The Souls of White Folk
A look at the other side of the veil
“On the pale, white faces which the great billows whirl upward to my tower I see again and again, often and still more often, a writing of human hatred, a deep and passionate hatred, vast by the very vagueness of its expressions”
— W.E.B. Du Bois, 1918
“The colored people of this country know and understand the white people better than the white people will ever know and understand themselves.” — James Weldon Johnson, 1912
In 1903 W.E.B. Du Bois wrote his seminal work The Souls of Black Folk, a sociological analysis of the conditions of black people in the 20th century. He discussed the problematization of blackness and the psychological angst and dissonance that black people experience trying to be both American and Black — a concept he termed double consciousness. Over 100 years later Du Bois’ ideas and theories continue to provide a poignant, relevant framework through which to interpret the black experience in America. Black academics, activists, and artists from Farah Jasmine Griffin to Molefi Kete Asante, to Talib Kweli continue to draw from his work.
But what of the white psyche? Is it too in a state of unrest? How has centuries of seeing one’s self as savior but operating as oppressor shaped white identity? These are questions that are neither a major part of public discourse nor on syllabi under the course description in sociology departments. The award winning author and poet Claudia Rankine said in an interview recently that part of the reason for this is how much white people have been centered throughout American history. She argues, though, that we need to study white identity and draws a distinction between making it subject versus object:
“I think that it’s been centralized in order to continue its dominance, and it’s never been the object of inquiry to understand its paranoia, its violence, its rage.”
The type of inquiry that Rankine is interested in does, in fact, have precedence. In 1918, Du Bois wrote a lesser known book titled, Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil. In this autobiographical work he includes a collection of essays, poems and litanies. Among them was a short essay called, The Souls of White Folk. In it Du Bois makes white identity the object in order to provide us a window into the white American consciousness:
“Neither Roman nor Arab, Greek nor Egyptian, Persian nor Mongol ever took himself and his own perfectness with such disconcerting seriousness as the modern white man.”
What Du Bois unveils here is not simply the conceitedness of some white men. Rather, he highlights the devotional nature of the white body politic’s belief in the superiority of whiteness. He goes as far as to describe it as “this new religion of whiteness”, connoting a set of beliefs and practices associated with white identity. Most of the world’s religious traditions have some form of teaching about this type of vanity. In Buddhist thought māna refers to having an “inflated mind” and is considered one of the unwholesome mental factors. The Talmud equates arrogance with idolatry — the worship of one’s self. Similarly, in Islam conceit is considered a form of shirk, or idol worship. In the Holy Qur’an, the rhetorical question is posed to the listener, “Have you seen those who take their ego and its desires as a god beside god…[Allah] seals his hearing and his mind, and places a veil on his eyes?”
During the 6th century CE, before the advent of Islam, Arabs worshipped tribal totems. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) preached against this and other superstitious practices. As a result, he and his followers were ridiculed, tortured, and exiled for challenging the prevailing wisdom of the “traditions of their fathers”. After returning triumphantly to Mecca from exile, Muhammad went straight to the Kaaba — the house of worship believed to have been built by Abraham and his son Ishmael thousands of years ago. From that time till Muhammad’s it had come to be filled with over 300 idols. As the new head of state, his first order of business was to have all the idols destroyed. One of the names of the Kaaba is bait-ul atiq — the emancipated house. After the removal of the idols it had indeed become emancipated. And so had the people. More than simply statues made of stone and wood, the idols were a mechanism through which the elite held their power over the majority in Mecca. Thus what made Muhammad feared and hated was his exposing the idols as false and powerless. Smashing the idols was a symbolic act of liberating the soul and the body from the veil of superstition and the exploitation of the elite. These totems later came to represent for the Muslim world the tribalism of a bygone era of un-enlightenment.
America today, like Arabia then, is a land of superstition and idolatry. It’s chief idol is made of neither stone nor wood. It is a nearly 300 year old idea called whiteness. The religion of this idol is White Supremacy. Like the idolatry of the past, White Supremacy is rooted in tribalism. But unlike tribes of the past — which were based largely on ethnic distinctions — the tribalism upon which White Supremacy is founded is racial. This means the tribe is actually multi-ethnic, though it did not begin that way. Initially, whiteness was exclusive to Northern European immigrants living in the American colonies. The Irish, Italians, European Jews and most Southern Europeans were considered inferior sub-races. Over time these groups were baptized in— usually with fire, not water— and their ethnic identities gradually became subsumed in the melting pot of white America. Novelist, playwright, social critic, and whiteness theorist James Baldwin wrote in his essay On Being White…And other Lies that, “no one was white before he/she came to America. It took generations, and a vast amount of coercion, before this became a white country.” To Baldwin, white identity is an uniquely American invention forged through “slaughtering cattle, poisoning the wells, torching the houses, massacring Native Americans, [and] raping black women.”
But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?” Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!
— W.E.B Du Bois
It is clear, then, that whiteness is not simply a physical descriptor. It is unearned, blood soaked social and political capital passed down from generation to generation. It is an unethical inheritance all people born with white skin acquire whether they acknowledge it or not and whether they want it or not. It represents the ability to get small business loans at banks with little to no obstacles. Or getting a job with a high school diploma that people of color with degrees are turned down for.
