I woke up this morning with Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” in my head. Why? I had not encountered “We Didn’t Start the Fire” anytime recently. Why do I find that song so catchy, even invigorating? I don’t particularly like the song, but it does have an effect: to pump me up, yeah, I didn’t start the fire, it has always been burning since the world’s been turning, so then…
Wait. Fuck that song. I prefer Ani DiFranco’s “Willing to Fight”, with its lyrics of “I know the biggest crime is just to throw up your hands, say this has nothing to do with me, I just want to live as comfortably as I can.” So, yeah, okay, we didn’t start the fire, but what do we do about the fire burning that is the system of global white supremacy? I don’t want to live in a burning house, on a burning planet. I don’t want to live within that system; it’s inhuman. I can argue that “it has nothing to do with me” in the sense that it is historical and I am one individual, but I know that is disingenuous.
We can’t change history, but we need to be honest about our history because history informs the present. The dominant media and education we receive tells a version of history and the present that serves a system of white supremacy and does not serve humanity as a whole. We need to challenge false narratives of history and the present.
I recently discovered the materials for the Challenging White Supremacy Workshop and am reading through them. This is how the CWS Workshop defines white supremacy:
White Supremacy is an historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations, and people of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent, for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power, and privilege.
I appreciate the CWS materials I’ve read so far because they not only define the problem of white supremacy clearly, but also define the problem of America clearly. A document titled “RACE: The U.S. Creation Myth and Its Premise Keepers” exposes three facts about the United States that are consistently obscured by the exceptionalist lens of our history and media:
- The United States is a nation state created by military conquest in several stages.
- The United States could not have developed economically as a nation without enslaved African labor.
- The third major step in the formation of the United States as a nation was the seizure of almost half of Mexico by war. The United States has consistently engaged in aggressive military expansion since that time.
The above points are summaries of those made in “RACE”; I encourage everyone to read the full document. It’s short, six pages, and accessible.
In his 1957 book, Albert Memmi drew portraits of The Colonizer and the Colonized. He wrote about the specific situation of colonized Tunisia in a fashion general enough for readers to extrapolate the portraits to other specific situations of oppression. Memmi identified with both the colonized and the colonizer. In our complex contemporary situation in the United States, I believe that many of us would identify as Memmi did: not exclusively with one portrait or archetype, but with both.
Memmi concludes from his portraits that the colonial system is unsustainable and that its failure is inevitable. He does not discuss colonialism in terms of white supremacy, but we must draw the same conclusion, as white supremacy is the assumption that drives colonialism.
White supremacy is unsustainable. It denies the humanity of both those that it oppresses and those that it requires do the oppressing. But we are human, whether we are comfortable with our humanity or not, and white supremacy, by the way, needs us to be uncomfortable with our humanity, whether we are the oppressed or the oppressor. White supremacy exists only because a division has been made between oppressor and oppressed, colonizer and colonized.
The division, of course, is false. Not only is it false on the societal level; it is false on the individual level as well. We’ve all been colonized. Our perceptions, imagination, and actions are colonized by capitalist, white supremacist ideologies. To the extent that we allow that colonization–that oppression–to continue, we perpetuate both societal and personal dehumanization.
Billy Joel wants us to believe that we didn’t start the fire, but he’s selling a false narrative about who we are. We are individual people, but we are also social animals, and because of that, our individuality is created by and exists within a social matrix. Whether we started the fire or not, the fact remains that the social matrix is burning. As humans threatened by a burning environment, what is the sensible thing to do? Sing along with the song of denial? Or invite other songs in, allow them to reverberate at the deep level of humanity, that human core within us that has been and continues to be stifled by ideologies of division?