It seems that we are called to do something about whiteness. What that something we are called to do is, and what that whiteness is that we are called to do it to, or about, are some of the questions that it is difficult to ask. To speak in this way feels like treading in some way on ground that it cursed. Is there a way to avoid invoking this curse?
It is not enough to be against racism—we must abolish whiteness itself. As we figure out how to do that, we can, in the meantime, abandon, unlearn, undo, undermine, divest from, or dismantle it. If we do not, at the moment, feel up to those projects, we might consider interrupting, interrogating, or dreaming of a self beyond it. This all sounds like it would involve paying whiteness a great deal of attention. But hold on—we must also decenter it, while not forgetting to see it, address it, own it, and watch it work. (The author who asks us to decenter it remarks, perhaps helpfully, that decentering it will require focusing on it.) If all that effort leaves us winded, we might turn ourselves to the more modest projects of defining and reinventing it—this time in a nice way, presumably. Having done this, we could then be pardoned if we wished to embrace and steward it. In any case, we must talk about it. We might wish to form a study group.
It is always easy to be snarky about activist language, especially when, as today, that language is so deeply influenced by a style of portentous inexactitude indebted to the postwar French academic Left. And I am at least somewhat sympathetic to the basic project of nearly every author I just cited. I am sympathetic, too, to the way that any discussion of social processes, as carried forward by even the smartest and most word-careful people in the world, can still find itself chasing its tail. A thing in motion is hard to draw. The constant injunctions, in recent left-of-center discourse, to verb whiteness make me smile sometimes, but it’s not usually a smile of contempt.
Sometimes it is a smile of puzzlement. Ending racism, a vast set of institutionalized practices, is hard enough, but “Destroy whiteness” hits my ears as though it were a koan or aporia, a thing you say because you want, for some spiritual or other purpose, to make thinking itself grind its gears. What even is “whiteness,” and how would you destroy it? How do you kill an ill wind?
We’re all familiar enough with the common distinction between ethnicity (what we can’t help having, insofar as we come from somewhere and were born to somebody) and race (a larger category that subsumes various ethnicities into a supra-historical, quasi-mystical unity). Some of America’s finest minds—W.E.B. Du Bois, Theodore Allen, Edmund S. Morgan, Nell Irvin Painter, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Toni Morrison—have devoted whole careers to examining, or documenting, or dramatizing, how the fiction known as “race” came to be inscribed overtop the far more particular realities of ethnicity or nationality. Once upon a time, when human beings wanted to make smart or stupid generalizations about other, further-away human beings, they did so based on ethnicity, religion, place, or language. Thus Strabo thought that Ethiopians cursed every day the sun that had so blackened their bodies, and Sir Thomas Browne, that humane man, explained at great, learned length, to countrymen confused on the point, that Jews did not invariably stink. Under these systems of classification, world-historical depredations took place—various slave trades, things that looked like what would later be colonialism, pogroms, the entirety of recorded and unrecorded history before the origin of race. When we speak of the invention of race, we are talking about the origins of a new way to justify evil, not evil itself.
(The theft of America from the peoples native to it might strike you as a bit of a lacuna in this story, as it struck me. From my limited research, it appears that the plunder of Native Americans was initially justified early on in terms more redolent of ethnicity – tribes, lineages, kingdoms – than of what people came to call “race,” though there are reports of Natives initially taking Europeans to be strange and monstrous animals because of their white skin. King James I, according to one story, didn’t want John Smith to marry Pocahontas because he was afraid that Smith would then claim royal blood – she was, after all, a princess. It’s as though he thought of this people, to whom Europeans collectively constituted a great curse, as though they were just another rival power. Obviously, as the idea of “race” came together, Indians, too, became “raced.”)
During the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, as local habits of production and livelihood were melted down and recast as global capitalism, so were these quaint methods of generalization liquefied and remade into the new scientific discourse of “race.” In this way of thinking, scientists scrutinized body pigmentation and skull shapes—not place or family—for evidence of transhistorical, trans-local group memberships. The anthropologist and skull collector Johann Friedrich Blumenbach was, for example, particularly taken by one of the items in his collection, which had formerly belonged to a sex slave of Georgian origin. He thought it the prettiest skull he’d ever seen. It so happens that the Caucasus Mountains stretch through Georgia. On this extremely solid foundation, we call people “Caucasian” to this day. For a long time, this Caucasian race was also thought to consist of various subtypes, some of which—the Celt, the Jew, the people so permeated by the miasma of the Great Dismal Swamp that it turned them sallow—faced race hatred of their own. After World War II, an embarrassed world reshuffled its categories, reducing them to whites, blacks, and asians.
