Editor’s Note: A version of this piece was originally published by the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, available here. -LNP
I wasn’t aware of it at the time. But looking back on my suburban upbringing in 1990’s Los Angeles it is clear that I grew up upon the foundation of a sort of end of history thesis with respect to race. Race, biological fiction though it may be, had existed as social reality in the past and continued to exist as an aesthetic and something of a cultural differentiator in the present. Yet we had reached Dr. King’s Promised Land on the question of whether or not race determined anybody’s value or treatment in society.
‘End of history’ theses posit that at a certain point the social and political order of society reaches an ideal state (i.e. some form of liberal democracy, as argued by Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man), at which sustained progress is only a matter of continuing to build upon this order. Growing up half Black and half White (or half African-American and half Anglo-American to be more specific) with extended family from across Latin-America in the multicultural, liberal suburb of Culver City, California it was not so much easy for me to embrace the colorblind paradigm of racial tolerance as it was impossible to see outside of it. When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 his election seemed to crown this happy understanding of our social reality.
Beyond the borders of my understanding, however, from Black and brown inner-cities to White and Asian suburbs lay a nation that was steering away from complacent acceptance of our claims to a racially well-adjusted status-quo and towards a visceral reckoning with the reality of whiteness.
An unstable element in the periodic table of our political awareness, as common as carbon in composing the molecules that make up our social reality in the eyes of some, White supremacy, White privilege and White identity itself is oft regarded as the acute toxin perpetuating injustice and inequality in society. We can say that the problem is racism. But in the antiracist awakening of America it is whiteness, we feel ourselves learning, that is the spirit that animates the racist structures of America and the western world. Hence a focus on racism is futile if one is not more specifically concerned with the abolition of White supremacy.
But the question of whiteness is a profound one, arching over history, society, psychology and identity. Is whiteness a cancer? A legitimate identity? Or is it just another divisive racial category that obscures the value of the individual?
The answer is complicated for a Black man like me.
I WASN’T ALWAYS BLACK. I wasn’t always White either. For the first five years of my life in fact I do not recall having a racial identity. And when I did finally get one it happened to fall outside of the usual categories.
Skin color was always interesting to me because our home had so many of them. My mother was some shade of milk chocolate, my father a more beige sort of hue. My brother and I fell somewhere in between. This fact became significant to me when I realized that most families I observed seemed to generally be colored the same. So one day I found my dad in the kitchen as he made himself a sandwich and I asked him a question.
“Dad,” I started. “Mom is Black, right?”
Dad paused and looked at me. “Yes.”
“And you’re White, right?”
“Yes,” he responded, studying me.
“Well, if you’re White and Mom’s Black…then what does that make me?”
I remember my father smiling as he turned towards me. “Well can’t you tell?” he asked.
No, I answered. He knelt down and took the palm of my right hand between his fingertips. Holding my palm to face forward he lifted my hand so that the back of it rose to my line of sight, that I might see clearly the color of me.
“You’re tan!” he answered.
“I’m tan?” I responded. I looked at my hand. Made sense. “Tan” seemed to describe where I fell on the color spectrum.
“You’re tan,” Dad repeated. And so for the next two years of my life my self-professed racial identification to anybody who would ask was “tan.”
At some point I was disabused of the notion that this was a legitimate racial category. I was mixed perhaps. But Black kids I knew knew themselves to be Black. And if you were light-skinned or “high-yellow” or mixed-Black like I was, well, you were Black too. That’s not to say no one ever called me White. Black kids would (usually by saying “you’re so White”) as a way of commenting on my speech, dress or taste in music. Some White kids would as a way of highlighting the fact that I was really more like them then other people my color. (“John’s as White as I am” or, alternatively “John’s not really Black.”) But the circumstance that made any of these jabs relevant was that I was really Black…at least technically.
At a certain point however I wanted to be more than technically Black; I wanted to be authentically so.
So began a journey for me which involved changing my body language, my dialect, even the way I dressed, so that at least when around other Black people I would not find myself on the outskirts of “blackness.”
Given the time and place, the idea of authentic blackness that I sought to step into was inextricably bound to the trappings of Hip-Hop culture. In this my identity journey was not unlike that of author Thomas Chatterton Williams, who in reflecting on his own coming of age experience as a mixed-race Black teenager wrote, “If it is true that it feels good to look good, then it is equally true that it can feel gangsta to look gangsta…” I had uncles who were rappers. They were from the hood. Blackness in the eyes of my peers was the embodiment or at least the approximation of the sort of swagger life in the streets had taught others of my relatives to master.
By the age of 13 I thought I was getting a handle on this. Pride in my blackness became important to announce, important to signal, especially among Black peers whose acceptance I craved.
There was one kid in particular whose respect as a Black man I hoped to earn. Tony was a star on campus; a Hollywood smile, moves on the basketball court and threads like one of the guys from the R&B boy band B2K, Tony was everything I thought I wanted to be. That is to say, nobody questioned his Blackness. And yet, like myself, Tony was half-White. But that was only a technical matter. Tony was vibrationally Black, essentially Black and qualitatively Black. And that’s what I wanted to be.
Then one day I found myself sitting next to Tony at the beginning of class. Others were milling about and taking their seats coming back from lunch. We spoke a little bit and somehow found ourselves on the subject of being Black. I took the opportunity to play up my own blackness for him, to boldly declare how proud I was of being Black…and to do so in a lingo that would drive my authenticity home for him.
Tony listened to me, nodding his head patiently. “Yeah. I’m proud of being Black too,” he started. “But don’t ever forget, you’re just as White as you are Black. Just like I am. And you should be proud of that as well.”
