Saturday, August 30, 2008

this week's white news and views

  • "May I Be Offended on Your Behalf?" (Tami of What Tami Said @ Racialicious)

    In discussions of sexism vs. racism, the Michelle Obama lynching illustration on Daily Kos and the scandalous New Yorker cover, a lot of progressives have been eager to explain to black people why they should or should not be offended about a thing. My most jaw-clinching encounters have been with white liberals who have done anti-racist work or academic work on a group of non-white people. (African studies, Asian studies, Native American studies, etc.) Sometimes I want to shake these folks--allies who generally mean well--and explain that studying a people, visiting message boards or really admiring a cultural group, isn't the same as being a member of that group.

    I guess what we all want is that allies will be sensitive and intolerant of race bias, but that they will keep their privilege in check and remember that the voices of the marginalized should be the loudest ones. The victims of an "ism" must take the lead.

  • "The End of Generation X" (Matthew J. Milliner @ millinerd)

    The big end-of-summer post here at millinerd has to start with a question: Is it time to stop discussing the absurdly popular blog Stuff White People Like? Not just yet. The book perfects and expands Christian Lander's satirical achievement considerably, justifying a closer look and providing an Indian Summer to Lander's success. The book's subtitle, "The definitive guide to the unique taste of millions," explains its power: Lander exposes how what many think is their unique, ineffable taste in artisan breads, Wes Anderson movies and Arcade Fire is not only instantly identifiable, but has the mass appeal of Nascar. Stuff White People Like, as Bobos in Paradise before it, has defined not a race but a demographic; and by defining it, has exposed one massive pretension: We white people thought we had escaped demographics.

  • "The Exotifying Gaze" (Johanna @ Vegans of Color, via Alas! A Blog)

    I am really uncomfortable with how a lot of vegan cooking is described as “exotic” (to whom?). It assumes so much about the audience racially & culturally, & as well is loaded with really creepy connotations — the exotic is there to be conquered, mastered; it’s there purely to titillate your (white/Western/etc.) self (which also implies that white people have no culture — a convenient excuse used by people participating in cultural appropriation, but not actually true). It’s a “safe” way to imagine you’re experiencing other cultures without, you know, having to do that pesky thing known as actually engaging with the people whose cultures you’re attempting to eat via their food.

  • " How to Avoid White Privilege & Going Permanently Colourblind"(Davita Cutita @ Pregnant Drug-dealing Prostitutes)

    I cannot go to a “White” salon because they do not do my hair. There are certificates all over the walls detailing their achievements and education but for whatever the reason, I guess it wasn’t important enough for them to learn to care for “Black hair”. They cannot do my hair and refer me to the closest “Black” salon whilst apologizing profusely and seeing me to the door. A White person can come to a Black salon because hey; if you haven’t noticed, once our hair is straight it’s pretty much like theirs.

    I have never been to a Black salon that didn’t carry at least three or more (many more!) books filled with White hairstyles you can choose from. I have been to Black salons where White customers are served amongst the Black ones, male and female; I’ve even brought my White friends to them to get their hair done.

  • "Silver Lining: Not All White Supremacists Oppose Black President" (Heidi Beirich and Mark Potok @ SPLC's Intelligence Report)

    Figures from the white supremacist establishment seem to agree with the crudely put sentiments of their followers. David Duke, the neo-Nazi and former Klan boss who is the closest thing the movement has to a real intellectual these days, sees clear advantages in an Obama victory in the fall.

    "Obama will be a signal, a clear signal for millions of our people," Duke wrote in an essay entitled "A Black Flag for White America" posted to his website this summer. "Obama is like that new big dark spot on your arm that finally sends you to the doctor for some real medicine. … Obama is the pain that let's [sic] your body know that something is dreadfully wrong. Obama will let the American people know that there is a real cancer eating away at the heart of our country and Republican aspirin will not only not cure it, but only masks the pain and makes you think you don't need radical surgery. … My bet is that whether Obama wins or loses in November, millions of European Americans will inevitably react with new awareness of their heritage and the need for them to defend and advance it."

    Rocky Suhayda, head of the American Nazi Party, agreed. "White people are faced with either a negro or a total nutter who happens to have a pale face. Personally, I'd prefer the negro. National Socialists are not mindless haters. Here, I see a white man, who is almost dead, who declares he wants to fight endless wars around the globe to make the world safe for Judeo-capitalist exploitation, who supports the invasion of America by illegals… . Then, we have a black man, who loves his own kind, belongs to a Black-Nationalist religion, is married to a black woman… . That's the kind of negro that I can respect," Suhayda told Esquire.

  • "Judd Apatow and the Art of White Masculinity" (Marisol LeBron of PostPomo Nuyorican Homo @ Racialicious)

    I don’t think Apatow’s films say anything about sexuality that is specifically homosexual or homophobic, but I do think his films rely on homosociality to demonstrate the ways in which white masculinity has been “wounded” by the feminist, gay, and civil rights movements. In Apatow’s movies we see an entire generation of white men who rely on each other for a sense of validation and understanding, a generation of men who in many ways by refusing to grow-up are able to avoid facing the reality of changing power structures in American society.

And finally, Eddie Murphy, embodying the, um, "darkest" fears of some white voters:

Thursday, August 28, 2008

white quotation of the week (alvin hall)

Six years ago, I founded a business that designs custom training programs and exam preparation courses for Wall Street firms. Wall Street, no matter what anyone says, is still not very integrated. People respond to me in the financial markets as a black person. And as a black teacher on Wall Street, I've encountered situations where people have judged me to be unqualified to teach because I was black.

In one of the oldest firms, for example, I had a particularly distressing experience. Even though my evaluations were excellent and many students considered me the best teacher in the company, I knew I had to be perfect in order to survive. I was perfect. My grammar was perfect. My clothes were perfect. My delivery was perfect. My grooming was perfect. I knew that when students first saw my black face I had a brief window of opportunity to convince them that I was worth listening to. I had to be "Mr. Perfection" in order for them to trust me.

Only after an initial period of trust building would I work black references into my lecture: I would quote Aretha Franklin songs, or use the word "ain't" or double negatives. Gradually my students would become more comfortable with my world. But first I had to start out being esssentially a black person who looks like white people, wants what white people want, needs what white people need, and speaks in a language that white people can hear.

What I have come to learn in the financial world is that white people really want black people to act "white," and being the black Alvin Hall was becoming a problem for me. The more this particular class was responding to my style, the more the white trainer became combative. He eventually insisted that I be removed from class. He said I was using "inappropriate" language. He was so incredibly threatened that I have not been allowed to work at that company since.

No matter how integrated their communities, white people have a fairly limited threshold for blackness. Even before I start a class, I must decide whether or not I need to come across as smart or successful. Only rarely can I be both at the same time. Sometimes white people are more comfortable with a black person who is smart and struggling than with one who is smart and flourishing. The latter combination can be frightening to them.

To survive in an "integrated" world, black people must always find ways of reinventing themselves in order to make sure that white people are comfortable with them. In the course of an all-day class with new students, I often metamorphose into six or seven different people to calm their fears and insecurities: the perfect, unthreatening 1950s Negro, like Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field; the suave 1960s black matinee idol; the 1950s homemaker, the June Cleaver type who reassures my older, white male students that they are smart and in command; the Eddie Murphy character, who piques their curiosity and perks them up with jokes.

