An incident concerning race occurred in Berkeley at the end of January 2015. It was a momentary event involving a black man, a white woman, and several truckloads of symbolism. The black man, a Berkeley resident named Kamau Bell, wrote about it in his blog. Then Berkeleyside wrote an article about the incident (1/29/15). During the following seven days, well over 700 comments appeared in Berkeleyside – an average of 100 a day. Those comments are the subject of this article.
Berkeleyside lends itself to this project because it permits anonymous comments; most commenters avail themselves of this anonymity. In this analysis, all the comments will be considered as anonymous, even those that had names. It is in their anonymity that they become cultural expressions, unfettered by any concern with being personally associated with what they have written. For this very reason, however, it remains unknown exactly how many people actually participated in this flood of commentary. If the average thread consisted of roughly five exchanged comments, we can assume that perhaps a total of 140 people were involved in the discussions. The volume of comments thus constitute a database, a motherlode of cultural ore from which certain aspects of what makes this society tick can be refined. Most references will be by paraphrase, but a directly quoted statement will be in quotation marks.
The mass of commentary breaks down into several clear categories: those who attack Bell, those who defend the waitress, those who instruct Bell as to what he should have done, those who suggest what the waitress should have done. Rarely will whole comments be quoted in this article – only what exemplifies the category of comment. A variety of questions concerning racism itself, however, are raised: namely, what racism is, and the relation between white anti-black racism and black anti-white racism.
The incident occurred at a café, and involved three people: Kamau Bell; Melissa Bell, his wife (who is white); and a waitress in the café (who is white). The café in question is one formerly often frequented by Kamau and Melissa Bell. On the day in question, the Bells had had breakfast there, had left, and Melissa Bell had returned later with some women friends. As the women sat at an outdoor table, Kamau Bell came up to them and stood talking to them. He had with him a book that he had bought, and the women ask to see the book. He hands it to them. Suddenly a waitress inside the café pounds on the window and signals in some fashion for him to leave, though nothing in the demeanor of the women seemed to warrant any intervention. Rather, it appeared that it was the waitress who was bothered. Something about the man bothered her. The waitress comes out, finds out that she is dealing with a family and apologizes. Kamau Bell goes to his car with their daughter while Melissa Bell enters the café and expresses her outrage. Kamau Bell writes about the event in his blog as an incident of clear racism. And the café manager subsequently fires the waitress.
In the voluminous commentary that follows, people look for reasons to consider Bell wrong for accusing the waitress of racism, while others find his response to his own experience understandable. The discussion becomes one of judging him right or wrong, like a kind of jury deliberating on what had happened. Some of the comments are humorous in their non sequitur aspects. But what becomes impressive is the repetition of the same discussion, with the same arguments, coming to the same resolution, again and again, by different people. Each person who addresses the scene goes beyond it, using a limited array of renarrativizations, assumptions, and thoughts that pretend to be observations (an unavoidable pretense since the writer had not been there).
Interestingly, the term “self-respect” does not appear anywhere. The concept of “self-respect,” as in, self-respecting person, or self-respecting black man, or self-respecting man or woman, is totally absent. People talk about Bell without attributing any such sense of himself to him.
Direct attacks on Bell
Bell is charged with many things: he is immature, a drama queen, attention-seeking, playing the victim card, playing the race card, overreacting, acting without proof, etc. It gets kind of boring because these charges are ultimately banal. However, they do fall into several subcategories, those of insincerity, opportunism, and malign intention.
Insincerity: making a career of calling people racists, throwing a tantrum, dressing poorly (scruffy, shabby), fraudulently playing the race card, deflecting his own (black on white) racism, being irrational. He throws his weight around self-righteously. It’s all a media stunt. He likes being on stage, the center of attention. He ignores the facts in the interest of sensationalizing, etc.