He turned to face the teacher as class started. But Tony had left me stunned, my conscience convicted. In seeking to play up my blackness and obscure my whiteness had I diminished an entire side of my being? Beyond simply not being true to myself was I dishonoring the White father who raised me with as much love and as much pride as my Black mother? Was I dishonoring my father’s entire family, our lineage, the grandparents and ancestors I’d heard stories about who were as much the reason for my existence as my mother’s ancestors? It seemed to me that I was and that this was a terrible shame. It was in that moment that I made up my mind to be as proud of being White as I was of being Black—and to never lose sight of the equal honor both cultural identities were entitled to hold in my mind.
FROM THAT DAY until now I have thought of myself as being White as well as being Black, not just technically but meaningfully. This consciousness does not follow automatically from the mere fact of being biracial, clearly. Williams writes in Losing My Cool, “Despite my mother’s being White, we were a Black and not an interracial family…My parents adhered to a strict and unified philosophy of race, the contents of which boil down to the following: There is no such thing as being half-White, for Black, they explained, is less a biological category than a social one.”
True as this may be for some this particular way of viewing Black racial reality held in place the one drop rule of racial identification that my interracial family ultimately, if tacitly, rejected. I was Black and White and would remain so.
This principled conviction that I was my father’s son, however, did not in and of itself reveal to me the substance of whiteness as even a cultural differentiator. A picture formed within me and a White experience took shape. But the question of what Whiteness actually is remains here to be answered.
It is important to recognize the fact that, while the identity aspect of this question may seem naturally relevant to White people and perhaps even to some mixed White people such as myself, there is a deep and often uncomfortable question of identity within the heart of the Black experience that is left unanswerable absent a reflection on the American experience of being White.
Martin Luther King, Jr. pointed to this reality in Where Do We Go From Here, published in 1967:
“The language, the cultural patterns, the music, the material prosperity and even the food of America are an amalgam of Black and White…This is the dilemma of being a Negro in America. In physical as well as cultural terms every Negro is a little bit colored and a little bit White. In our search for identity we must recognize this dilemma.”
This desire to shake our Whiteness, at the very least the desire to not be perceived as insufficiently Black as a consequence of presumed White cultural influence, is not a feature of the Black experience reserved solely for conspicuously biracial Black people such as myself. Nor is it limited to the ultimately parochial contrast between White culture and the urban-centered culture of 90’s Hip-Hop.
Bertrand Cooper, writing for Current Affairs, recalls the example of John McWhorter. McWhorter has admitted that, earlier in his career, he feared publicly debating Michael Eric Dyson because of his sense that he would be perceived as insufficiently Black given his academic demeanor and middle-class origins in contrast to Professor’s Dyson’s Black Baptist preacher-style of speaking. Cooper cites the example of the Nigerian-American writer Ijeoma Oluo, who has written about the “difference between the expectations of the type of Black we were supposed to be, and the type of Black we were—which was Black nerds raised by a White woman in a poor White neighborhood.”
Yet even as some Black people seek to dissociate themselves from the perception of having been culturally adulterated (or psychologically “colonized”) by whiteness, so too do many white people either seek this distance from whiteness as well, or feel shrunken by the void that the lack of a positive racial identity seems to leave.
As someone who was trying to demonstrate his pride in Blackness it was easy for me to observe that, to a certain degree at least, racial pride was social currency within African-American culture both at school and beyond. Yet it took my conscious decision to embrace my White identity for me to fully realize that there was not even the shadow of an equivalence to the bold racial pride experienced by Blacks in my school among Whites in the same classrooms. I may have been the only student in my high school who actively took pride in being White—a fact that was only possible because I was also Black.
There were indeed White kids who wanted to be Black however. This expressed itself in some of my suburban White classmate’s culture shocking their parents’ homes, dressing in baggy jeans and backwards caps, blasting rap music and passing the n-word back and forth amongst themselves and maybe a protective circle of Black friends who might let them get away with it.
Shy of this flattering cultural appropriation however there was merely a longing to experience the cultural solidarity that Black people so easily took refuge in. It is a longing that led a White boy sitting behind me at a graduation ceremony to grumble “I wish I was Black” as every White kid crossing the stage received her diploma to polite applause, whereas almost every Black kid to get hers received a field-filling, rapturous roar from the booming minority of Black students and family members scattered across the bleachers. The larger part of the student body and the audience was White, but Black pride literally reverberated through the stands.
“As a white person, you’re just desperate to find something else to grab onto,” wrote Christian Lander, author of the popular satirical blog and later best-selling book Stuff White People Like. “Pretty much every white person I grew up with wished they’d grown up in, you know, an ethnic home that gave them a second language.”
Of course, Lander and I both grew up in liberal Los Angeles. White people in other parts of America respond to the cultural mainstream’s moral and social repudiation of Whiteness with a reactionary embrace of White identity that, in its worst form, continues a centuries old tradition of White racial terrorism right into episodes like Charlottesville. It echoes forth in the chants of “You will not replace us!” In this we hear the paranoia of a people who believe themselves to be shoved to the margins of American life, madly flinging themselves off these social cliffs for fear of being pushed.
Yet for all the ethnic cultural envy one can point to, particularly among more progressive leaning White people of recent generations, critical race theorists and White studies scholars stand in agreement in observing a steel thread connecting the psychology of overt White supremacists to that of the broader psychology of White America. This thread is the romanticization of Whiteness, the expectation that White identity should be rewarded, and the real (whether loud or silent) consensus that it is the culture of Whiteness that must determine the ultimate distribution of power within American institutional society.
It is here that we come to the substance of whiteness, to reckon with it as both reality and illusion.
WHITENESS IS A REALITY. Or at least, the term “whiteness” points to some things that are very real, both in the currents of history and contemporary American society. It is vital that these dynamics be both understood and responded to. But the concept of whiteness is also, if not an illusion, than an obscurant as well. (I mean this with respect to whiteness as both a thing with which people identify as well as a force to which people are opposed.) Our emphasis on whiteness hides as much as it reveals, both about the American people as well as the social reality in which we live.
