Boxing Ourselves In: The Sad Irony of White Supremacy

I guess it would be amusing were it not so sad. After several days of combing through hateful diatribes, aimed at me because of previous commentaries I had written concerning racism and white privilege in the presidential campaign, it struck me: one of the most disturbing things about white racists is how they manage to confirm every stereotype about white folks that they would otherwise deny.

And so they write to me to say how I exaggerate the problem of white racism, and how they, of course, aren't racist at all, and then go on to tell me how they just don't like "the blacks," or "the Mexicans," or the "parasitic welfare cheats," whose race they never specify, but whose color in their minds is easy to guess, given the context of their remarks.

Or even better, they write to tell me that "racism isn't really a problem any more." The problem, they insist, is that "the blacks are just too damned lazy to get off their asses and work like the rest of us." Gee, glad to have that cleared up. I mean, if you can't see the irony embedded in that remark--after all, to deny that racism is a problem for black people, and then to cut loose with a racist generalization about those same people is the epitome of self-contradiction--then you're probably not prepared to enter a dialogue about much of anything.
I guess this is one of the aspects of racism that we don't think about often, but about which we should.

Namely, it distorts the critical thinking skills of persons who may well be decent human beings, or at least capable of quite a bit better than what they show us in moments such as this. To hold such views as expressed above, and to then get angry at other whites when we reject those views, is to actually seek to limit white folks' humanity, by essentially insisting that all whites must see the world through the lens of white supremacy. That too is ironic: it means that white racists, by their demand for white unanimity, by their unwillingness to brook opposition to their sickness, are basically trying to force white people into a box in which our ability to define ourselves and to break out of the socially-constructed confines put upon us by racism is constrained. One would think that we would be offended by this; that perhaps we would begin to see white racism and its would-be enforcers as our enemies; that we would come to view race treason (if indeed, being white means going along with that kind of nonsense) as the highest calling of our people.

We rightly note how unfair it is when persons of color demand that other persons of color hew to a particular style or demeanor in order to be considered authentically black, for instance. When some suggested that Barack Obama wasn't really black, or at least not black enough, or when some within the black community, having internalized the strictures of white supremacist thinking, engage in intra-group harassment or invective against one another for being "too dark" or "too light," most everyone recognizes such things as unfortunate and regrettable examples of internalized racial oppression. But so too must we stand up to this notion, spread as it is by white racists, that to be white--authentically white--is to buy into anti-black and anti-brown stereotypes; that to be a strong white person is impossible unless we stand atop somebody else, as kings and queens of the proverbial hill.

How does this happen? And why do we allow it to happen? Why do we get angrier at people of color for pointing out white racism than we do at white folks for practicing it, and in so doing, perpetuating the notion that that's who we are--all of us? Do we not see that the reason we have so much anxiety about how someone might call us a racist if we say the wrong thing, is because we've been so silent in the face of white racism that folks of color logically come to wonder if we care, if we agree with the bigots in our midst, or if we're ever, ever going to stand up?

Don't get me wrong: I believe that all of us have internalized certain notions of white supremacy. It would be damned near impossible not to in a society that does such a marvelous job of teaching it. But we can also choose to turn on our teachers, those who have sought to condition us to go along, to remain silent, to accept the contours of American inequity and white privilege. That so few ever do so, not only implicates us in the suffering of those who are the targets of racism and white supremacy, but also implicates us in the negation of our own better selves. It is to say that we are OK with the box into which racism has placed us. It is to say that we don't mind having the confines of our humanity restricted in such a fashion. It is to say that we are not only in this skin, but even more, that we are *of* it: a terribly stultifying and depressing thought, which all but destroys the hope that one day we might evolve past such pathetic tribalism as this.

It is all the more disheartening because it doesn't have to be this way. And once upon a time it wasn't. There was a time, during the colonial period, when working class persons of European descent and those of African descent, seeing their common class interests, banded together to overthrow economic oppression, in places like the Virginia colony and elsewhere. Color meant very little to them, the notion of a unified "white race" didn't exist, and institutionalized white supremacy had yet to be fully actualized. But once the elite realized the dangers these growing cross-color coalitions posed to their power, they began to develop the divide and conquer tactics that are with us to this day. They ended indentured servitude for those who they began to label whites, they allowed them to own land, to testify in court, and to serve on slave patrols to keep blacks--those with whom they had previously seen a commonality of interests--in line.

It was a trick, of course, and it worked, and has continued to work for hundreds of years: working class white folks with nary a pot to piss in, ultimately contenting ourselves with what W.E.B. DuBois called the "psychological wage of whiteness," which is to say, the notion that we might not have much, but at least we're not black. When one has very little, one clings to what one has, and if the only real property one can claim is whiteness, then so be it, we'll do it, and have been doing it for generations. And of course those whose property is quite a bit more extensive than that are all too happy to watch the rest of us fight one another, over the pieces of a pie that we don't even own.

One would hope we had learned by now, after all these many years, that psychological wages--however comforting they may be in the moment--don't pay the mortgage or the rent, don't put our kids through school, and don't keep the lights on. They won't fill the pantry with food, nor take care of medical bills when we're sick. What they will do, is allow us to keep feeling ourselves superior, better, more entitled to the blessings of life, liberty, and happiness than our fellow human beings, even as we pursue political and social agendas that, in the end, put most all of us at risk. This we do in the name of whiteness. And this we do at the cost of our own integrity.

It would be amusing were it not so sad.

- Tim Wise