If I sense that my white students are relaxing, I can inject more of myself into the lecture. If they are uptight, I'll have to cycle through those personae, tailoring them as I go along. I want my students to reach a comfort level that allows them to accept the knowledge that I can offer them. If I was totally Alvin Hall--Alvin Hall as a black man--they would not want to learn from me. I'm sure that many of them think I go home and listen to opera at night. Little do they know that I listen to rap music, too.

--Alvin Hall, as quoted in Maurice Berger's
White Lies: Race and the Myths of Whiteness

For a description of similar experiences in a different educational setting, see Keith Barry's "Teaching While Black: Practicing American History at a Majority White College" (thanks Ortho!); see also Samah's explanation of demands that she deny herself amidst the white privilege of office culture, at Jamerican Muslima

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

blame non-white problems on non-whites themselves

After a rare hour or so of listening to National Public Radio a couple of days ago, I was tempted to give this post a different title, something like “bathe in the soothing whiteness of NPR.” But then I remembered that Christian Lander has already done a post on how white people like to listen to "public radio" (and of course it should be added, only some do). I stumbled onto an NPR discussion on race, and something especially white about it stood out to me, so I’ll describe that more specifically white thing here. I can summarize it as the common white tendency, as displayed by the NPR employee and her interviewees, of blaming “the black community” for its own problems, and charging its members with the sole communal responsibility of enacting their own solutions.

I only listen to NPR programs when I’m driving or doing some sort of work at home, and only when I'm desperate because none of my preferred non-corporate news sources are available (such as Democracy Now!, Free Speech Radio News, or CounterSpin). MYTWORDS, a tireless and vigilant blogger at NPR Check, explains well many of the same problems that I see with NPR, mostly by filling in the network’s many sins of omission.

Aside from its shallow, fundamentally conservative stance on what counts as the “news,” NPR strikes me in many ways as blithely, blandly, unwittingly “white” (a whiteness that probably explains why the vast majority of its listeners are also white, as demonstrated by this chart at the "media watchdog group" FAIR). NPR’s quasi-liberal efforts to address groups of non-white people come across as either patronizing celebration or mildly frowning concern, and it's all filtered through a homogenized, upper-middle-class white perspective, even, it seems to me, when the announcers themselves are not white.

NPR’s perpetual mode of calm, reassuring speech itself seems racially white. I don't mean that other racial groups don't use calm, reassuring speech; it's more that NPR "staffers" seem to exclude and delete anything that varies from a bland, moderate center, resulting in an undifferentiated, supposed universality. This is a form of normality that, like ultimate, achieved racial whiteness, doesn't acknowledge its own specificity, and also doesn't really welcome the differences that it supposedly embraces.

I also remember reading somewhere that NPR interviews, which are rarely live, are run through a sort of bleaching program, which cleans up the speakers’ sentences by automatically deleting pauses, ums, uhs, and so on. The resulting polished, antiseptic, perpetually cheerful atmosphere reminds me of the homogenized suburb where I spent part of my childhood. They’re both places where people avoid whenever possible any genuine discomfort and emotional conflict. In terms of race, as with all other topics, anything truly radical or upsetting (to upper-middle-class white folks) rarely makes it past NPR’s censors. I mean, “editors.”

I was assaulted a couple of days ago by an NPR conversation on “race and politics,” held by “Host” Liane Hansen and two seemingly ordinary (that is, white) Americans, Hubert Smith and Betty Parker. This conversation on race strikes me as so exclusively white (even though it’s about “black people”), and so messed up, that I transcribed it, and posted it below.

The guests’ opinions, and Hansen’s handling of them, strike me as typically white in more ways than I should explain here—it would take a couple thousand words, at least (and then because of its length, very few people would read it). So I’ll just focus briefly on one common white tendency here that stands out the most to me—the tendency of both “guests” to blame black problems on black people themselves, while ignoring, or rather, not even seeing, the larger explanatory context of a society that has been and still is white supremacist.

The two guests, Hubert and Betty, are clearly meant to represent the opposite poles of NPR’s limited conception of the political perspective—“conservative” and “liberal,” which simply means, Republican and Democrat. Any other political alternatives rarely receive attention on NPR, unless, as in the case of Ralph Nader’s work with the Green Party, they threaten Democratic politicians.

Liane Hansen wants to know how race has affected the approach of these two ordinary Americans to the current presidential election, and of course, race is only an issue of ongoing concern at NPR these days because one of the nominees is black. The whiteness of John McCain, and of the two white guests (and of Hansen herself) are of no direct concern. As is usually the case in the minds of most white Americans, race usually arises as an issue on NPR only when non-white people come into focus. As in so many other American settings, it’s as if white people don’t have a race, and if they realize they do, they still don’t think it merits much of any recognition, let alone discussion.*

Hubert says that although he marched and protested back in the Sixties, he’s a Republican now. He’s being interviewed by Liane because he wrote in to say that he’s become “disillusioned” about race, particularly because of the supposed grievance-mongering of “black leaders” like “the Jacksons and the Sharptons,” who should be supplanted, he says, by real leaders like Bill Cosby. Liane seems to find Hubert’s racist views little more than mildly interesting. Any challenge to them, it seems, is going to come from the other guest, equally mild-mannered Betty. She comes across as a proud Southern woman (which means a white Southern woman), and yet, perhaps surprisingly, she’s all for Obama. That’s because he’s “gifted” and “brilliant,” but especially because he’s black.

Hubert and Betty are at odds politically, but they both agree that race matters in the following way—“the black community” has problems; they pretty much brought them on themselves; and it’s up to them to solve these problems.

Hubert expresses these views in the usual “conservative” ways, deploying many of the standard clichés about “grievances,” chip-laden shoulders, and a “victim mentality.” Betty agrees that a lack of “role models,” especially male ones, is a truly major problem for black people, keeping them from living with “dignity,” and even she only gestures in the most passive way toward any collective white responsibility for black problems. She says the following, for instance, about her deceased mother’s “sympathy” for African American difficulties: “She knew, among her own circle of friends, that African Americans among them had not had good opportunities for schooling, had no reason to hope that they could rise in the world.”

The unwitting whiteness of NPR is especially evident in Liane’s lack of response here. Instead of politely, “objectively” listening, she might have asked questions that would help to flesh out a larger racial context. For instance: “Well why didn’t they have good opportunities, Betty? Who took their hope from them? And who’s still taking it from them now? Surely there’s more at work here than the mere, supposed absences of black male role models, isn’t there?”

Betty also cites the “weakness” of the black “family structure” as the “basic problem,” again without seeing or citing the historical and ongoing influence of white supremacy on that problem (and of course, any common weaknesses of white families are totally out of the picture). According to Betty, the liberal in this conversation, the solution for this “basic problem” can only come from blacks themselves, hopefully in the form of Superman Role Model Barack Obama, who will show black youngsters what people like them are capable of.