There is a history to whiteness. A slow and unevenly emergent pan-European identity began to be brought into stark relief in the idea of the shared racial identity of “White” during the crescendo of the African slave trade. The latter had everything to do with the former.
It would be hard to add to the scholarship on this, so well established it seems to be. In the American colonies in particular the tying of slavery to racial identity and the institution of the racial caste system that would continue into the founding of the United States (despite its flagrant contradiction of the idea that “all men are created equal,” entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”) served to protect the economic interests of particularly the landed, southern elite. It did so by providing a social status to poorer White Americans that would give them something to lose in establishing common cause with enslaved Africans. This caste system, having entered the law principally to justify slavery, expanded to separate and then absorb other identity groups whose whiteness would seem to have been further removed from that of the Anglo-Saxon bulk of the British settler population and their descendants. Over time this included the Irish, Italians, Greeks, and even Slavs and other Eastern Europeans. This gradual expansion of the concept of whiteness within the realm of American law corresponded to a larger cultural integration of various European descended peoples whose children and grandchildren intermingled and intermarried with “White” Americans. Through both breeding and simple cultural immersion they became “White” themselves.
Critical Race Theory and related scholarship tracks the legal and larger institutional development of American society as the structural manifestation of this consciousness. It assumes this reality, and charts it, not until 1865 or 1965, but to the present day.
As Michelle Alexander writes in a recent foreword for Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well:
“Yes, the old Jim Crow system of legal segregation was officially ended by a carefully crafted legal campaign combined with an extraordinary, multiracial grassroots movement. But it is also true that less than two decades later public schools resegregated, and a new system of racial and social control was born in the United States-a system of mass incarceration that swept millions of poor people and people of color behind bars…stripping them of the very civil and human rights supposedly won in the Civil Rights Movement…”
She quotes Bryan Stevenson, saying “slavery didn’t end in 1865. It evolved.”
To say that slavery merely evolved after 1865 is true perhaps in the most technical sense. It is certainly true in the metaphorical sense, in the way that Dr. King meant it when he declared during the I Have a Dream Speech of 1963 that 100 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation “the Negro still is not free.”
What becomes more questionable in the minds of some (and conspicuously at odds with the oft heard claim that arguments against racism are not arguments against racist people but merely against racist systems) is the connection of this history and present circumstances to the larger psychology of White America generally. To them historic racial oppression, possibly merely misguided contemporary public policies and the occasional, innocent faux pas of millions of ordinary White people become crudely forced together in an overarching narrative of White supremacy in a manner that leaves most White people feeling unjustly maligned.
One hears this narrative spelled out in all its punch and poignancy in the first episode of the Netflix original series Dear White People, through the words of the shows protagonist, Black campus activist Samantha White:
“Dear White people…I get that being reduced to a race-based generalization is a new and devastating experience for some of you. But here’s the difference: my jokes don’t incarcerate your youth at alarming rates, or make it unsafe for you to walk around your neighborhoods. But yours do. When you mock or belittle us, you enforce an existing system.”
Samantha goes on to connect White college students showing up to a Halloween party in blackface with the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland and Philando Castile.
For many White people this juxtaposition seems arbitrary. Stereotyping is a rude fact of life but everybody deals with it. Microaggressions are not real, and if they are they have nothing to do with the larger inequities of society.
One can indeed take issue with this narrative. But these juxtapositions, so random to many mostly White people, are eminently obvious to most African-Americans and other people of color.
Part of the difficulty many White Americans have had in understanding the present state of particularly Black American struggles and grievances is that we (I do say “we”) fail to see the larger reality of American life for Black people beyond the contrary proof points of Black Americans such as myself.
Growing up in Culver City I experienced a richly tolerant, multicultural universe in which I was treated well by kind White people who loved, respected and saw themselves as one with people of all colors. This is a fair description of the reality I remember. But I was set apart in my circumstances, and in the treatment I received, from other Black kids my age because my cultural bearings were largely a product of this very culture of integration. I spoke (at my father’s insistence) “the king’s English.” Until my performative Hip-Hop phase I dressed out of something more or less like an Old Navy catalogue. I had a standard, “White” name and was well adjusted.
I was easier to understand and easier to deal with then the Jamals, Hakeems, Tamikas and Latoyas that were bused into my suburban school from the inner-city parts of L.A. that most of my relatives lived in. To this day I operate culturally in a manner that yields me an appreciative ease in the attitudes of certain White individuals and institutional environments on account of that bearing. Black cultural idioms and mannerisms are etched in my personality. But a la John McWhorter, Wayne Brady, Condoleezza Rice and any number of Black people one can name, my “Whiteness” whether natural or performative is seen as the currency by which I gain entre into the privileged treatment of American society.
To some degree at least they are surely right. Yet while this is just a way to be, or to aspire to be, for some Black people many others see this Americanization (in its White-cultured sense) of Blackness and the opportunity it yields for some Blacks as a threat to the larger ascendency of the entire race.
This is the dual consciousness that both King and (Ibram X.) Kendi have talked about from one angle or another. Derek Bell gives voice to the critical appraisal of the cultural integrationist side of this consciousness in Faces when, in illustrating a conversation between two Black men from either side of this divide, he writes: “I mean no offense, but the fact is you movin-on-up black folks hurt us everyday blacks simply by being successful.” In this analysis Black people like me become the unfair standard by which other Black people are judged, rendering the more authentic Black experience, culture and struggle comfortably invisible to complacent White folks by virtue of the proximity of our own success to theirs.