Opportunism: He is using the waitress for his own purposes, it’s a publicity stunt, he’s picking on a slight, promoting himself, trying to garner attention, picking up the “gift” of racism (taking his sarcasm literally); he has economic reasons for calling attention to himself, protecting his career of complaining about racism, and he is making a BIG deal out of a small misunderstanding. In short, he knew the event was worth exploiting, and threw “fuel on the racism fire for his own purposes.”
Malign intentions: acting out entitlement, blowing the incident out of proportion, having a chip on his shoulder, promoting racial victimization, lying, exaggerating, being speculative and inflammatory, expressing bias against white people. He “decides that he wants to get revenge rather than being decent enough to forgive her.” He intended to “submarine a business,” and get the waitress fired; he shouldn’t have referred to the business as racist; that makes him wrong.” “Bell needs a lesson in humanity and forgiveness.” A black man (signifying all black men) is just wrong to bring up the issue of race and racism to “us white people.” Those who do are the real racists. He was making trouble for the people he was talking to. He lies when he says he didn’t want the waitress fired.
The owner is referred to 62 times as one of the victims of Bell’s actions. Bell’s clothing becomes an issue because he was wearing a hoodie, and therefore “acting like a hood.” And various other attempts to invalidate what he says about the event.
Nobody seems able to fathom the possibility that Bell’s reaction is simply one of rage. He says in his blog, “We live with this shit every day.”
The renarrativizations of the waitress
The comments defending the waitress are as eloquent and voluminous, generally attributing good will to her (in contrast to the bad intentions expressed for Bell).
“She probably said “STOP” as in “STOP selling things,” she probably told people to scram regularly, it was part of her job, no proof she acted because of his color, she was overworked at the time, she just made a mistake (dozens said this), she’s just a hard-working woman, leave her alone, she shouldn’t have been fired, the fact that she’s a worker and he’s not makes this a class incident, she apologized, what more does he want, she simply signalled him to leave, this is a hightech lynching of the waitress, “she was just trying to protect the patrons,” the women (his wife) had paid to be undisturbed, “Bothering people is common enough,” “There is no evidence that he was racially profiled,” “his blackness had nothing to do with the incident,” she “obviously thought Bell was soliciting,” a white student had been told to leave for selling artwork, “where’s the evidence the shooing was based on race,” etc.
Though she required no evidence that he was not be minding his own business when she expressed her scorn and hostility toward this black man through the café window, he is required to provide evidence that her action was racist. Otherwise, the racism can be seen as invented. In demanding evidence that she did something wrong, her defenders are effectively expressing solidarity with her. And that solidarity then compels many, in their defense of the waitress, to accuse Bell.
The issue of objectivity is raised by a number of people. It is, after all, what it invoked by the notion of “evidence.” But it is a strange issue to raise. For those who do so, an action can be racist only if it is objectively the expression of racist feelings – which is tantamount to examining the objectivity of the subjective. Feelings actually do exist for the person who feels them, though for no one else. They remain subjective, however. Or to recognize the truly oxymoronic character of the issue, they can have objective existence only for those for whom they are subjective. And for no one else. The fact that Bell felt scorned (a subjective feeling that truly existed for him) does not amount to anything objective in this incident. What the waitress did feel, and acted on, which was another subjectivity “objective” only for her. What sets it apart is the fact that so many people felt they had the ability to reinvent it for her in their comments. The absence of comparable generosity toward Bell’s feelings (a possible recognition of his rage or exasperation) essentially represents a double standard. In short, the solidarity expressed toward the waitress, complete with concording reinventions of her person, is white solidarity.
One person said that Bell’s “accusations are based solely on assumptions about her mind,” while endless others speculate on what the waitress saw and thought.
She “would have reacted this way to any scruffy guy in sweats approaching cafe patrons” [this appeared 4 times]. She was rude but not malicious. She realized her error and apologized (a reference made over 50 times). She was just worried about her job; she could have had other reasons; she has had to shoo other people away; she is under a lot of stress.
