Some time ago, I sat down at my laptop with heated intentions, ready to chisel out angry paragraphs about whiteness electing Donald Trump, hoping that the anger would make me feel powerful during a moment of great trepidation. But today, eased back into my chair with one foot propped up and my head bobbing to Kendrick Lamar screaming “we gon’ be alright,” I feel eerily calm about Trump and the other sundry chapters which whiteness has scribbled into the American saga.
A psychology which Toni Morrison, in an essay for The New Yorker, identifies as both white America’s “conviction of … superiority” and its tattered emblem, struggling to continue supplying “the comfort of being ‘naturally better than’” to a nervous people coming to terms with a changing world.
A Little Bit Racist? Nah.
It’s taken me a long time to believe that every white American whom I’ve ever liked, loved, or loathed is racist, with, perhaps, the chief source of reconciliation being how resistant the white people in my life are to that condition of racism. And it’s taken some quiet time alone to observe that my first step toward this current mindset might have come after I lost faith in the phrase “a little bit racist.” “A little bit racist” reasons that a seemingly harmless impact from racism reveals a harmless kind of racism, that the innocence of one’s bigotry is proven by someone else’s strength in the face of that bigotry.
But the steps which followed my abandonment of “a little bit racist” came hesitantly.
Thoughts sometimes feel like the most dangerous types of infections, with the concept of all white people being racist proving that point for me. Quickening my breath. Dampening the confidence in my ability to write. Encouraging a nervous tic in my soul.
Considering it an invasion of my own brain, I actually hate the idea of all white Americans being racist. And I am eager for a substantiated counterargument. Because if it is true then, while living in America, I am surrounded, virtually a character on some televised zombie epic, trying to build a meaningful life while hemmed in by a mindless horde, hungry for my flesh.
Although, the idea of how expansive American racism is did become easier for me to accept after hanging out with a friend who casually mentioned while we were drinking iced tea on her back porch, “Q, you’re sexist.” I can’t remember what prompted her to say this. But before I could even verbalize a response, my mental defenses kicked in, clumsily, like hands raised to fight a hallucination.
Why are women such bad drivers?
Literally, that was my first mental response to my friend’s words, popping up from some dark place in my mind like fungus, irrational and odd, but certainly not irrelevant. So, I took another sip of my iced tea, set my drink down, and replied, “Tell me more.”
My friend then outlined how growing up here, in America, was enough. And I felt like my life was a sinking boat filling up with patriarchy, and that my survival hinged on shoveling more of it out than that which was pouring in — while suspecting that I’d never be completely free of it.
Just Racist? Meh.
However, what strums my heartstrings more fervently, in regard to the ways human beings can be incubators for troubling and troublesome mindsets, is my memory of the time that I was diagnosed with a latent tuberculosis infection. I felt actual fear, even though I didn’t feel sick and the doctor had explained that I wasn’t infectious. But I had been betrayed by my own body. Everything about me seemed healthy but, nevertheless, I had been carrying around this dangerous thing without any knowledge of it. When I asked the doctor how this could’ve happened his answer was nearly as simple as that of my friend: Just by being in the world.
I’ve struggled with this idea that white people are racist, all of them carrying this social infection which has been killing people like me for centuries. But it’s always been easy for me to understand that white people appear traumatized by the word racist, as if, for an instant, they become black people being traumatized by actual racists. And perhaps it is because I am so afraid of being to white people what so many white people have been to me that I hesitate to utter the word. But if this is the case, there is a glaring irony which I can’t overlook: I actually don’t begrudge white Americans for being racist.
It was inevitable.
But I do hold a grudge against American whiteness, and carry a tireless desire to escape it. Because while whiteness is America’s most carefully crafted gift for a select group of people, racism is its consequence. I imagine that the illusion of superiority which comes with American whiteness must feel like the best sexual experience of one’s life, but racism is the resulting herpes outbreak. And while whiteness — operating as a type of salvation — meant European immigrants offering a pound of flesh for a piece of the American Dream, racism meant a subsequent hunger for the flesh of those who never made that deal, not because the superiority prescribed to whiteness warrants black flesh, but because the inferiority inherent to whiteness warrants an endless hunger.
American whiteness has never been a race. But it has always been a status, borne through the devouring of culture. According to Noel Ignatiev’s Race Traitor, “there is no such thing as white culture. Whiteness … is nothing but a reflection of privilege, and exists for no reason other than to defend it.”
“Indeed, many of the older immigrants, in particular the Irish, had themselves been perceived as ‘nonwhite’ just a generation earlier. As labor historians, we are interested in the ways in which Polish, Italian, and other European artisans and peasants became American workers, but we are equally concerned with the process by which they became white … this explains a great deal of the persistent divisions … The story of Americanization is vital and compelling, but it took place in a nation also obsessed by race. For new immigrant workers the process of ‘becoming white’ and ‘becoming American’ were connected at every turn.” — James R. Barrett and David Roediger, How White People Became White
Where Do White People Come From?
