Stupid white self-loathing
White commentators are suffering from the honky blues.
‘White people scare the crap out of me.’
So writes American commentator Michael Moore in his book Stupid White Men (1). ‘This may be hard for you to understand – considering that I am white – but then again, my colour gives me a certain insight’, says Moore. ‘I look around at the world I live in but it’s not the African-Americans who have made this planet such a pitiful, scary place. No black guy ever built or used a bomb designed to wipe out hordes of innocent people, whether in Oklahoma City, Columbine or Hiroshima. No, friends, it’s always the white guy.’
Moore’s lively account of race relations in the USA and beyond argues that there is something inherently bad and oppressive about the white man. Instead of analysing racism in a social and economic context, Moore blames it on an accident of history – white skin pigmentation. Cheers. For serious white and black anti-racists, Moore’s desperate self-flagellation is as wrong-headed as it is cringe-worthy. So it should be easy to ignore Moore’s ‘collective guilt’ arguments as the work of a ‘controversial’ self-publicist.
Unfortunately, however, Moore’s self-loathing tone has struck a chord in British society. In 2002, Stupid White Men had sold over 300,000 copies. And judging by London Underground commuters, it is mostly read by, well, those very same ‘stupid white men’. Moore, it seems, isn’t the only breast-beating whitey who wants to put whitey in the dock. Whether in academia, culture, popular music, geographical area or even industrial disputes, anything that’s deemed ‘too white’ these days is seen as a bit ‘dodgy’ and quite possibly ‘racist’.
From the 1950s onwards, white bohemians have romanticised the ‘other’. This often involved ‘finding yourself’ while traipsing around flea markets in India, growing dreadlocks and pretending to enjoy Bob Marley’s chirpy nursery rhymes. Wishing to be a ‘person of colour’, and hating being a person of pale, was once a youthful and immature expression of alienation, a perverse belief that black people’s powerlessness was a mark of authenticity.
Today, a similar outlook informs government policy, too. In autumn 2002, UK prime minister Tony Blair’s response to the firefighters’ pay claim was to demand that the service became more ‘multicultural’. Quite what an awareness of Ramadan or Halal meat has to do with extinguishing fires is anybody’s guess. Aside from ratifying New Labour’s multicultural agenda, suggesting the fire service is ‘too white’ is a sly way of shifting public attention from support for the fire strikes to suspicion.
This isn’t the first time that the Labour Party has played the white self-loathing card to dismiss its critics. After the British National Party candidate Derek Beacon won a by-election in the Isle of Dogs, east London, in 1993, anti-racists blamed previous local Labour administrations for stoking up racial hatred in the area. The Labour Party’s response was to argue that such claims were the workings of ‘the white left’. Previously socialist activists were simply called the left. The negative adage of ‘white’ implied that white people have no real authority in discussing racism.
The idea of ‘whiteness’ being inherently problematic finds greater resonance among multiculturalist academics. In the early 1990s, the Western intellectual canon was derided for being made up of ‘dead white males’. Never mind what Hobbes, Hegel or Darwin contributed to humanity’s development, their ‘whiteness’ was seen as being part of an exclusive and elitist tradition that was apparently offensive to non-whites.
Given this disdain for supposed ‘white’ culture, you would expect a celebration of the excellence and innovations found in black cultures, right? Not a chance. The sophistication found in the jazz music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane or Sun Ra barely warrants a mention in the multicultural lexicon. Neither does radical black writer CLR James. Even on a popular cultural level, always a favourite haunt of socially descending relativists, Tamla Motown or 1970s soul singers such as Marvin Gaye or Curtis Mayfield aren’t exactly lionised either.
It seems that any black cultural or intellectual expression that aspires to be universal is as suspect as those ‘dead white males’. Instead multiculturalists prefer to highlight primitive Third World cultures, backward religiosity or history lessons on the slave trade. This is the great fraud at the heart of multiculturalism. For all their metropolitan pretensions and calls for ‘open-mindedness’, as the late Allan Bloom discovered, multiculturalism is keen on closing minds and sealing off the history-making imagination (2). Primitive and backward cultures are celebrated simply to teach us to be humble about ourselves.
In this respect, white self-loathing is hardly flattering about black people or what is supposedly ‘black culture’. Since the tragic killing of black London teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993, and the Macpherson inquiry that followed, black people have been recast from villains to victims. Consider the shooting of four black teenage girls in Birmingham at the start of the year: home secretary David Blunkett’s kneejerk reaction looked like an old-fashioned attack on ‘lawless’ black youth – but there was also much hand-wringing from white liberals portraying black gangs as victims of white society.
There’s no doubting that inner-city black youth are marginalised and alienated from mainstream society. But quite how alienation automatically leads to gun crime isn’t exactly clear – unless, of course, black youths are recast as gormless victims responding blindly to their circumstances. Indeed, many argued after the Birmingham shootings that blacks are influenced by gangsta rap to commit violent acts, as if they are automatons.
But, as many black writers and djs were quick to point out, gangsta rap is largely consumed by white middle-class (middle) youth. Hip hop nights in Manchester and London are attended almost exclusively by the white middle classes.
Hip hop originated in America as underground party music aimed at blanking out ghetto life’s degrading characteristics. Much of black youth music in the 1980s was motivated by a desire to escape from white people’s idea of ‘blackness’. That is why German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk had a massive influence on black American music. Music journalists today are still confused about how Kraftwerk’s ‘cold, white, funkless’ music inspired hip hop artists like Afrika Baambatta or techno djs Jaun Atkins and Kevin Saunderson. But Kraftwerk’s obsession with futurist innovations over past identities (a necessity for German youth after the Holocaust) chimed with black youth seeking to escape the straitjacket of ‘identity’.
Jaun Atkins tells how improved material circumstances for his Detroit parents opened the door to travel, education and the avant garde. For Atkins, there was a strong desire ‘to distance ourselves from… the ghetto’ (3). Hip hop and techno-driven R’n’B only became ‘ghetto fabulous’ when gangsta rap became a huge mainstream hit. Its success didn’t depend on blacks really ‘telling it how it is’ (I don’t recall any songs eulogising rap stars’ liking for Benny Hill and Monty Python), but telling it how self-loathing whites would like it to be.
In every sense, white self-loathing is as indulgent as it is reactionary. Not only does racism become the equivalent of a genetically inherited illness, but it seeks to keep non-whites associated with the very ‘identities’ they want to escape. It’s hardly an advance for black people when their kudos is based on victimhood.
Multiculturalists – the official channel of white loathing – may argue that all cultures should be treated equally. But in reality the primitive, the ethnic and the backward are now preferred to the excellence and universalism of ‘dead white males’, or black ones (except Tupac and Biggie Smalls). And that is really stupid.
Neil Davenport is a music and film journalist for Uncut magazine.
(1) Stupid White Men, Michael Moore, Regan Books 2002
(2) The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom, Touchstone 1988
(3) Energy Flash, Simon Reynolds, Picador, 1998
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