So aside from the many unacknowledged ways in which NPR itself is white, the common white tendency that stands out to me in this conversation is that of seeing black problems in isolation from their white causes—a tendency which leads to the common white demand that black people "take responsibility" for such problems, and that they solve such problems themselves.

As I’ve said before on this blog, white people rarely consider the fact of their own racial membership important, so they usually fail to see that it actually does shape their perspectives. As a consequence, they tend to treat black problems condescendingly, usually without realizing that they're doing so. That means, for instance, that listening seriously to those “black leaders” who point out the ongoing effects and power of white supremacy, instead of dismissing such commentators as self-interested purveyors of “the victim mentality,” is out of the question. Unless, that is, they’re as acceptably black, and as unwilling to name and challenge white supremacy, as Barack Obama.

So here’s the interview—what do you think of it? I certainly haven't covered all facets of NPR whiteness. If you have time to read this conversation, please tell us about the facets that you see, and/or what you think of NPR and race.

[From NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” August 24, 2008]

Liane Hansen: We now turn to you, for your thoughts on race and politics. This month we’ve been inviting listeners to be part of our discussion about how race is playing out in this election. We just heard about the dreams of the Civil Rights Movement. Now we’re going to hear about one man’s disappointment with it. His name is Hubert Smith, and he’s our first guest today. He’s a white man, and he joins us from Ashland [sic], Oregon. Welcome to the program.

Hubert Smith: Thank you, Liane.

Liane: Hubert, your feelings about the Civil Rights Movement were obvious in the comments you posted on our web site. Would you mind reading just a little bit of it?

Hubert: I will. “We organized, we marched, I was a public television producer and did shows with black activists. It wasn’t a particularly dangerous or strenuous effort, but, we were optimistic. Not anymore. Today, what do many black kids get? A chip on their shoulders, and nothing but a long list of grievances. Black politicians insist on their Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks Boulevards, but ignore those black kids, or, defend them when they mess up.”

Liane: Thanks for reading that, Hubert. You said you were once a bit of an activist for Civil Rights, and now you sound disillusioned. What happened?

Hubert: I think an opportunity was missed. The assassination of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy of course were watershed events and greatly disappointing to a lot of people, and I think at that point, the challenge was to make something out of their legacies. And rather than do that, black leadership, the supposed voices of the black community, and to a large extent, many black persons, squandered that legacy.

Liane: What did the black leadership do that disappointed you so much, Hubert?

Hubert: Well, they have promoted the victim mentality and the perpetual-grievance mentality. I think they’ve tried to instill the notion in the black community that because of wrongs, terrible wrongs, that were done to them over the past two centuries, they should remain angry in perpetuity, and needy in perpetuity.

Liane: Hubert, we’ll get back to you. We want to bring in our second guest, listener Betty Parker, of Pleasant Hill, Tennessee. She wrote into our web site to tell us why her mother, a fifth-generation southern white woman, would have supported a non-white candidate for president, and she joins us from Knoxville. Betty, welcome to the program.

Betty Parker: Thank you.

Liane: Would you mind reading us some of what you wrote?

Betty: I’ll be happy to. “My mother turned twenty-one, then the age required for voting, in 1928, and she voted for Herbert Hoover. Not because she agreed with him, but because he was not Catholic. Shocked by her mistake as the Depression unfolded, she vowed never again to consider religion, or any other such factor, when casting her vote. Without the New Deal’s Social Security, she and my father, in old age, would have faced dire poverty. Without the Great Society’s Medicare, they could never have afforded medical care that allowed each to live past age ninety. Without the Civil Rights Movement and legislation passed under President LBJ’s leadership, she would have grieved that African Americans were denied a life of dignity.”

Liane: What do you think Barack Obama’s candidacy would have meant to your mother?

Betty: Well, I think she would be thrilled. She had a strong sympathy for the situation of black people. She knew, among her own circle of friends, that African Americans among them had not had good opportunities for schooling, had no reason to hope that they could rise in the world. I know she would have been thrilled that we might have a president of the caliber of Barack Obama, who is, of course, African American, but first of all, a very gifted and brilliant politician.

Liane: Hubert, I understand you’re a registered Republican, and you are disillusioned with black leadership in the country. A hypothetical: if the Republican nominee were black, would you vote for him?

Hubert: Oh, yeah, of course, um, in fact, there are many conservative black Republicans, they just don’t seem to get the notice that some of the so-called leaders, like the Jacksons and the Sharptons do. And it’s unfortunate, because I think that sort of leadership needs to be supplanted with voices of reason, like Bill Cosby. Even when Barack Obama spoke out about black young men supporting their children, Jesse Jackson made a terribly crude remark about that, and accused him of talking down to black people. That ethic, I think, saps the strength of a lot of persons in the black community, it’s very disappointing.

Liane: Betty, you’re a lifelong Democrat, I understand.

Betty: Yes.

Liane: And you are excited about the possibility of a black candidate breaking the glass ceiling here. What if that candidate was a Republican?

Betty: Well, I’d be very much interested in him. Uh, I probably would not vote for him, unless I was really desperate about the Democratic nomination. But, I would be excited, I would be pleased. I think that one problem that Hubert refers to, or implies in his statements, is that blacks have not had enough role models, particularly male role models. They have not had strong father figures. And so I think only this side of the aisle, to have a responsible and gifted black president, will perhaps, just in the fact that he is a role model, and shows that he can do what he has done, will have a bit of that effect. But the basic problem is the weakness of the family structure, I think, and I’m—

Hubert: I’m perfectly willing to see Senator Obama become president, and I’m perfectly willing to cheer for his success, and by golly, he just may do a number of wonderful things. On the other hand, I believe in the American system, and I don’t believe any single president can either move it forward to any great degree, or mess it up to any great degree. I think the, the checks and balances are in place. What do you think?

Betty: Well, I agree that to expect miracles of Barack Obama is to be unrealistic. I do feel that the present administration has done a better than average job of messing things up. But, uh, other than that (laughing)—

Hubert: (cross-talk) That might be a discussion for another day.

Betty: I think that you have some good points.

Listeners Betty Parker, of Pleasant Hill, Tennessee, and Hubert Smith, of Jacksonville, Oregon. They posted comments on our web site to let us know how race is affecting them in this election . Thank you both for joining us. . . .You can read more comments like the ones Betty and Hubert sent us, and contribute to our conversation on race and politics, by visiting to

*To its minimal credit, NPR has on rare occasions paid direct attention to racial whiteness (though as far as I know, not its own), as in this interview with Robert Jensen, author of The Heart of Whiteness.

UPDATE: This "Saturday Night Live" sketch effectively satirizes NPR's smooth, uptight claustrophobia (sorry if there's an ad--this was the only version I could find):

Sunday, August 24, 2008

see no problem with being surrounded by other white people

As I sit alone in my office, in the dark, in the middle of the night, the idea of atonement seems hollow and fruitless. Only the personal, everyday choices I make in the world of racial interactions, and not some abstract or ritualistic gesture of apologizing or of being forgiven, will really make a difference. In the process, I realize, I will always be watching myself.

I just spent the last couple of weeks with members of my family who live a half a day’s drive or so north of where I do. As I drove there, I knew that my vacation would be a very “white” one—I was going to be surrounded by white people. I was also going to be “on vacation.” These two facts made me a bit conflicted.

