Vagueness and moral passion are rarely productive colleagues. The truth of things demands more care and slowly earned trust, fewer scapegoats, less totalism of absolutes.
Today on Breaking Ground, Phil Christman seeks to pry apart this partnership that is making so much mischief today, risking a minefield of misunderstandings to explore the “dilemma of whiteness” in today’s America.
“Ending racism, a vast set of institutionalized practices, is hard enough,” he writes, “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?”
It’s a question that many are asking behind closed doors, but Christman throws those doors open, delivering an original and self-aware interrogation of racial myth and the truths that myth has borne. Taking readers through structures of the imagination as wide-ranging as anti-Semitism, Enlightenment liberalism, and secular anti-racism, he precedes the historical tracings with an important observation: “We are talking about the origins of a new way to justify evil, not evil itself.”
Christman doesn’t deny that “whiteness” has meaning as a kind of shorthand for a secular American freedom (e.g., freedom from and freedom over, not freedom for), and as a designation for certain varieties of self-caricatured politics (e.g., the nationalist, the NIMBY progressive, the conservative, the can’t-we-talk-about-this-later socialist). But at the end of the day he, argues, it’s just not a useful concept. “It’s too much to make a people,” he writes of the formlessness of a category that designates only the absence of oppression. Where is identity without pain? What is a people without a shared story of suffering?