This is the story that Nell Irvin Painter tells in The History of White People. To it, we could add the story that Theodore Allen told over the course of his lifework, which Painter herself draws on. Allen points us to the startling fact that colonial law made no racial distinction between black slaves and white indentured servants in the early seventeenth century; the legal categories “black” and “white” take most of those hundred years to emerge. (Indentured servitude was not necessarily a better deal, in the early years, than chattel slavery: many workers weren’t expected to survive the seven years of their term, and didn’t. On this point, Eric Williams, early in his classic Capitalism and Slavery, devotes a revealing passage to the similarities between the seventeenth-century slave ship and the conditions in which Irish servants traveled.) For Allen, the history of “whiteness” pivots on Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, when indentured servants, free blacks, and enslaved blacks fought alongside each other.
The colonial upper classes saw a threat here. They thwarted it in the same way that, today, a cop might force a wedge between two men falsely arrested, to induce the one to testify against the other: admit the one to certain privileges and confidences, while threatening him with terrifying punishments. Treat the other guy worse, and be theatrical about it. Whip him, pour vinegar on the wounds, whip him again. Thus the eeriness, the sense of a limitless horror lurking under everything, that reading about the history of American slavery often induces: this strategy requires the elaboration of endless new refinements of suffering. If hell is a misery that has no limits, men truly built hell here. Indeed, even during Bacon’s Rebellion, this dynamic was already partially in place: the battle was part of a power struggle between two colonial lordlings, one that involved, among other issues, the euphemism known as “Indian policy.”
This stratagem is also not new—perhaps it is as old as tyranny itself. But it soon found scientific justification in the work of all those European skull-fanciers. It lost, at least for its perpetrators, the stench of sheer opportunism, and became an “objective” fact about the world. With modifications, and—thanks to technological development—far more lavish inducements, in both directions, this strategy continues to work today.
There is your whiteness: a vast, flimsy thing. With a few dozen reading hours, a smart teenager could debunk it. Millions have seen through it without being able to read at all. And yet how much of American democracy—which truly is a great and unique historical achievement, the destruction of intra-European class and race distinctions that must have been seen as immovable in their time as white supremacy does now—rests on it? Perhaps Europeans, stepping off their different boats, could have learned to see each other as human beings even without positing a second category of person onto which they could project their hatreds and fears. We can’t know; that is another, sweeter history. This is ours.
Our literature contains little memories of how contingent it all is: a dream is only convincing while you’re in it. In George Schuyler’s novel Black No More! (1934), a crank scientist invents a process by which black people can be turned white. This trope, which also appears in Stephen Wright’s The Amalgamation Polka (2006), both literalizes and reverses the actual history, in which pseudoscience and opportunism worked together to whiten billions, many of them after the fact. (Was Homer “white”? Was Augustine?) Processes can be reversed and are dynamic. During the Trump era, Latino people lost several degrees of whiteness more or less overnight. Among committed white supremacists, the danger is always that the old intra-European ethnic divisions will resurface, and a great deal of energy is put into stamping out national and ethnic feeling in favor of a unified whiteness; American white supremacists in particular find themselves frequently stymied as they attempt to recruit European nationalists into whiteness.
Whitening is a process without an obvious endpoint. “Whiteness” is always somewhere out a bit ahead of you. The concept is impossible to define in terms of traits, because describing anything was never its function.
Whitening is a process without an obvious endpoint. “Whiteness” is always somewhere out a bit ahead of you. The concept is impossible to define in terms of traits, because describing anything was never its function.
And yet everybody tries. Sometimes this means taking the white supremacist’s definition of whiteness—rational, brave, scientific, humanity’s future—and simply asserting that these things are bad: anti-racist museum exhibits that list “rugged individualism” and “emphasis on scientific method” among the sins of whiteness. (The museum in question later apologized.) It takes boldness to position whitened people as particular valuers of rationality and individualism, in a historical period when millions of them are turning their minds over to an emerging cult based, literally, on internet-forum posts, or flinging themselves and their families at the COVID-19 virus as though it will be cowed by their bravery and walk off. This behavior was not transmitted genetically; it’s the product of the specifically toxic individualism of the suburbs. Few people who aren’t whitened would be allowed the level of privilege where they could learn to think like this; this doesn’t make it a “white trait.” Millions of people who would be designated as white, again, can’t identify with it at all. In other cases, one attempts to describe “white people” by fastening onto characteristics that have to do with class, or region, or ethnicity, or with the necessary blandness of mass-culture products. When people talk about “white people food,” they talk about what Norwegians eat, or what the Irish (were forced to) eat, or what McDonald’s produces, not what Italians or Spaniards eat.
On the fringes of black radical thought, one finds the clearest and closest-to-coherent articulations of the white man’s special qualities. These stories, at their falsest, retain a certain crude power—the power of the sharp and specific pain behind them. I find, for example, the theory that I am the product of an ancient scientist’s breeding experiments deeply insulting, as I am surely intended to, but after spending enough time observing the impersonal cruelty and stupidity of the bureaucracies that maintain, among other things, the illusion that whiteness exists, even I have appreciated the explanatory value of old Dr. Yakub. I can see how a person whose most frequent encounters with whitened people involve cops, prison officials, or other contemptuous functionaries might find an intuitive plausibility in the idea that lack of melanin makes people weak, cruel, and resentful. (Something sure as hell did.) One afternoon, as I left a courtroom where I had watched a black friend get railroaded, I found myself thinking the words, I hate white people.
