James Baldwin & the Illusion of Whiteness

I’ve been reading more James Baldwin this week and I’ve been turning over certain parts of his essay called “On Being White… And Other Lies” in my head, struck by how apropos it remains all these years later.  Actually pretty much everything he wrote is/was germane both then and now.

This particular essay is short — you can read the full piece here — but he packs in a lot to ponder.

No Such Thing as Whiteness

I read Ta Nahesi Coates‘ book Between the World & Me last year and he uses the term “people who believe themselves to be white” throughout the book.  He borrowed the term from Baldwin and here’s a small glimpse into understanding what the two of them are talking about when they refer to us “white” folks as “people who think they are white.”

America became white –
the people who, as they claim, “settled” the country became white –
because of the necessity of denying the black presence, and justifying the black subjugation.  No community can be based on such a principle–
or, in other words, no community can be established on so genocidal a lie.  

But What Does That Even Mean?

So many of us wrestle with what this means.  We are so far removed from this adoption of so-called whiteness that it’s hard to wrap our heads around the concept.  If you were born in the late 20th century, all you’ve ever known is that you’re white.

To understand we have to look backward.  Yes, to slavery.  Because unlike other places and spaces where folks were enslaved, America created the only slave system in the world that was exclusively “racial.”

If you were a slave in, say, Barbados in the late 17th century, two things were likely:

1. You were probably Irish or Indian working on a British plantation (though there were African slaves by this point as well).

2. If you were in fact Irish or Indian, you could obtain your “freedom dues” and be freed.

But here in the United States it has always been different.  We created a system of perpetual hereditary slavery based solely on race.  There was no such thing as “freedom dues.”  Being Black = being a slave.  Period.  End of story.  There was no way out.

Who is Black?

In order to do this, we had to figure out who was “not Black” so that we could control the periphery and keep a firm boundary line between what we deemed “Black” and “Not Black.”  In other words, in order to figure out “Blackness,” we had to create “Whiteness.”

Baldwin explains:

“There is, for example – at least, in principle – an Irish community: here, there, anywhere; or, more precisely, Belfast, Dublin, and Boston.  There is a German community: both sides of Berlin, Bavaria, and Yorkville. There is an Italian community: Rome, Naples, the Bank of the Holy Ghost, and Mulberry Street.  And there is a Jewish community, stretching from Jerusalem to California to New York.  There are English communities. There are French communities…. 

… but this does not describe a community.  It bears terrifying witness to what happened to everyone who got here, and paid the price of the ticket. That price was to become “white.”  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…

White men- from Norway, for example, where they were “Norwegians” – became white by slaughtering the cattle, poisoning the wells, torching the houses, massacring Native Americans, raping black women.”

Debasing & Defining

So where do this leave us?  What am I if I am not White?  I’m not entirely sure.   I don’t think we can simply choose a different term and move along our merry way.  We must still bear the weight of having chosen this for ourselves.

But it is a false identity, as Baldwin points out in this final excerpt:

But this cowardice, this necessity of justifying a totally false identity and of justifying what must be called a genocidal history, has placed everyone now living into the hands of the most ignorant and powerful people the world has ever seen.  And how did they get that way? By deciding that they were white.  By opting for safety instead of life.  By persuading themselves that a black child’s life meant nothing compared with a white child’s life… By informing their children that black women, black men, and black children had no human integrity that those who call themselves white were bound to respect. And in this debasement and definition of black people, debased and defined themselves.

And so it begs the question: How can people who believe themselves to be White, like myself, identify in a way that is truth-filled? Unfortunately, and you may disagree, I don’t know if we can.

As Baldwin points out in the last line of his essay,

“It is a terrible paradox, but those who believed that they could control and define black people divested themselves of the power to control and define themselves.”  

That’s a bitter pill to swallow.   But I think we may just have to live with that.

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