In other words, a few of us Blacks have achieved success in America by managing to submerge ourselves in the homogenizing stew of cultural (though never racial) whiteness, just like the Irish and Italians before us. But unlike them, we can only ever be exceptions to the rule because whiteness is itself only real in opposition to blackness. Our success as individual Black people can only ever truly come in the context of the larger marginalization of Black America—whether we are Larry Elder or Barack Obama.
WHAT I AM describing is the Black experience, or much of it, as it exists in interaction with, and on the other side of, whiteness. The consequences of whiteness for so many Black people and other people of color therefore become the only meaningful thing defining whiteness. How could it be any other way?
Early in American colonial history the identity system by which slavery was justified was not based on race but rather on religion. Africans were eligible for slavery not because they were Black but because they were not Christians. As pressure to convert Africans to Christianity threatened to undermine this justification however the racial rationale for bondage became the more sustainable premise for enslavement. Thus was innovated what historian Edmund Morgan described as “a screen of racial contempt” that would justify the vicious subjugation of Africans in America for centuries to come.
This screen of racial contempt exists within the larger mesh of what is in truth the screen of whiteness. Whiteness is, at the end of the day, not but a screen. It is a thin frame through which one sees. Through one side one sees people of color and the non-white world. Through the other one sees the white race and the world that whiteness is said to shape. Through this frame we are also liable to see ourselves. There is nothing inside of the screen itself. But we struggle with what the screen shows us from either side of its divided illusions.
Whiteness is purity. Whiteness is virtue. The mythology of the superior race (its vestiges sputtering traceably into the present in episodes like the Good Morning D.C. anchors hailing pseudo-scientific studies asserting beauty standards that only White women can meet) one might think to be a psychological gift to those in a position to receive it. But the screen of whiteness has proven itself a cruel burden.
The White supremacist order demanded the sacrifice of more than a million White Americans killed, wounded, sickened or starved during the Civil War. The razing of the south still lives in the cultural memory of southern whites. Slavery itself robbed White workers of economic opportunity; subsequently racism in the labor movement, it has long been argued at least, undermined the economic interests of working class Whites by diminishing the bargaining power of labor for generations. But perhaps more than anything it is the legacy of guilt, shame, and for many the willing disassociation with their own ancestors and heritage that defines much of the burden for White people that whiteness has left us with.
There is much that is right and much that is wrong in this impulse. But one can see the wrestling of conscience that leads to this place drawn out over the long arc of American history.
One can obviously see this unfolding in the rising Abolitionist and Civil Rights Movements that, taken together, have nearly as deep a history in our nation as racism itself. But it is in the internal conflicts with whiteness within White people who are not activists wherein this struggle is perhaps most poignant. This is because it is in such cases where we see whiteness as an ideology of racial superiority slowly undermined by people who naturally take for granted that they must have allegiance to the concept.
Such was the case with a young woman named Harriet Ruggles Gold whose short life spanned the early decades of the 19th century. The daughter of a prominent religious family in Cornwall, Connecticut, she fell in love with the nephew of the chief of the Cherokee nation, a young man named Elias Boudinot. They met through the missionary school her family supported to help cultivate Christian learning in the leading young of the Cherokee. However a love affair and marriage between Boudinot’s cousin and another prominent daughter of the community had already scandalized the town, threatening violence in response and the ruination of the Foreign Mission School. Yet despite the threats of the mob, the protestations of her parents and minister, and her own racial status as a White woman, Harriet held fast to her love and the convictions upon which it rested. She married Elias in 1826, telling her parents: “We have vowed, and our vows are heard in Heaven; color is nothing to me; his soul is as white as mine.”
Harriet would live the rest of her short years amongst the Cherokee, and would die with the Cherokee Nation. As the Cherokee were driven out of Georgia, terrorized, despoiled of their land and riches, and divided by political intrigues nudged by the outside, Harriet fell ill. She passed away under the gaze of her loving husband. He wrote to her parents in Christian prose, “her immortal spirit forsook its early home to join the righteous and just men made perfect, and ‘to sing the conqueror’s song.’”
Why should his soul have been “white” modern readers might ask? But in her love Harriet was driven to see Elias’ character and to recognize that whiteness was transcended by the substance of humanity—an affront to the very concept of White superiority itself.
I remember being a boy, reading about the retired, undefeated heavyweight champion Jim Jeffries, reclining in his Alfalfa farm in tranquil obesity. Jeffries was not a White nationalist, not a member of the Klan. But he had participated in the embargo on Black fighters in heavyweight championship fights—a policy meant to ensure that a Black man would never win the ultimate symbol of athletic glory.
The charismatic Jack Johnson however, rallying public pressure, had seized that prize in a dominant performance against Jeffries successor, Tommy Burns. Jeffries had no interest in coming out of retirement and was conflicted about the pressure he felt to do so. But called upon to defend the honor of the White race he slimmed down and emerged from retirement, only to be dispatched by the matchless Johnson on July 4th, 1910.
Black people celebrated. Many Whites raged. The outcome should not have surprised sober observers, but what may have were Jeffries’ words in the aftermath: “I could never have whipped Johnson at my best…I could never have reached him in a thousand years.”
Taken in context these words were startling. In his time Jim Jeffries was considered the greatest boxer in history, the iconic embodiment of White manhood. He fought, pushed though he was, to defend the honor of whiteness. He could easily have blamed his loss on age. Instead he freely chose to acknowledge that Johnson was the better man—and in so doing undermined the very premise of the White supremacy he fought for; an ideology that was willing to sacrifice a quiet man content on his farm to a brutal battle of fists that he could never win.
About a hundred years later, in 2013, country singer Braid Paisley joined forces with rapper LL Cool J to release a Country-Rap song called Accidental Racist. It portrayed a conversation between a White southerner and a “Black Yankee” reaching out across the chasms of history and experience to set aside racism in favor of friendship and understanding.
The song’s reception was highly critical, with many racial commentators lambasting the false equivalencies between Black and White racism they saw the lyrics as trafficking in.
