White Power Distortion and Individualism
Because white power does not understand itself in terms of its relationships with people of color, it has a distorted view of itself and of the world it thinks it controls.
This distortion results not only in a misreading of our social connections, but also a failure to truly understand the current threats of climate change. This distortion, in other words, prevents appropriate responses to the challenges of justice sand sustainability.
The distortion results from the white power assumption that one can separate one’s self from the other, and understand one’s self by one’s self. The source of one’s identity as “white” and as “power” has been severed from its social, historical, linguistic, and natural context. Whiteness is not recognized as a manifestation of Black/White relations. The fact is that just as you cannot understand Black people in the United States without understanding White people, you cannot understand White people without understanding Black people. Whiteness is one side of Black and White.
The same is true about Western history. Just as you cannot understand Africa without understanding Europe, you cannot really understand Europe without understanding Africa. There are some stories, of course, that are particular to Africa or Europe, but what we might call the “grand narratives,” or the “big picture” stories require that we include both Africa and Europe. From the American perspective, that means that such stories have their primary context in the Atlantic triangular trade among Europe, Africa, and the Americas. This trade was based on the acquiring of slaves in Africa and the taking of land in the Americas. Human and non-human nature became a commodity in the hands of Europeans. Our current condition is that instead of white European/Americans understanding ourselves in this Atlantic context, we understand ourselves as “individuals.”
Individualism assumes that there exists a self below all of one’s social relations. In his book, Inventing the Individual, Larry Siedentop attributes individualism to the West to the replacement of family and local gods with Christian monotheism (2015). One god meant that all persons had souls in need of salvation. This “soul” was deeper than any family and social identity. Siedentop’s historical analysis ends with the beginning of the modern age when secular thinkers borrowed this religious individualism to develop what we know as modern liberalism.
What Siedentop does not say is that the context of modern liberalism changed from the Mediterranean Sea and the European continent to the Atlantic Ocean. Most Europeans failed to take this new Atlantic context into account in their thinking. Adam Smith, for example, didn’t write about the real source of wealth he enjoyed in Scotland, which was the business of importing and exporting tobacco from American plantations. John Lock, who many consider the philosopher of American ideology, not only invested in the Atlantic slave trade, but also served on a board overseeing African trading. His view of freedom, in fact, is merely the opposite of being a slave. You either owned yourself or you were owned by someone else. If liberalism has been successful in anything, it has been successful in hiding the role of African slavery in its understanding of itself. In fact, this has been the primary privilege of white power.
Ignoring these relations does have its consequences. It means that white people in Europe and America have a distorted view of themselves and the world in which they live. White power cannot see what needs to be done to establish just social relations, nor can they see what we must do to save the planet. We have their plans, but most of our plans will remain just plans until we begin to restore and repair our relationships with each other and with the planet.