Beginning a genealogy of privileging forces: racism, classism, and colonialism/paternalism

Posted on: June 3, 2022 | By: Tom Arcaro | Filed under: Hydra "privileging forces"

Beginning a genealogy of privileging forces: racism, classism, and colonialism/paternalism

Below is a largely conjectural and theoretical beginning to a conversation about the history of privilege. I build on and then expand the work pioneered by critical race theorists in attempting to describe and explain how false consciousness plays a key role in establishing and maintaining unjust social structures.

Deepening critical Hydra theory
Effectively confronting toxic othering means deepening our use of critical hydra theory (CHT). One way this can be done is by looking at how all of the privileging forces represented by heads of the hydra are embedded into all contemporary cultural structures.

This means looking deeply into our past nationally, regionally, and globally and making attempts to more fully understand the origins of these privileging forces and how they are intertwined in various ways. Critical Hydra theory (CHT) builds on critical race theory (CRT) by examining the intersectionality of the many privileging forces and how these are manifested in many policies, practices, norms, and, perhaps most importantly, laws at all levels, local, national, and international.

Important considerations
As I begin this discussion a few points need to made clear:

  • Engaging in a thorough genealogy of privileging forces (the heads of the Hydra) is well beyond the scope of a short essay or, for that matter, even a short book. The level of detail necessary to trace the history of even one privileging force is immense. Below is only the very preliminary thoughts of one academic.
  • Driven by mass media and especially social media, our world in many ways is increasingly interconnected politically, economically, legally, linguistically, and culturally to the point that it is not out of the question to talk about a global consciousness. The line between local, national and global is blurred as multinational corporations penetrate markets in every corner of our world making a thorough genealogy of privileging forces up to the present a task which demands a keen understanding of the processes which drive globalization and how we are becoming one global culture. This is a key point when we apply CHT in an effort to confront toxic othering in any specific context since, quite literally, the fabric one any one culture now includes threads from the growing fabric of our global culture; social structures any one culture have connections to social structures in other  cultures around the globe; everything is connected to everything else. To the point, addressing any one privileging force in isolation must be done with caution and an awareness that this isolation is likely an illusion.
  • Doing genealogies effectively, especially of privileging forces, means using a variety of written (and oral) sources. An ironic fact is that many sources were/are authored by those with privilege and hence may have inherent bias and thus must be read and employed with caution.
  • Perhaps most importantly, doing a thorough genealogy of privileging forces means questioning established power structures and social institutions, i.e., ‘ruffling lots of feathers.’ There is considerable resistance to Critical Race Theory in the United States and this kind of push back can be expected to any critical examination of all privileging forces. Researching, describing, and teaching about privileging forces is both subversive and radical because it means going to the foundations of these social forces and necessarily interrogating and even challenging the status quo.
  • Explicitly acknowledging, studying, and learning from the array of data sources used and the research methodologies employed by those engaged in Critical Race Theory (CRT) is critical.

Why ‘genealogy’?
In his books Beyond Good and Evil and  On the Genealogy of Morals Friedrich Nietzsche uses the methodology of looking at the roots of words, the origins of their meanings, and how these meanings were reinforced by the words and actions primarily of those in power. Nietzsche argues that many of the moral failings of modern civilization are connected to the efforts of ‘blond beasts of prey’, i.e., the elites controlling power. These books, though he may not have seen it at the time, reinforce a central idea from Marx, namely that “The ideas of the ruling class are, in any age, the ruling ideas”.

Both thinkers are shedding light on the pivotal transition from normal othering to toxic othering which is the common mechanism underlying all the privileging forces. This transition to toxic othering is slow and subtle and those in power are able to normalize and even glorify the processes and structures that create and support marginalization.

This normalization serves to entrench a false consciousness within both the oppressors and the oppressed. In this case I am taking the liberty to expand Marx’ original and narrow use of this term specifically referencing class differences and the plight of the proletariat. Critical Hydra theory reframes false consciousness to now include all instances where humans become blinded to the inherent injustice of transitioning from ‘normal othering’ to ‘toxic othering’.

When explaining how racism is structured in to our US culture I often use the colloquial phrase that racism is ‘baked into’ our society not only in laws and policies but into the very consciousness of most people. Daniel Quinn in his book Ishmael offers us the term ‘Mother Culture’:

“Mother Culture, whose voice has been in your ear since the day of your birth, has given you an explanation of how things came to be this way.”