I wondered, as I have before: When I get up there, how much should I question and examine the whiteness of the people and the settings around me? How much should I keep in mind, and try to tell other people about, what I've come to realize so far about what whiteness means? Shouldn’t I just relax and take a break from such things, in the hopes of reinvigorating myself for a continuation of that struggle when I go back home?

I was driving along an interstate highway, blithely sailing along at my usual ten miles over the speed limit. I realized that because I’m white, I don’t feel at all concerned about how my race might register to traffic police, either as I drive by them, or if they stop me (I’ve never been stopped for going ten miles over a highway speed limit). I also don’t have to be aware of certain localities that have more racist traditions than others, a racism that’s reflected in more frequent traffic stops for non-white people.

Then it occurred to me that I often realize those benefits that come to me from Driving While White. So that means that I’ve escaped, to some extent at least, the “false consciousness” of whiteness. A false sense, that is, that my race doesn’t matter much at all in my life.

So (my thoughts continued), if I’ve escaped to some degree the false consciousness that my society had previously lulled me into about my racial status, being “on vacation” would not mean taking a break from a truer consciousness. Being aware of whiteness in these rural northern spaces, and of my own white tendencies as I move through them, should come more naturally to me than it used to.

My parents came from a small northern lumber town. After a few decades of life in the city where I was born and raised, they moved back to their hometown, and my father still lives there. He now works in same lumber mill where he had his first job, which consisted of stripping the bark from poplar trees (machines do that now). He and I did a lot of hunting and fishing together as I grew up, and although I rarely do either anymore, we recently started an annual tradition of taking a summer fishing trip together. This year that trip was delayed for a couple of days, since I arrived in his hometown just as its birthday celebration was getting started.

The town’s celebration included a musical review of the town’s history, full of local “actors,” and a parade, which included an Elvis imitator, refurbished old cars, mobile advertisements for local businesses and politicians, the high school marching band, members of the state college marching band, floats constructed and ridden by members of especially large local families, fire engines, a nostalgic outhouse, people throwing candy, honking horns, blasting cannons, and more. There was also a lumberjack demonstration; a beard contest; booths selling pies, sausages, crafts, t-shirts, memorabilia, and beer; a musician who played a saw and told moldy jokes; an outdoor dance party; a “lumberjack breakfast”; and a closing fireworks display that went on for twice as long as almost everyone expected.

As I walked around amidst the hundreds, perhaps thousands of visitors who came for the birthday festival, I was surrounded by almost exclusively white people, in a town that had always been almost exclusively white as well. And yet, despite so much whiteness, I felt myself getting lazy about white awareness. I was, after all, “on vacation,” and so were a lot of the people around me. And a lot of them were people I knew, and even loved, and thus not people I especially felt like giving a hard time about their racial status and their racial beliefs and attitudes.

But there was also more to my struggle to remain vigilant about whiteness. It’s been my experience that in settings like this, where the whiteness is so unrelenting and nearly uniform, none of the white people present seem to notice the lack of non-white people, and they certainly don’t have anything to say about that. As for me, I now get kind of creeped out when I’m in such extremely white settings, because I know that’s not an accident—the exclusion was, and often still is, deliberate, and ugly.

That racial homogeneity, which is probably glaringly evident to any non-white participant, is almost invisible to the white ones, as taken for granted as the air around them, or the availability of electricity or running water. So when I say there’s more to my struggle to remain vigilant about my whiteness than my own laziness in such settings, I mean that there’s a sort of passive-aggressive pressure in such places to avoid the topic of whiteness, and even to stop thinking about it. Mostly because no one else seems to even notice all that whiteness, and also because most of them would take it badly if anyone were to broach the topic critically.

The facts of electricity, running water, and a nearly uniform whiteness seem so natural to the white people in such settings that they don’t have much of anything at all to say about all three of them. And electricity and running water are of course thought of as good things, when they’re thought of at all. At one point, as I watched the performing “lumberjacks” ham it up for the kids in the audience, I wondered if being surrounded by white people is also thought of as a good thing, as something as beneficial, and “hard to do without,” as electricity and running water.

I decided that actually, yes, whiteness is often thought of that way here—if the more general topic of race comes up. My evidence was a conversation earlier that day with a cousin, who asked where I was living these days. When I told him about the place, he said he’d been there, but he didn’t like it.

“Why not?” I said.

“Because they had lots of coloreds down there.”

Coloreds? I hesitated—where to start? And how much did I want to alienate this person I’ve known all my life?

“I guess you mean black people? African Americans, as people also say these days?” I tried to make the point more palatable with humor. “Come on, man, get modern! People don’t say ‘colored’ anymore.”

He didn’t see anything to smile about. “Around here they do. Some do, anyway.”

“Well, around where I live, they don't, and they don't in most other places either. I like living with different kinds of people. And it’s not dangerous, if that’s what you’re thinking. Hasn’t been to me, anyway. You’re just being prejudiced.”

My cousin looked doubtful, but he didn’t say anything. Then he shrugged, saw someone else to talk to, and walked away. I think he does feel safer living away from “all that crime” in more populated places, and I’m sure that he associates that crime with people who aren’t white, not with how much more crowded such places are. So he’s happier to be away from “cities,” but he’s also happy (probably without thinking about it all that much) with being surrounded by white people.

When the lumberjacks had finished beating each other at hand-sawing, log-rolling, and chainsaw sculpting, they cleaned up their area for another show, and members of the crowd got back to talking to people they knew. I was with my father, and we fell into conversation with another relative, or rather a soon-to-be one, the fiancé of another cousin of mine (my father had five brothers and sisters, so I have lots of cousins). I’ll call him Bill.

I hadn’t met Bill before, and he was connected somehow with a kid I also hadn’t met, a blond-haired boy of about eight who was fascinated by the lumberjacks.

“Can I go ask them for an autograph?” he asked Bill.

“Sure, I guess, but I don’t know what they’d write it on.”

We all watched as the boy ran over and shyly approached a lumberjack, who nodded, reached down for a flat piece of wood, and signed it with a fat pen that he had in his pocket.

The boy came back to us with a huge smile and showed us the signature. “He did it!”

“Great,” said Bill, tousling the boy’s hair. “That was mighty good of him!”

As the boy went off to show others, Bill added to my father and I, “I was going to say ‘that was mighty white of him.’ But, you know . . .” He shrugged and laughed a little, almost nervously.

I did, of course, want to say or ask something about that expression he’d just used, or maybe almost used—“that was mighty white of him.” But someone else was approaching to talk to Bill, and I didn’t know if whatever I would accomplish by calling him on his use of that old expression would outweigh whatever would come of my doing so. I usually call people on such racist terms, but sometimes I still fail to do so. I’m not an especially aggressive person, for one thing, and for another, I don't know how much good it would do to point out the racism of someone who may well have a whole lot of other things to worry about instead.

My father and I raised out eyebrows at each other, worked our way around to saying good bye, and then turned away toward his house.

“I bet you were just itching to say something about that one,” he said, “weren’t you?”

“Yes, I was. Something. I'm not sure what, though, or if it’s really worth it.”

