America’s Race Obsession

The idea of being “less white” was appealing then, because it meant stepping out of a culture war that insisted on defining you by your skin color alone. Of course, the problem that remains is one of identity. Who are you if you aren’t going to be defined by your skin color?

Photo by Ivan Lenin on Unsplash

Years before Coca-Cola was urging its employees to “be less white,” the same pressure was being applied to progressives and leftists by other activists encouraging them to “decolonize” themselves.

To different people, decolonizing meant different things. Over the course of about six or seven years, at least a dozen acquaintances of mine left the States with the intention of relocating permanently to places that felt more like home in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Others adopted (or invented) neopagan styles of religion that brought them closer to the spirituality of their ancestors. People chose new names, attempted to stop using English, and I reckon, thoroughly confused their relatives with their newfound rejection of modernity, America, and assimilation.

Back then, the idea was still that whiteness was something we could deconstruct. Beneath American nationalism and sometimes unconscious layers of white identity was our True Self — someone indigenous who belonged to a people and to a land somewhere else in the world. Decolonization was about finding that self, leaving behind the lies that hid him, and reconnecting him to a sense of identity and place.

I’m not even going to deny it — this was my scene. On the one hand, you had gawds-honest klansmen rallying in the streets and self-proclaimed neo-nazis terrorizing Jews, immigrants, and homosexuals in the name of making America great. On the other, you had an increasingly ascendant leftist tendency that insists on both the biological reality of race and the essential nature of different races as justification for lumping all “white people” into a single category with the former.

The idea of being “less white” was appealing then, because it meant stepping out of a culture war that insisted on defining you by your skin color alone. Of course, the problem that remains is one of identity. Who are you if you aren’t going to be defined by your skin color?

A lot of us found meaning in our pre-American ancestry. I oscillated between a desire to go full-chasid and a desire to let my hair mat into a modern-day Polish plait as a sort of Slavic pride “fuck you” to the leftist culture police.

But therein lies both a problem and evidence of a solution. The problem is that almost everyone who has been an American for more than one generation now has a mixed ethnic background. My eyebrows, for instance, are a defining feature of my Scottish bloodline going back for at least as long as anthropologists have been interested in race. I have a birthmark that’s been passed along the Welsh line in my family for at least as long too.

At times when I’m not white — for instance, as a kid when teachers and neighbors assumed I was Latino, or nearly every summer when the olive undertones of my skin set me apart from whiter people and my grandfather makes his regular joke asking if I’ve figured out what I’m “mixed with” yet, when Anglicized nicknames replace family names, or when I’m reminded that most Americans have no concept of the horrors committed under communism in particular — I feel Slavic. But put me in a room full of Slavs, and I am keenly aware that I am a Jew.

This is what I ran into in my process of “decolonizing.” I can’t just peel apart my ethnicities and send them back to a homeland somewhere else. I’m the melting pot of America, embodied. And that’s the solution so many Americans have chosen — our identity isn’t skin color or ethnicity, it’s nationality. We’re all Americans. Even my family members who weren’t born here don’t identify any other way. They see themselves as Americans.

We came here to get away from that tribal conflict bullshit.

Photo by Ivan Lenin on Unsplash

This is the difference between American nationalisms and European nationalisms. When I’ve looked into different thinkers in the European New Right, the most inaccessible aspect of their ideology has been the conflation of nation and ethnicity. That’s what makes the American obsession with skin color, race, and figuring out “who you are” so unintelligible to many Europeans — the way European societies are divided more or less follows long-standing social divisions in how populations view themselves and each other. America isn’t old enough to have a concept of “being an American” yet. It can only aspire to become a certain idea of itself.

That’s what the wave of American cultural decolonization was really trying to show us, right? America is an ongoing, multicultural project in the making. It’s not the product of a society’s slow progress from tribal community to kingdom to nation. To borrow a term from postmodern feminism, America is a cyborg — partly natural, partly constructed.

And while maybe the allure of a big melting pot and the opportunity to build a better life for your children remains a draw for immigrants today (as it did mere decades ago for families like mine), the cultural mood in America has shifted away from championing those ideas.

Immigration is essentially a dirty word for conservatives these days — something to be fought off, not welcomed within reason to share in the work of creating a prosperous America. To the cultural left, all that matters is churning your identity into a different set of melting pots — black, brown, or asian in coalition against white.

The Americas envisioned by both the cultural right and the cultural left are Americas obsessed with skin color and race. Both conflate a postmodern conceptualization of “white” with America — on the right, it’s something to be defended from outside contamination, while on the left, it’s something to be rejected in favor of anything and everything from outside of it.

Both have lost sight of an America that could be about merit, character, and the greater good instead of the color of one’s skin or the circumstances from which they come. Surely a society which replaces ideals like equality under the law with equity of outcome, justice with revenge and mob rule, and fraternity with paranoia and segregation is a society on its way to ruin.

But I don’t fault culture warriors in my generation for whichever side into which they’ve been lured. We haven’t had any great unifying leaders yet in our lifetime. The public education system has utterly failed us. The economy has been whisked overseas while the pols bicker on sex and race. And, frankly, having something to fight for — no matter how absurd — makes life in stagnation at least feel meaningful.

Ironically enough, it was my effort at “decolonizing” myself that woke me up to faith in this country (and what she could be). My ancestors believed in this place. They came here both when life abroad was thriving and when life abroad was burned to the ground. They put aside old rivalries for love, and chose to become Americans out of faith in what America can be.

America needs leaders who come from stories like that, or at least who can hear them and understand their importance to the mythology of this place.

In their absence we’ve been raised by an intellectual culture enchanted with race science and now successfully hegemonic in asserting its ideology as fact. We’ve been prodded on into increasingly niche cultural brands by an economy built now on data compilation, not factories (or the simple goodness of diverse representation).

…And I’m not sure any of it has helped. I can’t tell you what the end-game is for America’s race obsession. Does dividing into race camps end racism? I feel more concerned about race-based violence in this country than I did ten years ago. And I feel much more certain that all of this is an expression of more fundamental questions at the heart of American society.

Who are we? And what does it mean to be American?

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