But I at least am grateful for the effort. For if one listens one hears in Paisley’s lyrics the honest struggling with whiteness, history and White identity that has led most of White America to morally grow in the shadow of its burden. And ironically, this growth becomes partially definitive of the White experience itself. So it is apparently for “a proud rebel son with an ol’ can of worms, lookin’ like I got a lot to learn.”
The song continues:
“I’m just a white man, comin’ to you from the southland, trying to understand what it’s like not to be. I’m proud of where I’m from, but not everything we’ve done, and it ain’t like you and me can rewrite history. Our generation didn’t start this nation. We’re still pickin’ up the pieces, walkin’ on eggshells, fightin’ over yesterday, and caught somewhere between southern pride and southern blame.”
THE FIGHT IS not merely over yesterday, of course. The fight is over today. Whiteness as a social construct in American history has yielded a centuries old story of oppression, struggle and inequality for African-Americans and other people of color that in one way or another travels right down to the present day. In this “whiteness” is the enemy.
And yet, the story of White people is far more complicated, defined not just by moral failing but by moral progress. This progress has always been pushed by minorities willing to take up the cause of their own equality. But the story of White America is not just the story of slaveholders and the Klan, Lilly White Republicanism and minstrel shows, police brutality and gentrification.
The story of White America is also found in the abolitionist movement and the antiracism of progressive liberalism. It is found in the integration of the Church and the de-whitening of Christ in the revivalist movements of the early 20th century and the crusades of Billy Graham. It is found in the revolutionizing of Hollywood in the embrace of multiculturalism. It is found in the White allies for Civil Rights who took to the streets before the death of King and after the death of George Floyd. It is indeed found in the words of the Declaration Independence that “all men are created equal.” And—yes damn it, yes—it is found in the election of Barack Obama, where millions of White Americans from every region and both parties decided to make a man who would have been a slave at this nation’s founding the symbol of America to all the world.
Am I proud to be White?
I see the damage whiteness has done. I see, perhaps, the damage it is still doing. One thing I know above all is that America is right to center its social energies on the uncompleted work of realizing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream; not a colorblind America so much as an America in which justice and freedom confront the ancient inequities of our racial caste system to produce a world in which we can be reconciled to each other in a beloved community of equals.
But I remain proud to be my father’s son; a White man who sees himself as such who raised me to be proud of my Blackness, and the intersection of culture and identities that makes each of us Americans.
There may come a day when whiteness is destroyed in the conceptual lexicon. We may one day return to being Anglo, Italian, Irish or simply European Americans. More likely than not the label of White will continue to be an identifier for many or most of those who have used it for 400 hundred years, while others will try to move through the world discarding racial labels altogether, as much as the world will allow them to.
Let history take its course. What matters more is that we see beyond the screen of whiteness to the more complicated and yet more hopeful realities of the full lived experience of Americans on either side of this tragic divide. And as far as the people we call White are concerned, there have always been those among us, consciously and subconsciously, who have sought to transcend the false veneer of White supremacy in the name of greater humanist and religious ideals.
Our numbers have, and only ever have, grown across the generations right on up to now. I am proud of that.
32 thoughts on “The Screen of Whiteness”
I appreciate learning about your own personal journey, and how the complexities of race impact multi-racial people differently.
Want to mention that the folks in Charlottesville were shouting “Jews will not replace us” (not “you”). Race hits some White communities differently as well, as Jews are victims of White Supremacy — even those who are White themselves.
Thank you so much for this incredible essay. It is very furthering to me, a white person who is pained by the injustice of the everyday reality of being black in our society, and admiring of those who have found ways to accept ourselves for who we are, in all our complexity and interrelatedness.
Your essay has a depth and range that I find missing in the few Braver Angels experience I have had.
I think the missing element is time–it takes time and space and mental freedom to explore as throughly as you have, based on your lived experience.
It feels to me that your essay could only have come to life at this crucial time, after Charlottesville and after the George Floyd protests, after January 6.
I would like to somehow join with others and build on this breakthrough.
Thank you for putting the time and effort and soul content that make your essay a milestone.
Interesting. Thank you. But it begs the question, what is “whiteness”?
The author seems to define is quite clearly. Whiteness is a social concept set up in contrast with Blackness. In American history, the latter is presented as less than the former. Slavery, Jim Crow, and current incarceration rates, e.g., are just some examples of how these two concepts manifest in our culture.
Having spent most of my 81 years fighting for Equal opportunities for ALL,
Admiditly my views of “Equal Opportunities ” have changed over the years, but my belief that any time we deny other “Equal opportunities ” we destroy ourselves has not.
I sum this up with
“BE DIVIDED, BE CONQUERED
Although I lack the literary eloquence or the desire to spent time attempting to convince I, and I speak from the prospective of an elected official who faces the consequences of attempting to deal with our “White guilt” policies and continue to offer an equal opportunity to reach the once world envied productive “Middle class” observe that the “Others” who are purchasing in ever expanding blocks our land care not a whit for your eloquent prose.
Bottom line the Barbarians are inside our gates and the only survivors of this invasion, Black,, White, Tan ??? will be those who have something tangible to offer.
I note that the although we “Whites” have struggled to undo our heritage of “Slavery” the Barbarians simply eliminate uncounted MILLIONS of both there own people and the conquered.
Peace and and Through responsibilities
I am white, my wife is Chinese. Thanks to her son and his precious wife, we have a beautiful granddaughter growing up strong with her mom, dad, and great grandmother in Shenzhen. We get videos every night, full of the joy and pain of a four-year-old high-energy beautiful child.
Our different races seem just a piece of the past, facts devoid of emotion.