The renarrativizations to which he is subjected are 9 to 1 derogatory or disparaging, while the renarrativizations of the waitress are 9 to 1 aimed at seeing her as not racist. There is a sense of desperation in this, as if to say, “please please please, let this be anything but an instance of racism.” One individual found this outrageous. “It’s upsetting to read so many people looking for some, any reason not to believe a black man’s lived experience.”
The issue of a panhandler was raised in her defense over 70 times. It was argued that the waitress was simply protecting customers from an annoyance; no racism involved. Bell had actually mentioned that a white panhandler had been treated differently from himself, as part of an argument that he was the one treated differently. If he did that because he knew he was speaking to a predominantly white audience, which would demand evidence and proof (or at least a counter-example) that his treatment represented racism, then he was indeed prescient.
On the other hand, one commenter seemed to like the fact that the waitress might be racist. “Remind me to tip the cafe $20 this weekend when I’m eating there.” (This reminds us of the $200K that Darren Wilson got from private contributions around the country after he murdered Michael Brown in Ferguson – sort of like thanks for having “rid the world of another black person.”)
Many tried to argue that the incident was class-oriented rather than racial (a worker vs. an successful TV personality). This is a standard way white people have of neutralizing the racial content of an issue. It both denies its racial character and it shifts the axis of social relation to a more acceptable domain.
Instructions to Bell
A third prominent category in the comments consisted of instructions on what Bell should have done and how he should have comported himself so that this incident would not have occurred. If he had only done these things, there wouldn’t have been any racism.
He should have accepted apologies (over a dozen said this). He should have done what a regular customer would have done. He should dress as white people do. He should stop wearing hoodies. He should have explained the situation rather than capitalize on it. He should have asked staff permission first to stand there (talking to his wife!!!). He should have acted like a mature reasonable adult. He should not think of racism first as a cause for uncivil behavior. He should have gone inside an told the employee the real situation. Etc.
The implication of these instructions is that he did the wrong thing in accusing a white person of racism.
In other words, white people are instructing a black person how to avoid making a situation into a racist incident. He is the one who must engage preemptive maneuvers in order to prevent any incident from occurring that might be derogatory toward him. What these instruction are doing is informing a black person how to deal with existing and extant white racism, so that he does it right. It is a tacit admission that racist oppression and hostility is always waiting in the wings to spring out and ambush the unsuspecting black person.
Thus, the target of an assault is responsible for avoiding the assault. (Women hear this all the time about how they dress.) That is, the potentiality of an assault is taken as the norm. And this is the context for those commenters who say, “there’s a right way and a wrong way to work things out.” “You can’t fight racism by screaming racism.” He is “perpetuating the racial divide.”
We have white people informing someone of the proper response to an experience that they as white people do not have to undergo. One wonders at the hubris of someone telling someone else to accept apologies in a situation that would never affect the speaker. And how can someone apologize for an entire cultural structure? (A couple of people point out how meaningless an apology would be to someone subjected to white supremacy every day.)
The fact that Bell did not approach the waitress but chose to use his blog indicates the seriousness of the incident for him. This too is held against him by a number of commenters. One attacked Bell for using his own access to personal media to deal with the issue of the waitress’s disrespect and hostility. But why would that be impermissible? It partially equalizes the playing field, given that whites have access to both personal and social media whenever they wish. Racism is societal, but black people do not have access to the societal media in the same way white people do, and so must make use of the personal. The incident became social through the offices of Berkeleyside.
Raciam is a false charge – endless judgment
In general, the majority opinion was that Bell’s charge of racism is a false charge:
unsubstantiated, the “histrionics of a professional grievance-monger,” , showing his own biases, a man who wanted to “watch the business squirm,” “Obviously there is no understanding or compassion [on Bell’s part] for the employee” (the object of scorn must feel compassion for the scornful person). “We can’t take the black man’s word for it.” We white people are victims too. Black people can be as prejudiced as white. How dare Kamau intrude upon our community and our lifestyle, and disrupt things without being asked.
