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.