If you want to know, check out Stephen Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The book was first published in 1989, and has remained a best seller. It may seem shocking to many that it can be used to illustrate white supremacy, but the fact is that white supremacy goes largely unnoticed in a white culture.
Perhaps the first sign of white supremacy is that Covey’s book never mentions the legacy of white supremacy. I don’t know, of course, whether the actual person named Stephen Covey is aware of this legacy, so I am not talking about him. I am talking about what can be called the “implied author” of the text. The implied author is simply the author that is reflected in what is written. So I don’t have much to say about the person of Stephen Covey, but about the author Stephen Covey.
One principle of white supremacy is to ignore or even deny one’s social self—one’s particular race, class, gender, and so on. The ideology of white supremacy does not depend on social position, but rather on something more internal. In the history of white supremacy it was sometimes based on an Anglo-Saxon identity, and sometimes just on being white. Today, it is based on an internal confidence that provides immunity from criticism and impunity from doing harm.
Ignoring all the social aspects of one’s self, Covey writes: “I can live out of my imagination instead of my memory. I can tie myself to my limitless potential instead of my limiting past. I can become my own first creator” (Fireside Book edition, 1990 p.105). Can you imagine someone writing this to a Black community? Communities that live in the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and police violence will probably understand this for what it is: an expression of white superiority . I think that the implied author is not writing to audiences of color, but only to people like himself. In fact, the book is mostly a book from and to Covey.
One of the themes of the book is that a “private victory” of the internal self must come prior to a “public victory” of the public self (He doesn’t use the idea of “social self,” not only because he doesn’t believe in a social self, but he also appears unaware of all the sociological studies of the self. Instead of centering the self in family, marriage, church, or other relationships, he argues that the only security you can really trust is self-centered security. (Covey the person is interesting here. As a Mormon, I would assume that he would be centered in a relationship with God or the Mormon faith, but since he doesn’t talk about this when writing about a principled life, I don’t know if his faith played a role here or not.) In any case, there is a lot of research today that places human security in secure attachments with others. This research would say that security is relational, not individual. White supremacy, of course, allows one to ignore relationships because the security is in one’s superiority.
There is a way in which white supremacy is unconscious, and the implied author of this book appears to be totally unconscious. That makes it a good text to examine for the many ways that white supremacy continues to shape the culture of our organizations, families, and associations. I invite you to continue the examination.
Let’s start with this: If you cannot understand Africa today without understanding Europe, then you cannot understand Europe without understanding Africa. Such a principle might unlock our imagination to think about the immigrant “problem” as part of the solution for Greece, and for Europe. This would recast the center of the conversation from Brussels or Berlin, to the Mediterranean Sea. Europe and Africa, in other words, are best understood not as two continents, but rather as two coasts on the Mediterranean Sea. Europe’s future, I would guess, depends much more on its relations with Africa than its relations with itself, which I suspect has always been the case.
Civic conversations, as I see it, are not about the “exchange of ideas” (our thoughts are not commodities) or about winning debates (we are we selling things), but are about what we jointly discern as urgent issues. How we approach these issues of course, depends on who invites whom to the conversation. If we want to deal with social inequality, who invites whom makes all the difference in the world.
In Aristotle’s famous two books on friendship in his Nicomachean Ethics, he states that un-equals can be friends, if they figure out what reciprocity would look like for them. If parents give their children money, for example, reciprocity would not require that the children repay their parents with money, but rather with gratitude and honor. The point about reciprocity, as Laurence Becker has said, is about balanced social relations.
Much of the inequality we see around us violates this principle of balanced social relationships. So, if we went to engage in civic conversations, we need to re-balance them.
Here is where the “you” come in. I don’t mean you, but rather the second person pronoun “you.” Most of the time, we treat ourselves as an “I” or a “me” or maybe a “we.” We actually cannot treat ourselves as a “you.” Someone else must do that. We only become a “you” when someone addresses us with a question or some other invocation. The question “What do you think?” can enable another to become a “you.” A you-you relationship may be a necessary condition for real civic conversations. (Martin Buber called it an “I-Thou” relationship, and he is certainly one source of these reflections)
If “I” cannot make myself a “you,” then I am dependent on the invitation of the other. If others have been disadvantaged by social imbalances, how likely is it that they will invite those of us who have benefited from the imbalances into a civic conversation? Isn’t it the case that those of us in privileged positions need an invitation (that’s the only way we can enter into you-you relationships) but that our benefiting from social inequalities make such an invitation unlikely? So, what can we do?
Deeper than our social inequalities resides a common humanity. We are all living now, for example. We are contemporaries. We have attachments and we need provisions. We need protection. Our grandchildren inherit the same planet. We face new beginnings and we face death. What these events mean, of course, depends a lot on our social worlds, but our common humanity is more than these social worlds.
The problem is that this common humanity has been violated by slavery, wars, and imperialism. If we want it to become a foundation for engaging in dialogue with others, it needs to be repaired. It may be that we cannot effectively deal with our social inequalities until we repair the violations of our common humanity. What that repair would require is an open question—a question that might get us an invitation to engage in civic conversations.
Click to see blog post: White Economics
During a recent visit to New Orleans, I discovered that the city has a fascinating economic history. The city was ruled first by the French, the Spanish, and then the United States. Regardless of the rulers, or the white owners of property, the city’s early economy depended on enslaved and free people of color. After the Civil War, the economy depended on the labor of sharecroppers and others living in debt slavery. The economic story of New Orleans is a multicolored story from enslaved Africans building the first levees to the on-going work of rebuilding the Ninth Ward. If you know New Orleans, then you know a multicolored economy. Most economic thinking, however, has split off from consciousness the contributions and the sufferings of people of color and has practiced a white economics.
White economics is thinking about economics as though people of color do not exist. It’s Europeans thinking about economics as though Africa didn’t exist. It’s white Americans thinking about economics as though American wealth was not dependent on the contributions of Africans, Hispanics, and Asians. You can find it in much of the current thinking about a “new economy” as well as most mainstream economic thinking, especially in economic departments.
This type of thinking has a long history that is best illustrated by Adam Smith’s exclusion of the role of slavery in his story of wealth creation. In one section of The Wealth of Nations, Smith writes about the reasons for the prosperity of the American colonies. He mentions land and management, but not labor, even though he believed that labor was the only real source of wealth creation. In this case, it was the labor of enslaved Africans that made the tobacco lords of Glasgow some of the wealthiest individuals in Europe. Smith met with these tobacco traders for years, but never shared his knowledge of the Atlantic slave-based economy. He tells a lie about an invisible hand instead of the truth about the white hands of plantation owners.
White economists are not very interested in the history of either the Atlantic or the Caribbean economies. In fact, white economists assume there is no need to repair the harm that has been done to people of color. Furthermore, and this is not unimportant, white economists do not see any need to examine the assumptions of white supremacy. This blindness has not only prevented people of color from receiving compensation for their contributions to our wealth; it has also prevented white economists from taking an appropriate stance toward the past and the future.
The appropriate stance for white economists is one of humility. Humility would allow us to learn how to repair the past and re-think the future. If we open our eyes to current economic trends, this white dominated economy is humiliating. Shameful. Some might say that White Americans are not a humble people. That may be the problem.
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