"I am not white guilt, but the white apocalypse." — Stephen R. Spencer II
If you are a poor white racist then you are a fool who has been played by some rich, dead motherfuckers. If you are a rich white racist, well, that makes more sense because the whole thing was set up to protect your interests. If you are reading this and thinking it does not apply to you because you do not identify as a racist, that is good. That is the first step, but as Angela Davis said: “In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist — we must be anti-racist,” for even if we woke up tomorrow without a single individual racist, we would still be living in a system that, as part of its function, has been favoring white skin for centuries, and continues to do so today.
I am not writing this in order to say I understand everything and you do not. Not at all. I write to you because I believe 2017 was an eye-opening year for many of us. Donald Trump became president on the back of a hateful and prejudiced campaign. As president, he has plundered the deep troves of white anger and hate by calling for a massive wall along our southern border and for mass scale deportations, by attempting to block Muslims from entering the country, and belittling and derailing a peaceful protest meant to bring attention to police brutality against black Americans.
I am trying not to write this from an outraged place, trying not to induce outrage in others because outrage, like racism, is a tool used to keep people apart, and it has become a daily part of our lives. Both the conservative and liberal media are guilty of outrage-mongering, and social media and the internet have only made finding something to be outraged over easier than ever. I believe in anger. Anger has its place and is natural and healthy. Outrage, on the other hand, blinds us and dehumanizes our opponents, making rational discourse impossible.
So this is not an invitation to be outraged. It is a call for some introspection and something like the radical self-humbling of white people. Let me try to explain.
“Where’s evil? It’s that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side. It’s that part of every man that finds all kinds of ugliness so attractive.” — Kurt Vonnegut Jr, Mother Night
Without the help of other people, I would have never reached certain realizations. Recently, I have been exposed to a lot of art that has sat heavily with me: Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire Trilogy, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Why I Write by George Orwell, Charles C. Mann’s 1491, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Rudy Martinez’s essay Your DNA is an Abomination, Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony, and the podcast Scene on Radio's Seeing White series to name a few.
While I strongly recommend all of them, Seeing White is what I would like to focus on here. A lot of what I learned probably should have been more obvious to me from the start, but for whatever reason wasn't, and I think, isn't for most white Americans. I felt truly humbled after listening and certain lines and ideas from the series continue to play over and over in my head.
Although I have a degree in anthropology and every anthropology course I ever took made clear the idea of race as a social construct, none ever made it as clear as this series why it was constructed and how intricately tangled the founding of the United States is with white supremacy, or even the idea of whiteness at all.
For a better understanding of what I am talking about, I really suggest a listen. More than anything, it is a history lesson covering the growth and effects of the idea of a white race, an idea that only really came into being a few centuries ago.
"How attached are you to being white?" asks guest contributor Chenjerai Kumanyika in one of the early episodes and the host wrestles with that question throughout the series. It is a question I have never had to ask myself. In a society where white is the default, it has never consciously factored in as a part of my identity. Being white, I have had the privilege of being seen first and foremost as an individual. When another white person fucks up, I don't feel like it was a failure of my race. When I graduated from college, I didn't think of it as a victory for white people. It was a personal, individual achievement.
How attached I am to being white doesn't matter because whiteness doesn't require attachment in order to reap its benefits. One cannot detach from whiteness as if they are Michael Scott declaring bankruptcy. The term 'white privilege' is a contested one by many people, and in the spirit of not inciting outrage, I think I can understand why. White people have struggles too, and it is comprehensible how someone could be offended by the term as it can appear to suggest No, you haven’t struggled. You’re white, so you can’t have struggled. But these people are misunderstanding the true meaning. Of course white people have struggles. Everyone has struggles. White privilege means that you are protected from certain struggles. Often so protected from them that you don’t even realize that these struggles exist for other people. So, yeah, it can be difficult to accept the term. It is hard to look at someone and say "I am treated better than you by society because of the color of my skin." We find ways to avoid it. I have. I have downplayed my own advantages by saying things like:
- I grew up very middle class. My mom is a teacher and my dad works in car insurance.
- I had to get a job as soon as I turned sixteen.
- I didn’t own a car for four years.
- I’m part Irish. The Irish were persecuted when they came to this country.
But the truth is, I’ve had it easy. I’m not even Irish. I have ancestors who were Irish, but I am in no way Irish, and even if I was, that is not a fair comparison. When I went to Ireland, I was not seen as a prodigal son returning. I was seen as an American because that’s what I am. And no matter the swell of pride I sometimes have toward my last name over the ingenuity of the German people, I am not German either. As much as I may crave a culture or traditions that haven’t been commercialized and cheapened by the United States, centuries of living here have Americanized my line completely. I am American and I am white and as such I have been privileged in many ways. Seeing and admitting this much is only a baby step beyond not being racist, but if every white American could do that much it would be a vast improvement from our nation’s current state.
