I read a good review of The Coming of the Celts, AD 1860: Celtic Nationalism in Ireland and Wales, by Caoimhin De Barra. The review is titled Celtic Myths, and it is by Fintan O’Toole, published in the New York Review of Books, March 7, 2019. I’ll mention it again in a moment, but first, this sparked some thoughts I have that are a little more contemporary than O’Toole’s and De Barra’s, about what, if anything, it means to be white in this culture.
In a nutshell, not much, until just recently. I’ve always been of the view that we should be race-blind; meaning that we should look past a person’s race and evaluate their character or ability without reference to race at all. That’s what I understood to be the goal, with regard to race relations, throughout most of my life.
In recent years, however, I hear more and more the expectation that we should first be race-conscious; meaning that the first thing we should consider about a person is their race, because their group identity is more important than who or what they are individually.
These two ways of thinking about race are mutually exclusive. You can’t do both. The first leads us toward a society in which blacks and whites and Asians and Latinos participate equally. The second leads us to splintering and acrimony along racial lines. The first is a matter of personal discipline, good faith, and idealism. The second is a matter of victimhood, the drawing of battle-lines, and the death of individualism.
The race-conscious mode also contributes to the rise of white supremacy movements. If we’re told relentlessly that group identity is paramount in relations among other people, eventually the assertion is taken at face value by white people willing to set aside their sense of fairness and goodwill in favor of racial group solidarity, and to adopt themselves the race-conscious paradigm with all its ramifications. When white people do this, it means finding their identity in being white.
Is that a good thing? I don’t think so. A white person in this society is not reminded all day, every day, of their racial difference, like I imagine black people are. I don’t often have occasion to think of myself as a white person. That’s not a matter of “privilege,” however. It’s the default setting we all ought to have. Better to advance that point of view for people of all races, I think, than to self-segregate by group identity.
I’m sure it’s not as easy being black in this society as being white. We all have our challenges, in life, and for many of us the challenges happen not to include navigating life as a racial minority in a race-conscious society. I don’t call that “white privilege,” however, because that phrase carries a lot of baggage, including an insistence on race-consciousness instead of race-blindness. Identity politics is tearing this country apart already. This is one arena in which we can and should reduce the unnecessary strife.
Now let me get back to the article I mentioned. It is about where the notion of Celt identity comes from. I’ve long been interested in this, because I can reliably trace genetic lineage to regions traditionally thought of as “Celtic.”
This article (again, Celtic Myths, by Fintan O’Toole) identifies the origins of self-identification as Celtic, for example in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. One theme of the article is that it is of more recent vintage than we might suspect; built in part on a desire for noble heritage deep in the bones (race-consciousness), rather than in what a person is or does individually right now (race-blindness). O’Toole:
“[C]ollective identities are not racially determined. They are inventions. They have almost nothing to do with genetic purity and everything to do with the needs of particular historical moments. They exist in the realms of the imagination, in both its hatefully destructive and its joyfully playful forms. If the Celts are alive in our historical moment, it is not because we know who they are, and still less because they help any of us to really know who we are.”
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“[Racial] identity is like one of those great pieces of Celtic art, never moving in a straight line, but turning around and back on itself in dizzying twists and unpredictable swerves.”