Two takes on whiteness

Some decades ago on a daytime TV talk show – I’ll never find it – the African-American public intellectual, Cornel West, was seated next to some Ku Klux Klan members, and the host said something about the KKK representing white people. West gestured at the white supremacists next to him on the stage and replied, “These people don’t represent white people; they represent morons.” That encapsulated the norm in anti-racist discourse in the post-1960s trajectory (post-MLK/post-hippies). It was not black vs white but, as Dr. King called it, a “coalition of conscience” on one side and racists on the other, “for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny . . . that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom” (“I Have a Dream,” 1963).

How times have changed. Many in the (ironically named, some would say) “progressive” movement have swung around to suggest that the KKK, in effect, DOES represent white people, as the KKK expresses more overtly what is implicitly baked into white people. Whereas West’s witty remark of yore would marginalize racists and foreground Dr. King’s coalition of conscience, the most prominent voices among today’s anti-racists give the KKK center stage.

“All white people are invested in and collude with racism . . . The white collective fundamentally hates blackness” (Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility).

“The way in which people have constructed whiteness, and even their identity, or even the identity of white people, prevents them from seeing this white terrorist threat for what it is” (Ibram X. Kendi, interview 01/12/2021).

Though Kendi’s remarks are less demoralizing than DiAngelo’s, they still emphasize the battle lines between white and black – not anti-racism as a (rainbow) coalition of conscience against racists, but anti-racism as a battle against “whiteness.”

The two takes on whiteness, in any event, are clear. The post-1960s anti-racist angle was that whiteness was neither here nor there, not a blessing and not a scarlet letter. In the coalition of conscience, whites and blacks joined hands to combat racism and racial inequality, without probing into the color of the hand next to you and whether that color meant secret sins that needed to be called out. The post-woke angle, on the other hand, is that whiteness is indeed the problem. It comes dangerously close to recapitulating the old blackness vs. whiteness dichotomy favored by Bull Connor and the racist segregationists that liberals fought so hard against in the 1960s.

Some of you might find anti-racist inspiration in the woke discourse, and I suspect I might find some myself if I push into it harder, but the overall thrust is a hard sell for me. The idea of teaching children, black and white, the Robin DiAngelo quote above, and how that might affect them socially and psychologically, is frankly a little chilling. The other angle on whiteness, the angle that I have identified as post-1960s (as opposed to post-woke), the angle I associated with that decades-old quip of Cornel West (my more up-to-date readers can comment on whether his position has changed since then) – that’s the angle I like. It allows all people of all races to celebrate each other, to work hand-in-hand to fix continuing racial inequality, each able to express one’s own heart robustly, with full confidence in oneself and one’s fellows in the coalition, not cowering in self-doubt about one’s own goodness or casting suspicious eyes on those around you.

Best that each of us, black or white, express the power of beauty and goodness in the heart without impediment, in the brazen manner of William Blake, or better yet, Walt Whitman:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself…
My tongue, every atom of my blood…
Nature without check with original energy…
The smoke of my own breath…
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,
I and this mystery here we stand.

I know I am solid and sound…
To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow…
I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood,
I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content.

Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!

(Song of Myself)

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20 thoughts on “Two takes on whiteness

  1. I agree with much of what you say but it’s important to remember that ALL white people share a history of privilege. Not that we are personally responsible for past racist atrocities but the fact remains that white culture has dominated the world. This must be acknowledged before real change can come.

    Liked by 4 people

    • “ALL white people share a history of privilege”. What does this mean? Sharing a history? This is confusing to me. What history? And why “of privilege”? What kind of privileged history does the Turkish peasant living in 1934 share with “all white people”?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hey Nikita. I get the truth of what you’re saying but there’s an interesting thing about tone here. E.g., I recently worked in a company (suburban US) that was maybe 60% conservative and 40% liberal. If you said that black people have never really had equal opportunities here and that we should try to fix that, I think 100% of the libs and 90% of the conservatives would agree (though they disagree on policy). But when you start talking about “white privilege” (a more weaponized way of putting it, which many take to mean that they didn’t earn things through hard work and don’t really deserve those things), that support would drop to maybe 40% of the libs and 0% of the conservatives. So when people choose language that gets them approval and prestige within their own thought group but impedes the actual work that needs to be done, it seems more an exercise in “us over them” than in truly reaching out to get things done.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Things get more complicated when we look at inequalities across the board and our built-in desire to get ahead of everyone else rather than see ourselves as part of community — or commonwealth. Moving to a “better” neighborhood or school district, for instance, carries a desire to separate ourselves from many others, some but not all of them racially different.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I get what your saying but you can’t blame black people for feeling angry. They can’t erase what has happened from their collective consciousness. So yes of course many white people worked hard but they haven’t a clue what it feels like to be a black woman walking down an urban street and have someone spit on you just because you’re Black. Just one example taken from a friend’s personal regular experience in the UK of what happens to black people in real life. It’s not always possible to be ‘reasonable’ about everything just because some whites can’t face up to the unpleasant truth and their inherited guilt. The concept of internalised white privilege is a fact not just a phrase.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Hey Nikita. I think we’ve staked out two reasonable but contrary positions. At the risk of repetition, I add one more nugget. Back at that company I mentioned, I know at least two cases of conservatives volunteering, e.g., in inner city (nearly all black) schools. (Full disclosure: I was not counted among the conservatives in the office 🙂 .) If those programs were billed not as a way to help underprivileged black kids but as a way of “combating white privilege,” I’m confident they would have less buy-in from those conservatives, and indeed from most of the public outside the core group who invented the term. So my thoughts are that if we center our focus on the material conditions in poor black neighborhoods rather than on the stigma of whiteness in the subjective spaces of white people, we’ll get more people to join hands across racial lines and get more done. I think this is consistent with your position that we can understand the anger of your friend or the frustration of black people who have never had a fair shot.