Since listening to Seeing White, I have felt as if it is my duty, as a white person, to get other (white) people to listen as well, or at least to share the knowledge I gained from it. This is a new idea for me. I have never truly felt any duty as a white person before. And the whole construction of whiteness is meant to keep us from feeling that duty because the entire idea of a white race was made up in order to isolate and exploit people.
The ideas of white supremacy were first adopted by rich Europeans coming to the Americas. It was dreamt up as a sort of landing pad to cushion people coming down from the mental gymnastics necessary in order to come to terms with owning other human beings as property and stealing two continents from their original inhabitants via genocide.
There were plenty of poor and working-class people of European descent in the Americas at the time who had never before considered themselves white, but were swept along with the new ideology because the rich were outnumbered and needed allies. Without the idea of race, and without the idea of white supremacy, poor indentured whites may have seen they had far more in common with black slaves and mistreated Native Americans than with the rich landowners. For centuries in Europe, nobility and serfs had never seen each other as equals, nor had Europeans from differing nations considered themselves a part of the same race. Only in the Americas was this idea born to hold up existing power structures.
“You know, when was whiteness good? It’s kind of like, when was America great? I mean, it seems like the whole project was related to exploitation. And so, if you identify that way, yeah. I don't envy you in terms of having to try to think about what that means.” — Chenjerai Kumanyika
And so what do we do? Where do we go from here? I think radical humbilization is a good place to start. For too long white people have ignored our own privileges, misdirected accusations against us, refused to listen, said "No that’s not me, that’s those other white people." And as difficult as we have made it to address the issue, the existing framework of our society makes it all the harder.
Trump’s misdirection of the NFL protests is a perfect example of how white people respond to being called out. We don’t want to be guilty. We get defensive.
The players kneeling have nothing to do with the troops, yet Trump misses the point and refuses to listen. He props up a strawman and hides behind it.
For some of you, this may be the most challenging time to not become outraged with me, but humor me for a moment as I ask: why should anyone stand for the flag? Let us truly humble ourselves, ignore our basic impulses, and think about it. Let us not give our loyalty to the abstract idea of a nation or to its flag, but to each other, we who live beneath it.
If we are going to preach American exceptionalism, that does not mean everything the United States does automatically becomes exceptional. It means we must demand America be exceptional. We have been far too easy on her. It is not unpatriotic to expect better things from your country. It is not unamerican to say that America is not being exceptional right now. In fact, it is very American. If we are going to preach American exceptionalism, then let us hold her to it. We must be harder on America than Russians are on Russia, than the English are on England, than Nigerians on Nigeria, Mexicans on Mexico, Iranians on Iran, etc. Because the flag doesn’t stand for the troops. At least not any more or any less than it stands for me and you, or for Colin Kaepernick, or Michael Brown, or millions of other people who live and have lived beneath it, but are not given its full protections.
If George Washington had issued the emancipation proclamation, that would have been exceptional. If Thomas Jefferson had written "All people are created equal" and meant just that, that would have been exceptional. If women hadn’t had to wait until 1920 for the right to vote, that would have been something to be proud of. If we had acknowledged and apologized for all the terrible things we’ve done to Native Americans, and stopped doing those terrible things, that would have been something. If we hadn’t assassinated democratically elected leaders in South America and incited decades of instability through an illegal drug trade, well that would have just been what should be expected from any country. If we had not closed our borders to European Jews during World War II out of fear that some radical communists might have come over with the refugees, that would be worth standing for. If we hadn’t sent Japanese Americans into internment camps, let American students fall so far behind other countries in just about every subject, sold our privacy in the name of freedom, started a war on drugs, incarcerated millions of people, sent innocents to Guantanamo, opened Guantanamo at all, exterminated the bison and wolves, drone striked civilians in the Middle East and then tried to cover it up, promoted a capitalistic system that wrings dry its workers and destroys the planet, well then it might have been worth it to stand.
Until we face our own history, our own racist systems, and give our loyalty to each other rather than a piece of polyester, then none of us should stand.
And I mean no disrespect to the troops. I am honored that there are people willing to die for me. I believe soldiers are on the side of the people. And together we stand under an incomprehensible power that aims to keep those underneath from coming together because, no matter how impossibly large this power is, it knows a united people are stronger. That means it is the young blacks being abused by agents of this power who are on our side, not the agents of this power. That means it is the soldiers who are on our side, not those in power willing to use their bodies in unjust wars. That means racism is a tool of the oppressor. Misogyny is a tool of the oppressor. Outrage is a tool of the oppressor. What do the oppressed have? We have each other, and it is time for us to take our collective heads out of our collective asses and see things for what they are, especially those who have been privileged by an archaic system. It is time for the privileged to shed their privileges and stand with the oppressed. It is time for a white apocalypse.