I can see how a person whose most frequent encounters with whitened people involve cops, prison officials, or other contemptuous functionaries might find an intuitive plausibility in the idea that lack of melanin makes people weak, cruel, and resentful.
It’s revealing as well how often these theories both dovetail with and resemble anti-Semitic mythology. Theologian J. Kameron Carter argues that Western Christianity’s rift with Judaism, and the anti-Semitism that resulted, was an intellectual and spiritual precondition for modern racism. In a deep historical irony, however, one of the most consequential uses of anti-Semitism was as a scapegoat onto which the European perpetrators of capitalism could deflect the blame for their own depredations. The story of the rise of international banking owes much to the Fuggers and Medicis, but you rarely hear of the former, and we mostly know the latter as a family of titillatingly debauched art enjoyers. When it comes to financial speculation, its invisible powers and corrupting effects, the name everyone knows is “Rothschild.” When you need a racial explanation for the specific horrors of international capitalism, you tell a story of secretive, powerful, cunning, and, in some essential way, soulless men. You call them the white man, or you call them the Jew. Sometimes you do both.
In more mainstream forms, such attempts to define whiteness as pathology often focus on the character traits that accrue to “unearned” privilege. (As soon as we say “unearned,” we have baked in the idea of meritocracy—which is some white bullshit.) The white person, especially the white man, is inescapably mediocre, as if by hereditary taint. She or he or they are entitled, neurotic, fragile, narcissistic, vain. He is named Bryce or Heath or Connor and wears shorts in the winter—so severed is he, at a basic level, from the truth of things. (Perhaps he just doesn’t care if his knees are cold.) She is named Karen, unless her hair is good.
This approach, too, has a crude descriptive power. Stereotypes often do. In an extension of this process, “white” becomes a name for certain varieties of bad politics: the conservative, the nationalist, the NIMBY progressive, the can’t-we-talk-about-this-later socialist, the you-looked-at-me-funny-so-I’m-calling-the-cops feminist. In all these cases, “white” functions as a name for a kind of secular American freedom: freedom-from, or freedom-over. It’s the freedom of the minor aristocrat—this being the type of person who gave us far too much of the Enlightenment political thought that permeates our institutions—or the freedom of the children of the Southern rich, the group that, disproportionately, has given us that bizarre and misnamed American political tendency known as “libertarianism.” (The word has a far nobler meaning in European contexts.) The libertarian is, spiritually speaking, a plantation owner’s son. He wants his taxes lowered, his employees free to work for free, and—with an eye toward those employees’ daughters—his age of consent abolished. His freedom requires that no one else be free. But all of these are positions, not traits. Many whitened people reject them, and many people of color buy into one or another of them. Given that the forms and shapes of exploitation are likely to shift in a world that America no longer dominates, this is important to keep in mind.
There are two other intellectual problems with this approach. One is the term “privilege,” as it is often used in these sorts of conversations. As we’ve seen—and as has been endlessly pointed out, to no avail—the “privileges” that whiten a person’s life may simply be created by conjuring new forms of suffering and applying them only to some people. As a result, “privilege” as used in this conversation “conflates ‘everyone should have this’ with ‘no one should have this,’” as David Kaib has said. It can mean on the one hand that the cops did not shoot you in the back and plant a gun on your still-warm body—or that, if they did, it was for some other reason than blackness. It is clearly true, tautologically, that whatever hardship a whitened person experiences in life, he will not experience the hardship of anti-black racism. But that is not necessarily to say very much about the totality of a man’s experience, either white or black.
Or “white privilege,” added to the advantages of wealth, may mean the easy freedom and contented stupidity of the plantation heir. (A powerful portrait of this sort of privilege asserting its power to warp character can be seen in the character of Rufus in Octavia Butler’s Kindred.) Even in these cases, the effects on character, on the real question of the development of the self, are unpredictable: a well-off white boy might become Eric Trump, or he might become Mr. Rogers, and whatever “white privilege” is, it certainly formed both men.
This means that the psychological effects of “privilege” are hard to generalize about. We can say that a millionaire’s son will in most cases move through the world with an assumption of invulnerability and an air of command, such that he will be morally lucky if he can grow up merely into an amiable dunce in the Bertie Wooster mold. But it may be the case that millionaire’s sons are bad perforce. A black millionaire’s son might talk more about “uplifting the community” than a white man’s does, but he will be tempted to do it while making many of the same exploitative decisions; such language may reveal a virtuous intent, or it may provide rhetorical cover, or (as is more likely) the truth may be mixed. The psychological effects of privilege here are mostly those of wealth.
The psychological effects of “privilege” are hard to generalize about.
