"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.