In this mass of comments, prejudice is attributed to Bell in order to make him the racist. He is thus renarrativized as the victimizer because he is the racist, and the waitress is renarrativized as the victim, because white. Because a non-black person cannot know what it is like to be black in this society, white people go to extremes to erase that fact by speaking for black people. (One white person did claim to have such knowledge, based on his own universalized experience as white: “The incident didn’t happen to Bell because he is black. I know because it happened to me too and I am white.”) In short, we white people know Bell better than he knows himself.
There is no white racism
Indeed, many would like to simply expunge the concept of white racism from the social scene.
“Where’s the racism in this story?” “Only Bell can be “confirmed” as a racist.” The incident is the “result” of café environment. “Black people have to look for racism in order to find it.” Only when Bell blows up this “small” incident does it become a racist incident. “Discrimination against black people is because of their behavior.” “They bring it on themselves.” One commenter tries to explain that “white people are not victims of systemic racism,” and another responds, “Guess what? Neither are most black folk.”
But even in denying the racism, they bring themselves around to confirming it.
Black people are not subjected to systemic racism. Black reactions to racism are what fuel racism. “Racism is simply a part of our culture,” and has no bearing on an individual. Racism may be everywhere, but not in this interaction. “If that’s the most racist thing that’s ever happened to him then he’s one lucky man. Most people go through way more harassment than that.”
The assumption is unquestionable that a black man standing by these women is harassing them. Police racial profiling has become so prevalent that the aura of criminality attached to black people thereby has taken on the character of an axiom. Gratuitous hostility is nothing but profiling at the level of ordinary persons on the street (or on the job).
The non sequiturs
The category that sits at the bottom of the barrel is that of many non sequiturs masquerading as hypothetical situations. They are designed to obviate or disclaim or disavow the existence of white racism. And some truly scrape the bottom of the barrel. Scenarios are invented to show the illogic of anti-racism, or the gratuitousness of it.
“What if this was in a different town?” “Many young hoodlums wear jeans and hooded sweatshirts to avoid easy identification.” “Wow, lucky the window didn’t break.” “What if the waitress was black?” “Corporate advertising is far more obnoxious and annoying than the occasional “homeless” folks.” The independence of the women and their ability to handle panhandlers themselves is disparaged by saying that women are helpless. Obama is used: it is “like how President Obama says he supports peace and murders women and children with drone strikes.” The multiracial and multiethnic character of California is used to argue that there is no white racism.
Even objectivity, as a hypothetical virtue, appears as a non-sequitur when invoked by a few commenters. One person says, let us “look at this objectively,” and then plows ahead with endless subjective judgments and renarrativizations of both Bell and the waitress. He opines that the waitress sees “an unwanted man,” “a scruffy-looking dude standing, talking to the ladies,” with no indication that the women objected. No one, of course, has any “objective” access to another’s perceptions. But that doesn’t matter.
One way to downplay the racism of the incident is to exaggerate to the point of absurdity. Another is to deny it altogether. In either case, there is an interpretation by people absent from the incident who nevertheless bear witness, imposing their own experience as knowledge about another’s experience.
The invocation of black anti-white racism
Ultimately, many had to admit that race was an element of the incident. But that meant, for many of them, that if it wasn’t a case of white racism, then it had to be a case of black anti-white racism. Not only does this represent the ultimate non sequitur (historically), but it expresses a kind of “me too” attitude or scenario. It assumes that “race” is a factor that affects white and black people equally. And that assumption is important for asserting that whites can suffer from black anti-white racism as much as black people might suffer from white anti-black racism. If Bell is the racist, than whites are the actual victim of that racism.