To ask, on the other hand, what psychological deformities or bad habits may result from someone’s mere failure to get murdered by the police is ghoulish and, in its effects, reactionary. (In a country where the police think of themselves as an occupying army, it doesn’t make the situation better when millions of people lament the hamburger that was served to Dylann Roof.) And many of the effects of “privilege,” in the sense “No one should have this,” are as likely to accrue to elite black people as to whitened ones, and do not accrue to millions of the people we call “white.” People often point this out because they wish to derail discussions of racism tout court; this is not because it is false but because true statements make good derailers.
The third most common response, among the people designated “white,” to the radical critique of whiteness—the most common is to dismiss the whole issue, or to fly to the defense of the assailed white man—is a wholesale adoption of this way of defining it: as a kind of shared sin. Because the concept of whiteness has both excused and inspired some of the worst and longest-running crimes in human history, every person we call “white” has a terrible, Faulknerian secret, which they must publicly acknowledge, describe, and lament, in classes, trainings, book clubs, personal essays, and inappropriately anguished conversations with the nearest black acquaintance. It’s as though we developed an excellent structural account of society just so that we could turn that, too, to the task of self-development, enumerating personal flaws, while the boss takes notes.
Whitened people who resist these rituals, in which structural injustice and personal guilt are shuffled with the dazzling speed of the three-card monte dealer, are called “fragile.” When they participate in these rituals, when they respond to these often moralizing and personalizing claims, in exactly the way a person is supposed to respond to such claims—with some combination of personal guilt, apology, embarrassment, shame, or special pleading—they are called narcissists. “There you go again, making it about you. White people always center themselves,” they are told, by the (often white) facilitator. A metaphorical or actual microphone is dropped.
The most obvious fact about the ritual is its uselessness. It may fix hearts (although this is doubtful). It doesn’t fix houses, lives, or waterpipes. It doesn’t redraw school districts or reallocate police funding. At its conclusion, nobody gets forty acres and a mule. And nobody feels more human, more at ease, more powerful in solidarity. The ritual’s uselessness in addressing root issues probably helps explain its ubiquity; it is acceptable to enough powerful people that it can be widely adopted. (Robin DiAngelo, currently the most successful proponent of this approach, more or less concedes as much.)
But if social stasis is the outcome of the ritual, I am not so sure that that is its sole purpose. I think many white people submit to the ritual because it feels bad—and because many Americans have been trained to believe that feeling is a form of labor, perhaps the most meaningful, while practical help only fixes symptoms. When a child feels the natural impulse to give a panhandler money, we tell them, if we’re stupid, that he only wants it for drugs, or if we’re slightly less stupid, we recite a certain platitude about men and fish. (It’s hard to pay attention to a fishing lesson if you’re starving, just as it’s hard to ace the ACT if you haven’t eaten or slept.) Our pundits talk of money as a “Band-Aid”; they talk of “throwing money at a problem” as though money were not, very often, precisely the thing that needs to be thrown. All this acculturation certainly helps somebody. But it does the least for the people who believe in it most. (The rich don’t believe it; they leave their money to their children.)
The form of Christianity most widely practiced on these shores stresses faith over works, to the point where good works are sometimes treated as suspect. It then talks about faith as a set of feelings. It’s obvious—and many people have pointed out as much—that the ritual resembles this type of Christianity, where, classically speaking, the subject must be brought to an exquisite pitch of self-recrimination before they can be said to be saved. The newly converted frontier evangelical, however, had the love of Jesus to look forward to, while the white person who has Done The Work can only anticipate the rigorously impersonal, loveless worlds of civics, activism, or—if we’re thinking of DiAngelo’s anti-racism specifically—the vague approval of the HR department. (DiAngelo’s main function, I suspect, is to protect corporations from liability in the case of a discrimination lawsuit and to reduce solidarity between white and black workers. In the latter case, it will often enough be true that she is widening a gulf that already exists.)
Activism is a utopian pursuit with generally dystopian interpersonal dynamics. As for civics, the whole promise of the endeavor (at least under Enlightenment liberalism, the impersonal rationality of which resembles the worst of what “whiteness” is held to be, which may give us a clue as to its real identity) is that it doesn’t require love. Part of what a secular anti-racism necessarily aims at is a world where black people could, if they wanted to, ignore white people safely, as millions of white people lead reasonably contented lives without reading, dating, or seriously befriending any black people. Anti-racism must also secure for black people the right to be, without punishment, as irritating, mediocre, or dysfunctional as, say, a reasonably prosperous suburban white man may be. These are legitimate goals that, as far as they go, any fair-minded white person must try to help bring about. My point is only that such a world—in one way radically transformed, and in another way depressingly the same as ours—makes for an odd conclusion to a ritual so dependent on personal conviction. The critique we imply by pointing out the religious character of the ritual is simply that of a mismatch between ends and means. But white people who respond like newly evangelized subjects to an evangelical ritual are not “centering themselves”; they are following the instructions buried in the situation.
Activism is a utopian pursuit with generally dystopian interpersonal dynamics.