“Right. You can’t change those kinds of attitudes with just one comment.”

“Well, maybe he’d think twice before saying it again. And what a weird thing to say, actually. I haven’t heard that one since I was kid.”

“Oh, I have. People at the mill still say that sometimes.”

“Really? What do you think they mean by it? Do they really mean ‘white,’ as in racially white?”

“Actually, no, I don’t think they do. I think it’s usually just a compliment, or a way of saying thanks. It used to work in a more racial way, of course, back in the fifties or sixties, but now it’s pretty much detached from race.”

“But then, Bill knew it was wrong. He didn’t want to say it in front of that kid.”

“Right. But I don’t think he necessarily knew it was wrong because it’s racist. He just knew it had some kind of bite to it, so you shouldn’t say it around kids.”

“Reminds me of the word ‘gay.’”

“Gay? How so?”

I told him about how the many kids I hear using that word in a negative sense, rather than a positive one, to mean stupid, wrong, uncool, and so on. He hadn’t been aware of that.

As the festival wore on, I did see a couple of non-white people. One was a black man with dreadlocks, holding hands with a white woman (I assumed she was the one with relatives in town). Another appeared when a person I was sitting with in the beer tent, another relative of mine, pointed out the long, shining black hair of a woman walking past us.

“Look at that,” she said. “Her hair is so beautiful! It’s so shiny, and smooth, and it’s so black!”

As the woman turned around briefly, we saw that she looked like a young Native American woman. She was walking alone.

I never saw any other such people. There are some “Indian reservations” nearby, and the mill workers often spend whole paychecks at the casinos there. By the looks of things, though, this white town’s celebration of itself wasn’t an attraction for the local indigenous people. Which should be no surprise to any white person who might stop to think about such things.

I also attended the historical musical review, curious to see just how far back in history it would go. A master of ceremonies began by telling us that the town was “carved out of the virgin wilderness” over 100 years ago, when a rich man (a white man, it went without saying) set up a mill, a railroad line, and a company town, complete with company houses, a company store, and company money for the workers. All of the forty or so performers in the musical were white, as were all the stories they acted out. No recognition was offered of those people who occupied the so-called “virgin wilderness” before the town was “carved out.”

My father stayed away from all three performances of that musical, and he refused to say why. After I saw it, I asked him again about the peculiar name of an area out in the woods. The town is surrounded by many miles of forests, lakes, rivers, and streams, and many of these areas have names that all the locals know. One area has a name that I’ve heard all my life, with a word in it that I don’t think white people should use—“The Ni**er Camps.”

People in that town still refer to that area of the woods that way, saying it just as matter of factly as they do the other named places out there. My father and I have driven out to where those camps used to be, and nothing at all remains of them. Also missing, it seems, is anyone’s solid memory of them. My father doesn't remember any actual camps or black workers there, nor does anyone else we've asked in town. It’s just a place in the woods where, presumably, such camps once existed. And they existed out there because such workers, while welcome as laborers, were not welcome to sleep or live in town.

“Have you found out anything yet about those camps?” I asked. I’ve been asking my father for years about them, and about who the workers were and how long they were there. I’ve also visited libraries in towns all over that area in search of information about them, but without success.

“I’ve asked around,” he said, “but like me, no one knows when that place had actual camps. Or how many workers there were, or what they did. I suspect they came up to build the railroad, then left when that work was done.”

“Hmm. More whitewashing.”

“Whitewashing?” Another raised eyebrow.

“This place is whitewashed. The Indians, the black people, probably Latin American people—“

“Right! I picked cherries with them when I was a kid. Migrant workers. I haven’t seen any around since then.”

“More migrants. ‘Hands.’ Unwelcome, except for what they can do, temporarily, with their hands.”

The people in that town clearly think of themselves as good, honest people, but like most white Americans, they live in communities that are anything but good and honest when it comes to their relations with, and their thefts from, people who were and are not white. And once you realize that, and you realize how that knowledge can alienate or separate you from people you otherwise know and even love, it can be uncomfortable, and even despairing, to be surrounded by other white people. It can also be easy to fall back into the common white habit of not even thinking about that knowledge, let alone speaking it or acting on it.

The day after the closing fireworks, my father and I traveled further north in search of new places to fish, and to see some places that we’d never seen before. Everyone we encountered in our travels was white, except a man with long black hair who was walking alongside a highway. I considered diluting the racial homogeneity by visiting some reservations, but that seemed intrusive.

"And anyway," I thought lazily, and perhaps, whitely, "we’re on vacation."

Thursday, August 7, 2008

travel to exotic locations, meet interesting people, and eat them

"On a search for new musical inspiration,
David Byrne unexpectedly runs into Paul Simon"
Drew Friedman for Spy Magazine,
sometime in the mid-1990s

I'm going to take a break, so for a couple of weeks I'll be posting lightly, if at all. I'm leaving today for some "white world-traveling"--if an American white guy visiting his American family members and fishing with his American father counts as world-traveling. I think it does, given how my whiteness has helped to instill in me a presumptuous sense that I have the right to go wherever I like. I'll try to think about who used to fish in the rivers and lakes that I'll be dropping lines in, and I may even try to discover who they were, and where they went, and what "white" people did to them. But as a white American, I certainly won't have to do that, and as far as I know, nothing and no one around me will be encouraging me to do that.

I might write about the whiteness of my trip when I return--I'm sure it'll be there, in many manifestations and guises, wherever I go. I'll leave you for now with some other thoughts, on another sort of white world-traveling.

In the mid-nineties, one of my favorite movies was Latcho Drom (which I've seen translated as Safe Journey), released in 1993 by Romani/Algerian filmmaker Tony Gatlif. I didn't know back then that the people the film is about, the people I thought of then as "gypsies," are more properly called the Roma, or the Romani people.

At the time, this is what I'd gathered about "gypsies," never having met any: that they mostly live in Europe, where non-"gypsies" typically despised them; that the Nazis included them in the Holocaust; that they're a nomadic people who earn a living by entertaining non-nomadic people, and maybe by pilfering from them too; and that when Americans say they got "gypped" by paying too much for something, they're using a racist slur (even back then, I did call people on their use of that slur, as I also did when I heard someone happily report that they'd managed to "Jew down" the price of a rummage-sale item, or a used car).

So I thought I was a racially and globally conscious white person, and I thought that buying, and thus supporting, what came to be known as "world music" was another good thing to do. I bought and listened to music by Youssou N'Dour, Ali Farka Toure, Lhasa, the Gipsy Kings, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and by western musicians who appropriated "world" influences, such as David Byrne, Paul Simon, Kate Bush, and Peter Gabriel.

I realize now that I was, as cultural critic bell hooks puts it, "eating the other." I was consuming a product geared towards people like me, first-world "consumers" who wanted some sort of connection to other places and especially to other peoples, a connection that we thought we could make with our money.

Music conveys to us a lot more than sound and feeling. As we listen, we add our own associations, plugging the music into them and reacting to whatever cultural, social, economic, national, and racial connotations it stirs up for us. It's a form of socially induced pattern recognition that takes place on an individual level. As a rather typical white American, I vaguely felt like something was missing from my life, something that would make me more alive, less . . . stifled. Listening to music from other cultures, and also watching "foreign films," seemed to assuage, to some degree, that twinge of vague emptiness.

