White and Woke: How Whiteness Regulates Renegade Members

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Almost a year ago, I wrote that I was done being a white man. I gave the reasons why, and I set out a new course for my racial identity.

Almost a year later, I’m still a white man.

The fact that I have, when possible, declined to give my race on applications and such has not changed the fact that anyone who sees me knows that I’m white. Even as I figuratively scrub at my skin like Lady MacBeth, I can no more change that damned spot than can the leopard – I remain in my pale camouflage that comes with a history of superiority and a future of possibility.

This is not an affliction. Being forced to retain privilege isn’t something that will ever make me ask for sympathy. Even if remaining trapped in a fallacious race is frustrating, well, at least my name will never cause my job application to be summarily thrown out. Don’t mistake this post as a diatribe of fake problems. My frustrations are very real, but I can’t claim that I’m a victim of injustice in this case.

Even though my physical condition has not changed in the past eleven months, I have continued to read and observe and listen and learn, expanding my knowledge and understanding of race – of blackness, of whiteness, and of the way in which the farcical American melting pot has boiled at such unbearable temperatures. I’m no expert, but these are things about which I’m often thinking and learning.

Whiteness is, of course, defined by what it is not (namely, not colored), but, just as much, whiteness lives on because of what it is. Or, more precisely, what it pretends to be. The fantasy of whiteness is built on the foundation of white supremacy, and it engenders what Ta-Nehisi Coates might call The Dream. This Dream is an American Utopia built on comfort and stability and the freedom to pursue the things that people are led to believe will make them happy. There is no room in this world for disturbance.

Awakened Americans with white skin are a threat to the comfort and stability of whiteness. So whiteness must have a solution for the thoughts, words, and actions of people like me, just as it has come up with ways to defend itself against red, brown, black, and yellow people. The solution has been to attempt to prove me wrong, to make me change my mind, or to silence me. Whiteness won’t try to expel me, but it will try to make a part of me disappear, even as it lays claim to my ethnicity. I am still white in the eyes of the world because whiteness will not let me go. Whiteness wants me to holistically blend into society. It wants what I have to offer just as long as there are no racial strings attached.

The strategy revolves around discrediting my views on any grounds that will deny racism and thus perpetuate white supremacy. So I’m told that I’ve been swayed by liberal media – that either my naivete concerning propaganda or my political party affiliation is what has misguided my racial judgement. I’m told that I’m too young to have any accurate idea of who Malcolm X was, or what the Black Panthers stood for. I’m told that I’m insufficiently educated, and that my understanding of history is wrong. I’m told that I can’t possibly understand police work because I’m not a policeman. I’m told that Christ is the answer and I should be more worried about the Gospel and less worried about social issues. In each example, an aspect of my identity (maturity, political ideology, age, education, occupation, religion) bears the brunt of my correction so that my whiteness may remain pristine and a view of people of colored may remain undisturbed.

This is no different from how whiteness explains the actions of other white radicals. When whiteness recognizes actual factual racists (which it rarely does) it explains them away based on geographical location and antiquated heritage – making obvious white supremacists a benign piece of Southern Americana rather than a fabric woven into the entire American tapestry. Whiteness sees armed organizations attacking state property and calls them “militias” with a slightly overzealous love of freedom. Whiteness explains away murderers like Dylan Roof on the basis of mental health. In each instance, whiteness insists that whiteness cannot be the problem.

Whiteness deals with me like it deals with out-and-out racists, civilian armies, and domestic terrorists: it comes up with a reason for us being wrong that preserves the felicity of whiteness.

There is another strategy which is perhaps the most insidious tactic of regulating awakened whites. It is to trap them on one side of the veil and to keep them on one side of the colored line. This tactic uses our own whiteness against us by claiming that, because we are white AND young/uneducated/liberal/idealistic/etc we cannot possibly know what life is like for non-white people (and in my case this has referred to black America). My opinion is discounted because I am not black, let alone poor, urban, and black. Whiteness quiets my opinion of blackness because I am not black, and this will, of course, not change because I can never be black.

But here is the coup de grâce: if I somehow did become black, my opinion on race still wouldn’t count. People of color have been shouting about race for generations and whiteness has not listened. Rather, they are maligned for unsettling the peace and comfort of The Dream. Protesters today are called thugs who whine and complain about imaginary problems instead of dealing with their own issues. Even as whiteness mitigates the offense of the Bundy “militia,” it lambastes every move of Black Lives Matter.

That’s game over, isn’t it? My opinion doesn’t matter because I’m white and don’t really know what goes on, but if I was black, then my opinion wouldn’t matter for an entirely new set of reasons.

But I don’t believe it is game over – otherwise I don’t think I would do what I do. Bleak as it may seem I think there is a way forward, and it will come when people of all colors work together towards these goals. James Baldwin writes: “If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.” And, whereas Baldwin mostly rejected religion, I believe that the Gospel does have the power to help unify people across racial lines.

Yet, even when peaceful racial unity and reconciliation is the mission, whiteness feels threatened. Dr. King was murdered. The FBI assassinated Fred Hampton. Do not forget that.

And, as whiteness continues to regulate renegades like me, I wonder how to awaken white people – how to insist on or create their consciousness – when there was no red pill in my own experience. My awakening was a long and complicated process. I don’t know if I began to mortify prejudice because I liked aspects of black culture, or if my interest in aspects of black culture prompted me to mortify prejudice. There’s no fool-proof formula. All I know for certain is that education is key, and that’s why I hope to teach people about these things going forward.

But a further complication is the racial ambiguity that awaits whites who awaken. To deny your whiteness is to deny yourself a race. I hate my whiteness, so even though I will be white forever I will never feel like I’m a part of the white community. But I can’t be black either. There’s no home for my identity offered there. And rightfully so. I can’t become black just because I like Kendrick Lamar, The Wire, Lupita Nyong’o, or any other aspect of black culture and heritage (and trust me – I like a lot of them). Just because I get emotional listening to “Glory” from Selma doesn’t mean that I can really put myself in community with John Legend when he sings “One day when the glory comes it will be ours” (well, depending on how you look at it, I can and I should, but that’s another discussion). I can’t be sure yet what toll this will take, and how that might affect potentially awakened whites.

So, nearing the end of my first year of attempting to deny whiteness, I’m still white. No surprise there. I knew that wouldn’t change. What I didn’t know was how fiercely whiteness would fight to keep me. I didn’t know how ruthless the regulation of race could be.

I didn’t know I’d be such a nightmare for The Dream.

Recommended Reading

  • The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois
  • The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson
  • Quicksand by Nella Larsen

Forth now, and fear no darkness (or whiteness).

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter

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