The people who will inflict this kind of psychological self-harm on themselves fall, in my experience, into two camps, which sometimes overlap. On the one hand, there are kindhearted people with pathologically low self-esteem, often, and not accidentally, women. They are used to taking the blame; DiAngelo’s voice sounds like the voice in their own heads. On the other, there are people so prosperous that they can afford, in effect, that daily three-minute self-hate, as a kind of legal/social inoculation against feeling the moral necessity of looking at, for example, the conditions of those they employ. The great mass of white people, whose “wages of whiteness” still leave them unable to afford their rent, will look at these exemplary flagellants and say more or less what working-class city whites used to say about school integration: if we’re going to do this, you rich guys should go first. It is the kind of task that people who can afford to do it are far too prone to accepting on behalf of others who cannot. But no one can really afford to hate themselves, or to see themselves as inherently deviant, or ontologically inferior to other people. Black people have written a number of classic novels on this theme, which one might read with profit and enjoyment.
I have taken to using the term “shiteating allyism” to describe these sorts of emotional displays. Shiteating allyism has two main manifestations. On one hand, it consists of simpering declarations of deference, testaments to the oppressed groups’ superior and hitherto-historically-unexampled virtue, or laments about one’s own privileges, even when these have barely been enough to keep one alive. In its other form, shiteating allyism names those occasions when a person of privilege suspends, at least rhetorically—most of the time it is only rhetorical—their own, or their family’s and community’s, claim to basic self-respect or human rights. Shiteating allyism is often but not always associated with the more extreme forms of what Matt Bruenig calls “identitarian deference,” and Olúfémi O. Táíwò calls “epistemic deference”: the idea that whiteness, maleness, or some other form of privilege has so corroded one’s ability to assess reality that any judgment marked as coming from the oppressed community in question, however outlandish, unsupported, or unrepresentative, would automatically be better than whatever judgment this person reaches after research and careful consideration.
When a white professor named Jessica Krug, who had spent decades pretending to be a black woman, was at last caught doing so, she wrote, in (inevitably) a long Medium post, the following hilarious sentence: “You should absolutely cancel me, and I absolutely cancel myself.” Many onlookers were quick to point out that Krug failed to specify the nature of the punishment she was asking for—“cancellation” means a lot of things, none of them fun, many of them survivable. Yet Krug was also practicing the sort of deference that belongs to this political world. It is not for her to say what her punishment is, because it is not for her to say what anything is. White people are epistemological children, in this way of thinking. This person could not conceive of a righteous version of herself except in blackface. She had canceled herself a long time ago.
In light of this dilemma of whiteness—the way it “toggles,” as Nell Irvin Painter puts it, between monstrosity and banality—some of our era’s most thoughtful critics, including Painter herself, have proposed the construction of a non-racist white identity. Jessica Krug needs a safe place to locate herself, where she is a danger neither to herself nor to others; anti-racists must build her one.
The attempts at this that I’ve seen are notable most of all for the way they try to ennoble blandness. The best a white person can do is to serve as a sort of human tofu. Take, for instance, Ta-Nehisi Coates in his run on Captain America. These comics have attracted little commentary in the literary-critical precincts that received his earlier work with such ecstatic warmth, which is odd, because Coates has been open about the way these comics, as well as his (somewhat better-known) work on Black Panther, function as extensions of the arguments he made in Between the World and Me. Captain America, he has said, represents “the Dream” of whiteness, and Coates’s treatment of the character is his attempt to imagine what a good man living the Dream might look like. In one early issue, Cap observes to T’Challa, the Black Panther, that he “shouldn’t be shocked” by some new depredation that their shared fascist enemy has performed. T’Challa very kindly rebukes him: Innocence is part of Captain America’s greatness. What strikes one about Captain America, both in general and in Coates’s telling, is that he’s barely there. The arc of Coates’s story largely involves Cap, defeated by various plot machinations, learning to trust a group of women superheroes, to whom he makes himself humbly useful, but not particularly important. He is a mascot, seemingly without motives.
The best a white person can do is to serve as a sort of human tofu.
Another fascinating instance is Young Jean Lee’s play Straight White Men (2014). She has described the work’s genesis as follows:
When I was at Brown doing the first workshop, there was a room full of students, people of color and queer people, a very diverse room. And they started talking very harshly about straight white men. I said, “Okay. Now I know all the things you don’t like about straight white men. Why don’t you give me a list of the things you wished straight white men would do that would make you hate them less?”
So they told me all these things, and I wrote down the whole list, and then I wrote that character. And they all hated him. They hated him. . . . They hated him because he was a loser.
Lee expresses this conflict by creating a white man who is the perfect ally: he sabotages his own career prospects and downplays his own skills in order to help others. His family members, whom Lee is careful not to depict as mere villains, take it that he is enacting a kind of masochistic penance. (We might call him a shiteating ally.) Lee leaves open the possibility that he is self-actualizing and healthy: he wants this life. Admire him or hate him, he is not a dynamic character.