As I read John’s kaleidoscopic encounters with whiteness and blackness, I recalled my own kaleidoscope. I put my inside-out exercise into a book that I called a ‘wicked inquiry.’ That’s because there are no good metrics for figuring out who we are (unless one indulges someone else’s stereotype) as well as the lack of certainty of any ‘answer.’ The better game, for me, is one of radical individualism — and if one wants a better song for where we can be when we want to is ‘Ballad for Americans,’ sung by Paul Robeson in 1939 and onwards that melds all our identities into America.
This essay was unnecessarily tooo long. I didn’t bother to finish it. This American white/black ‘story’ has become extremely boring and again, unnecesssrily divisive.
If you had finished the lovely essay, you would have seen our author call on our better and braver angels. The topic may be approached in a divisive way often, but John does and excellent job of not demonizing anyone.
Nice piece. Informative. Nonjudgmental while not ignoring challenging aspects of our past and present.
A couple questions … one, is white studies actually a thing separate from CRT? Are there any schools or scholars who promote a “white studies” not based in CRT?
Two, why do you assume President Obama would have been a slave at the nation’s founding? Roughly 10% of the black population was free at the time. Whether former indentured servants who survived to freedom or those set free by slave owners, they are part of our history. Part of reality. And counted as a full person for all Constitutional purposes. President Obama as a person with black and white parents would have had a much greater chance of being among the free “blacks” at the time of the nation’s founding. Not sure what bearing it has on the larger argument, though it does seem that “CRT” ignores a lot of relevant facts to make its absolutist, polarized points. And distorts many others. Again, what relevance beyond a broader, deeper look at reality? I don’t know. But I don’t think white was used in any of the colonies’ census documents until the 1670s or 1680s. About the time of Bacon’s rebellion and the beginning of white supremacy laws enacted by wealthy landowners. Laws that hurt many white people, but have them the privilege of being hurt less severely, less publicly. Gave them someone to look down on. But the laws hurt white people who were married to people of color or wanted to be. The laws regarding white servants – who outnumbered black slaves until around that same 1670s-1680s period – were also incredibly harsh, treating the people as property. White female servants could not marry or have children without their masters permission. In some colonies, at some times. Unpermitted children *were* born into servitude. And added to the parents term of bondage as well. After the white supremacy claws were enacted, white women were punished by seeing their free black husbands enslaved, and in some colonies, their children as well. Again, not every colony, not the whole period before the Revolution. But these laws were a fact, they are on the books. As is the fact that free black men – perhaps even those who arrived in 1619, went from slaves to servants, then earned their freedom – black men were granted land under the headright (term?) laws for importing white indentured servants. Yes, that’s right, black men owned white servants in colonial America. Not the most common experience, and even free black people lost many of their rights and were subject to terrorism after white supremacy laws took root. But … it is a real part of our history. Part of the human experience, the black experience, the American experience. To ignore both the violent systemic oppression of white people then and now while denying the success and freedom of black people even in those days is dishonest at best. It’s by no means equating the experience of any group of people, but noting commonalities that challenge the predominant race-essentialist narrative. Challenge it to become more honest, more encompassing, more compassionate.
I want to thank you for one of the most thoughtful, encompassing essays on race in this country I have ever read. This is very dense and from this white person’s perspective, absorbing it could be a years long process. We tend to assume that it is mostly people of color who have been ‘damaged’ by our racist past, a fact that is not debatable obviously, but here it is easy to see how it has damaged and continues to damage us all. It also reminds me what a terrifically tangled and complex emotional issue it is to process and move beyond.
The blame, shame and guilt approach has bothered me a lot because though completely understandable (deserved?), too many times it doesn’t open hearts but hardens them, or it results in unhelpful feel good actions that are an attempt to get rid of the guilt or shift it ‘somewhere anywhere but on my shoulders’ without regard to whether it actually makes things better.
I’m not sure it will be better until we are able to acknowledge and grieve together this ‘thing’ none of us can escape from or change, that affects us in such different but damaging ways. Reconciliation and healing can’t happen without it. The tone of your essay seems to me to be exactly what is needed to move us in that direction. I don’t know if we’ll get there in my lifetime but I feel that if we ever do, we will have evolved to a level that will enable us to call ourselves wise.
Please continue your wonderful work, you are a gift sorely needed.
Simply this: brilliant essay. Read with thanks.
This was a thorough and heartfelt tome that appears to fairly cover both sides of the issue.
I fear it is still this type of thinking that perpetuates the problem. It is the prism of class and identity politics in general.
The term “White Privilege” is something with which I take issue. I am a White Male in my late 60’s. It is true that I enjoyed some privileges, but not because I am white. It is because my ancestors ( a mix of Mexican, Native American, Italian immigrant, Irish immigrant, and Arkansas share croppers..all poor) worked hard and made life better for themselves and their children. My maternal grandfather was a man of color (that I never really noticed or considered until years after his death), but was considered a pillar of our community. He was respected by what Martin Luther King’s dream would call “the content of his character”. This could only happen in the United States of American.
My father told me it was his responsibility to make my life better than his and it was my responsibility to make my daughter’s life better than mine. I would call this the “AMERICAN” Privilege. It is generational, but still requires work. I had to overcome reverse prejudice in the 70’s when I was turned down for jobs because they needed to hire more minorities and women. I found another way to succeed and enjoyed a fruitful and fulfilling career, not because of my “whiteness” but because of my abilities and my willingness to work to overcome the obstacles presented.
To those that may think that a work ethic is a “white” concept, I would argue that there are many cultures and races that believe in “work”. To suggest this is somehow a “whiteness” issue is to ignore the entire immigrant experiences of the 18th and 19th century.
We cannot change the past. We must learn from it or we are doomed to repeat it, but at some point we must move on. I believe continuing to talk about race only keeps the arguments alive and will continue to divide us….which may be the goal for some…
I read another article by another Black editorialist who stated simply “as long as we think in terms of race we will continue to divide by race…” He went on to say “we should focus on what unites us, not what divides us..”
