Blogbook -- Racism as Common Sense

Entry 16

Allow me to back up from my previous posts and take yet another run at defining racist discourse for literacy teachers and classrooms. I’ve taken several runs at the concept in the last two weeks or so. It’s a boat (entries 7 and 8). It’s a field (entry 10). It’s a discourse that is a tautology (entry 15). I’ve even called it an equation (entry 14). But through all these different ways to understand racist discourse is the idea that it works often from common sense that circulates freely in society, literature, our language practices, and of course, our classrooms and their standard operating procedures. So let’s think more carefully about common sense

If half of what I’ve said up to this point is accurate, then racist discourse is in much of our common sense -- that is, the stuff we say and make decisions from, the stories we tell about each other, the euphemisms, the jokes, the logics that work around us all the time. And since we take these ideas and language as common sense, they rarely question. I mean, they are our common sense. 

The Italian philosopher, rhetorician, and legal scholar, Giambattista Vico (1668-1774) offers insights into how common sense as racist discourse works. Vico isn’t speaking of race or racism, of course, but he is trying to understand common sense in society. He’s a rhetorician and a legal scholar, so he’s concerned with persuasion and how people come to argue and believe things that are different. He’s arguing against a static and universal truth, one Rene Decartes (1596-1650) had been arguing for. 

Vico was an early adopter of what today we would call social constructivism, or the changing, social construction of ideas and knowledge in communities. Social constructivism explains that our ideas about things change because people in ever-changing contexts and historical moments make ideas from the language, experiences, and stuff around them. Furthermore, we make the ways we make ideas, usually through language, logics, and other symbolic technologies. We learn things and use that knowledge, as well as new methods, to change our ideas together. 

If you come up with an idea like the cultural idea of a “scapegoat” or the scientific concept of temperature in numerical degrees Celsius that can be tracked on a linear scale, then you’ve created new ways to understand the world. In the first case, you’ve made a way to label an individual or a singular animal in order to place all a community's blame on that one person or animal (scapegoat). You’ve made a way to take away blame from a community, to literally watch it leave or to let it go. 

In the second case, you’ve made a way to identify succinctly how an environment feels to us by making it a number (temperature). Temperature in a room or outside in your backyard becomes a number on a single scale. Before the idea of a linear scale of numbers measured with something like mercury in a tube, temperature was something else, or there was no concept of temperature. It was just warm, or hot, or cold, or chilly, or cloak weather, or a stay inside day. The important thing is that what it felt like outside was not a number. 

In both cases, we’ve constructed knowledge out of concepts that humans invented and reinvent socially. That is, all our ideas about things and people are concepts socially generated among groups of people as we use, and change, those ideas over time and in different places and contexts. Eventually, our ideas may be dramatically different from where they started, given a number of factors, contexts, and purposes. Race, of course, is a perfect example of the evolving nature of ideas and language, and Omi and Winant’s theory of racial formations captures this dynamic perfectly in the way they define race as an ever-evolving set of ideas and concepts that are contextual, historical, and geographic in nature. 

This view of knowledge and truth accounts for a number of variables: context; emerging ideas; the ongoing debates about things in the world; politics, or the differentials of power that some voices, people, and kinds of arguments have in particular moments or places; and the dynamic of contingency, or the way some ideas are more compelling and take off at certain times, places, or in particular groups of people. All these factors shift and alter over time, which changes the ideas or truths that rely on them. Vico, however, is drawing on classical Greek scholars, the Sophists, people like Protagoras (481-411 BCE), Isocrates (436-338 BCE), and Gorgias (483-375 BCE) (note 96). They were the first in Western traditions to use the idea of socially constructed and contingent knowledge (note 97). 

For Vico, the mutually reinforcing dialectic that created knowledge in communities revolved around language, stories, and myths. This circulating of language created a community’s common sense. Vico divided common sense as two social dynamics that work in concert,  “verum-factum” and “verum-certum.” In De Antiquissima Italorum Sapientia (1710), Vico explains the verum-factum principle, saying “when we understand something by the intellect, we make it true. Thus arithmetic and geometry and their offspring, ‘mechanics,’ lie within human faculties, since in them we demonstrate the true because we make it” (note 98). 

Vico is saying people make facts. Facts are not just out there waiting to be discovered. People in places and particular contexts invent them. Once our minds “make” (factum) something, it is true (verum) for us. We can see this in SAT scores and IQ tests. We make the tests and numbers, place value on them, and those numbers become facts about a student’s abilities and intelligence. But these facts are only so because we’ve created a certain kind of numerical fact about students, a fact among a universe of such possible facts.