Painter, in an essay published immediately after the exposure of Rachel Dolezal (another white woman who pretended to be black), suggested that white people construct a new identity by looking to the white abolitionists of the nineteenth century and to white allies of the civil rights movement. I am not being even a little ironic when I say that I recognize a great kindness in Painter’s intentions. She wants something better for me than to be either Rachal Dolezal or Dylann Roof. I recognize, too, a weary pragmatism in her gesture: the lie of race isn’t going away just because I show you, in great, scholarly detail, using my many decades of research, that it is a lie. (Before she turned to writing about white people, Painter first devoted many years to understanding how black people came to be as a people—how they were, as the title of one of her earlier books insists, created. She has the right to be weary and pragmatic.) We could say that blackness is an oppressive fiction, and yet black people rarely wish to have the designation lifted off them. It gives them a sense of commonality with other people, which is a useful thing to have in this world. The sense of surviving together the designation of blackness makes a people where there was none before. Theologically, we could even say of blackness—and the theological is an appropriate register in which to speak of it, given both the disproportionate religiosity of that community and the metaphysical weight of the crimes against it—what Joseph said of his brothers’ crime against him: What you meant for evil, God meant for good.
The myth of whiteness is simply that one is human, and that this fact is more interesting than any particulars.
All of that may be true. And it might be that “blackness” would go on being a useful, living concept—not just a sort of anthropological phlogiston—even in a world where it has ceased to convoke a people by oppressing them. There is a very real sense in which that question is none of my business. But the well-known incongruity that sometimes arises when one tries to compare the “white” situation to the “black” one imposes itself here as much as anywhere. To consciously “choose” and “build” an identity, in this case, is already to confess to an older, more recalcitrant one: White people, more than any other, have been the people who get to live in the illusion that they build themselves. So right at the outset, you’re perpetuating the pattern you want to end.
The theologian Willie James Jennings writes eloquently of the “convening power” of the concept of whiteness. It is revealing that the white group accomplishments he then goes on to describe—imperialism, colonialism, conquest—are simply the operations of capitalism. To make that an effect of whiteness is to put the cart before the horse. “Convening power” is precisely what “whiteness,” as compared to “blackness,” lacks. The concept “black” has called people together to be exploited, stolen from, and abused, but by that same token, it has called them together to survive. “Whiteness” has not called a people together except to do crimes and bury the evidence; it does not name a people who share a common good or common experiences. And it can easily function by calling together a minority even of that people. (The percentage of the American population that genuinely loves Donald Trump is a rump. Out of a hundred white people, it only takes ten Klansmen and seventy bystanders to keep the entire system going.) Whiteness has not laid a common burden on people’s shoulders. (“White trash” as a concept has done so, but it’s the “trash” part that does that, not the “white” part.) The myth of whiteness is simply that one is human, and that this fact is more interesting than any particulars. But this myth is also a truth, made untrue only when I fail to acknowledge that it’s also true about everybody else. “Whiteness” designates only a common absence of oppression. Into that absence, every human thing, everything that makes me both a member of a species and a particular being, falls. It’s too much to make a people.
The one universally binding experience of whiteness might be this: that racism exists as a possibility for you, even if it’s one you work not to express. It’s like a Chomskyan Language Acquisition Device for evil. I’ll give an example, although it is a humiliating one. I grew up in an extremely small, mostly white town—I explained the near-absence of black people, when I thought about it, by the theory that I wouldn’t live there if I could help it either. Because my consumption of pop culture was somewhat limited by my circumstances as a fundamentalist, and because my homosocial bonding was limited by my late-developing social skills, I never learned that I am supposed to feel threatened by sexual competition from black men, nor that I am supposed to take it as axiomatic that I am sexually ill-equipped compared to them. I learned that I am supposed to feel this way—I swear before God that this is true—from reading, as a college student, in The Nation, a review of a book that debunked this and other harmful myths. Of course, the minute that I learned that this was a way that I should somehow both feel (as an American) and not feel (because it’s a myth), suddenly the paranoia was there, fully fledged. I had been absorbing various other mythemes about black people—good at athletics, good at fighting, therefore highly physical, et cetera—from the culture, and this detail slid in among them; my mind didn’t have to stretch much to fit it. I’m an American; I’m a sucker for a new insecurity. From then on, this dumb idea existed in my mind the way an optical illusion does after you’ve seen through it: it’s still there to be ignored.
The one universally binding experience of whiteness might be this: that racism exists as a possibility for you, even if it’s one you work not to express.
This is not to say that white people are not responsible for our opinions. I take it that every person’s mind is a sort of junk shop full of beautiful and terrible ideas and images and possibilities and phantasms, and all of their opposites, which we have absorbed from our world. (Psychologists can speak of “upsetting” or “invasive” or “unwanted” thoughts precisely because we don’t like or want everything we find in our brains.) You have to make the best thing you can from your junk shop. Equally, it’s the responsibility of political movements and organizers, as of moral and spiritual leaders, to magnetize people via the best ideas they have, to bring particular ideas so to the forefront of a group of people’s mind that their less noble thoughts acquire dust and are forgotten. Most white people probably have the makings of an anti-black bigot stashed in their head somewhere—even black people struggle with internalized anti-blackness. The parts of the bigotry machine sit in their heads too. In the same way, any heterosexual man can probably become a tyrannical sadist, if he isn’t careful. And so on, down even to those people so marked out for oppression that there is no rung of the ladder beneath them. They kick, as the old joke goes, their dogs.
