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On the Unbearable Lightness of Whiteness

Photo by Backbone Campaign | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Backbone Campaign | CC BY 2.0

 

To be white and from money is to live a life of largely unrecognized privilege, bequeathed as it is from one’s first wet, howling breath. In the affluent socio-economically partitioned town of Saratoga Springs, NY where I’m from there was actually a railroad track serving as the demarcation line between affluent whites residing on one side and the other side of which nothing was known because you just didn’t go there, ever. It was literally the “wrong side of the tracks”.

Raised in that remarkable state of incurious joy and suffering within narrow undiluted lines of stratified suburban sameness, I could not know or question the things kept from sight. Thus racial determinism was assumed passively, an acquired naivete fueled with the aspirational angst of middle class parenting that served as an omniscient narcotic fog, like carbon monoxide – not enough to be lethal, but just enough to render the critical faculties permanently dull until finally the things kept from sight could no longer be seen even upon close observation.

To be white is to watch but not see while being seen but never watched. It is to know that for whatever law enforcement is or is not, they are something that will never have anything to do with me. It is to know that on those rare occasions I am pulled over, it really is about a busted tail light.

To be white is to know that when a retail clerk approaches me, its about customer service and not the smothering sea of smiles people of color receive when its assumed they’re there to shoplift. But early on, to be white is to never recognize the difference. Later on it was to know enough to check the “white” box on job applications even though my mother was Nicaraguan.

Like the vapid consumer culture of capitalism or propaganda, white privilege first gets on you, and then it gets in you until the lies and warped rationale about oneself extend broadly outward into misapprehensions of the world at large to become a psyche Dr. Cornel West describes as being, “well adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference”. Once subsumed by an ideology of distinction, separation and privilege, knowing what you love and covet from what you fear and loathe simply fall into place. Life lived in that atomized realm of otherization is where indifference becomes the category where the vast majority of everything else gets dumped. It is from this remove that patriarchy, classism, misogyny, sexism and racism become second nature. And that’s the numbness, dumbness and extraordinary violence of white supremacy.

To be white is to live in the precarity of an intellectual fragility that leaves one defensive, defenseless, fearful and on the edge of ready anger at the tectonic intersection of two warring incongruities – reality and ideology. It is to love jazz in isolation of any comprehensive understanding of the blues or a blues people from whom and out of which rose the idiom of jazz in all its variant forms. I remember when reggae came thundering on the music scene and having no grasp at all on the form, its lyrics or the “nowhere” this music emerged from. Aesthetically lost, my psyche breathed a palpable sigh of relief when the shape shifting genius emulator of the au courant Eric Clapton put a white face on it and sang to me no, no no, I shot the sheriff.

To be white is to know a little about King, next to nothing about Malcolm and zero about Freddie Hampton. It is to recall the “I Had A Dream” speech at the reflecting pool of our democratic miasma but not a mumbling word of “Beyond Viet Nam” at Riverside Church a year to the day before walking out on that balcony in Memphis.

To be white is to crave black culture – to subvert and subsume like an interstellar face hugger its music, lingo, dance, patois, fashion, mannerisms, literature, the down low tragi-comic authenticity of its blues people – all of it – but to not give a shit about 2.3 million people – disproportionately black and brown – stuffed in cages at local, state and federal gulags from NYC to Honolulu. Its a pathological need to fill an emptiness of soul with somebody else’s – and then kill them for it. Or sit passively by as others employed in systems of repression and death do the dirty work for you.

As the white offspring of western European Christian headcutters, I have a memory hole descending to the level of genes. Only because of poverty have I been given the opportunity to transcend the insular to confront and interrogate the walls of my own indifference to the suffering of others every day. I inherited something, a legacy of entitlement that allows me to say to myself that I am a caring, compassionate, empathic being but not so much as to ever make any discernible difference in the state of another’s suffering.

In Nick Turse’s plinth of reportorial expose, “Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War In Vietnam” one encounters the dehumanizing “Mere Gook Rule”, the psychotic mindset that substantiated and drove a wholesale genocide of civilians, transforming a vast swath of Southeast Asia into a weapons laboratory and charnel house for the munitions industry for thousands of days in a row. To be white is to know that had I been 10 years older, drafted, crafted and drop-shipped into that carnage its quite likely I would’ve been more than disassociative enough to participate with an efficiency bordering on relish. To believe otherwise is a pretension I’m not willing to cultivate about myself. My father was a strong supporter of southern segregationist George Wallace when I was in fifth grade and today in his nineties supports Donald Trump. He can quote Orwell, Tolstoy and Proust but at the end of the day there’s this barbarism, this deference and affinity for demagogues and a warm, nostalgic bosom for Frost, Sandburg and Kipling but not Amiri Baraka.

To be white and reared in an orgy of class warfare drawn along racial lines in an affluent town in upstate New York during the 1960’s and to then say I didn’t get a lot of that privilege passed on from birth and splashed on me and up in me along the way would be to countenance a lie. But then again, to be white is to elevate denial to a high aesthetic worthy of its own wing at the Louvre.

The catastrophic failure of critical thought required for a white woman in America to support a rich, violent, misogynistic imbecile like Donald Trump is as mind boggling as imagining how an uneducated, disenfranchised white man falling out of the middle class would support someone who stole every dollar he didn’t inherit. But this is what it is to be white, and Hillary Clinton’s oft repeated admonishments to the violence encouraged by Trump at his rallies as behavior not reflective of who we are is preposterous bullshit. Of course its who we are! We are the most violent, delusional gun culture on the face of the planet and that deplorable sludge on the bottom of the most subterranean pipe of the American experiment is plentiful, thick and doesn’t take much to get stirred up. We are that.

This is the thing of the thing I’m discussing here and if we can’t come together on a basic understanding and agreement in principle on a starting point that says white privilege paired with capitalism brooks no distinction between bankers like ex-CEO of Wells Fargo, John Stumpf, who enriched himself at the expense of thousands of wage slaves at the bottom of the bank’s food chain being flogged to meet impossible quotas as the corporate analog to Generals in Vietnam who forced quotas for body counts down the throats of field commanders then we aren’t getting out of the starting blocks on resolving the war on women’s vaginas, the poor, our children, the environment, education, mass incarceration, the LGBTQ community or any of the many dozens of issues that transnational capitalism has its chancrous claws sunk into. This is all about white supremacy and privilege, even if, for a time, it had a black face. And soon, it seems clear, it will have the white face of a very, very nasty woman.

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