Rooting It Out

August 23, 2020 at 3:35 am (By Amba) ()

Even white people who recoil from white supremacy often harbor unexamined, reflexive assumptions of white superiority.

While less noxious on the surface, this assumption is far more pervasive and insidious. It’s the vast, nearly immortal underground mycelium from which the scattered poison mushrooms of white supremacy sprout. (The mycelium of the 2,384-acre fungus described at that link also secretes root-destroying enzymes and “kills swaths of conifers,” for an even better metaphor.)

This struck me while talking to a Trump supporter friend (yes, I have some) who told me she has Black friends, even one guy she was sweet on when she was young (he brought her to his church once; she got a side-eye from his mother that would have blistered the paint off a battleship), but—”their values are different from ours.” Although she must encounter scores of Black working people and professionals every day, she seemed to take inner-city gang, drug, and gun culture as the prototype of Black culture and to attribute it to nature or character rather than to poverty and futility. (Never mind that it took working-class white people less than two generations of unemployment and disrespect to fall into opioid addiction, spousal abuse, and family breakdown.)

She’s a bit of a straw woman because she’s been soaking up right-wing talk radio for twenty years. (If you need to know why we’re friends, ask me in the comments.) But a subtler, patronizing version of the same attitudes pervaded the liberal world I grew up in. A lot of white people kinda believe Charles Murray’s insinuations about genetics and I.Q. (Of course, white people wrote the I.Q. tests; let them try and pass the speed I.Q. test of the average rap song.) They feel that the warm dialect Black people speak among themselves is defective, inferior English. The great majority of their interactions with Black and Latino people are those of employers and “help.” Take it from an insider. The separation and hierarchy Isabel Wilkerson identifies as “caste” perpetuate these assumptions and are perpetuated by them, in a vicious cycle.

What is this “white superiority” and where does it come from? It’s a belief in the superiority of European culture, and it’s founded in dominance. In what, exactly, is euroid culture, as I’ve taken to calling it (because then we can say “roid rage” and get a twofer) truly superior? In the technologies of coercion, extraction, and machine fabrication. The firepower to commandeer other lands’ natural resources and the power to wrest and reshape, roughshod, the material world. The miracle of being able to mass-produce cheap, attractive kitchenware for millions while wiping out time-intensive, one-of-a-kind handcrafts. To make expropriated subsistence farmers work for slave wages (or as actual slaves) on coffee plantations built on what was their land, and create a global commodity market coextensive with empire.

What about our art, literature, and music? You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s, and you don’t have to be euroid to love and play Beethoven, or Shakespeare. They are insanely great. But the “Western canon” is narrow and provincial. Saul Bellow once notoriously asked, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” To which my retort would be, “Dizzy Gillespie.” Shamefully imprecise: it’s unlikely that Dizzy’s ancestors were Zulu. But jazz, a syncretistic art form springing from a mighty African root that people of all origins love and play, has a genius that equals Tolstoy and Beethoven, and in at least one respect surpasses them: it’s created on the spot, in front of demanding witnesses, not polished before being published, or practiced, practiced, practiced, perfected, and finally performed.

I remember going through the Metropolitan Museum once, through a gallery of exquisite, finely detailed Asian embroidered silk garments, porcelain vessels, and painted screens . . . and coming out into a gallery of European art contemporary with it: dark, crudely hewn wooden Christs and Madonnas and angels. Gulp . . . we ARE the barbarians.

After that, when my friend Sachiko meticulously peeled her apple, or segmented her clementine after removing every fiber of the white pith, while I just tore into mine and made a mess, I would tell her I was invoking my barbarian privilege. (Also that I had been raised by wolves.)

Not to put down euroid culture . . . just to point out that it is not superior in anything but domination. Its arts and sciences don’t have to go under. They just have to move over. And disarm.