But even racism can’t be the unifying trait that makes “whiteness” a useful concept. Racism in the sense of anti-blackness is, as I’ve said earlier, a thing even black people must struggle against. Racism in the sense of “a belief that races are real, and hierarchically arranged” is also, as we’ve seen, a trait found in many groups, including black people. Racism against other groups, and other sorts of prejudice, can also be found in every community, including black communities. (There is a long-running argument over whether we should call this sort of racism “prejudice” instead of racism. This strikes me as an attempt to legitimize such beliefs, however slightly, but it’s also true that there is no history of black people turning such beliefs into laws. So here I leave the reader to their own judgment.) But it is morally obtuse to make much of specifically black bigotry when black people writ large are still so clearly frequently at the bottom of every pile. (This is why discussions of black homophobia, for example, are distasteful. We can acknowledge its existence, but separating it out as an issue distinct from homophobia in general is like talking of “black-on-black crime”: it implies that it’s somehow worse when those people do it.)
Racism against other groups, and other sorts of prejudice, can also be found in every community, including black communities.
The scholar Noel Ignatiev’s solution to the problem of whiteness was straightforward. White workers must simply refuse to accept deals that advantage them against black workers, even when this means, for example, that a union must turn down the sorts of informal pro-white racial preferences, the deals with management that were popular at the time Ignatiev began to write. What they lost at the time, they would make up when the black, white, and (presumably) other working classes, undivided, grew strong enough to conquer. In the world that resulted from this overturning, racial categories would dissolve, and ethnic differences would assume their true proportions, or at least different proportions.
Microaggressions, since they would no longer carry the reminder of a vast interlocking system that can “kill you and say that you enjoyed it,” would become, at worst, the routine human pain of being misunderstood. (Where would writers be without that?) Residential segregation would lose on one side its sting (who cares, if my house is worth just as much as yours) and on the other its point (the myth that black people lower property values). We would not all see each other truly, but we would see each other with one world-historical falsehood removed. To this, Ignatiev added: White people must respond to any attack on a black person as they would to an attack on themselves. (This is harder to do if you are continually reminding yourself, as white allies are supposed to do, that you could never, ever understand the uniquely horrible pain that is being a black person.)
I would still say, personally, that uncompromising cross-racial humanist solidarity is the only road to a truly decent country. Or, believing as I do in original sin, I would reformulate the statement: the degree to which any future America is good is determined by the degree to which this happens.
Uncompromising cross-racial humanist solidarity is the only road to a truly decent country.
Still, I can see hindrances to the wide adoption of the plan. The organizer who adopts it wholeheartedly becomes, let us say, an insurance risk. Some white man would have murdered King sooner or later, but it’s at least worth noticing that when he died, he was advocating this very strategy. Fred Hampton, who undertook the dangerous and surely often thankless task of opening dialogue with white workers, got an FBI hit squad for his trouble. One could even argue that authorities fear leaders like Hampton more than they do advocates of indiscriminate anti-white violence (Eldridge Cleaver) or outright black supremacy (Frances Cress Welsing, Leonard Jeffries). Or consider the racially integrated West Virginia coal-miner unions of the teens and twenties, who could often be recognized by the red handkerchiefs around their necks. These brave and resourceful people we memorialize with the word “redneck.” They spent a lot of time getting shot.
There are subtler ways than bullets to deal with whitened workers who, en masse, refuse to be fobbed off with a place near the bottom of a ladder that doesn’t have to exist. Capital adapts. As recently as the mid-to-late 2000s, the Democratic Party regularly sought to reassert its dominance among whitened working-class voters by downplaying issues seen as “black,” as well as those of gay people. Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign against Barack Obama, for example, was all but openly racist. By 2016, the party, including Clinton, shifted their rhetorical strategy, though not their legislative one, which arguably doesn’t exist. Broad anti-poverty programs fell under fire. “Breaking up the banks won’t end racism,” said Hillary Clinton, who intended to do nothing about either banks or racism. Progressive pundits raced to agree with her. They echoed—though rather faintly—the work of historians such as David Roediger and Ira Katznelson, who had traced the way black people had been partly or totally excluded from earlier broad anti-poverty programs.
Defending any aspect of the New Deal, seen at the time of its passage as a breakthrough for black people even with its racist exclusions of them, became a thing you’d only do if you were blinded by privilege. I have had actual conversations in which the claim that the working class often “gets coded” white meant that any discussion of said class secretly “centered” that group—when the interlocutors pointedly did not modify the phrase “working class” with “white.” (I sometimes feel that if the CIA did not invent such maddeningly vague phrases as “centering” and “coding” as a way to keep activists uselessly busy, that is only further evidence of American imperial decline.) People can use “working class” in a cynical or racist way, but it’s simple enough to point out that this is happening, in a way that doesn’t effectively forbid all discussions of workers.
