Yesterday, I published an essay in UC Berkeley’s Greater Good magazine about how the science of purpose can help explain the rise of white supremacy.
Writing that piece led me to explore my own sense of purpose — which the research helped me see is tightly linked to my identity. I am a writer and editor, and a father and partner. Most people, I bet, would agree those are healthy, well-adjusted identities, and they give me purposes we might call noble: to connect people in knowledge and understanding, to love each other and our boys.
I am also American and “white,” but here my purposes become much more fraught. African-Americans call themselves “black” because the middle passage from Africa to America erased their names and ethnic identities. “White” is not really equivalent to “black,” in part because most white people can trace their ancestry to specific places in Europe. My own people came from France and England by way of Canada, which you can hear in my surname, “Smith,” and my mother’s maiden name, “Proulx.” I possess (in a box in a closet somewhere) a family tree that traces our ethnic roots—a possession most African-Americans cannot have.
In lieu of that, they’ve needed to build an identity from the ground up that starts with slavery and continues in present-day collective experiences. It’s a culture that has provided many gifts to America, but which still suffers violence, racial inequality, and economic distress. That’s why it seems understandable to me, as a white man, that some might claim “black” as an identity and make it their purpose to advance their group.
It makes no sense to me to try to protect or advance whites as a group. That’s just a box I check on a census form; it inspires no loyalty. Which can’t take away the fact that I was born with privileges that black folks simply are not. That insight inspires one more of my life’s purposes—to try, to the best of my ability as a writer and father, to close these gaps, so that the world might be more just.
I’d go further and say that adopting “white” as an identity — and then making it your purpose is to protect and elevate the white race — is inherently warped and ignoble, because it is based on an illusion. It reflects insecurity, not strength; amnesia, not memory; hate, including self-hatred, not love. There’s a lot of pain in white supremacy, but it is not the type of pain you can alleviate with compassion.
This is a morally confusing time for many Americans, and our president has done his part to deepen the confusion by blaming “both sides” for violence in Charlottesville and then throwing his support behind their cause, which is ostensibly to keep monuments to slavery and treason in our public squares. The marchers (who killed one woman and injured dozens of others) were small in number, but they have grown in a larger Petri dish of white fear and resentment that increasingly tolerates the intolerable. There are many, many studies which find that white supremacist ideas have become more acceptable and that Trump’s election has fueled racist speech. This isn’t alarmism; if you spend even a day reading what people have to say about these issues on social media, you will see that the threat is very real.
I see signs of this moral confusion at Cal. Should the home of the Free Speech Movement ban hate speech and hateful speakers? To me, that’s not the question. The question we should ask ourselves is this: How is it that there are students and faculty at UC Berkeley who are willing to entertain and promote ideas that we know have led to slavery, concentration camps, and mass graves? What is their purpose — and how does that fit with the purpose of an American public university?
I can’t tell anyone what their purpose should be. But in times of confusion, it helps to ask yourself: Who am I and what is my purpose? How do the people around me shape and sustain my purpose? Are they a source of strength? Do I know what makes their lives meaningful? Do I know what purposes I hold in common with them? Could our shared purpose make the world a better place?