My neighbor is a writer. He does about one column a fortnight for a local paper and has written at least one novel. He said something in a recent article that has been rattling about in my head for weeks. He observed that he is a conservative, white, old man and yet not a racist. This is a common attitude, one that I confront regularly because it is shared by a number of people in my family. Conservative but not racist… And outwardly it is true. My neighbor is decidedly not racist, not consciously, probably not subconsciously. He has a very integrated family, shall we say… But yet he identifies as a conservative. Why? What can it mean to be conservative but not racist?
This question has always bothered me. And I mean always. I have not long known about the details of structural racism, but I have always known it was brooding down there, propping up this entire culture. I don’t know how one reconciles conservative impulses — the desire to preserve things as they are or were or maybe just perceived as such — with a society that is so manifestly unjust that almost nothing of it really ought to be preserved…
I grew up in an unusually diverse enclave of otherwise conservative Northern California. “Feral, raised by hippies” is what I tell people of my childhood. But there weren’t actually as many hippies as simply people who existed outside mainstream culture — for a great many reasons. Many of my friends were not from this country; a few had to worry about La Migra. One’s mother specialized in immigration and family law, and from time to time their household included random kids whose parents were… missing. I knew a couple kids who came to this country on a boat and had to have their head shaved on arrival. I could understand about six languages as a child and was fluent in cuisine and music from, I think, quite literally around the globe. Hardly anyone had a great deal of disposable income. Most had improvisational gardens. Most fixed their own stuff. Many folks could make whatever they needed. There were few televisions.
Next door to our row house, a row that was connected by secret passageways that we kids dutifully maintained from one end of the block to the other (mostly involved keeping the spiders to a minimum), lived a Haitian family ruled by a fierce Aunt who considered the entire neighborhood under her tutelage — adults as well as kids. Aunt worked in the hospital. I knew she was a doctor because there was a framed certificate hanging in their hallway, right outside the closet that led to the secret passages. From what we kids knew of her personality, we all assumed she ran the hospital. Ever competent, observant, and brilliant, if I’d needed surgery I would have demanded she wield the knife. But over time my friend Michael, Aunt’s nephew and the principle inhabitant of our shared secret passageway, taught me that she worked in the ER, perhaps as housekeeping. He showed me that there was no question of her medical degree ever getting put to use in this country. He provided my first lessons on difference and how it was woven into society. I learned to see race — a measure of separation — where before I had seen diversity — a measure of inclusion.
Since then, I’ve been on a life-long quest to overcome my bafflement. Why was Aunt not allowed to practice medicine and yet the white immigrant family I knew were professors? Why was my friend from central Mexico whose face was elegantly Mayan not considered as lovely as her older sister who favored her European roots? Why did we beg agricultural workers to cross the border to keep us all fed but then violently round them up periodically and ship them back in dilapidated school buses? Why did Michael not expect to do much in life besides maybe fix cars when at 10 he could already build out our secret passageways and scaled furnishings pretty much from trash? (He tapped into the electrical systems! With a pocket-knife!)
I have learned over the years that all of us have built this culture. Every time a white family uses the benefits of their skin to buy a home. Every time we pay pennies for food that would cost dearly if we paid for the labor and the proper care of the land. Every time we go to Walmart or buy anything from Amazon. Every time we assume that the young black woman walking by our restaurant table is a waitress. Every time we say we are conservative without asking ourselves what we are conserving and for whom. Or more precisely from whom.
When I read my neighbor’s article these questions came blaring out through his words:
1) What are you conserving? 2) For whom? 3) How did it come into your power to conserve?
I think, that answered honestly and precisely, these questions suss out some ugly but deeply hidden preconceptions, the motivating forces and underlying structures that are so buried in our culture that we don’t even know they are there. The water… the deepest water. Where it is cold and dark and confined under the enormous pressure of our egos and our desire to be good people. Or at least appear to be good people. Many of the things down there are sharp toothed and poisonous, like anglerfish just baiting our fragile sense of morality. They can pounce and destroy the “better angels in our nature” and we don’t ever feel it. Perhaps because we don’t want to. We don’t want to consider the relationship between our privilege and Aunt’s complete lack of opportunity.