“Generalizations about “white people” are every bit as racist as the generalizations of “black people,” black hostility toward whites is racism, Bell is the victimizer, “those who shriek “Racist!” the loudest are usually just trying to deflect attention away from their own racism,” “Facts don’t matter to the crowd that wants to lynch this cafe and its staff.” “To give a well-reasoned dissection of the event is to be correct about it – Bell is a racist.” To have one’s whiteness brought up is thus to be the victim of racism. It is OK for Mr. Bell to profile white people, but not OK for white people to profile Mr. Bell. “We whites know better than he does what racism is” “I am white, and therefore know that not everything that happens to black people is because they are black.” “Black folks” have no basis to say a word about “White folks” experience of black racism.
In short, whites subjected to the accusation of racism find it within themselves to simply accuse the accuser of racism. And if Bell is just playing the victim, then white people are not the victimizers. If white people see themselves as the victims of racism, it allows them to beg off being hegemonic, or even supremacist.
For whites to be the victims here of black racism, they simply have to figure out how the waitress is the victim of what Bell has done. Thus, the paramount fact of the commentary is that it is an intervention into the personhood of Bell and the waitress, as two characters in a play. And this repeats the act of the waitress’s intervention into what was present outside the café window. She is separated by that plate glass window from the reality in which she intervened, just as the commenters are separated from her and Bell by time and language. To assume a knowledge across the hermetics of that separation is to assume a hegemony of knowledge. The window protected the waitress’s hegemony, her power to hierarchically renarrativize someone, just as the social positionality of white hegemony allows white people to think they know others better than the others know themselves.
At the same time, white people must assume an equality in order to see black racism as the same as white racism. But it is an equality that doesn’t exist if it has to be assumed (and assumed hegemonically). Nevertheless, the assumption of equality is essential for rationalizing the notion that one’s own experience could possibly be a standard for judging all others.
Instructions to white people
It is in terms of this hegemony that there are the instructions given to white people by many commenters (speaking to an assumed white adience).
“Start being a bit more skeptical when someone cries “RAAA-CISM” over the type of slight that ALL of us can experience.” “Want to stop racism? Act like it doesn’t exist.” Because he thought, “Hey I know what I’ll do, I’ll make everyone think I was the target of a racist,” don’t give him any attention or credence. “All he does is blame whitey for the ills of the world.“
The traditional white supremacist adjective used during Jim Crow to describe this kind of situation, of course, was “uppity.”
When these instructions are turned on those who defend Bell, they become instructions about who white liberals are:
they constitute a race-card mob, they over-generalize, they are simply lecturing PC to the rest of the world, they constitute a professional race/class/gender victimization crowd, they see racism under every rock and behind every tree, they are quick to judge, quick to react, quick to paint themselves as victims, quick to tell others what they should be thinking.
The act of judging or contradicting or renarrativizing Bell does not bother these commenters. They can tell him what his experience is, trespass on his subjectivity, assume and even claim that his subjectivity is accessible to them, and thus tell him who he is. That is the essence of supremacy.
Now, lets talk about race.
Lets talk about race
There is one sentence that Bell uses twice in his blog. It is, “We live with this shit every day.”
Among the many derogatory comments toward or renarrativizations of Bell, none of the commenters who had read his blog made mention of that sentence. No one was impressed by what that little sentence implied about what Bell lives with, nor about what these commenters themselves (all 140 of them) were about to say on Berkeleyside. Nothing testifies more to the mentality that is making these comments, nor to the cultural foundation upon which these comments are based, than that blanket omission. It exemplifies the double standard implicit in the conjunction of that omission with the many calls for him to have compassion.
“We live with this shit every day.”
What does it mean for white people to assume that they can know what it is like to be black because they know what it is like to be white? It means that there is an assumption of universality, that white experience and white consciousness are universal, and that all other experience and all other consciousness is not only parallel to white experience and consciousness, but understandable through it as a standard. It is to assume that whiteness is the standard for the world.