  1. Alexandra Leh said,

    Although I have much to say on the subject of race (in fact, I’m writing a chapter about it for the memoir), I’ll take issue with only one thing in your post: “But jazz…(is) created on the spot, in front of demanding witnesses, not polished before being published, or practiced, practiced, practiced, perfected, and finally performed.” There are so many types of jazz; your comment relegates the form to pure improvisation, and that is not in the least bit true of all jazz. I’ll use my father as an example: he was, in the opinion of anyone who ever heard him, one of the greatest jazz guitarists of all time (Quincy Jones once told me that he was the greatest guitarist of all time, but that takes us out of the genre in question), and could improvise like nobody’s business. But he was so good at it because, being musically literate, he knew exactly where he was in the context of any progression, which is key to successful improvisation. He was also well-known for his impeccable and intricate jazz arrangements, all of which were necessarily polished, practiced, perfected, and performed, and are to this day thrilling to the most jazz-savvy ear. I can name over a dozen other brilliant jazz arrangers, including those I’ve known personally (Manny Album, Kenny Ascher, Ralph Burns, Billy Byers, Al Cohn, Don Costa, Eumir Deodato, Dick Hyman, Quincy, Johnny Mandel, Gary MacFarland, Rob Mounsey, Chico O’Farrill, Sy Oliver…) who’d join me in taking you to task!

  2. Polly said,

    European culture led the world in technology. That is a fact. Not because of genetic superiority, it was probably just accidents of history.

    Most of the great inventors have been white males. I am female, so wouldn’t I love to think that just as many great inventors (and artists, writers, composers, etc.) were female? It doesn’t matter. Facts are facts.

    Blacks in the US today are still doing worse, on average, than whites. Different people make up different stories to explain it, but all we know are the statistics.

    I have always wanted to believe all ethnic groups, sexes, etc., are equal. I still believe that. But facts are facts and statistics are statistics.

    The fact that women have done so much less in technology, and other fields, never prevented me from trying to accomplish whatever I could. And I am always happy, and surprised, if I meet a woman who can fix her own car, or who works as an engineer or physicist, etc. But men still greatly outnumber women in things like that.

    I am not a sexist, I just prefer to look at reality. Rather than make up stories that twist things into what I would prefer to believe.

    I am not in any way a racist, not consciously and not unconsciously. I do not judge anyone by superficial traits that they were born with.

    And I have always admired non-western cultures for their art and religion, etc. I never looked down at them because they didn’t invent computers, etc.

    But I care about facts and statistics and I will not try to explain them away and deny them.

    Differences in abilities and accomplishments between ethnic groups might be partly explained by epigenetics.

    But right now we do not know.

  3. Polly said,

    And the European conquests were because of superior technology, NOT because they were nastier than the natives. The American Indians would have been very happy to hammer the Europeans if they had better guns. They were NOT any nicer!!!!

  4. amba12 said,

    “Most of the great inventors have been white males.” There it is—the unexamined assumption of white (and male) superiority. You’d be amazed how many of the technologies we depend on were invented by black and/or female inventors. Are you going to make ME do the work of looking it up? 🙄*sigh*

    I suspect at root the technological, material-world-conquering superiority of northern euroid culture was driven by a cold climate. Innovate or die. A factor I didn’t write about is the complex role played by the monotheistic Abrahamic religions and their belief that their god is the only true god, as proven by them “saving” or slaying the believers of lesser gods.

    As for women, that’s another post for another day. Facts and statistics and biology are not the whole story. Many factors have held women back from using their human talents fully and publicly. One is that until we became such oversuccessful reproducers, the survival of the species depended on that division of labor. Another that I haven’t seen written about is “divided motivation.” To oversimplify, historically everything men want, including women and offspring, lies in the same direction of achievement. With the exception of performers whose person is part of their art, women who go in the direction of achievement risk giving up all the rest. Men’s reward can be their sacrifice.

  5. amba12 said,

    You’re absolutely right, Alexandra Leh. I didn’t mean to imply that jazz musicians didn’t compose or practice and polish, or that they weren’t consummate musicians. My point is that jazz is at the pinnacle of high art. I exaggerated for contrast. What I should have said is that improvisation is a highly valued major element in jazz and a minor element (not entirely absent—what are they called, cadenzas?—in classical music, or for that matter in bluegrass, rock, etc., but those are already cultural hybrids). I can either leave my error in place for demonstration purposes or correct it, what do you recommend? Actually your comment does the job better than I ever could, because you grew up under jazz’s wing.

