Me, We: individuality and social responsibility that knows no boundaries
by Daniel McNeil
M. A. History, University of Toronto
December 2002/January 2003
There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families.
Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister, 1979-1990
As I have recently been embroiled in a debate on mixedfolks.com that touches upon the issues of the individual and the(ir) community, I would like to use this column to write about the use of individualism in a 'multiracial movement' whose leaders predominantly come from professional classes1, as well as its sometimes somewhat contradictory partnership with a desire for a community so 'we can be as strong as other groups' and/or 'fully' become national citizens.
Much of the rhetoric I observe in articles on websites such as The Multiracial Activist and Interracial Voice fails to be reflective on the privilege the authors hold. I refer not only to the easy labelling of “(some) white privilege”2 but the question of educational and middle class privilege – the class word that is so easily ignored in the North American context. My own context is one of a male, Black/mixed3 individual raised in a skilled working-class family headed by a Catholic/humanist and socialist matriarch. While I was also one of 'Thatcher's children' and grew up in an area that was not particularly well tended by her economic policies, I have had access to privilege in higher educational organisations in Oxford and Toronto. In such institutions I have adored the chance to learn and pursue wisdom, but been somewhat disturbed in observing, and on occasion succumbing to, a lack of care for others, privileging of one's own experience and acceptance of primary definitions of what an individual and community should be, as well as anti-Americanism prevalent in the UK and Canada that can ignore British and Canadian limitations (or more precisely, justify their own position as 'not as bad as the US')4.
While writing this piece on the American context I hope to engage in a dialogue and not descend into easy anti-US sentiment; however, I accept that I am not constrained by, or benefit from, an acceptance of the US constitution and thus will not always look to whether work is in accordance with earlier American ideals. I shall have links to the founding fathers who denounced King George III in order to ask uncomfortable questions for those who currently hold privilege and power as 'just' individuals who not only 'do it', but have 'made it' like Nike,5 yet I will also look to a future with founding mothers and founding Black or working class individuals. With such individuals speaking through supportive groups on a national forum we may extend the debate to build an inclusive worldwide community based on freedom for all rather than security for privileged individuals, groups or corporations.
So, after such a preamble, j'accuse not only those who are rooted in a political, ethnic or national community and speak for 'victimized' Others so as to obtain academic security/ allay guilt, or attack lazy Others who (seem to/are constructed to) threaten their security, but also those who seek to be free of any ties to community/ies. I can accept the quest of individuals for their own voice to be a valid response to the oppressive labelling of groups that insist that one avoid debate and think of the group 'above all else'. Nonetheless, I also wish to highlight the dangers of people dreaming to expand the benefits of power for themselves as an individual, and ignoring the ways in which their identity is formed from surrounding political, ethnic or national discourses, as well as failing to condemn those who attack ‘problem groups’ such as single mothers and ‘the’ unemployed. The anonymity of 'problem groups' is perpetuated not only by rugged individualists, but also by individuals forming along group lines to trot out trendy Marxist maxims to blame capitalism, and by individuals situated as respectable figureheads of ethnic groups or 'concerned citizens' who can denigrate 'welfare queens' to praise the need for (nuclear) family values in America – even while slandering their own sister.6
By tying my concern to those who seek individualism through the (right kind of) family and nation, or new community, we may call into doubt the freedom of individuals to escape the influences of existing communities. Why? Because we may observe the desires of individuals for security through an acceptance of established terms regarding what one should search for (e.g. family, ethnic group, nation). Here we are not simply dealing with class privilege – for individuals from various socio-economic backgrounds seek security and group belonging – but with fear, and definitions of the self not only like Others, but also against Others, e.g. 'we' (multiracial individuals in the US) are what 'we' are because we are not 'just' African, European, Native, Hispanic, Asian, south-east Asian, Arab (etc) Americans. Again, such concerns are entirely valid, but I don't see how they can comfortably fit with a wish to produce individuals free from all labels. A description of 'just' individuals certainly doesn't work when one views American individuals from outside the United States, as one can observe that they are also individual Americans, who are not free from context and a longing for security.
