What Does It Mean to Be White?

Is not this the record of present America? Is not this its headlong progress? Are we not coming more and more, day by day, to making the statement “I am white,” the one fundamental tenet of our practical morality? Only when this basic, iron rule is involved is our defense of right nation-wide and prompt. Murder may swagger, theft may rule and prostitution may flourish and the nation gives but spasmodic, intermittent and lukewarm attention. But let the murderer be black or the thief brown or the violator of womanhood have a drop of Negro blood, and the righteousness of the indignation sweeps the world. Nor would this fact make the indignation less justifiable did not we all know that it was blackness that was condemned and not crime. – W.E.B. DuBois – The Souls of White Folk (1920)

I’ve been accused at various points through my life of being “white.” This is something that has been leveled at me by whites (either joking or “complimenting” me) and by blacks (usually deriding and mocking.) Besides being deeply frustrating, it is an exchange that has long made me ponder, what does it mean to be white?

As I process current events including the release of the footage of Laquan McDonald being lynched, I am very aware that I am most certainly not white and I am aware that we have gone back 100 years. Instead of hoods, the mob may now be wearing badges and kevlar; Instead of a poplar tree they might use guns. But most shockingly, instead of gathering in the town square to watch the spectacle, we are the ones who open a YouTube link and gawk. Lynching is the new internet pastime and it is doing everything that it did when it was in the streets: it instills terror, it traumatizes and it foments fear. No, I am most definitely not white and I am powerless to stop someone killing me because of the color of my skin, because we still live in a social context where blackness has no value, outside of how it serves whiteness. What amazes me though, is that there are those who really are white who are not willing to face down monsters who would do that to me. There are too many people making excuses and stressing that police need to “defend” themselves and that people motivated by hate and ignorance must have “rights.” This is democracy gone mad. This is capitalism as fundamentalism. This is total moral bankruptcy. This is what has become the context of whiteness.

In the West, we are all products of the context of whiteness regardless of racial identity. We perpetuate this context by supporting systems (self centered capitalism, skewed democracy) that retain white identity as the norm. This is not to say that because one has white skin or identifies as white one is “self centered” and “skewed.” Rather, this is to point directly at how these systems were designed with a racial bias in mind that favored one being physically white. Let there be no mistake, cultural whiteness, white racial identity and white physicality are all separate things, but they are deeply interrelated and influential on one another. What we are currently facing is the potential vacuum that will be left by de-centering cultural whiteness as a baseline. Non-whites see this as a beacon in a dense fog of oppression. White extremists see it as a reason to literally circle the wagons. White moderates and liberals are left asking what then does it mean to be white?

Arguably the goal should be wholeness. Non-whites want to be fully capable of participating in life, which may or may not mean seeking capitalist gain and a voice in the democratic process, but it definitely means not starving to death or being shot dead on sight. Liberal whites must also find wholeness, but the challenges are very different and not easily achieved in today’s reactionary climate. James Perkinson offers this in his book White Theology (2004):

In taking public responsibility for its historical position, a self-consciously “white” search for greater wholeness must be both self-referential and other-oriented. In calling attention to the constant rearrangement of resources and power in favor of the “haves” of our society, white self-confession requires more than mere self-naming or “me too-ism.” It demands clear steps of conversion away from the historical intentions and material privileges of white self interest. (226)

The goal then is for white non-supremacists to divest from cultural whiteness while finding a real self identity from which to relate to non-whites. It is in inhabiting this space that the deadly politics and patterns of apology and appeasement will suffocate. Imagine if the authors of the constitution had not appeased the southern planters? Imagine if the expansion of slavery was halted instead of leveraged by exterminating and displacing indigenous people? Imagine if the Federal government had criminalized lynching and imprisoned its perpetrators? Imagine if the words “Black Lives Matter” (in a nation where black lives were codified to not matter and where they arguably still don’t matter to certain police), didn’t inspire the petty rejoinder “All Lives Matter.” These outcomes could all be achieved by whites who are willing to let go of whiteness as the only context…the only measure of self. Non-whites are already there. We are tired of only having 10% of the oxygen we need to breathe. Non-whites are deeply invested in self defining and evolving ourselves past the oppression experienced in the context of whiteness.

