloud, and it is also assumed that the white guy who cannot deal simply has too many dominance issues and perhaps is bound to myths of colorblindness, systemic racism, patriarchy, and what have you.

The author does not address why a white male would find these tools contrived and possibly annoying, only that they are tools for working more collaboratively with others. So why is this often so difficult to do? Let me practice a little bit of white male psychology and examine what I think is going on here. The most relevant reason seems to be that practicing this kind of awareness can be a hindrance to natural communication in a Heideggerian sense.

Let me illustrate with Heidegger's own example. When we are involved in a task like sweeping the kitchen floor, the broom is not something alien to us, it is almost as if it were a part of us. It is only when we reflect on the nature of our task that the broom becomes a separate thing that we study and distance from ourselves. We re-see it when we are reflecting in this way, whereas before we were acting in a way that Heidegger calls 'pre-ontological'.

I think this is a very insightful discovery of Heidegger's, and he was the first to really examine our different modes of 'being' in this wat. In our primitive histories, and even today, to act and reflect at the same time prevents us from looking out for our own survival. Imagine a lion running at you and making a lunge for your neck, and you suddenly reflecting on the objects of your perception, logical forms of judgment, etc. and becoming distant from the situation. Evolutionary psychologists would tell us you and those like you would soon die out. And with all the differences between male and female brains neuroscientists are discovering (for example, the narrow corpus collosum in the male brain versus the wide corpus collosum in the female brain) it makes more sense that the male brain is less capable of reflecting and acting simultaneously due to evolutionary pressures from hunting and gathering. This may all be pure speculation on my part, but I don't find the need to search for some scholarly paper to justify it at the moment.

The broom example seems to match well analogously with our group communication tools. The white male who unknowingly communicates his dominance in situations where he has always been socialized as the dominant agent is involved in his act 'pre-ontologically'. Like sweeping the kitchen floor, the white male simply talks and talks without reflecting on his position as the dominant agent. As Heidegger noted, and as Sartre clarified later, however, to reflect on the broom's ontology whilst sweeping makes the task difficult and existentially unbearable. Reflection is not at all like being involved in the task - it is then awkward and does not feel natural to act and reflect at the same time.

Unless the white male has completely socialized himself out of the context in which he is the dominant agent, provoking his movement away from that sort of 'pre-ontological' agency will understandably make the situation awkward and difficult to deal with. While the white male is talking and listening, he is now also reflecting constantly on whether he is or being perceived as dominant, oppressive, and insensitive. The perlocutionary dimension of his speech-acts is suddenly under intense scrutiny. If his angst becomes too nauseating, we should expect him feel ridiculous and unnatural for being socialized into a role which he must constantly socialize himself out of. And upon further reflection, he may feel even more ridiculous for having complained about struggling with his socialization whilst others may be habitual victims of that socialization.

There is a way out, of course. If the tools that the white male uses to work towards social change become the broom with which he performs his tasks, then he no longer has to be frustrated with the separation that existed before. This is an optimistic way of looking at it. On the other hand, since the tools themselves call for constant reassessment and practice, the pessimistic alternative is that the tools themselves become the guilty broomstick that he cannot use naturally unless he is completely socialized out of his socialized role as the dominant agent.

On a side note, I had a dream about brooms last night, and they have been on my mind all day. My Sunday has been one of reflection, and yet my floor is still in desperate need of sweeping!

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