  6. Polly said,

    No, it could not have been the cold climate. There had been very advanced cultures in India, Africa, and Central America.

    The technological superiority of Europe was because of chance historical factors, as far as I know.

    But in one paragraph you deny that white males were mostly responsible for advanced technology, and in the next paragraph you say it was because of the climate (contradiction).

    Advanced technology took off in Europe. The printing press, telescope, microscope, guns, etc.

    And to this day, technological advances are mostly driven by white males. It’s a fact. Sure, it would be possible to dig up many exceptions. I am talking about statistical reality.

    Computers, personal computers, the internet, wireless technology, on and on. These advances can’t be blamed primarily on women and non-whites.

    And as you might already know, I see technology as the biggest threat to our health and survival. I am not a promoter, and I am not a denier.

    I try to look at reality, that’s all.

  7. amba12 said,

    “There had been very advanced cultures in India, Africa, and Central America.” Advanced, yes. World-conquering, no.

    When I was in Mexico City last year I had to laugh. Moctezuma was a mini-Cortez, conquering, looting, and enslaving neighboring peoples. Little did he know there was a bigger one on the way. Karma, as we’re all finding out right now, is a bitch.

  8. Polly said,

    The “bad guy” theory of conquest doesn’t make sense. If it were true, there would have been bad guys in all cultures.

    Conquest is more logically explained by the need for resources, and having superior weapons.

    I think it’s feminist/post-colonialist ideology that promotes the patriarchal bad guy theory. They want someone to blame and hate.

  9. amba12 said,

    The Chinese invented printing, as they did gunpowder. Which they used in fireworks.

    On “divided motivation”: I still cringe after writing like this. It’s presumptuous. It’s overbearing. It’s not “likable.”

  10. amba12 said,

    There WERE bad guys (and girls) in all cultures. The people who get power are the people who crave power, whether it’s the power of a dictator over “the masses” or the power of a serial killer over his victim.

  11. Polly said,

    There were printing presses in China and Japan, but they did not have moveable type. That was the great breakthrough. And it happened in Europe, by chance.

    [On “divided motivation”: I still cringe after writing like this. It’s presumptuous. It’s overbearing. It’s not “likable.”]

    I don’t understand what that means.

  12. Polly said,

    “There WERE bad guys (and girls) in all cultures. The people who get power are the people who crave power, whether it’s the power of a dictator over “the masses” or the power of a serial killer over his victim.”

    That does not explain all the relatively peaceful tribal cultures that anthropologists have studied. There was very little craving of power.

  13. Polly said,

    The anthropology book Our Kind, by Marvin Harris, explains it very well I think. He shows how inequality and patriarchy result from agriculture and weapons technology.

  14. amba12 said,

    And there were also warlike cultures, even pre-agriculture. Is it all about scarce resources? About child-rearing? What makes a culture take that turn is fascinating. Being human is a problem no one has quite solved.

    You couldn’t invent movable type with ideograms! There would be way too many elements. But ideograms are a highly sophisticated creation and were adaptable to completely different languages.

  15. Polly said,

    It’s all about resources, and technology. Not bad people or sociopaths. We all have the capacity to be “bad.” It is only expressed in certain contexts.

    I think Guttenberg accidentally dropped the plate and it broke, giving him the idea of breaking up the individual letters. That accident dramatically changed the world.

  16. amba12 said,

    If true, that’s very cool.

    We all have the capacity to be “bad” but why do some people make a career of it? There’s not a simple answer.

  17. Polly said,

    No there is no simple answer. I am glad we’re talking about it.

  18. amba12 said,


  19. Polly said,

    People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck is an interesting exploration of what makes some people evil.

  20. amba12 said,

    I’ve given that book to a number of people who were dealing with family members who fit Peck’s description of evil.

  21. Alexandra Leh said,

    Annie, thank you. Please leave your entry as is, and anyone who reads it, as well as the comments, will get the full picture!

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