It’s all the “breaks” white folks catch and the “good luck” they have that, in reality, are due to a culturally higher valuation of white skin. In the religion of White Supremacy, white skin is deemed the most creditworthy, most qualified, and most moral. Knowingly and unknowingly, therefore, this capital has been spent, leveraged, and invested over and over again on a daily basis for three centuries producing the massive disparities in wealth, education, and healthcare that we see today.
All white Americans have some level of devotion to and investment in preserving their tribal totem. Devotion varies from tortured, fearful appeasement to oblivious, unquestioning submission, to unabashed homage. The fifty-five year old white man from Texas who argues that affirmative action is discrimination against more qualified whites lays sage at the idol’s feet. Meanwhile, the twenty something leftist, white woman clutching her purse and crossing the street to avoid a group of black teenagers walking in her direction reluctantly genuflects before the same idol. The middle aged queer white man living in the burbs with his pension and his Starbucks and his Wednesday bible study, who rarely comes into contact with people of color kneels at the altar between the two of them.
There has been much debate about who was to blame for Trump’s rise and ascendancy to the White House. Who white folks voted for in the most recent election, though, is ultimately irrelevant. Both the democratic and republican parties have historically run candidates on a platform of protecting the political and economic interests of the white electorate — that is, to maintain their idol by feeding it the bodies and souls of black and brown people.
American history is replete with evidence. From the passage of federal immigration legislation like the 1887 Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1924 national origins quota to Jim Crow laws like the poll tax to SB 1070 — the primary function of government in America has always been to preserve the integrity of whiteness through various forms of repression and violence.
While legislation has been a primary tool to inflict structural violence for the sake of maintaining racialized social control, history is also full of examples of the use of interpersonal physical violence towards the same end. Mob attacks, lynchings, and police brutality are all manifestations of attempts to maintain white hegemony. Like Baldwin, Du Bois sees this violence as inextricably linked to the exaltation of white skin — the central article of faith in the religion of White Supremacy:
But say to a people: “The one virtue is to be white,” and the people rush to the inevitable conclusion, “Kill the ‘nigger’!”Is not this the record of present America? Is not this its headlong progress? Are we not coming more and more, day by day, to making the statement “I am white,” the one fundamental tenet of our practical morality?
Though there has been very little change in these set of social, economic and political arrangements one thing has shifted — the language used in political discourse about race and power. America went from explicit language that marginalized and antagonized blacks and other non Whites to racially coded language — dog whistling — and an emphasis on color blind, “universalist” policies. These types of policies are founded upon the false notion that a rising tide lifts all boats. In other words, what’s good for (white) America is good for people of color and other historically exploited populations.
One might argue that landmark legislative decisions like Brown vs. Board and Civil Rights acts is proof that we have made great strides towards shaking off the shackles of our racist past. We have, after all, elected the first black president not once, but twice. I’ll see your Black president and progressive Supreme Court decisions and raise you one Donald Trump. He has unveiled what it seems only white liberals weren’t able to see: Despite all the marching and protesting and legislation America is now and has always been a white man’s republic. Ten days before he was assassinated, Dr. King lamented this fact at a conference of Rabbis saying that, “We talked of integration in romantic and aesthetic terms and it ended up as merely adding color to a still predominantly white power structure.”
Even when Democratic Party candidates have run and won on a platform that included the advancement of the status of marginalized groups — it has never simultaneously sought to dismantle institutional racial hierarchies and the overarching system of race based advantage upon which the republic was founded. For to do so, would be to forsake their deity and reject its blessings. It would be to hold the heretical view that American meritocracy is a myth that veils us from the reality that we live in a normalized racial caste system.
After decades of public policy from both republican and democratic administrations there has not yet been a fundamental change in the balance of power in this country. So long as whites along the political spectrum continue to worship their false god there never will be.
Whereas Du Bois’ essay ends with little guidance for the souls of white folk, James Baldwin gives freely:
White being, absolutely a moral choice, since there are no white people….As long as you think you’re white, there is no hope for you.
Baldwin argues that due to how inextricably tied white identity is to exclusion, unilateral power, and violence the only way forward is abolition. Whiteness is a stone idol in the mind of white people in America that must be smashed to pieces like the idols of pre-Islamic Arabia. White supremacy is a superstition that has no place in the modern age and apostasy from it cannot happen without a complete repudiation of white identity. They must construct a new identity that is not contingent upon the exploitation and suffering of the other. Otherwise, as Baldwin suggests, there is no absolution possible.
Where do white folks begin? The only place they can — at the altar.
“I see these souls undressed and from the back and side. I see the working of their entrails. I know their thoughts and they know that I know. This knowledge makes them now embarrassed, now furious. They deny my right to live and be and call me misbirth! My word is to them mere bitterness and my soul, pessimism. And yet as they preach and strut and shout and threaten, crouching as they clutch at rags of facts and fancies to hide their nakedness, they go twisting, flying by my tired eyes and I see them ever stripped, — ugly, human.” — W.E.B. Du Bois