The film Latcho Drom seemed especially fulfilling, because it was a foreign film full of world music. It's a documentary of sorts about the Roma, though "documentary" seems like the wrong term for it. Latcho Drom consists of unnarrated, richly textured and colored vignettes, like the two excerpts below. The camera follows different bands or groups of Roma, who always seem to be on the move, constantly singing and dancing as they go.

As I watch the film now, I notice that the documentary "subjects," the movie's Romani people, rarely if ever "break the fourth wall," by looking directly at the camera. I now realize that someone probably told them not to do that, and I also wonder just how staged the whole thing is. Actually, it's very staged--though perhaps no less wonderful for that. When I watched it several times in the mid-nineties (having of course bought a copy, so that I could better "consume" these "others"), I thought it was incredibly real. The people seemed so alive to me, and in many ways, so free. I hadn't noticed at all how carefully made this movie is, how meticulously arranged, choreographed, edited, and perhaps even "acted" it all is.

Paying attention to the subtitled lyrics reveals that an effort has been made to tell Romani history gradually throughout the film. In the second clip below, which closes the film (with, I now see, a very traditional cinematic closing, the gradually distancing "long shot"), a woman's song provides a defiant list of specific charges against non-Romani Europeans. But as I watched it repeatedly back in the nineties, all such details about real "gypsies" didn't mean much to me. I liked the music, and the passion, and the looks of the people and their clothing, and especially how alive they all seemed.

I wasn't consciously thinking about how much more alive they seemed than me, and the other, mostly white American people around me. But I now realize, that's what I was doing. I was watching and listening to something that was more about me, and what I felt I was missing, than it was about "them," and what their lives were and are really like. I thought I was encountering something new and authentic, and maybe to some degree I was. Mostly, though, I was reinforcing notions of foreign others that I already had, and I was also reaching out for something that I thought I didn't have. Something that I felt I lacked.

What bell hooks has written about such interactions, in her essay "Eating the Other," was so true of the "me" that I was back then. And given not only my whiteness, but also my nationality, my masculinity, my relatively stable financial means, and more, her point is probably still true of me, though to, I hope, a lesser degree:

The desire to make contact with those bodies deemed Other, with no apparent will to dominate, assuages the guilt of the past, and even takes the form of a defiant gesture where one denies accountability and historical connection. Most importantly, it establishes a contemporary narrative where the suffering imposed by structures of domination on those designated Other is deflected by an emphasis on seduction and longing where the desire is not to make the Other over in one’s image but to become the Other.

[hat-tip: Ortho @ Baudrillard's Bastard; I'd also like to note that to their credit, some cultural appropriators have gone to great lengths to be more true to the people from whom they borrow, or steal--David Byrne, for instance, who "hates" the marketing category of "world music": "It’s a none too subtle way of reasserting the hegemony of Western pop culture. It ghettoizes most of the world’s music. A bold and audacious move, White Man!."]

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

white quotation of the week (reginald horsman)

By 1850 American expansion was viewed in the United States less as a victory for the principles of free democratic republicanism then as evidence of the innate superiority of the American Anglo-Saxon branch of the Caucasian race. In the middle of the nineteenth century a sense of racial destiny permeated discussions of American progress and of future American world destiny.

The contrast in expansionist rhetoric between 1800 and 1850 is striking. The debates and speeches of the early nineteenth century reveal a pervasive sense of the future destiny of the United States, but they do not have the jarring note of rampant racialism that permeates debates of the mid-century. By 1850 the emphasis was on the American Anglo-Saxons as a separate, innately superior people who were destined to bring good government, commercial prosperity, and Christianity to the American continents and to the world.

This new racial arrogance did not pass unnoticed at the time. A minority frequently asked why the American Anglo-Saxons could so easily read God’s intentions for mankind, and some, unkindly but accurately, pointed out that there was no “Anglo-Saxon race”; England clearly contained a mixture of peoples, and the white population of the United States was even less homogenous. The religious orthodox had the additional problem of reconciling the idea of a superior separate race with the biblical notion of one human species descended in just a few thousand years from Adam and Eve through Noah. But the logical inconsistencies were ignored.

The term “Anglo-Saxon” has a long history of misuse. In reality there was never a specific Anglo-Saxon people in England. . . . In the United States in the nineteenth century the term “Anglo-Saxon” became even less precise. It was often used by the 1840s to describe the white people of United States in contrast to blacks, Indians, Mexicans, Spaniards, or Asiatics, although it was frequently acknowledged that the United States already contained a variety of European strains.

Yet even those who liked to talk of a distinct “American” race, composed of the best Caucasian strains, drew heavily on the arguments developed to elevate the Anglo-Saxons. It was repeatedly emphasized that it was the descendants of Anglo-Saxons who had successfully settled the eastern seaboard and established free government by means of a Revolution. An Irishman might be described as a lazy, ragged, dirty Celt when he landed in New York, but if his children settled in California they might well be praised as part of the vanguard of the energetic Anglo-Saxon people poised for the plunge into Asia.

Both directly from Germany and by transmission through England, the Americans were inspired to link their Anglo-Saxon past to its more distant Teutonic or Aryan roots. Even in colonial America the ancient idea of the westward movement of civilization had brought dreams of a great new empire on the North American continent, but as German philologists linked language to race and wrote of tribes spreading westward from central Asia following the path of the sun, the Americans were able to see new meaning in their drive to the Pacific and Asia. They could and did conceive of themselves as the most vital and energetic of those Aryan peoples who had spilled westward, “revitalized” the Roman Empire, spread throughout Europe to England, and crossed the Atlantic in their relentless westward drive. Americans had long believed they were a chosen people, but by the mid-nineteenth century they also believed that they were a chosen people with an impeccable ancestry.

By the 1850s, it was generally believed in the United States that a superior American race was destined to shape the destiny of much of the world. It was also believed that in their outward thrust Americans were encountering a variety of inferior races incapable of sharing in America’s republican system and doomed to permanent subordination or extinction.

Democratic politician and publicist John L. O’Sullivan coined the phrase Manifest Destiny to describe the process of American expansion. . . . Texas had been absorbed as part of the fulfillment of “the general law” which was sending a rapidly increasing American population westward. California [O’Sullivan wrote] would probably soon follow Mexico within the American orbit: “The Anglo-Saxon foot is already on its borders. Already the advance guard of the irresistible army of Anglo-Saxon emigration has begun to pour down upon it, armed with the plough and the rifle, and marking its trail with schools and colleges, courts and representative halls, mills and meeting houses.” There was to be no balance of power on the continent: Spanish America had demonstrated no ability for growth; Canada would break away from England to be annexed by the United States.

[The inevitable] American Anglo-Saxon triumph was expressed well in an article in the Merchants’ Magazine in the spring of 1846. The author asserted that Oregon was the rightful property of the United States, and that English efforts to stop the advance of the American pioneers were futile.

