Individuals and in-groups alike often seek to deflect any perceived criticism or guilt and displace it onto another.
Thus, a white person, or a person who has internalized white supremacy and racism, would react to criticism of the U.S.’s colonialism in the Pacific (in the past as well as in the present) by saying something like “well, but the U.S. brought good things too.”
First, of course, any good things (such as the usual suspect, air conditioning) could have been brought and exchanged in innocuous trade between civilizations, rather than as part and parcel of a military occupation involving massacres, armed conflict, political oppression, the destruction of an ancient cultural way of life, the burning of villages, the transmission of disease, and the decimation of the indigenous population. Air conditioning, interestingly enough, also exists in Pacific places that are not colonies, territories, or possessions of the United States.
Second, however, this is not addressing the point. It is simple deflection.
It is not easy to look inside and ask ourselves what problematic or oppressive systems one is supporting. Patricia Hill Collins, an African-American theorist, spoke of “the outsider within,” a term for a marginalized, disempowered person inside a structure of oppression. That person could see the oppression clearly, while those who benefited from the oppression or from forms of privilege were often blind to the sufferings of others.
It’s easy to be blind and selfish.
Part of the problem with whiteness, for me, is that I keep encountering it in odd places, which is to say, like a veneer of whiteness laid over many places with their own cultures. A desire for the privileges socially, legally, and politically associated with whiteness mixed with a natural reaction against its historical depredations.
I’ve been thinking these days about how I would define a student — a true student, not a failure or a misfire. What’s most important for me in a student is critical inquiry. Too often, I hear students reaching for the ability to make firm, definitive statements of authority. If we actually look at the scholarly web of conversations in various fields, we find a great deal of just that — conversation, discussion, debate. There shouldn’t be that sense, as a twenty- or even twenty-two-year-old student, that one has reached a really solid conclusion yet. I want students — among my young students, at least, and even, if I may say so, among my elders with whom I sometimes have the honor of working — whose minds are open to critical thinking, students who do not enter the classroom unprepared to hear anything with which they may disagree or which they may find challenging. I want students who want a debate, who want a challenge, who want a scholarly conversation — and not just with me, or with each other, but with the great minds of our time and the past.
When I taught Ralph Ellison’s classic novel Invisible Man in a recent upper-level comparative literature course, I was dismayed to find that most of my students did not want to consider drawing any comparisons between racism and Black nationalism as Ellison discusses in the novel and racism and Chamorro nationalism in our own community. I was not dismayed because the students chose not to agree with my own thinking. I was dismayed because they balked at having a discussion or conversation on it at all. What is the point of a literature class in which we may read a book about whiteness and racism and indigenous or Black nationalism, but we cannot have a conversation about those very topics in our own context? I am not a New Critic; I talk about cultural context, not just semicolons and golden lines.
There may be racism and a veneer of whiteness in places where we would not expect to find it — the deep immersion of Catholicism and the U.S. military on Guam, for example. But what happens when we literally refuse to see whiteness, when the displacement of whiteness happens even as we are staring at a place where whiteness is thickly laid? Cognitive dissonance, caged minds: systemic closure.