On Whiteness

There is at least one person I know who teaches who believes racism doesn’t exist and white supremacy isn’t an issue. I cannot pretend that I can convince someone that racism very much exists and that white supremacy is an existential threat to the republic.

What I can do is begin outlining how whiteness works for the sake of those of us trying to preserve our sanity. The sheer amount of arguments made in bad faith creates doubt for people who want be sincere and hold the truth. Take this example: A crazy relative loudly and frequently blames one ethnic group for everything. You try to brush off all the ranting, but you feel that relative must be agitated about something. When a story seems to indicate a member of that ethnic group may have done something bad, the crazy relative’s agitation comes to mind. If you make rules or laws, you don’t think for a moment that what you’re doing is racist—you genuinely believe you are concerned about lyrics promoting violence or some such thing. What you’re really doing, of course, is reacting to the relative’s ranting, giving it a life and validation it does not deserve. You’re creating the “us” vs. “them,” codifying difference that need not be relevant otherwise.

How to return to sanity, when we don’t even know how our minds have been poisoned? If you take the example I gave above seriously, our want of sincerity and desire to placate our own family can be turned into a weapon against us, creating a force that has destroyed generations of Americans on account of the most superficial of differences.

One way back to sanity is to recognize racism as a form of bullying. A crazy relative’s unprompted abuse of minorities may not be decorous, but it is a way to feel righteous and exert power. If you force someone onto the defensive before they even know what is occurring, you hold incredible power. I, of course, am describing the phenomenon of “whiteness,” a social construct that only exists for the sake of claiming power—most of the people holding the power and legacy of “Western Civilization” unassailable today are of ancestry not considered white, once upon a time.

Unfortunately, we can readily see how whiteness can confer immediate status. There’s a lot more to the story, though. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ opening to “The First White President” sweeps through centuries to locate the unholy, horrible truth:


It is insufficient to state the obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact. With one immediate exception, Trump’s predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness—that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them. Land theft and human plunder cleared the grounds for Trump’s forefathers and barred others from it. Once upon the field, these men became soldiers, statesmen, and scholars; held court in Paris; presided at Princeton; advanced into the Wilderness and then into the White House. Their individual triumphs made this exclusive party seem above America’s founding sins, and it was forgotten that the former was in fact bound to the latter, that all their victories had transpired on cleared grounds. No such elegant detachment can be attributed to Donald Trump—a president who, more than any other, has made the awful inheritance explicit.

Right away, I can imagine people disputing Coates’ first sentence, that Trump “is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact.” A lot of people are going to argue their votes were anti-Clinton, or say that Trump’s celebrity goes beyond whiteness. But Coates is on much more solid ground than either of these explanations. To start, misogyny and racism go hand-in-hand. It’s hard to really explain to someone not steeped in talk radio or cable news or evangelical-like subcultures how Hillary Clinton has been attacked nonstop from 1992 until the present. The sheer volume of the venom entails disproportion of the “executing people for jaywalking” sort; it reflects more on the accusers than the accused. Misogyny and racism are both forms of bullying, and the key to a political movement such as Trump’s is to never stop bullying. Find a target and press: when that target proves elusive, switch targets. If you’re wondering about the scope of what violent white nationalists have targeted—Muslims, Jews, gays, transgenders, Hispanics, blacks, immigrants, liberal Christians, women, professors, experts, the disabled, the sick, the poor—that’s your answer. Bigots are always on offense, because being on offense feels like power. Moreover, Trump used his celebrity to soar to the top of the polls by being the most vocal “Birther”—this was not a case of celebrity simply, but celebrity used to awaken one of the ugliest forces in American life.

Trump understands to use his whiteness as a cudgel. His standing emphasizes the brutality inherent in the term “white:” his distinction is meant to exclude others by its very nature. He knows this and asserts the justification for his power as being the power itself. If you are wondering about the incredibly crude moral views of certain people in your life and feeling the blood drain out of your body, that’s a good thing. It’s hard for me to fully grasp how people have awful, easily challenged beliefs about the basis of morality—”this is our tradition,” “this is who we are”—for which they’re willing to commit hugely immoral acts. They’re willing soldiers who in many cases have never been harmed in any way.

That’s the really galling part of the violence of “whiteness.” It declares war preemptively. It looks for threats. It attacks, only stopping to reflect in order to find a new target. It accuses everyone else of “identity politics” while being responsible for the worst atrocities in human history.

But that’s my rant. Coates has a beautiful explanation of another, related horror. He calls whiteness a “bloody heirloom,” one “which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them.” What I think I’m hearing is that whiteness is no less an attempt to control everything. Silently, it is hubris, the pride that would make one try to best the gods.

I think a lot of people don’t really want to face the accusation of hubris. A softer white nationalism sometimes makes claims about “heritage” and “tradition” and preserving something common. If you come to America, shouldn’t America have something to offer that you want to accept? You might wonder how could this rhetoric be possibly be radical, inspiring people like the El Paso shooter.

It’s actually incredibly radical, because it takes responsibility for nothing. Very quietly, “whiteness” stands in for all that is good, and anything else is automatically bad, not even worth considering. I don’t even have to explain to my friends how I’ve been ignored or passed over in any number of circumstances—they see it so much clearer than I do, because I still have to work to have a chance at acceptance, despite so many people working to give me a chance. Individual goodness can’t begin to fight the structure that is white supremacy, but the structure that is most dangerous isn’t an institution in the physical sense. White supremacy underlies a lot of what passes for “belief” in American life. That’s why nonwhites can adopt it. They feel in some way that they have assimilated. Having become the worst Americans, they are at least American. I wish I could tell you I didn’t understand that desire.

Coates elaborates on the “bloody heirloom,” outlining its legacy precisely. “Land theft and human plunder cleared the grounds for Trump’s forefathers and barred others from it.” This is not a throwaway line: this is the history of America in short, the eventual acceptance of Irish, Italians, and Eastern Europeans being one exception, not the rule. The rule (again, with some notable exceptions) is genocide against the first peoples, slavery and Jim Crow for some of the oldest inhabitants, and the arbitrariness evident in “model minority” rhetoric, i.e. “You’re welcome as long as you’re considered useful.” The scale of “theft” and “plunder” can make some of the most shameless blush: after the Chinese Exclusion Act passed, barring Chinese specifically from entering the country, Americans massacred Chinese living here. If you are a minority who does not understand what is happening politically, I have to be very clear: your dignity is only the first thing that will be taken away. One can have no illusions about this any longer: “immigration policy” is not about immigration. It is about whether nonwhites are citizens in the full sense or not.

That “land theft and human plunder,” I think, leads to Coates’ most damning thought. “Once upon the field, these men [the forefathers] became soldiers, statesmen, and scholars; held court in Paris; presided at Princeton; advanced into the Wilderness and then into the White House.” What stealing and murder created was a space in which some could have opportunity and honor. I’m not even speaking of wealth or power. Where inequality really lies is in the question of who gets to deserve respect. Coates has correctly identified that the story of America is that some people can not have the opportunity, not ever, to have any respect. If you think I’m lying about this, think about all the people—you can look up these stories anywhere—who were falsely convicted and put in prison for years, typically because of their race. Look at the dignity they carry themselves with. Note their bravery and discipline in the face of an injustice caused directly in the name of “We the People.” Now look at the President and those fawning over him. Now think about the excuses made for the latter. Christianity depends upon what one Twitter user called a “brown, Palestinian man.” I’ll add that he spoke Aramaic, not English. Might be worth looking up some things he said.

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