That is something that is clearly demonstrated in all the renarrativizations. The most common issue renarrativized for Bell is his motivation for publishing what he did. These are all motivations the commenters invent for him, in order to disparage his act. It is a disparagement implicit in the instructions provided for him, as well as in the actual invented stories concerning his motivations.
It is the act of invention itself that constitutes a profound blindness here. If black people find themselves reinvented by whites all the time, white people don’t. White people just do not get reinvented by white people. They may cop a “me too” stance and say they are reinvented by black people. But the ability to reinvent others on a social level (as revealed by these comments) presupposes a certain power to do so. What black people find themselves reacting to, or not reacting to, all the time, is totally alien to anything in white experience, because it is invisible on the other side of white invention and white hegemony. When blindness can be socially substituted for insight (and we are dealing with a social phenomenon here, expressed in a volume of commentary), then you have a true expression of supremacy.
It is white supremacy. Yet white supremacy doesn’t exist for whites because they have no experience of it. It is only something that black people complain about, against which white people need to defend themselves. In effect, the self-arrogated position (of supremacy), of being the universal standard by which all others’ experience can be interpreted, requires the concomitant claim that white supremacy doesn’t exist. And thus, the white position falls out of this (il)logic as its logical conclusion: if racism is the expression of a supremacy, and white supremacy doesn’t exist, then the racism that does exist has to be black anti-white racism. QED.
This warping of US historical experience has to be spelled out this way so that we can confront it. Joy DeGruy deals with the notion of black anti-white racism in the following manner:
Suppose that there is such a thing as black anti-white racism, just as there is such a thing as white anti-black racism. Now, let us list all the ways in which white anti-black racism impacts all black people. The list will include wage differentials, segregated education facilities and discriminatory educational budgeting, police racial profiling, biased prosecutions and unequal arrest and conviction rates, being followed in stores, driving while black, job discrimination, housing discrimination, bank redlining, differential mortgage rates, etc. Now list all the ways that black anti-white racism impacts all white people. No list is forthcoming. Only complaints (oh, he was angry at me, I didn’t do anything to him, he’s making it up, he’s playing the race card, he hates all white people, etc.). There are definitely negative attitudes on the part of individual black people toward white people (individual or generalized). But these attitudes do not impact all white people (in case you missed it, the important word there is “impact”). They are simply attitudes.
The only way that white people can escape the logic of this disparity is by reducing race to mere prejudice. It is that reduction that makes black anti-white racism possible for them. But racism is not just prejudice:, it is a system of oppression, of derogation, exclusion, violence, and denial of social standing. When black people flip the script by generalizing white people, they do it in rebellion against being generalized or excluded or dehumanized. It is not oppression, but resistance.
To see resistance as oppression is to pull off a vast reversal. In the outpouring of comment, such a reversal was performed. If Bell is playing the victim, then white people are not the victimizers. And if Bell is playing the victim under the actions of a hostility and a history that has seriously victimized black people in the past, then he becomes a threat. The illogic of these commentaries suggests they are threatened by the overtness of even this one complaint against racialized behavior. If black people are a threat, it can only be because of past oppression. Black people become a threat because of what they might do in terms of their resistance or even vengeance (as the victims of past white oppression). To the extent they are a threat, then whites become the victims of an oppression implicit in that threat. Therefore, it is black people who oppress whites. Isn’t that what many of these commenters are saying?
It is through this inversion under white supremacy that the victim becomes the aggressor, and the victimizers become the victims in need of self-defense.
What does this mean? Put baldly, it means that white people and black people live in different worlds. Black people live in a world in which they experience white supremacy at every turn, and this is not something that happens to white people. For obvious reasons.
But white supremacy? Does that still exist? Oh no, how could that be? Wasn’t it outlawed by all the civil rights legislations? But what is being expressed by the arrogation of the power to renarrativize black people (a black person) as malign, with bad intentions, and a white person as virtuous, with good intentions? It is the power to renarrativize. In these comments we confront not only the hubris of renarrativizing, but the seemingly unstoppable compulsion to do so. Even when surprised by what they were actually saying, in some cases, these commenters couldn’t seem to stop themselves from that project. It is a form of supremacy to assume the power to renarrativize anyone at all, to think that one knows them better than they know themselves, to be able to tell another person who they are.