In the words of Martin Luther King:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
We cannot make this happen until we remove race from our conversations and look for other obstacles like the breakdown of the family and/or the quality of education that may be holding people back, or giving them an excuse to fail.
Thanks for the forum and discussion.
“which may be the goal for some…”
Exactly! Racial grievance hustling is a profitable industry that continues to dangerously fray the American social fabric. A pox on their houses.
Anyone willing to work will succeed in America. You nailed it, Joe!
I wish instead of “white privilege” we used “white advantage” instead. Too late now to see that happening, though, I fear.
WOW!! I don’t think I’ve ever read a piece like this before – my loss. Thank you for this – thoughtful and thought-provoking! I only wish everyone would and could read the entire essay.
John, this is a beautiful essay. Thank you.
It’s educational to be able to read your perspective, but while you do a good job of illuminating several different facets of America’s race problem, I gotta say I think you’re seeing the problems we face from a limited perspective. An American Black’s ancestry typically goes back to an African involuntarily brought to the US before 1800, but a large fraction of “Whites” came to the US much more recently. The Black community remains impacted by the legacy of slavery, but most US Whites seldom think about it; none of my own ancestors lived in the US before 1865. The legacy of slavery and the Civil War remains a problem, but it’s not the only one we face, and for most of us not the most important one.
You write: “In other words, a few of us Blacks have achieved success in America by managing to submerge ourselves in the homogenizing stew of cultural (though never racial) whiteness, just like the Irish and Italians before us. But unlike them, we can only ever be exceptions to the rule because whiteness is itself only real in opposition to blackness. Our success as individual Black people can only ever truly come in the context of the larger marginalization of Black America—whether we are Larry Elder or Barack Obama.”
A first thought in reading your essay is that you are actually no more qualified to define “whiteness,” given that your are of mixed blood, than I (of Scots-Norwegian-English heritage) am to define “blackness.” However, most of what I know of my “whiteness” does not, in fact, flow from the existence in America of a 13 percent population of African-Americans. It comes from being the child of poor but highly educated rural parents who were themselves children of and scarred by the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.
But more important, what I find missing in the quote above is the reality that your success comes not from your homogenizing yourself into “whiteness, but from adopting standards of behavior that create success in any culture–the ability to defer gratification, to plan carefully, and to work hard. If a Lakota husband failed to show up for the hunt when the buffalo were nearby, his family starved. Very simple. Had nothing to do with his hatred of the Ojibway.
Further, the behavior you idealized as a boy and young man as “black” strikes me as behavior that would be dysfunctional in any society–refusal to defer gratification, plan carefully, or to work hard.
What could be worse for young black men and women than to be told that real “blackness” is to adopt the standards of ghetto culture, with all its self-defeating toxicity?
Please understand that for me, a resident in Minneapolis, which has descended into crime mostly driven by feral young black men, this definition of “blackness” has caused six of my near neighbors sell their houses and move because of a very real fear of violent crime.
Where is the black leadership decrying this definition of “blackness”?
Please reconsider your use of ‘feral’ for talking about young Black folks. I can understand why you are curious about which Black leaders encourage a notion of Blackness that is both powerful and positive. John here seems to be such a leader! Also consider the new hire by the city of MPLS. Or maybe any of the other Black cultural leaders mentioned in John’s great essay.
I can understand why you are curious about which Black leaders encourage a notion of Blackness that is both powerful and positive. John here seems to be such a leader! Also consider the new hire by the city of MPLS. Or maybe any of the other Black cultural leaders mentioned in John’s great essay. Also please reconsider using the word ‘feral’ to talk about human beings.
A very thoughtful essay, John. You have a unique perspective and try very hard to be balanced in your assessment of race as a social construct.
However, I think labeling a set of cultural values by a superficial characteristic of that majority of the people who practice said values (i.e., Whiteness), perpetuates the misunderstanding of the problem and arrests progress in it’s solution.
Here’s my point: labeling values of success as “whiteness” prevents many minorities from adapting them, for fear of being accused of “acting white.” You certainly understand the peer pressure to “keep it real.”
Until we properly identify our problem as one of ‘culture,’ rather than ‘color,’ there will be no solution to the stagnation of the minority underclass. We must stop practicing the “soft racism” of low expectations and hold everyone to equal standards of behavior, or we can never be truly equal.
I’m disgusted that Braver Angels would publish a hateful essay such as this.
The Braver Angels mission is in part: “Braver Angels seeks to depolarize American politics.” It does this, in part, by having people treat each other with respect.
This essay is all about disrespecting people by emphasizing the false idea of “race” and polarizing them by simplistically dividing all of American people and society into capital-B “Black” and capital-W “White,” then impugning the “screen of whiteness” as the source, even today, of all sorts of ills.
The point of this piece is to make “white” people guilty and repentant for being “privileged,” and to relieve “black” people of responsibility for their own actions. Racism is presented as if it were unique to American society and as if “white” people were always the oppressors and “black” people always the victims, but none of that is true. In truth, racism is a multi-sided social vice. In truth, racism is always a bad idea and destructive. Actually, racism begets more racism, and the racism of this piece just makes more racism and hate.
The terrible history of slavery in the US has often been used to bludgeon anybody who might be identified as “white” but slavery is not unique to the United States, nor North America. It’s not unique to the 17th-19th centuries. It’s not unique to any one group, or tribe, or skin color. The slave trade out of Africa was not unique to the Americas, either.
The United States is not culpable any more than any other country, and there lies the means to stop the bludgeoning of essays like this and to stop polarizing people by “black” and “white” and bring them together with mutual respect in our endless diversity.
Braver Angels must return to the core of its mission, and not diminish itself with essays like this.