For Vico’s full notion of common sense, verum-factum needs verum-certum to validate it. The principle of verum-certum, covers communal practices and mores. Here’s how the principle is explained by scholar, John Schaeffer: 

By the “certain,” [in verum-certum] Vico means those particular decisions and judgments that a community makes, such as declaring war or honoring marriages. Such practical judgments are “made certain,” that is, they are established and become res gestae (things accomplished), and as such they become true. (note 99)

The accomplished practices, the enactments of judgments and decisions, enshrined in educational institutions, multicultural programs, Common Core materials, educational laws and policies decided, the use of grades in classrooms, among many other things and acts made certain all construct truths or common sense that we take for granted in schools. That is, we take these things accomplished as common sense because they are accomplished already. 

Consider again the SAT and IQ tests. While we make these tests and the numbers they create as facts that allegedly say something about the people who take those tests, our society, schools, and universities also use those numbers to make important decisions, like who gets to go to what school. Decisions and things are accomplished by the use or application of those test scores. This creates a tacit verum-certum about the SAT or IQ tests. Thus it is common sense to think that only students with high SAT scores get to go to places like Yale, Harvard, or Stanford. And of course, a whole string of further common sense ideas about worth, value, and intelligence follow this verum-certum. 

So, verum-certum means that decisions and practices themselves are or become common sense by the fact that they are done already. The existence of decisions or accomplishments make facts about those things. Another way to put this is: The existence of certain acts accomplished in our lives makes them certain in our lives as facts of some kind. Anything can become “fake news” if we get enough people to act on this decision, making it certain by our decisions and actions. This kind of verum-certum can also fool us into believing that school affirmative action policies in colleges, for example, make for unjust rejections of White candidates when there is a small number of BIPOC students accepted. It appears to go against the common sense we know through verum-certum. 

The difference between verum-factum and verum-certum is the difference between a common sense made of language and images, a rhetorical common sense (verum-factum), and one embodied in material practices and decisions, either habitual or historical (verum-certum), which may be symbolized in structures, statues, monoliths, or standard operating procedures (SOPs) and decisions. We find verum-factum in our words and arguments. We find verum-certum in what we do and make, in buildings, statues of memorial, holidays of celebration, institutions, programs, practices, accomplishments, pedagogies, assessment and grading procedures, policies, laws, etc. Both verum-factum and verum-certum are important in racist common sense, that is, in racist discourse. They validate one another, providing implied proof of the other’s truthfulness. 

Verum-factum and verum-certum are a mutually reinforcing dialectic. They show racism as a discourse that can be normal or hard to inquire into if we aren’t trying to question our everyday common sense from both sides of the dialectic. Verum-factum and verum-certum reveal the way racist discourse can appear to be -- feel like -- common sense, and so seem okay or right because there is reinforcing information or decisions also in the system. Thus we must be careful and suspicious of the facts we make with our language, and the decisions and actions that make those facts certain in our lives. How do we investigate something so ubiquitous and fundamental to how we think and understand everything? 

We might take a lesson from Marxism. It too offers an analytical tool to understand things around and in us. It’s also a dialectic like verum factum and verum certum. Now, Marxism is not socialism, nor is it communism. It’s a framework for understanding and critiquing the world and our lives. It’s not a political party or system, but it could lead to a variety of them, including democratic ones. Think of Marxism as a set of intellectual and analytical tools that help us see our life-situations in a particular organized way. 

These tools, however, were not completely new to the founders of Marxism. Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) got their ideas from Georg Wilhelm Friedich Hegel’s (1770-1831) “dialectics,” which was a method for philosophical argumentation and investigation. And Hegel was following the Socratic method demonstrated by Plato (circa 428-348 BCE) in his extant works. Most of Plato’s works were literally dialogues among various historical characters, and he was following his teacher, Socrates’(circa 470-399 BCE) ideas (note 100). Thus, Marxism is far from a rogue or anti-democratic theory. It shares many things with Hegel’s, and Plato’s, and Socrates’ methods for understanding and investigating the world and knowledge itself.

It should also be noted that Hegel produced racist ideas and contributed to racist discourse as well. No one escapes racist discourse, not even Hegel. His dialectics were used to explain the deficiencies of Native Americans, Asians, and Africans. And he used them to explain the supremacy of White Europeans, which Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze explains. In Lectures on the Philosophy of World History (1822-1828), Eze summarizes Hegel, saying that Native Americans, Africans, and Asians were “less human than Europeans because, to varying degrees, they are not fully aware of themselves as conscious, historical beings.” Hegel states in his text that Native Americas “are like unenlightened children, living from one day to the next, and untouched by higher thoughts or aspirations.” 

Of Africans, like the other categories of people, Hegel generalizes about the entire continent of diverse peoples. He says that Africa “has no historical interest of its own, for we find in its inhabitants living in barbarism and savagery in a land which has not furnished them with any integral ingredient of culture.” By culture, of course, Hegel means White European culture -- that’s part of Hegel’s common sense. He continues later on: “The characteristic feature of the Negroes is that their consciousness has not yet reached an awareness of any substantial objectivity -- for example, of God or the law -- in which the will of man could participate and in which he could become aware of his own being” (note 101). I could go on, but you get the idea. Hegel, for all his innovative ideas in philosophy and dialectics, produced racist discourse because he too was connected to a racist society. 