And so now the Left is riven by a pointless debate between a supposed “class-only” Left and an “identity” Left. There are valid criticisms to make of “identity politics,” the most obvious being that it tends to toggle between being a theory of everything and being a set of simple commonsense set of observations. But no sensible person should seek to altogether do away with identity politics in a society as riddled with invented divisions as this one; it would be like asking every country to disarm except the biggest one. And while it’s true that accusation of “class-only” leftism befalls anyone who talks about class, that is no reason to lean in to the stereotype. The anti-identity Left points out that identity politics is often used by “capital” to keep the working class apart; when a group of leftists becomes hostile to the mere discussion of black-specific experiences, though, they are playing out the other side of capital’s little plan.
Most people who are not simply saying indefensible things to build their brand will agree that racism originated in class exploitation, but operates somewhat independently. The question is how much, and as this is not a question that can be answered in the abstract—it can only usefully be assessed about particular situations—the general “class versus identity” question should be given a wide berth. Suffice to say that if you are truly worried about workers, you will always try to notice who they are, and which of them is worst off. You will, if you do this, find yourself fighting racism, and also sexism, transphobia, homophobia, ableism—every systematized cruelty.
To me, the useful idea is not “whiteness.” It’s not race at all, but—and here I am drawing on, or simply parroting, Karen and Barbara Fields’s Racecraft—racism. Thinking about “racism” helps me to reach all the useful conclusions; it only spares me the useless ones. I can reach, for example, the conclusion “I should be willing to pay reparation taxes” simply by acknowledging that racism is an ongoing crime, whose victims deserve, and more to the point need, compensation to help them live well in the aftermath of that crime—just as would a raped woman, or an Asian man hit by a car, or a white man hit by a car. “Whiteness” adds nothing to my ability to reach this conclusion, nor to the way I live it out. All it gives me is a guilty look and a heightened self-consciousness around black people. This struck me as an elegant solution when I first read Racecraft several years ago, and it still does, though the Fields sisters have unfortunately been taken up by some prominent thinkers who wish to discuss neither race nor racism. (Again, good ideas make the best pretexts.)
The Racecraft move simplifies our thinking. And we need it to do so precisely because racism is such a vast, powerful, complex system. It can even turn good deeds into bad ones, can make what a whitened person intended for good into a source of evil. I mentioned earlier that I had watched and tried to prevent the railroading of a black friend. After that friend’s brief time in jail, my wife and I agreed that we would allow him to stay in our guestroom for free, if he wanted, while he tried to resume life. (He ultimately insisted on paying rent, so we set it at the lowest amount he’d agree to, and then never asked him for it.)
The problem was, we lived in a whitened neighborhood. We had not set out to do so. But we were both making grown-up money for the first time, and so we chose a few amenities—walkability and a decent kitchen. History, housing covenants, and employment discrimination did the rest.
We were not naive. We made a point of telling our neighbors who our friend was, what he looked like, that he had a right to be on “our” territory, so that if they saw him coming and going at odd hours they would not harm him, or call the police. We did not assume that any of our neighbors in particular were racists; we just knew that it only took one. We must have forgotten to tell one neighbor, in particular—a nice man, with good politics, himself multiracial. If we apply the one-drop rule or the paper-bag test, this neighbor was a black man. He called the cops on our friend one night, when neither of us were home, when our friend was simply sitting in his car.
Our friend was able to de-escalate the situation, and nothing catastrophic ensued. But we worried—not for the first time—that in trying to help our friend, we might have set him up for other risks. We could insulate him from the particular risks of being a black man in a mostly white neighborhood only by kicking him out, which hardly seemed the right choice. That is the power of racism: it can make even the truest friendship between people a kind of trap. It can make even kindness, even the chastened and sober attempt to use one’s privileges to help those who don’t have them, into a bad deed. As the privileged person draws nearer the unprivileged one, some of the ethically impossible quality of life under oppression, the sense of choosing between bad options, begins to assert itself. Were we smart enough or good enough to make those choices well? Our friend moved out a few years ago. Thanks to his hard work and all of our good luck, he is doing well.
So I am not downplaying the fiendishness or the embeddedness of racism, the necessity of anti-racist struggle, the need for whitened people to lose sleep and comfort, when I say that I don’t think whiteness as a concept is only useful as a name for a powerful and ubiquitous misdescription. Racism is a labyrinth. Some of the sections of the labyrinth have skylights and granite countertops. Some of them have leg irons. The minotaur has his habits, his favorite hunting grounds, but ultimately he reserves the right to eat you in any of them. What we must realize is that, whatever our different names, we are all in the labyrinth. And we are all responsible for ensuring that every single person gets out.