White is a blank space.
It is the unwritten adjective that filled the infinite and simultaneously minuscule void between “all” and “men” when our founding fathers so eloquently declared their independence. The word “white” is not included in the Constitution, but it is understood by all to be the unmentioned modifier in “we the people.” It is our national equivalent to the aphonic letter “e.” We could always see it, but as a country we agreed to adhere to the first rule of American phonetics:
The “white” is silent.
Prior to 2017, we tied ourselves into knots to avoid the word. It was uncouth, too polarizing to be laid bare. Political pundits had developed an ingenious brand of circumlocution to define the American electorate. It was okay to mention the Black or Hispanic vote, but the rest required euphemisms. Educated, high-income earners on the coasts were the “liberal elite.” Then there was the “working class,” not to be confused with the “middle-class voters” or the “soccer moms.”
Then came the election of 2016. By the time the smoke cleared, there was no way to dissect the demographics of the people who waltzed into voting booths and cast ballots for a safety cone–colored vagina grabber except to eschew political correctness and call them what they were: white people.
For the past few years, whiteness sat quietly in the corner, allowing America a Black president and…ummm…that’s about it. But that was enough to convince America that the country was now post-racial. We were too busy tending to shoulders sprained from patting ourselves on our collective backs to wonder what whiteness was planning in that corner. We had so deluded ourselves into believing that America had finally begun living up to its promise of liberty and justice for all that we forgot that whiteness has always moved in silence.
But like boomerangs, bell-bottom jeans, and the Atlanta Falcons’ history of choking, whiteness always returns. In the waning days of 2016, it crashed back into the American consciousness like a Caucasian version of the Kool-Aid Man — loud, a little scary, and not-so-sweet — to let us know that 2017 was going to be whiteness’ year.
In 2017, a growing sect of disgruntled citizens emerged from the corners of the internet and into the American mainstream and loudly declared their intentions. They euphemized their hate as an affinity for “Western civilization” by using the unadorned term “nationalist.” Despite their unrepentant racism, they dared not refer to the hue of their skin or the color of their potato salad.
They vehemently rejected the premise that Black lives even mattered by insisting that they be included, even though there has never been a nanosecond in the history of this nation that hasn’t affirmed the value of a white life. They invented something called “blue lives.” They want to build a multibillion-dollar wall to keep out Mexicans, even though net immigration is negative. They tried to ban Muslim immigrants in spite of the fact that white men pose the biggest threat of domestic terrorism. They scorned their detractors as “snowflakes” while simultaneously bemoaning their own oppression. They marched in Charlottesville and escaped the scorn of the leader of the free world. Yet even in their unabashed hubris, their rank and file still stiff-armed the term “white supremacy” by calling themselves “alt-right.”
But 2017’s explosion of whiteness wasn’t just about white supremacy. This year, we found out that controlling the presidency, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, the criminal justice system, the education system, 98 percent of Fortune 500 companies, and almost every seat of private or institutional power in America wasn’t enough for whiteness. Poll after poll revealed that a majority of white Americans think they are discriminated against because of their race. The fact that this country no longer feels the need to silently swallow whiteness has led to their wholehearted belief that they are under attack, and they are pushing back.
They want to make “white” silent again.
They want their Confederate imagery to live on without admitting its complicity in the brutal genocide of chattel slavery. They want to dismantle affirmative action without acknowledging that white women are its biggest beneficiaries or the studies that prove the bias in the education system and hiring practices. They expect reverence for the star-spangled banner that waves over the courthouses that refuse to convict the killers of black sons and daughters. They’d rather not be reminded of that fact when they are trying to watch football. Or nominating an attorney general. Or voting for a president.
It is all our fault. Our willingness to say the word out loud is the real problem. It has manifested itself into a brand-new imaginary thing called “reverse racism.” We are the ones who “make everything about race.” We keep bringing up old shit, like slavery, history, and truth. We should be more like them. They don’t mention the word because they don’t see color.
They are engaged in a desperate, existential war to reclaim the silent supremacy of whiteness, but they want to do it without acknowledging the existence of that entitlement. Simply uttering the term “white people” is now objectionable and is usually followed by a variation of “not all white people.” In fact, nothing quite opens the levee walls that dam our national reservoir of white tears like uttering the words “white privilege,” even though their imagined oppression is simply their longing for the privilege they have historically enjoyed.
They want to have their white cake and eat it too.
But time is an uncontrollable destroyer of things. We do not get to determine whether it erodes or smashes. The year 2017 has not eliminated white supremacy, nor has whiteness been threatened in any measurable way. We have simply decided to stop pretending it doesn’t exist. We can look it directly in its eyes now and dispense with the charade that this America’s “greatness” was anything but a synonym for whiteness. Nothing has changed. It’s just a little bit louder now. America is still what it has always been:
A white space.