“No power on earth, nor all the power of the earth, can check the swelling tide of the American population,” it was argued. “Every portion of this continent, from the sunny south to the frozen north, will be, in a very few years, filled with industrious and thriving Anglo-Saxons.” There need be no war—all could be won by the weight of numbers: “The Oregon country must, all of it, not only up to 58⁰ 40’, but beyond it, far up into what is now exclusively Russian, become peopled by the Anglo-Saxon race. . . . This is the irresistible flow of our people.”

Anglo-Saxons, through the expansion of England and the United States, were visibly taking over the world, and by the 1840s only a few in the United States were prepared to suggest that this was not for the good of the world.

The United States was springing forward “to greatness and empire.” The imagery of American expansion no longer simply emphasized “spreading”; it stressed “marching.” John Reynolds, [governor of] Illinois, thought that the Americans by 1890 would extend through Canada and would have large cities on the Pacific and extensive commerce across that Ocean: this was the “onward march of the United States to her high destiny, which no foreign nation can arrest.”

In this mood, many Americans were ready to take what the Mexicans would not sell. Many had convinced themselves that what they wanted was for the good of the world as well as themselves.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

let their preconceptions shape their impressions of foreign places

Here's an interesting post-trip video entitled "Racial and Cultural Separation in America." The narrator explains impressions of those topics, as gathered during a cross-country trip through the eyes of a white . . . finger.

Is this how most foreigners (be they white fingers or other sorts of foreigners) see America's racial makeup?

Watch. Twitch with vague discomfort. Discuss.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

feel threatened and imperiled as a race

"Can you explain why whites feel so threatened and imperiled?"

This question came to me by email from Racialicious Editor Latoya Peterson. She wrote because she was taken aback by a lengthy comment that a proudly white woman had posted in response to a Racialicious article by Nadra Kareem, “Interracial Dating with a Vengeance.”

Although the article asks questions specifically targeted to non-white readers, this white reader chose to post her own, explicitly "white" views against interracial dating. Latoya Peterson decided against posting the comment when it became clear that its writer contributes to a white supremacist -- or in the comment writer's terms, “White Racialist” -- web site, which the writer had linked to in the comment.

In addition to her question, Latoya also sent me the unposted comment; it's full of sad and dangerous ironies. The comment is fairly long, and I’ve reposted the entire thing as the first comment to the post that you’re now reading. Below is my attempt to answer Latoya’s question above about why white people feel so threatened and imperiled, even by the interracial relationships engaged in by white people other than themselves.

First of all, this commenter, whom I’ll call "M," clearly has a more extreme case of xenophobia than most white Americans do; most whites would label M's arguments against interracial relationships straight up "racist,” and even “white supremacist.” Like many of today's racists, though, M tries to escape that label. She seems to realize that adopting such labels would make her words too easy to dismiss, so instead, she calls herself a "White Racialist."

This term is apparently meant to indicate not a white person who feels open disdain and contempt for other races, but rather one who is an alert and concerned fighter for the threatened rights and, it seems, the sheer existence of the white race:

I will state I am a White Racialist. I have choosen to make a commitment to the advancement of my race, as other peoples have done so too. Of course it's not viewed the same as when other races do it but oh well, I'm not in it for them, I'm in for my people, and my peoples interest.

One of the threats to her people that M finds most alarming is the topic of the original post, interracial relationships, which she instead labels "race-mixing," and which she says "seems to be everywhere now" (more in a moment on how whites tend to exaggerate the numbers of non-white people around them, as if non-white people are surrounding them). The term "race-mixing" has a ring of old-school white derision to it, and it's just a step away from the more openly contemptuous connotations of another bygone term, "miscegenation." And that term itself is just another step away from an even more derogatory one, "mulatto," a label for mixed children that references the sterile offspring of horses and donkeys -- that is, mules.

My etymological point here is that current white disdain for interracial relationships, or “race-mixing,” has its roots in earlier conceptions of non-whites as not only lesser than white people, but also as a supposedly lower species. As something not quite “human” at all, and thus, unnaturally suited to producing offspring with the “real” people. So one thing that “white racialists” and other white supremacists feel threatened and imperiled by is the degradation of the white race through mixing with other races (as well as, further down the road, the gradual and eventual disappearance of “the white race”).

Times have changed, though, and so have racial attitudes, so “white racialists” know that if they express their fears with open contempt for “lower” races, they won’t be taken seriously, at least not by anyone who doesn’t join them for meetings in their garages and basements. Early in her comment, this concerned white woman even goes so far as to compliment black people, for their racial self-assertion:

I believe the Black community has had this sense of tribal loyalty since the civil rights era has taught them they need to stick together, this has helped them as a group, working together to accomplish things in their interests. Asians also seem to have a tribal and racial cohesiveness to them that helps them maintain their cultural heritage and identity here in the U.S. Same with Hispanics and I admit Whites have become very detached from their racial and cultural identity as a group. Which is partly the reason why I am so vocal on trying to bring my people's sense of pride and loyalty back. . . .

I think we have gotten so caught up in trying to be so colorblind that we seem to forget what makes us. . . well us.

Some may disagree with me and that's fine but the real victims of this inter-racial relationship trend are the mixed race people. We can argue that race mixing will bring peace to the world but history has proven that wrong and so has society structures of past and present. Mixed race people will just find themselves back in a caste system like society where they fill in the grey areas of racial gaps and depending on what their parents or grandparents race was will determine where society places them.

Although M's "racialist" views may seem extreme, she actually demonstrates a lot of common white tendencies here, more than I have space to explain in this one blog post. When white folks say such things, they demonstrate their misunderstanding of some basic facts about the formation of American whiteness (facts that whites more generally have forgotten or repressed) -- including the fact, first of all, that the “white race” is a fiction, as well as an ever-changing one, and thus not something "natural" or God given.

So, a bit of history will help to answer Latoya Peterson’s question about the white paranoia that M demonstrates (and in the interests of space -- that is, time, especially your time -- I’ve greatly abbreviated this complicated history).

The concept of a "white race" is only a few hundred years old, and the people the term was applied to, especially in America, came from many others -- early tribes we now call Angles, Saxons, and Jutes in England, and then all sorts of different groups, and then nations, throughout Europe. In America, various groups now deemed “white” had to work their way into that category. Also, given the tremendous amount of “race-mixing” that white men brought about by raping black women both during and after slavery, there’s a good chance that if you think you’re “pure white,” you’re also part “black,” and/or another group, or “Indian.”

White Fawn's Devotion (1910)
a film made by Native Americans
about an interracial relationship

In the 1600s or so, some of the people with beige and pink skin played up the false description of "white" when they saw how that “superior” classification could be used to help justify the theft of other people's land, resources, and labor. Clear differences in skin color were seized on as the most obvious marker of difference. If the obvious difference had instead been, say, bigger ears or tiny feet, chances are that we'd all still be laboring under the supposed significance of that difference instead.

The first major use of the "race" concept took place when white "settlers" stole land that had been "cleared" of "savages," or helped steal it if it was still being "wasted" by them, since whites considered "Indians" too inherently shiftless to put it to good use (never mind, the thinking seemed to go, that different indigenous groups had different modes of land use, and that many such people actually were farmers, and many others lived in large cities).