I read a piece by Russell Arben Fox recently that indirectly addresses this lack of critical thinking on the idea of conservation. In talking about the liberal social thinker, Michael Walzer (editor of Dissent), Arben writes that Walzer is “perhaps dispositionally ‘uninterested in understanding the core of that which he wants to conserve’*.” I think this might be the underlying problem in all conservative thinking. I think it is, in fact, necessary to conservative thinking in this world. It is difficult to reconcile conservation with structural injustice, and it is very difficult to see how this injustice could be separated from this culture that is dependent upon it. It is better to remain “dispositionally uninterested” in the entire question. To call yourself a conservative — but not a racist — and never probe too deep into the intertwined nature of both. What do you think?
*Interior quote is from Geoffrey Kurtz.
©Elizabeth Anker 2022
I received a wonderful email from Kent Craig of Queensland, Australia, describing his continuing deep dives into received “wisdom” and what he’s brought up to the surface in that process. He kindly gave me permission to share. I think it clearly shows that one doesn’t have to have a weird childhood to be empathetic, to broadly see the world for what it is. Thank you, Kent!
Here is the letter in full.
You have covered and raised a lot of questions in you article Conservative, Not Racist, and many of the points you have described, I to, have been questioning of myself over the last few years, as a significant life moment offered me the time and space to start really looking into what constituted me, and your description of those deep dark waters, rings true, as there are indeed some nasty beasts lurking down there, and it can be extremely confronting to take them on, and start the hard work of trying to banish them. I emphasize TRY, as the work of exiling them, and keeping them at bay, is always ongoing, as they are aided and abetted by the culture we exist within. It may be hard work, but it is also enlightening at the same time. Racism is the only beast I will discuss in this reply, as within my psyche, I discovered that it had many close friends.
I grew up very unlike your description of your childhood. For me, a child arriving in the early seventies, white, male, traditional blue collar working class family, living in the suburbs of a small Australian town, with nearly all of my relatives (Some openly racist, in every sense of the word) living close by, my world was very small, and was totally shaped by the narrative of a colonized country. I would not have considered myself racist, and as I grew, never actively participated in direct acts of racism, however I never questioned anything about the narrative I was being taught, as unbeknown to me at the time, I had already been delivered into this world more than just a few rungs up the ladder of life, and was already receiving the privileges of a “conservative” culture.
Then, as now, I am still surrounded by openly racist comments and statements about the Indigenous Australians, and anyone who is not of direct European descent, all made by people who could be described as having conservative values. My daily exposure to these embedded prejudices is rather high, as I work in an Industry whose workforce is dominated by white males (My email signature reveals all), with a relatively low average age. The fore mentioned groups of people have company though, as the sexist comments would come close to outnumbering the racist, with females of colour inhabiting the lowest rank. Unlike then however, I actively, and directly question why? Why do you think this way? Why do you believe these people are any less than you? It can make for some interesting and lively lunch time conversations, but at least these exchanges have some meat in them, unlike the usual calorie deficient social media inspired dribble. Most answers could be grouped under one heading. LOSS. These fellow humans are going to take what I already have, or take my future opportunities of having more. The fear of losing any falsely granted entitlements can be a strong and dangerous motivator.
When the door of introspectiveness is opened, it has the ability to deliver some truly profound moments, which then slowly seep into your being. I have been fortunate to have a few of these occurrences over the last few years, with one of them being the loss of entitlement, and all the fears which are attached to this belief. When this happened, it was like a wave of relief moving through me, as the burden was removed. In that moment, I finally realized that everything my toxic culture had taught, told and sold me, was a lie, and that I was “entitled” to no more than anyone else, and above and beyond the essentials of life, everything else was a bonus for which I should be extremely grateful for, and to continue the ever-evolving process of treading lightly on the world around me, out of respect to all the others who will unfortunately never have the opportunities which I have received.
What I was born, were I was born, and the culture that I live within, I cannot single handily change, however, I can continue to question everything, and I can keep taking large breaths to go visiting those deep waters, and I can keep sharing those experiences with my children, while endeavouring to foster similar attributes in them, so that when they reach my age, there will be less diving to do.
This is the part where you can respond. The rules of engagement: No rudeness. Absolutely nothing foul. Also nothing personal. If you want to talk direct to me, there is the contact page linked on every post. Send me email. I will always respond.
You can also take these ideas “home with you” and mull them over. Journalize about them. Meditate. Talk with your family and friends — and co-workers! These are questions that we all need to answer for ourselves, so that we have something bright and solid to hang on to as we slide into the murk.
Might as well get started.
What do you think of conservatism in a world of deep inequality? How do you think conservatives would answer my three questions? How do you?