Sometimes, like a child pondering the anecdotes of storks and babies, I wonder where white people come from, understanding that the Irish come from Ireland, the Polish from Poland, and actual Caucasians from an actual region called Caucasia, or the Caucasus. And then, usually, I recall that a more apt question asks when white people come from, a thought buoyed by deceased British journalist Christopher Hitchens who once confessed that he “declined to fill in the form for [his] Senate press credential that asked [him] to state [his] race, unless [he] was permitted to put ‘human’” because “pigmentation was a false measure: a false measure of mankind and an inheritance from a time of great ignorance and stupidity and cruelty, when one drop of blood made you ‘black.’”
But perhaps whiteness simply comes from moments like this one, as found in a Sarah Kendzior article for the Correspondent:
“In 1919, Irish gangs in blackface attacked Polish neighborhoods in Chicago in an attempt to convince Poles, and other Eastern European groups, that they, too, were “white” and should join them in the fight against blacks. As historian David R. Roediger recalls, ‘Poles argued that the riot was a conflict between blacks and whites, with Poles abstaining because they belonged to neither group.’ But the Irish gangs considered whiteness, as is often the case in America, as anti-blackness. And as in the early 20th century Chicago experienced an influx not only of white immigrants from Europe, but blacks from the South, white groups who felt threatened by black arrivals decided that it would be politically advantageous if the Poles were considered white as well.”
Additionally, I sometimes wonder what a cost-benefit analysis for becoming white would show, what an immigrant’s willful abandonment of one’s language, music, food, and, essentially, soul can purchase. Upon learning about the trials of his fellow Irishmen in America and that, in order to survive, some had donned the warm cloak of whiteness, which meant turning a blind eye to the suffering of black slaves and pushing against abolition, Daniel O’Connell, an Irish political leader of the 19th century, reached out to his compatriots, saying:
“Over the broad Atlantic I pour forth my voice, saying, come out of such a land, you Irishmen; or, if you remain, and dare countenance the system of slavery that is supported there, we will recognize you as Irishmen no longer.”
But, perhaps, the benefits of American whiteness outweigh the expense of an emaciated ethnic identity. Because 200 years after O’Connell’s plea, American whiteness is everywhere.
Like an airborne virus, even I carry a latent infection — taught to think less of my own people by American entertainment, education, politics, the economy, and every other star-spangled institution. Thus, sometimes I have to labor to love my own people and, in due course, myself. And, ultimately, that’s why I don’t impugn white people for being racist. They never had a chance, suffering neither from being born racist nor being taught racism, but rather from being reared by a society clinging to a hallucinated supremacy.
But my emotions do stumble between sadness and anger when white people lean on their whiteness, as if it is holding them up when, actually, the opposite is true. Meanwhile, the opportunity to not “do things they clearly don’t really want to be doing … abandoning their sense of human dignity,” as Morrison declares in her New Yorker essay, waits by their fingertips. The chance to not curl up next to the warm cloak of whiteness, as if it’s a protector and not a predator, is ubiquitous.
Whiteness is Endured
In On Being White, James Baldwin wrote that adopting whiteness was white America’s way of choosing “safety instead of life,” and, in The Fire Next Time, that such a choice left them “trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from.” Incidentally, the election of Donald Trump seems to reflect Baldwin’s perspective, as do Trump’s supporters who acknowledge his use of racially charged rhetoric apathetically, because, allegedly, Trump will fix the economy. Meanwhile, history books sit unread in libraries, teeming with stories about how “racially charged but fixes the economy” was the unofficial slogan for American slavery.
I’m fairly certain that the election of Donald Trump is not the most dangerous form of whiteness that my life faces. Or, at the very least, it is not the only form. And my confidence has grown in the idea that just as there is no such thing as “a little bit racist,” there is no such thing as “abundantly racist” — just as I am not “a little bit” human, nor “abundantly” human. I just am.
And if racism just is, and whiteness just is, then the day that Donald Trump became the president-elect was no whiter than the day before, when he wasn’t. In this new age of racial unrest (or, really, in this new age of awareness surrounding racial unrest), whiteness may have grown bolder, like a wounded animal sensing its demise in a shifting landscape, but it has not grown.
Whiteness is certainly an enemy, limping along the same beaten paths that it always has, with the ravenous growl of the undead filling its stomach.
But whiteness is also unchanged. And even science would suggest that just as the centuries-long suffering of my ancestors has been encoded into my bloodstream, so has the centuries-long survival of my ancestors.
Thus, I am inclined to keep bobbing my head and believing that Kendrick Lamar is correct:
“We gon’ be alright.”