Matt, the mission of BA is free speech. If free speech means anything, it means hearing opinions we don’t like or disagree with.
The answer to poor speech, is more speech. Never censorship.
As much as I disagree with some of John Wood, Jr.’s conclusions, they don’t appear to me, to come from an angry or hateful heart. At least that’s my impression of Wood, after watching him conduct interviews for BA.
All the best,
If you had read the entire essay, you would have noticed that the author identifies as both black and white and he denigrates neither identity. These topics are often approached in a polarizing and even demonizing manner, but John is very careful here to neither demonize nor blame people merely because they fall into a certain racial category.
This article reflects the huge problem with braver angels, a blue haze over everything, even for our ostensibly red representative. When “whiteness” is objectified as a stain that can never be washed away, original sin that you are born with, a lot of reds are disgusted. The whole concept of caste in America a la Isabelle Wilkerson is bullshit, But pretending it is, “white” people are far from the top by almost any measure. White people are too busy dying of hopelessness, suicide, drugs, violence, childless. The only people who capitalize “white” are neo-nazis, John. Lucky you fail to capitalize a quarter of the time. Suggesting that successful blacks got that way by acting white is ridiculous. I know you know Albert Murray, so why do you adhere to this Marxian classification of “whiteness” (evil) and “blackness” or “people of color” (weak, victim) in perpetual opposition and conflict? What the hell is “whiteness” anyway? What is white culture? You say there is none, but black people have to adapt to it. I feel like we need you to sit down with Matt Walsh and clarify your terms. You talk about whites culturally appropriating blacks? Seriously, Americans appropriating Americans? Can it go the other way? John, please stop appropriating our culture to “gain entre (sic) into the privileged treatment of American society”. Maybe if white people had a culture, right? You quote thoroughly discredited Michelle Alexander. You lump everyone who isn’t white into the poc bucket, all with the same experiences. Why are so many black Americans who are distinctly not white (descendants of Caribbeans, African immigrants), authentically black, so successful? You say whiteness is purity, virtue, but you think it is dog shit, just like many blues and political elites. You praise the support for Floyd, but name me one white unarmed victim of police violence? Name a rally for any of them, for any non-black victim, who make up the vast majority. John, you don’t stand up to blues ever on their racist drivel. Stand up and be strong. Upset some blues for once.
Great contribution. Civic nationalism seems to me the only answer. Humans need an in-group at the scale represented by both race and nationality, both from a societal perspective of encouraging altruistic behavior at a scale beyond family, religion and local geography, and from an individual perspective as a means of providing meaning and belonging. The imagined utopian alternative is a feeling of oneness with all of humanity, but the only real alternative is naked individualism, which leads to the sort of anomie and nihilism that has become so common in Western societies.
So the white kids in Culver City and elsewhere were correctly inculcated in the post-civil rights movement colorblind ideal, but then they were also not given civic nationalism, dismissed in most places as a jingoistic at best, Hitlerian at worst, as a viable alternative. So yes they look with envy at the ethnic solidarity experienced by minority groups in the U.S. because it’s a void in their own lives. A few will adopt utopian humanitarism, and a few more will turn to white supremacy, but the vast majority will just experience it as a loss of meaning and belonging, some thriving on the individualistic freedom of that, but most suffering from anomie and nihilism.
Previously generations of Americans solved this cunundrum with civil nationalism, with the divisions of race, nationality, language, culture, etc. “melting” away under the flames of our flag, founding ethos, common institutions, baseball, apple pie and all the rest. And yes, that included black Americans, native Americans, Hispanic Americans and everyone else, not that there weren’t major problems along the way, which, by the way, were being successfully addressed along the way right through the mid-1960’s.
But the left has been steadily eroding any sense of civil nationalism in America for the past half-century. We all know the story, it started on college campuses, moved from there through K-12 education, now it’s almost completely dominant throughout every major institution in our society: a sense of shame for what America represents, a downplaying of solidarity with one’s fellow citizens, an erosion of the very meaning of citizenship itself. It reached a recent apotheosis with the burst of anti-American iconoclasm in summer 2020, but we all know that will not be the end of it.
In my opinion, the civil nationalism represented by Trump and the #MAGA movement he inspired are not the cause of events like Charlottesville, but instead the most viable alternative to it. We can either re-embrace civic nationalism as our guiding ethos or we will continue to splinter into disunited factions based on ever-shrinking dividing lines such as partisanship, race, gender, ideology, etc.
I have noticed that Braver Angels has been publishing more interviews and essays like this one recently. In my view, the principal value of BA is that it gives members the opportunity to hear many other voices and state their own views. Interviews and essays, on the other hand, give only one or two people the opportunity to speak. Too many organizations these days have the same problem, publicizing the views of small knots of people at the top.
John, this is amazing! I am sharing it on Facebook. Thank you so, so, so much for your deep understanding, amazing breadth of scholarship, and your witness. (Btw, there has been a lot written on some of the things you touch on–I have never seen it so germanely addressed as succinctly as you have, and so beautifully woven together while still making your own point.)
John, thank you for sharing this. There was no demonizing or blaming people for group membership. You shared your personal experiences and views while also referencing a large and intimidating range of topics sich as history and philosophy. This is a thoughtful and very measured piece. Some people will always find discussion of race divisive, but in the spirit of BA, you manage to be honest and brave while also avoiding demonizing language or thinking. We can and should talk about race in such a thoughtful and considerate manner. Thank you.
I appreciate John Wood, Jr.’s use of “cultural whiteness” as distinct from “whiteness,” and I see a couple of calls in the comments for a definition. That is a complicated question, to which the Smithsonian Institution provides a longwinded and intentionally divisive answer:
It seems that any use of “whiteness” that does not incorporate the anti-white definition put forward by the Smithsonian should be accompanied by an alternate definition.