Ta-Nehisi Coates, in Between the World and Me, repeatedly refers to “the people who believe themselves to be white,” sometimes varying it with “the people who need to be white” or (quoting Baldwin) those who “think they are white,” as in the epigram that starts part III of his book:
“And have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white.”
This curious phrasing opens up the possibility of hope in what for me, as the father of two black children, is otherwise a terrifying and disturbing book. Because the phrase clearly indicts and indicates me — I do believe myself to be white — but also because it suggests that whiteness, like blackness, is a category that is subject to manipulation. It is a point of leverage for those who might want to effect change.
Quinn Norton writes about the dynamic of whiteness in an essay called “How White People Got Made,” and it is an important read for the people who believe themselves to be white for several reasons.
First, insofar as race is a social construct (which it is), it’s useful to examine how that construct was built, and how it has two sides (at least). The category of “black people” could not exist without a complementary, equally made-up category of “white people” to stand apart from them. And sure enough, the early history of American racism shows that this is exactly what happened. Poor whites were inducted into the category of whiteness to buy their loyalty to the overall system, as compensation for their poorness, and to set them against the blacks.
Second, this construction gave them something beyond economic value: Respect. No matter how poor you might be, at least you were white, and you had that to your credit. Not surprisingly, the notion of respect is behind much of this year’s election year rhetoric and, I think, behind the anger and fear felt by many white conservatives.
Third, the category of whiteness has itself been fluid. Poor Irish and Italian immigrants were not white, at first. Jews were not white. Catholics, even after their immigrant assimilation, were for a long time only marginally white; a similar thing happened with Mormons.
It may be that we are in the midst of a continuous updating, a redefinition, of what it means to be white, and we simply haven’t perceived it yet. Perhaps we believe ourselves to be white, but we do not know what that actually is, or has only recently become.
In my own lifetime I have witnessed the disappearance of white ethnic categories as a meaningful form of identity. In 1970s Ohio, it seemed to me that many people identified as Irish, Italian, Polish, or other ethnicities, even while also (implicitly, or secondarily) being white. Such ethnic identification was already a bit quaint, even then. But in 2010s California I hear and see much less ethnic identification among whites. We have faded into a large, undifferentiated mass of whiteness. Only Jewish people seem to hold themselves partly apart from that assimilation, by virtue of having their own, grounding ethnicity.
That the grand bargain of becoming “white” turned out to be a spectacularly bad deal is sometimes hard to see.
Let’s be clear: White privilege is real, and yet often so obvious as to be invisible. As Norton writes, “selling” white privilege is like putting a sticker on a box of cereal saying “contains no arsenic!” As if arsenic were something that you could even contemplate putting into your breakfast cereal. Or lead into your drinking water. And yet, here we are: A century and a half after the end of slavery, putting lead into the drinking water of the mostly black residents of Flint, Michigan (and who knows how many other communities whose water supplies have not yet been tested).
White privilege means not having to worry about whether there is arsenic in your breakfast cereal or lead in your drinking water. Not having to worry about whether you are going to be shot by an officer while lying on your back with your hands in the air, or while following an officer’s instructions to remove your wallet, or while being put into a chokehold on the ground, or while playing in the park.
These privileges are real. But what have we, the people who believe ourselves to be white, given up in exchange?
Hundreds of years ago, the complicity of poor whites was bought in exchange for their privileges, which blinded them to the fact that they were still poor, still on the short end of the stick.
And today: Those of us not in the wealthiest 1% are likewise still on the outside. We have no access to capital. The bottom 90% hold 70% of the nation’s debt.
We may have access to small opportunities, to a good job and the dream of a house in the suburbs. We may even have an actual house in the suburbs and dream of a successful startup that will send our children to college and keep us from having to work again. Or we may be scraping by as greeters and laborers and servers and hoping merely to be able to pay the rent and hang onto our trucks at the end of the month.
In other words: Look past the racial divisions and you see that we have much in common. Black, white, or brown, all of us are on the outside. None of us are on the receiving end of the massive transfer of wealth that has been happening in the past few decades.
Set aside the economics, and there is still a cost, and this is perhaps the biggest one. By letting ourselves be cut off from the rest of humanity, we “whites” lose our own sense of completeness and humanity. The “other” remains other than us, outside, even though those people are our friends, neighbors, brothers. By taking our privilege for granted, we have become spoiled, insensitive to the conditions of our own success, unaware of what keeps us afloat.
What more pitiful sight is there than the person who merely believes himself to have accomplished something?
So for those of us who believe ourselves to be white, we should ask: In exchange for the privilege of not being shot by the police, not having to inherit generations of forced poverty or redlined neighborhoods, of not being denied education and voting rights and respect — very real privileges — what have we forgotten? What have we lost?
Because in the world ruled by capital accumulation and state-sanctioned violence, there is a cost for everything. Even things that you might think were beyond price.
However: What was created by human agency can also potentially be undone, or rebuilt in a different way. And this is where I find a glimmer of hope in the phrase “the people who believe themselves to be white.” That hope is: Do we have a choice in that belief? Can we refuse the categorization? Can we refuse the privilege, reject the belief, deny our assent to the systematic plundering of black bodies, of poor white bodies, of the very planet we live on?
Can we bring humanity back from the edge of oblivion?
I am not so naive as to think a simple, single refusal is enough to absolve me and those like me of responsibility, or to get me out of this unwanted, unasked-for condition of privilege and oppression.
But perhaps there is a way, steadily and surely, day by day, to refuse to be complicit.