One commenter understood this (already quoted). “It’s upsetting to read so many people looking for some, any reason not to believe a black man’s lived experience.”
The essential aspect of white supremacy is that black people experience it, and white people don’t. Actual hostility or contempt or even hatred may get expressed, for instance, by pounding on a window, and it just won’t be seen as such by white people. Whites don’t even experience it in their own outpouring of supremacist sentiments in comments to Berkeleyside. White people sit around in bars and living rooms and make jokes about black people, often using multiple derogatory terms, because there are no black people there to take offense. White people may hear this talk, but they are not subjected to it, unless they are attacked for being anti-racist. But black people are subjected to it; they are the objects of it.
What does it mean to be the “object” of something? Let’s look at two aspects of this very complicated question.
In renarrativizing Bell, these commenters are speaking for him, making him an object as a character in a story that is not his own, but is imposed on him. Racism, and the white supremacy that uses it as its instrumentality, is an assumption of the power to tell others who they are, in order to disempower them, and to remove from them the ability to say who they are in their own terms. This became clear in the outpouring. What this outpouring of comment demonstrates is that its attitudes are social, societal, and not individual. Jim Crow worked only because its strictures and punishments for stepping out of line were enforced socially, by all (or most) whites. Racism works only because it is social, a system of social relations. It is not mere prejudice, which occurs on the individual level. It is cultural.
This societal attack on Bell follows a long tradition in the US. And what we can no longer allow to escape notice is that things are getting worse. If each instance of racism or racial profiling is not counteracted, we will be back under official Jim Crow fairly soon.
There is a second aspect to being made an object for another person. One becomes an object for others who are not themselves objects for oneself. Another who makes one an object for himself establishes himself as an active subject. It is for the sake of the other’s subjectivity that the other makes an object for himself. Being made an object for another marks a form of social relation in being a relation between a subject and an object. It is a relation named by a verb.
Race is not a noun. It is a social relation. Race is not a name for any inherency. There are no two somatic characters that necessarily go together, to define a race by body type. Race is a verb. It is something that one group of people does to others. The verb is “to racialize.” In the US, it is something that white people do to others they define as not white, in order to define themselves and their whiteness as not that. White people racialize themselves as white by racializing others as black, or brown, or Latino, or Asian, or “Indian,” or “illegal immigrant,” etc. Each group is made different by an activity of othering, of being made an object through renarrativization, generalization, a target for derogation, hostility, or worse, by white self-racialization as white.
Across this verb “to racialize,” there is a subject-object relation. White people are in the subject position, and others, the ones “othered” by the operations of racialization, are in the object position. There is no equality. It is whites who do the defining. It is whites who decide who the other is. That is what it means to be white, to have a white racialized identity. That is what this outpouring of commentary exemplifies.
It is the social relation called “race” that these commenters are enacting. There are no races outside this system of social relations. Each race exists only in relation to other races. That is what this outpouring of comment on Bell’s account signifies, though it attempts to deny it by assuming that races simply exist in and of themselves.
There are no black people if there are no white people to see them as “black.” There are no white people if there are no black people to not be. When the English founded Jamestown in 1606, they did not see themselves as white. They only became white (as a cultural identity) in the early 18th century, over a hundred years later, after African labor had been transformed into plantation wealth, anti-miscegenation laws had been passed, slavery had been codified, slave patrols organized to catch escapees, and Africans had been made into black people (in that order). But that is a more complex story, with a certain objectivity because it is historical.
Ultimately, that history signifies that a white person is not born white; s/he is made white by white supremacist society. A black person is not born black; s/he is made black by white supremacist society.