The extremists who hate non-whites and those who are different than themselves are not going to be converted. But those people should not be empowered by appeasement. Liberal and moderate whites have an opportunity to end the crime of white supremacy and actively define themselves as equals, not superiors in the world. We must remember that a significant part of “global terror” is aimed at the unrelenting proliferation of dominant whiteness as a context over the course of a half millennium of war, colonialism, imperialism, genocide, rape and disease. White cultural context is culpable. White people don’t need to be. They can be change agents. White people are the only ones who can completely rewrite the script on what it means to be white. But they have to be willing. They must stand up to the Donald Trumps and the Ted Cruzes and the systems of police violence and mass incarceration and say “enough!” Not just because Black Lives Matter, but because of what they believe it means to be white. Allowing the white extremists to fill the void left by questioning what white identity means could literally kill us all.

7 thoughts on “What Does It Mean to Be White?

  1. “They must stand up to the Donald Trumps and the Ted Cruzes and the systems of police violence and mass incarceration and say “enough!” Not just because Black Lives Matter, but because of what they believe it means to be white. Allowing the white extremists to fill the void left by questioning what white identity means could literally kill us all.”

    I have been saying this in a variety of forms for quite awhile. This navel gazing “what is whiteness” is going to kill us. Let’s get on with the business of living out justice and let’s create a new white identity out of our actions. Not just our words. I am heartened by groups like SURJ (Showing Up For Racial Justice) and other groups that are focused on pragmatic steps that we as those of us who benefit from whiteness need to actually do something.

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  2. Great piece! Being white means not having to think about one’s own ethnicity – it just never needs to enter your consciousness. Donald Trump is not white people – he is a dangerous, self centered, extremist who happens to fall under the general definition of ‘white’.

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  3. Sorry, I don’t see it quite that way. There have been evil and power hungry people/races/religions ever since early mankind. Whites didn’t invent it. And that’s what it is. If we had REAL morality and honest people/politicians/police, we would not have had these problems for so long. I have lived long enough to see major changes. Although I agree that there’s still many die-hard and hiding, lingering KKK types, progress is still not fast enough for many races. And so I agree with your desires.
    I see the problem as having immoral, dishonest and mentally unqualified police (besides most politicians – dare I include the religious group?). I’m glad to see long overdue accountability, thanks to many groups.
    I don’t agree with Trump’s ideas, but I also don’t see what you may be so vocal about….Equating the “Trumps and Cruzes with police violence” is pushing it. Instead, write some SOLID facts and likely outcomes….
    BTW.. I see that you have a liberal type training and background and that YOU seem to have advanced well compared to ANY race. Did you ever deliver newspapers? I did… never had ANY gov’t. assistance. Did you pay for all that? I don’t mean this as a putdown, but you could have still been picking cotton.
    There are dishonest corporations, lawyers, politicians, clergy, POLICE (and more), doesn’t mean I need to call it a race issue (or capitalism). Let’s call it what it is and fight against it. I agree that race has been, and still is an obvious target by bad policemen. Again, I heartedly support you.
    Overall, I felt insulted by your using “white” a lot. The above writings should have differentiated between immoral (lukewarm Christians?) and KKK mentality people
    .