I feel we must attend to our own context, and show that we are made up of different communities. The 'multiracial movement' in the US should neither seek to obtain a Cape Colored option,7 nor intend to promote new national citizens8 without tackling racism within America, or American imperialism combined with numerous Americans' lack of knowledge about the rest of the world.9 If one truly wants to be an individual, one cannot only be an ethnic group and/or an American. To be an individual one needs to acknowledge the various communities that shape(d) one's outlook, and then look (and listen) to individuals with divergent (national, regional, class-based, gendered, racialized, ethnic, political, religious etc) experiences to one's own, on their own terms, with their own ways of conceptualising the world. One has to (valiantly search to) be a citizen of the world, with all the problems of receiving and selecting information through interpreters, along with habits formed to reject what contradicts our established values and incorporate that which seems similar and therefore 'true'. One should not merely look to Others who share one's opinions in order to justify one's own position, and simply read those who challenge one's deeply held beliefs as irrelevant or failing to hold 'our' standards. In following such a course one can fail to become an individual that effectively challenges the limits of one's own 'proud nation or ethnic group' or 'respectable family', as one relies on established group norms.
Are we individuals? Yes, we can selectively mould and interpret our own world. Is that all we are? No, we have various group identities (that help make us an individual). Should only our own identities provide the basis we need for extra security and reference material? No, one cannot privilege his or her own if we, as a worldwide (not simply Western, privileged and often Eurocentric) community are to form global, human citizens not simply concerned with ourselves,10 or 'one of us,'11 but justice.
I am a graduate student at the University of Toronto. My research interests include observing how inclusive rooted or indigenous Black communities are of newer immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, and looking at the rhetorical use of 'Americanisation' in Canada and the US.
1 G. Daniel, More than Black? Multiracial Identity and the New Racial Order (Temple University Press: Philadelphia, 2002), 124.
2 A notion that can still be a cause for contention in the "multiracial" community, cf. Charles Byrd's attack on the "pathetic guilt trip" found in the practice of "browbeating individuals of partial European heritage into admitting they enjoy some degree of "white privilege." "Campus Collectivism, the "Privilege" Notion & Default Political Persuasions", Interracial Voice editorial, November-December, 2002.
3 I identify with Black communities and multiracial communities; my father is Black and was born in St. Vincent, my mother is White and was born in Liverpool, England.
4 See Jeff Reitz, "Less Racial discrimination in Canada, or simply less racial conflict? Implications of a comparison with Britain", Canadian Public Policy 14, 4 (1988), 425-427.
5 "the right embraces equality to the extent that it believes everyone should have the right to exploit anyone else…So when it promotes minorities and women it promotes only individuals. Those who emerge under its banner do so free from the baggage of history and community. And since they are travelling light they can also, when the opportunity arises, travel fast." G. Yonge, "Always in the Shadows", The Guardian, October 28 2002, http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Column/0,5673,820537,00.html.
6 "Clarence Thomas used his own sister, Emma Mae Martin, as an example to denigrate people on welfare," Ms Yard http://www.people.virginia.edu/~govdoc/thomas/0920a13.html
7 a position attacked by J. M. Spencer in New Colored People: The mixed race movement in America (New York: New York University Press, 1997).
8 a position endorsed by D'Souza, The end of racism: principles for a multiracial society, who calls on blacks to become the "first truly modern people, unhyphenated Americans" New York: Free Press, 1995, 556.
9 In a recent survey by National Geographic, only 17% of Americans aged 18 to 24 could locate Afghanistan on a map, Bijal P. Trivedi National Geographic Today November 20 2002 http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2002/11/1120_021120_GeoRoperSurvey.html
10 “In 1995, black Americans spent $1.2bn on hair care, a little more than the GDP of Gambia, the home of the ancestors of Roots author Alex Haley.” G. Younge “Different Class”, The Guardian, November 23 2002. http://www.guardian.co.uk/weekend/story/0,3605,844450,00.html
11 See Hugo Young, One of Us: A Biography of Margaret Thatcher, Macmillan, 1989.
by Daniel McNeil
Copyright © 2002 Daniel McNeil and The Multiracial Activist. All rights reserved.