      Liked by 2 people

    • I understand their anger, but to say that all white people are complicit is as bad as saying that all black people are lesser people. Many white poeple NEVER thought that, even in slave years & worked tirelessly to end this kind of thinking.

      ALL prejudicial thinking is wrong, whether it’s that blacks are lesser humans than white or that Jews are lesser humans or any person is less than any other person.

      Yes, blacks have a right to their anger. & I think we all should be angry, regardless of our ethnicity. But to blame an entire bunch of people, based on their skin color, many of us from vastly different ethnic backgrounds & upbringings, is every bit as wrong as saying, “All blacks are lazy welfare cheats”.

      No. All white people are NOT complicit in perpetuating racism & if this is where we are in argument, we will never heal this rift.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well said. Anger is justified and the persistence of racial inequality indicates that the patient (society) still needs treatment, but if your treatment strategy requires self-loathing of anyone of any color based on their race, you’re probably not going to heal.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, D. That’s great to hear. I sometimes lose track of who is moving in what direction (or whether they are standing still but the spectrum is shifting so fast that what was once “conservative” is now “progressive” and vice versa). But it warms my heart to hear your words about Brother Cornel. It would be a great loss if I felt myself drifting away from the man who delivered that magnificent quip to the seething white supremacist 18 inches away from his face 🙂 Gary


  5. I’ve talked to people who think that if minorities are given more opportunities then they will get less. That’s a real (although irrational) fear. Somehow that fear needs to be addressed and spoken to. At least that’s my modest opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree. Unfortunately, I think the rhetoric of “white privilege” has fostered that irrational fear — i.e., it creates the impression that “we need to take away your unearned privileges so others can move up” — whereas in my (and apparently in your) opinion, going into poor black neighborhoods and creating better conditions and opportunities does NOT hurt white people. We should use language that connects with people outside of the ivory tower few who create these new jargons.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Extremists have made the word “racist” not mean as much now. It’s thrown around so much that it’s lost its bite. I was actually told on a post before that since I don’t like rap that I could be a racist. How stupid is that? Apparently, it didn’t matter that I love soul and R&B. When I first joined WordPress that was my introduction. To generalize an entire race (privilege) or religion is just wrong to me. That would be like calling all Muslims terrorists which would be beyond stupid. I treat people equally and expect that out of other people…if not I walk away. I have no time for bigots but not agreeing with the extremists does not make you a bigot.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. White racism will last until the average black man or woman earns as much, and owns as much property, as the average white man or woman. It is very easy to identify skin color (and facial features, too) as “superior” or “inferior” based on who has to live in the poor parts of town and survive on welfare.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The pendulum swings the other way – to the other extreme. Instead of ignoring skin color and making racism obsolete we just change the poles. We should not forget about the past; but if we want to move on, we need to stop living it.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. All systems based on human arrangements depend on the citizen’s desire for inner comfort and for that they will practice and accept all forms of corruption! What is here proposed is equilibrium based on the illusion that we are able to accept each other regardless of race and class. However, equilibrium demands constant adjustments to discomfort. In that case, we must learn to grow our strength from the base of the uncertainty of non-conformism towards reality. Unfortunately, humanity is not ready for such a leap of faith and may never be.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I hope that, in continuing to examine “white privilege,” we don’t fail to examine the essence of “privilege” itself. Privilege can conceivably be a social evil – at least in the sense of its evidencing an injustice or inequity. Whiteness at its heart ought not to be regarded a social evil, of course. While we can’t deny that privilege is historically caught up in white acquisition and domination of culture, I think we have a conceptual need to separate the “white” from the “privilege” in order to see this thing clearly.

    I certainly have been frustrated when dealing with a White person who came from such an extremely more advantaged social class than myself, who being unaware of the extent of his privilege, insulted me by assuming that I hadn’t attained his social or financial stature due to some flaw in my character. That I was brought up on the “other side of the tracks” seemed not to enter into his equation, nor did he have a grasp of how his great privilege had eased his way.

    Privilege relates to meritocracy, to classism and all forms of inequality. Are we going to eternally relate whiteness with the same? If we do, we run the risk of perpetuating white privilege in our society.

    Liked by 2 people

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