Accidents of empire
My recent travels have me reflecting on how accidents of empire can influence racist thinking. "Accidents" may seem an odd word for empires, as they are typically very deliberate. I am not referring to the empire itself, but rather the accident of one's birth into an empire at its peak.
I received what I think is a pretty typical suburban public school education in the 1970s and 80s. I learned a whole lot of white American history, some Black American history, and a tiny bit of Native American history, mostly as it related to setting the stage for the arrival of the English. World history focused on the European events of the 20th century wars, and a few forays into the empires of the Aztecs and Incas. As a young student, I trusted my teachers to tell me what was important, so anything not covered was clearly not considered very relevant for contemporary students. In my travels, though, I've learned that all that unrevealed history is incredibly relevant to me for coping with my own unconscious racism.
Humans are higher primates, in my opinion, with the added quality of a magnificent human spirituality that allows us to transcend our animal nature. When we are in our primate nature, we like to be better than someone else. We like to feel superior. Putting another people down makes us have feelings of the superiority of our own people. Right now, white Americans are born into the peak of the white American empire. White America is one of the world's wealthiest, freest, and most influential groups of people. If in our primate state we compare our material wealth and influence to others, we can find a nice ego boost in our superiority. This, I think, is our accident of empire.
The white American empire was and is carefully built and sustained for the benefit of white Americans, and at the expense of others both within and outside our nation. On land stolen from massacred indigenous people and worked by enslaved Africans kidnapped from another continent, white America has amassed its empire, and sustains it through the continued exploitation of people and ruining of environments here and abroad. I was born into this empire with privileged status through the accident of the timing of my birth and color of my skin. Through this accident, I get to reap the benefits of exploitative labor and environmental disaster from the protected place I live, buoyed by the living wage I earn. From this perch of affluence and influence, I can see the undereducated, impoverished people, and if I allow my primate nature to dominate, feel secure in my superiority, diminishing my feelings of empathy.
In my travels, I have learned that many of the people now exploited and impoverished also had their empires. Their ancestors lived in cultures that were at the peak of wealth, education, and influence. Their ancestors had thriving cities, hosting political delegates and traders from around the world, their treasuries filled with unimaginable wealth. Their ancestors stormed across the world, as did mine, dominating and subjugating people whose empires had not yet appeared or had already begun to fade. The people today who are working to get their piece of the global economic pie, struggling under oppressive governments, fending off cultural death, know their history. They know at one time, the roles were reversed, and it was their ancestors who sat upon the thrones of the world, enslaving and dominating the uneducated, backward, and impoverished. White Americans would do well to remember there was a time when the conqueror Timur of Central Asia reached the threshold of Europe, only to turn away because at that time, Europe was so poor and backward as to not be worth conquering. We would also do well to see from history that all empires fall. New global empires will rise, and we will lose our dominance. How would you wish your descendants and their environments to be treated by those who will dominate them in the future?
Our higher human nature demands that we let go our need for superiority, and instead seek to find common ground and form peer bonds with others, regardless of their educational and material status. This peak of empire is an ego trap for white America, and is a barrier we must actively overcome. Learning about the empires of others has helped me further take down my own racist barriers, and I am immensely grateful that the blessing and privilege of travel has given me incredible opportunities to grow. For people who cannot or choose not to travel, the internet continues to blossom with ever more resources for self-study.