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    1. Don G. Thanks for your contribution to this conversation. At the risk of talking for the author of the piece, I will state first that I offer my response to you as MY interpretation of and improvisation on Mr. Dyer’s insight. I want to problematize, in a spirit of civility and thoughtful consideration, some of the claims you make. The author is getting at a specific kind of identity performance linked to white racial domination and embodied by the likes of Trump and Cruz who represent at the level of the (white) individual that we see manifesting at the level of institution in the form of racialized police violence (among other forms of systemic racism). The linkage between everyday practices of racism by white people–whether progressive or conservative–and the systems and structures that reinforce racism is emphasized here. Thus the issue is not so much white people as it is the racist acts carried out by white people who are performing a specific kind of whiteness–in the case of Trump and Cruz as well as the State (via the police), it is whiteness as domination. The problem you are localizing in the police and KKK types is symptomatic of a greater dis-ease that many whites deny by way of a color-blindness which refuses to recognize how power operates along racial lines (to say nothing of gender and sexuality). Indeed, by calling attention to race, the author is here taking up the very injunction you voice to “call it what it is and fight against it.” Racism is more insidious than we often recognize. To stop at a critique of personal morality, which you do by calling attention to the dishonesty of corrupt police, fails to engage in a more deeply nuanced analysis of the hidden logics at play in their dishonesty or, in the case of a Trump, outright racist rhetoric. In other words, what of the systemic roots/routes of the prejudices informing such dishonesty and rhetoric? In what ways do they trace back to a performance of whiteness, as a system of racial domination tied to free market capitalist exploitation of non-white bodies in particular, that commissions such dishonesty and rhetoric along specifically, even if seemingly concealed, racial lines? As I see, interpret, and riff on it, what someone such as the author above is attempting to do, with data in mind (to say nothing of the lived experience of racism to which we are all witness if we would just open our eyes), is call into visibility, which is to say, reveal, the logics of mainstream whiteness that popular (white) discourse so often ignores in its characteristic claim to innocence, most clearly evidenced in the position which states, “It’s not about race!” Perhaps the invitation here is to take insult not at what is said about white people (by anti-racist whites and nonwhites alike), but by what some (dare I say, many) white people themselves are not simply saying about, but doing, to nonwhites. In other words, there is an invitation here to explore the insult you feel and, in the process, come to experience a shift in location–to see reality from the vantage point of one who has been disenfranchised by racist whiteness–and thus come to reclaim white identity as something other than a possessive investment in domination (an investment which understands anti-racist critiques of whiteness as insult). Thus the point is not so much to abolish whiteness or attack white people as it is to rearticulate whiteness according to a new norm that sees racist assault upon the nonwhite other as an insult to one’s own white self–this by dint of our shared humanity.

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      1. WHAT?? I read and re-read this out of all sides of a mouth. You imply linkages, put somebody (Trump in this case) as a known racist, never backing it. …And then spouting the old line about “market capitalist/whites exploiting the masses”, “white domination”. Geez… Did you just get out of a Marxist class? ..
        Are you also labeling me as a “characteristic white claiming innocence”. By lumping most or all whites, you’re failing to take into consideration that much of the racial progress has been made because there are massive groups of white MAJORITIES that have wholeheartedly felt for you and did their best to make things right…. and still do.
        Throughout history and even in our present world, there are rotten apples (kings, tribal leaders, capitalists, communists, henchmen, etc. of all colors and races exploiting their own and anybody else that gets in their way. It’s wrong… Is that too simplistic? Has the original author been a slave or “disenfranchised” in any way? It looks to me that he made his way up the ladder, just as his parents and grandparents (who I knew fairly well). I don’t doubt that he or his elders have had a totally rosy experience, but they survived – and WELL….. more than many whites. At least he wasn’t royally scre–d like the Indians by the US Gov’t.
        I grew up in NYC, and looked into the eyes and souls of my friends – not their color. . I don’t need no snot to tell me how to feel. Don’t take that too personal – I’m just upset.
        After reading and trying to make sense of your last sentence… (You could be an English professor – but your sentences are too long), I ended saying to myself…”What the heck did he just say? After a few more readings, I think that you’re 55% OK., and we’re really on the same side…. but maybe at different angles.
        I also hear that some of the presidential runners want to limit/stop/interrogate/whatever immigrants. I’m torn on this issue, because of the past Japanese internments and refusal of immigration of Jewish German and such during WWII was pretty bad – in hindsight. Of course we’re going to see both sides of this problem again now….. orphans/women/many innocent victims of the ‘headchoppers” – should be welcomed, but many Americans are worried about the killer infiltrators AND the increased cost to be borne by more taxes to provide money to them. If Mr. Dyer would check his original roots in Brooklyn, he will find that it’s now “little Odessa” (Russian). They own many houses, businesses and I know that the settled older folks are upset that they don’t get the entitlement monies that they (Russians) get as soon as they step on American soil. They don’t like it, BUT they knew that those Russians came to make a better life – not to kill us. I suppose one can nitpick and say this is racist talk, but I consider it head and heart talk.
        Is this the basis of your claim that these candidates are racists? If you have any real and intelligent facts, I’m all ears. I can also dispute the socialist state ideals (of Mr. Bernie).if you like.
        To sum up… The best I can make of the above articles is that they are claiming that whites should be
        aware/embarrassed/and don’t care about racial discrimination..
        “Whiteness” is BS. Call it what it is…. a racial bias which includes superiority and power/control attempts. The results fall anywhere between plain old wrong/immoral and criminal. At least Daigen G said “focus on pragmatic steps”.

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