While its roots were used for racist purposes, Hegel’s dialectics, as a method or an analytical framework, is not racist in and of itself. Through Marxian theory, Hegelian dialectics offers a way to understand a complex dynamic in racist discourse. While similar, this dynamic accounts for more than Vico’s model of common sense. Marxian dialectic has two elements that work simultaneously and explain how the world is organized. There’s a base and a superstructure. The base is the economic and material conditions of life. If you are a factory worker, your base would be whatever practices and things make up your daily life and work in that factory. The superstructure is the language and discourse that explains and reflects upon your material conditions (the base). In terms of Vico’s common sense, base is like the material of verum-certum, while superstructure is similar to the material of verum-factum.

So the superstructure is the language used to explain the base. It is how the factory worker explains and understands their work in the factory, what they do, why they do it, how they do it, and most importantly, what it means to them and their life. How much control do they have over their life and happiness? Does their life fulfill them in some way? Do they feel good about their contribution to their society? How is their fate connected to others around them that do the same work, or have a similar material base? 

The unattributed political cartoon, "Pyramid of Capitalist System" offers one kind of critique that a Marxian investigation might reveal. This one came from a periodical that informed U.S. readers about unionizing during the first few decades of the 20th century (note 102). 

In classical Marxism, to understand things like racism of a particular historical moment and place, one would need to start investigating the material and economic base of those involved. What happens to people every day in that factory, or let’s say in a classroom? Why does it happen that way? Who creates the choices for everyone? What are those choices for the student? Who do those choices tend to benefit most and why? What do those choices tend to produce in the student’s life, in their mind, or in their community? By inquiring into these material forces, range of choices, and consequences, you can explain what’s happened to you, why you believe what you do, and reflect upon your own human condition as a product of your material conditions. This reflection likely leads to changes in the base of your life. This completes the Marxian dialectic.

Marxism, like my formulation of racist discourse as racist common sense, is a structural framework. It is not simply a way to better understand oneself at only the individual level. Applying either framework as a reflective method, say in a literacy classroom, is not about personal enlightenment alone. It’s about figuring out the larger structures that make us. Common sense is both in us -- we use it and embody it -- and outside and around us in our world and schools. So questioning and reflecting upon verum-factum and verum-certum as a mutually reinforcing dialectic that is also racist discourse is meant to help dismantle racist and White supremacist structures. These structures are both the facts we make in our language and in the deeds we accomplish. 

Brave Work

Write for 10 minutes. 

Think about who your close friends are racially. I mean, the people you call when you need an opinion or do things with on a regular basis. Racially and gender-wise, who are they? If you’re like most people, they are very similar to your racial and gendered position. You might even consider their economic positioning too using measures like where they live, the car they drive, etc. 

How did you make your closest friends? Where did you meet them? These are your friend-making rituals. What do these rituals consist of? How did you come to these rituals? What parts of your rituals have you controlled, and what parts have you had less control over (perhaps inherited in some way)? How do you think these rituals have affected the racial makeup of your closest friends? How do you explain (verum-factum/superstructure) how and why you are friends with the friends you have (verum-certum/base)?

Examining one’s material conditions and creating a more critical explanation of them may provide students more power to understand the ways in which they may be under “false consciousness.” This reflection can show us the ways we may be oppressed and why, or how our choices may not be so free, and where they really come from. We may be fooled or forced into contributing to our own oppressions. And of course, we should be paying close attention to the intersectional social dimensions of our lives that may be most salient, such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, etc. Doing this will help us understand our positioning in various racist common senses that shape us and the things that happen to us. 

We are always guided in a number of ways to make particular choices, to understand and see things in particular ways. This is the nature of systems. Others with the power to do so create and manipulate the system, thus they create and manipulate us. And we may not even know it most of the time. We are just responding to the choices presented to us. Marxian dialectic helps us see our choices as systemically created by someone or some group, and point to what that system produces in societies, groups of people, and of course, the classroom. 

Vico’s formulation of common sense as a similar kind of dialectic between verum-certum and verum-factum shows us the ways racist discourse is also racist common sense, and how it is very difficult to escape it in our world and classrooms. This means, we’ll likely participate in it, even as we try not to. We’ll need to orient ourselves in careful ways against it. I’ll discuss the elements of an antiracist orientation at the end of this chapter.

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This blogbook is offered for free in order to engage language and literacy teachers of all levels in antiracist work and dialogue. The hope is that it will help raise enough money to do more substantial and ongoing antiracist work by funding the Asao and Kelly Inoue Antiracist Teaching Endowment, housed at Oregon State University. Read more about the endowment on my endowment page. Please consider donating as much as you can to the endowment. Thank you for your help and engagement.

Comments

  1. Thank you for this. My Basic Writing Pedagogy grad students this summer will benefit from this in multiple ways. And so will I.

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    1. Thanks for reading, Shannon. You might find useful some of the previous blog posts in this blogbook too. Or some afterwards.

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