In the way I am using these terms Mother Culture and false consciousness are more or less synonymous. Mother Culture, for example, whisper’s the lies about the legitimacy of racist ideas and structures and brainwashes the minds of both the oppressor and those oppressed. The oppressed, though, are more facile at deconstructing the lies of Mother Culture and are the first to see through these lies. Most oppressors benefiting from these lies, from this false consciousness, cling on to these illusions and help to perpetuate the normalization of marginalization.

The beginning assumption of critical Hydra theory (CHT) is that all of the privileging forces have been ‘baked in to’ not just the US culture but also all cultures across the globe. A genealogy of privileging forces demands examining (1) how false consciousness(s) developed and were normalized and (2) the deeply complex intersectional and synergistic connections between and among these forces.

It is with a nod to Nietzsche, Marx and Daniel Quinn that below I begin a discussion about a genealogy of the various privileging forces represented by the heads of the Hydra.

Whiteness was invented
A recent Guardian article by Robert Baird “The invention of whiteness: the long history of a dangerous idea.” is a good, quick read for those who may be new to this concept. In this essay Baird outlines the history of the concept of race and how it is entwined with other privileging ideas and forces. Much to his credit, it is obvious that Baird listened to and learned from the voices of those most directly affected by structural racism. As I have noted elsewhere, critical Hydra theory must be informed and driven by the voices of those historically marginalized. Baird is certainly not the first writer to make his points but he gives us a very quick and readable summary of the how colonialism, capitalism, and classism all have a part in ‘the invention of whiteness.’

Baird’s core argument is anticipated by commentator Guy Emerson Mount in a 2015 article reviewing Eric William’s very influential 1944 book Capitalism and Slavery. Mount says,

The thing we call slavery and the thing we call capitalism both continue to provoke scholars with their incestuous relationship (emphasis added).

Williams is just one of many writers and historians who point out that “slavery was not born of racism: rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.”

In a recorded interview Baird noted,

“Certainly in the United States, whiteness has very often defined itself against blackness. To be white was not to be black. Everyone else was left in between and there was room for tactical accomodations. If you go back to the 1910s and 1920s, you see a series of legal cases that reached the Supreme Court where, in quick succession, you have a Japanese person say ‘well I count as white’ and the Supreme Court says you have to be Caucasian to count as white. Then a person from India sues and says ‘I count as white because I come from Caucasian stock’ and the Supreme Court says ‘no we don’t mean Caucasian in that sense, we mean what an ordinary person would think of as Caucasian.’ You get this circular logic that defines whiteness from the very beginning.”

Though he may be off in his genealogical assertion by a couple centuries, in his essay The Souls of White Folk sociologist WEB Du Bois argues that “The discovery of personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing – a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed.” He is just one of many voices from people of color pointing out the ‘invention of whiteness’ and its impacts. Du Bois does give us a picture of how the idea of whiteness did not appear full blown and universally accepted but rather spread, virus like- slowly and insidiously into the minds of those newly willing to cast themselves as ‘white.’ Mother Culture whispering lies.

But the full story goes back much further.

Proto racism
To be clear, slavery has a long history predating the trans-Atlantic slave trade and still exists today. In terms of raw numbers, there are as many slaves world wide now in 2022 –over 40,000,000– as there were at any time in world history. This is nearly four times more than during the entire period of the trans-Atlantic slave trade era.

Of note is that the justification for slavery in antiquity began as a spoil of war, with this justification changing to racism during the colonization era. Now, in the 21st century, the objectification and commodification of human bodies can be best explained by the simple functioning of an ‘amoral’ global capitalism where anything -or any one- can be used to earn a profit and where numerous iterations of toxic othering based on race, ethnicity, gender, class, and ability allow those responsible to ease their guilt.

Argments for what has been called ‘proto-racism’ have been made by several researchers. Benjamin Isaac in his essay “Slavery and Proto-racism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity” argues that,

“…prototypes of racism were common in the Graeco-Roman world… In antiquity, as in modern times, we constantly encounter the unquestioned assumption that it is possible and reasonable to relate to entire peoples as if they were a single or collective individual. The conceptual means employed to this end were not the same in antiquity as in modern history, although they are still quite familiar.”