To understand this process of racialization better, let us look at an analogy – the concept of a minority. The notion of minority derives from electoral procedures. In any bipartisan election, there is a majority that wins, and a minority that loses. The group that loses an election can be called a minority group. But to call a people a “minority” is to use that term prior to any election or vote having happened. That means, they lose before the election occurs. To call a community or ethnic group a minority in the US is to claim that they have lost before any vote is taken. In other words, a majority group has condemned that minority group to a losing status. If that were not the case, then people could be seen as simply voting on issues, rather than being a group that loses. But no group is naturally a minority. Votes occur on policies and candidates. To define a group as a minority is to establish majority status for the defining group, as the motive for defining the other group a minority. To have the power to do that reflects the power to both define and exclude, and to use that power to exclude and thus to minoritize. There are no natural minorities. There are only groups that are minoritized by a majority group that consolidates its majority through its minoritization of others. And similarly with race. There are no races; there are only the racialized, made so by a racializing group.
In the US, there are the racializers and the racialized. And the racializers are white. And racism is simply one of the instrumentalities of the process of racialization.
Racialization as a cultural thing
Let us be clear. In order for this mass of commenters to be able to set themselves up as a jury interpreting this small café incident, and feel virtuous or righteous in doing so, they have to make the contrary assumption, namely that race exists as an attribute of persons, and not a result of social practices. Race can then be seen as inherited, genetically conditioned, and imminent in personhood. Anything but a socially constructed system of social relations.
This is what most of the commenters assume, though it is not what the confluence of their commentaries signifies. In attacking the black person, disparaging his every act, while defending the white person and attributing a virtue to all that the black person saw as disrespectful, in renarrativizing and judging, in defining and portraying who each of these people were, these commenters are simply acting white.
It is a cultural thing. Each one did it his/her own way, and provided a small dot in a larger pointillist portrait. But put altogether, we see white supremacy in the raw.
Each one thinks s/he is simply expressing an opinion. But there is a blindness in that. Opinions are one thing; speaking for another person is another.
White people can’t understand that there are things they can’t understand about race because they live in the subject position of the verb “to racialize.” Those who are thereby racialized and live the object position of the verb, and are thus seen through white eyes (always seeing themselves through the eyes of others, as DuBois put it) nevertheless occupy a subject position in their own community, out from under the renarrativizations of white people. And this is really what becomes a threat to white people who are acculturated to see black people in that object position. It is very difficult for them to grant other people their subjectivity, and their concomitant autonomy.
White people establish their whiteness, and their identity as white, through the way they act toward black people. The hostility or joviality or signifying or violence that they perform are simply the rituals of membership in whiteness. They thus enact for themselves their knowledge about black people as what they have defined for those others. That is the cultural dynamic behind the process of racialization by which white people racialize themselves as white through their racialization of others as not white.
What is objective is that hundreds of black people are shot and killed by police (one every 28 hours on average in 2012). What is objective is that there is continued segregation in education, and continuing wage and unemployment rate disparity, and now even a variety of attempts at the state level to restrict black and brown voting rights, whether through ID cards or other means.
And what is ironic is that this event (and its commentaries) occurred coincident with huge demonstrations sweeping the country, and the Bay Area, on the issue that “black lives matter.” What had taken to the streets was a massive call for justice for people murdered, beaten, falsely imprisoned, and segregated. The issue was before Berkeley City Council the week prior to the event. To blindness, we would have to add a deafness on the part of these commenters.
Steve Martinot is Instructor Emeritus at the Center for Interdisciplinary Programs at San Francisco State University. He is the author of The Rule of Racialization: Class, Identity, Governance, Forms in the Abyss: A Philosophical Bridge between Sartre and Derrida (both Temple) and The Machinery of Whiteness. He is also the editor of two previous books, and translator of Racism by Albert Memmi. He has written extensively on the structures of racism and white supremacy in the United States, as well as on corporate culture and economics, and leads seminars on these subjects in the Bay Area.