Spring comes, it’s still cold, but for some reason my brain starts to act like I might actually be a smart person again. Either that or I have crossed the line officially into madness.
Again using this blog to avoid Twitter rants, develop ideas & questions popping up in my head. I may be nuts, but I’m gonna write this stuff out. I think I’m thinking more productively because I feel better and more confident about my ideas. Recently some people I respect a lot have let me know that my input is wanted and valuable and I haven’t been so sure about that lately. It made me realize that I actually might have something to share and it’s not cool to keep ideas/thoughts to myself if they could be helpful or useful in any way. And if they aren’t then I filled in some time when I’d be doing nothing anyway.
Okay that was a ramble…here’s what I really plan to say:
I’m so frustrated by the resistance to systemic/institutional analyses in public debates around so many things: race, economics, gender, sexuality, and, yes media and popular culture. I’m especially frustrated by the resistance among those who are the most vocal, vehement critics. There is this constant need not only to focus upon individual responsibility, individual stories & narratives, but also to have that ONE person to point the finger at, to blame, to make accountable.
Or on the other hand to identify and point to the, yes, very real and powerful constructs of white supremacy, patriarchy, sexism, even oppression, (and my FAVORITE amorphous overused & to be fair, underexplained concept: privilege) as the causes of social conditions without really explaining HOW.
Yes. individuals are complicit and direct actors and have agency. People create and perpetuate those constructs and they should be taken to task, they are human relics. BUT what is most insidious and most powerful is the way these constructs are firmly embedded within, are reproduced by, almost automatically in many cases, social, cultural & political institutions. That is how and why they work, not just because Joe Blow is a sexist/racist bigot. Joe Blow is an executive in a corporation and has influence & makes key decisions and it has global power and he and it aren’t the only ones.
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ latest piece started me thinking (note: this post isn’t a direct response to much less a critique of his piece but a more general discussion of ideas that it sparked for me.
While yes, he’s right in isolating White Supremacy I can’t help but have the nagging feeling that what’s missing is what Imani Perry & other critics of the president’s young men of color policy have been trying SO HARD to make clear: its not only about individuals but about institutions & how oppression, power & white supremacy are built in, and how they act directly upon people (sorry Foucault). And yes, it’s culture, beliefs, ideas, but those are institutionalized as well.
I sometimes wonder whether Culture of Poverty theories keep popping up over and over and over again because as a society we cannot let go of individualism. Everyone buys into it, even the ones who it doesn’t benefit.
So when those who talk about and advocate for the oppressed discuss issues, we so often still frame in individualistic terms, and don’t emphasize the systems, structures & policies at work. Not just laws, but daily practices that have resulted in today’s continued social realities? And these are numerous, very specific, AND have been researched and documented extensively. For example, the history of housing policy in the US, segregation as practice in loans, redlining is DIRECTLY linked to racial differences in wealth but also educational outcomes & income. I know these issues are written about but I rarely see the links being made and almost never on social and in the popular media.
Believe me, no one has to explain that none of this is sexy or exciting stuff, that readers are drawn to personal stories, sites gotta get clicks, shows need eyes. But it’s not just the mainstream media. All the time critics activists isolate an individual to focus on as a “bad guy”, this person often is pretty heinous, but what is obscured is how that individual is embedded within, a product of and often one of many in a systematic structure that will be there long after that person’s crimes are revealed & they are called out.
I hear time and again and am perplexed by the notion that saying an issue is structural/systemic is just “code” for it’s pointless to try to change it. Where does that leap come from? Systems & institutions are made by and made up of individuals, by humans. They aren’t Borgs. If you feel that you can change things on an individual level then , like eventually on Star Trek, you can make changes in institutions. But in order to do that you have to take the steps & ask the right questions about HOW power & oppression work and have been institutionalized.
And of course this is not nearly as motivating or satisfying as having an individual or personality to focus on. And btw this doesn’t just count for bad actors, but also for those we look to as leaders or to enact change. See: Barack Obama.
I also am perfectly, clearly aware that people experience everyday life as individuals as well as members of groups, and that’s how they relate to the world. But that is kind of an illusion isn’t it? Because it’s not the only way we exist.
I also get the sense of helplessness one feels as a person or group of people tackling what seems to be an untouchable, impenetrable, often inscrutable behemoth like schools, TV, government. And that it gives folks a sense of efficacy to focus on individuals in those structures. But while we may make a dent, and feel triumphant even taking town a bigwig baddie, if what held them up stays in place, how effective are we really? Isn’t that an illusion?
Sure we can use personal narratives to draw people into an issue with sympathy, anger, etc, but why not move beyond to communicate how the issue is systematic? We can do both.
And I’m NOT saying to stop focusing on the individual level on analysis/action. Of course it is important. But there is no reason why it has to be the ONLY perspective & in fact, both support & inform each other in numerous ways. Also some people are better thinkers/actors from one standpoint than the other. There doesn’t have to be an opposition, either/or. Again this is rooted in Western & American beliefs which even the excluded by into.
Finally a gagillion people I can’t even remember have made this argument, participated in some form of this debate since the damn Enlightenment. Also it’s Sociology 101. I can take no credit.
Anyway this is expands and is related to what I was getting at in the blog yesterday about Hollywood and the need for institutional/systemic analysis.
Also everyone should (and CAN) learn Sociology. Would help out a lot.