Ethnocentrism -viewing and judging other cultures through the lens of your own culture- has been a human trait since perhaps even before we split from our Proto-human ancestors. Normal othering, as in ‘that other group is not our group’ can lead to toxic othering when there is competition for resources (such as territory, food, or breeding females) and this toxic othering can lead to war and even to genocide. In response to questions about the Gombe Chimpanzee War, noted primatologist Jane Goodall laments that, “We used to think it was only humans that waged war but we find that chimpanzees like humans have this rather unpleasant ability to create an in-group and an out-group.”

In antiquity, as in modern times, we constantly encounter the unquestioned assumption that it is possible and reasonable to generalize about entire groups of peoples, to create ‘out0-groups.’ The conceptual and semantic means employed to this end were not the same in antiquity as in modern history, although they are still quite familiar.

It is typical for normal othering to transform into to toxic othering whenever there is an asymmetry of power, with the ‘out-group’ serving as victim. The chances of this transformation happening increase exponentially when there is competition for scare resources. Evidence of inter group conflict leading to extreme toxic othering (i.e., mass deaths) has been found in pre-agricultural human groups as long ago as 10,000 years ago.

Proto racism across the globe set the stage for the forces of capitalism and colonialism to create and then ossify the concepts of race and white supremacy in Western thought. The evil trifecta of racism, classism, and colonialism/paternalism share an intersecting past, each amplifying the other two.

Sociological views on the rise of classism
The discussion of ‘proto-racism’ above raises the question of what forces underlie the changing nature of how slavery has been justified. The relationship between slavery and capitalism is key, of course.

I suggest beginning with a broad theoretical approach, looking at cultural evolution and examining how capitalism drove the fundamental restructuring of social life. This restructuring can be seen in the emergence of state societies which, through the actions and example of those in power, legitimized the rise of stratified societies characterized by structured social inequality, beginning the long process of normalizing and then glorifying gluttony and greed. Like the proverbial frog put into a pot of cold water and slowly raising the temperature to boiling and killing the frog, human cultures have accepted the core myth embedded in classism -some ‘deserve’ great power. The slow rate of sociocultural change allowed for this assumption to be slowly perpetuated by those in power, ‘baked into’ norms, policies, laws, and traditions. I don’t think this transition was the result of any one group of leaders but rather an organic process that happened as those in power created and sustained the illusion of superiority. Humans invented social stratification -structured social inequality based on power and wealth-and classism just as much later they invented race and ‘whiteness.’

The broadly accepted lie that some humans are inherently superior to other humans becomes part of Mother Culture. Understanding this rise of false consciousness can be made sense of by employing one of the main theoretical perspectives in sociology, namely symbolic interactionism. This tool can effectively be summarized by the so-called Thomas Theorem which states,

“It is not important whether or not the interpretation is correct — if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”

The key phrase in this theorem is ‘define situations to be real’. In modern vernacular we talk about ‘spin doctors’ who are used to ‘control the narrative’. Telling lies, all the better big lies, is a key
weapon of any type of propaganda machine. Here in the United States we are still in the throes of the ‘big lie’ that the 2016 election was ‘stolen’. What happened on January 6th, 2020 is a key testament to the validity of the Thomas Theorem given the consequences of that day are still being felt. Connecting the dots, we see that those in power have the ability of perpetuate narratives that serve their needs (see discussions of Rupert Murdock’s media dynasty), and that W. I Thomas offers an additional theoretical explanation of how (as quoted above from Marx) “The ideas of the ruling class are, in any age, the ruling ideas.”

And thus the central wisdom driving a thorough genealogy of all privileging forces is that the truth is what those in power say it is. Normal othering turns into toxic othering but this marginalization is not seen as toxic or pathological but rather as normal and natural. Critical Hydra theory is an examination of how power has been used to normalize and justify structured in all of the injustices represented by each head of the Hydra. Outlined above is only the beginning of a complete genealogy of all privileging forces, and there is much more work to be done.

[To be continued.]

Tom Arcaro

Tom Arcaro is a professor of sociology at Elon University. He has been researching and studying the humanitarian aid and development ecosystem for nearly two decades and in 2016 published 'Aid Worker Voices'. He recently published his second and third books related to the humanitarians sector with 'Confronting Toxic Othering' published in 2021 and 'Dispatches from the Margins of the Humanitarian Sector' in 2022.

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