The next major use of race was the fading away of indentured servitude for Europeans and the acceleration of slavery for those Africans who managed to survive what we now call the middle passage. As many historians have explained (and as Tim Wise explains very well in this video clip), the wealthy elite and its subsequent generations have continued this strategy ever since then, by encouraging ordinary white people to work hard in the hopes of joining the economic elite, but also by discouraging whites from banding together for change with their differently colored co-workers.

As Chip Smith writes, what happened then still happens:

[T]he white owning class in the United States exploits both white workers and workers of color. At the same time, the system affords white workers certain racial privileges that they have often jealously defended despite their exploitation. The white ruling class exploits both white workers and workers of color -- and uses racial privileges to sustain their rule. White workers benefit -- in comparison to workers of color -- while at the same time being exploited for their labor power. This distinction is crucial. It points to the fact that ending exploitation - and the system of racial privileges that support it -- is in the interests of white working class people as well as people of color.

As the industrial revolution kicked in during the late 1800s, newly white workers (mostly men, of course) repressed who they'd been before; placed value in their new, fictional whiteness; failed to see their overlords as the exploiters of both themselves and non-whites; took part in organized violence against non-whites; and then pretty much overlooked how they’ve been getting economically screwed in racial terms by the white elite. In fact, they’ve allowed those who’ve been screwing them to become heroic figures instead (recall how admired wealthy people still are -- Bill Gates, Donald Trump, Oprah Winfrey, and so on), and they’ve by and large remained hardened toward their fellow exploited laborers because they’ve swallowed the lie that differently colored skin makes them better than others.

So if whiteness was such a valued commodity from the 1600’s through the 1900s, why have so many white folks now done what commenter M "admits," which is to "become very detached from their racial and cultural identity as a group"?

The gradual decline of white pride happened in part because of several events in the 20th century, but also because there's a fundamental split within what amounts to a collective white American psyche. White people know that bad things have happened in the name of whiteness, and that "white" people did them. And yet, on the other hand, since America's foundational principles hail the virtues of democratic equality and fair play, surely most white Americans are not bad people. So naturally, what egalitarian, fair-minded, well-meaning white person would want to foreground within their identity a sense of being "white," given all the awful things white Americans have done to others?

In more general terms, Friedrich Nietszsche described this type of psychic split this way:

Memory says, “I did that.” Pride replies, “I could not have done that.” Eventually, memory yields.

Which is one reason why white people disassociate themselves from their own racial membership. And yet, white people "are" white, or at least categorized as such. They can’t fully forget what white people used to do to non-white people, and in many, that part of them also knows that things still aren't fair for non-white people.

And that brings us to another part of the answer to Latoya's difficult question about why white people feel so threatened and imperiled -- many of them fear revenge. As a white Kentuckian admitted in front of a camera during the primaries, the choice between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was for many white people "a race problem," because "the white people have put the n-, n-, negroes in the back of the bus for years, and if we're not careful, we're gonna be in the back of the bus, and they're gonna be in the front."

In addition to this lurking fear of retribution, many whites also feel threatened because as studies have shown, they consistently overestimate the numbers of non-white people in largely white spaces. As sociologist Charles Gallagher writes of his work on the topic, "the media, residential segregation, racial stereotypes, and perception of group threat each contribute to whites' underestimation of the size of the white population and the inflation of group size among racial minorities." The research of Gallagher and others reveals the common white delusion that they're rapidly becoming outnumbered by black and brown people, people who may well be out to get them.

So to summarize, many whites fear non-whites because they believe that --

“race-mixing” will lower the quality of the white race (as well as gradually eliminate it);

mixed-race children and their descendents will suffer ostracism, and worse;

the mongrel mix that’s gone into those who became “white” is actually pure;

the history of white abuse has planted the seeds of imminent racial vengeance;

and that there are more non-white Americans than there really are.

So the sources of white paranoia are numerous. Yet another one, which also may be the primary explanation for the appeal of white racial solidarity, is the increasingly severe economic degradation of low-income people at the hands of an increasingly distant, largely white elite. This appeal is expressed in such overtly white supremacist forms as the militia movement and the KKK, and in the seemingly softer racism exemplified by M's white "racialism"; all of these movements draw their ranks from the economically disenfranchised. From those, that is, who can find some comfort or renewed self-esteem in projecting their frustrations onto a racial scapegoat.

In these terms, one more thing that most white folks fail to realize is how much they and their ancestors have been bamboozled by their belief in the significance of a skin color.

There's an enormous wealth gap in America between whites and other races. As recent Federal Reserve data reveals, the average net worth of a minority family is about 27% that of the average white family (and in terms of income: 56%). Most white folks don't know about that racial gap, but what also eludes them is the racial component of a wealth gap that most of them do know something about, the gap between themselves and a tiny, yet increasingly wealthy white elite.

According to sociologist G. William Domhoff’s research for a 2006 study,

the top 1% of households (the upper class) owned 33.4% of all privately held wealth, and the next 19% (the managerial, professional, and small business stratum) had 51%, which means that just 20% of the people owned a remarkable 84%, leaving only 16% of the wealth for the bottom 80% (wage and salary workers). In terms of financial wealth, the top 1% of households had an even greater share: 39.7%.

What’s racial about this gap is that the upper-class elite has always strategically deployed the concept of race against the people below them, discouraging both whites and non-whites from bonding and fighting together for better wages and living conditions. One result is that non-whites have far less wealth and income than whites, but another is that the average white also has far, far less of both than their almost exclusively white "betters."

I have no idea if M is struggling financially. However, her expressed mindset is symptomatic of how white pride can provide a sense of belonging and purpose, with resentment against blacks, Hispanics, Arabs, Jews, and gays becoming a primary means of establishing a sense of group-bound identity and superiority, especially for those who have little else in their lives to feel good about.

Nevertheless, many of M's feelings and beliefs are common among far more white folks than those neo-Nazi skinheads, white-sheeted Klan members, and just plain folks who populate the milky backwaters of overt white supremacy. I hear echoes of many points that M raises expressed by the educated, middle-class white folks that I mingle with everyday.

I also think that M's comments demonstrate how those of us who actively seek social justice need to work more on both sides of the color line -- against, that is, the ongoing forms of oppression faced by non-white people, and also against some common and increasingly strong forms of white supremacist belief and sentiment. The veiled, unresolved racism exhibited by M’s comment is a pathology inflicted from on high that we're going to hear more often, and see more often, because of the approaching, racially charged presidential election, and also because of America’s impending and probably severe economic decline.

And in the near future, as in the past, many people who think like M will enact their racial training by taking out their frustrations on their oppressed brethren, rather than uniting with them to demand something like this of their supposed betters:

Where did all the money go? Why did you trick us to get it, and when in hell are you going to give some of it back?

Update: This post was originally prefaced by a racist postcard dating from the early 1900s. It shows a wealthy-looking white man kissing a caricatured black woman who appears to be his servant. I explained my reasons for choosing this image in the comments; it seemed to me an effective illustration of the above writer's disgusting and very old-fashioned white ideas about interracial relationships. However, since several people have found it an offensive and/or objectionably titillating way to begin the post, I've deleted it.
hit counter code