White Terror: Toni Morrison on the Construct of Racism

Photograph Source: Zarateman – CC0

“To lose one’s racial-ized rank is to lose one’s own valued and enshrined difference,” writes Toni Morrison in The Origin of Others. In a 2016 post-election essay entitled “Mourning for Whiteness,” this sense of loss and the ensuing disorientation become Morrison’s focus. In today’s America as “people of color” are increasingly occupying everywhere including the Senate, the Supreme Court, and the White House, white people can no longer hold onto the “conviction of their natural superiority,” Morrison argues, and continues:

To keep alive the perception of white superiority, these white Americans tuck their heads under cone-shaped hats and American flags and deny themselves the dignity of face-to-face confrontation, training their guns on the unarmed, the innocent, the scared, on subjects who are running away, exposing their unthreatening backs to bullets. Surely, shooting a fleeing man in the back hurts the presumption of white strength? The sad plight of grown white men, crouching beneath their (better) selves, to slaughter the innocent during traffic stops, to push black women’s faces into the dirt, to handcuff black children. Only the frightened would do that.

It is not only the KKK members and men with AK-47s who are grieving the loss of their illusions of superiority. Describing the herd of people who have come together to give their support to Donald Trump, a presidential candidate who is emboldened by racial violence and enthusiastically inflames it, Morrison writes: “These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.”

A terror that makes knees tremble. A terror that takes hold of the whole mind. A terror that annihilates all notions of morality and dignity, even a most elemental understanding of humanity. This is precisely what we witness in the tragedies from Charlottesville to El Paso. Not power, but an overpowering sense of terror. Because in essence every act of terrorism, which seeks to inflict fear in others, stems from a place of fear itself. And the seed of white terrorism is white terror.

Though Morrison speaks of a fear which has resulted from the loss of status and privilege following the civil rights legislation, white terror has been present in America all along—as the earliest settlers fought the wilderness, Natives, starvation, and diseases; as the colonies were troubled by riots and uprisings; as the rupture of the American Revolution settled in.

While life in the New World proved to be an ongoing struggle for many white colonists, for some, slavery made it possible to cling to illusions of power and mastery. “Black slavery enriched the country’s creative possibilities. For in that construction of blackness and enslavement could be found not only the not-free but also, with the dramatic polarity created by skin color, projection of the not-me,” explains Morrison in Playing in the Dark. So looking at the slave, she points out, the white American came to know itself as: “not enslaved, but free; not repulsive, but desirable; not helpless, but licensed and powerful; not history-less but historical; not damned, but innocent; not a blind accident of evolution, but a progressive fulfillment of destiny.” These projections were imperative to the construct of racism. And though slavery was abolished over a hundred and fifty years ago, they still are.

“It is as though they are shouting, “I am not a beast! I’m not a beast! I torture the helpless to prove I am not weak,” Morrison describes the plea of the slave owner. At the very heart of all supremacist ideologies lie this devastating weakness and self-doubt. And this is what makes white supremacy both pathetic and pathological.

So when one is stripped of the destitute illusions of power and superiority, this unbearable weakness gets exposed. Defenseless against the white terror within, the white supremacist attacks the defenseless out in the world. In the past there were lynchings, beatings, hangings, burnings. Today, mass shootings. The manifestos published to explain the motive of the attacks may talk about immigrant invasion, but they are really saying: I am not a beast! I’m not a beast! I murder to prove I am not weak.

In her 1993 PBS interview with Charlie Rose, Morrison asks: “If I take your race away, and there you are, all strung out. And all you got is your little self, and what is that? What are you without racism?” In her eyes more sadness than scorn, she wonders out loud, “Are you any good? Are you still strong? Are you still smart? Do you still like yourself?”

Her novel Beloved says it the best: “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.” Thank you, dear Toni Morrison, for having been such a friend to this nation’s mind. Gathering its pieces and giving them back to the American people in all the right order. You will be missed.

More articles by:

Ipek S. Burnett is a depth psychologist and Turkish novelist living in San Francisco. She’s the author of A Jungian Inquiry into the American Psyche: The Violence of Innocence (Routledge, 2019).  

March 31, 2020
Jonathan Cook
Netanyahu Uses Coronavirus to Lure Rival Gantz into ‘Emergency’ Government
Vijay Prashad, Du Xiaojun – Weiyan Zhu
Growing Xenophobia Against China in the Midst of CoronaShock
Patrick Cockburn
Trump’s Chernobyl Moment: the US May Lose Its Status as World Superpower and Not Recover
Roger Harris
Beyond Chutzpah: US Charges Venezuela With Nacro-Terrorism
M. K. Bhadrakumar
Has America Reached Its Endgame in Afghanistan?
Thomas Klikauer
COVID-19 in Germany: Explaining a Low Death Rate
Dave Lindorff
We’ve Met the Enemy and It’s a Tiny Virus
Binoy Kampmark
Barbaric Decisions: Coronavirus, Refusing Bail and Julian Assange
Nicolas J S Davies
Why is the U.S. so Exceptionally Vulnerable to Covid-19?
James Bovard
The Deep State’s Demolition of Democracy
Michael Doliner
Face Off: the Problem With Social Distancing
John Feffer
The Politics of COVID-19
Mel Gurtov
Trump’s Cure and Our Disease
Howard Lisnoff
The Fault Lines of a Failed Society Begin to Open Up Into Chasms
Nino Pagliccia
Cuba: An Example of Solidarity In a Time of Crisis
Ralph Nader
Out of the Coronavirus Crisis Can Come Efficient Historic Changes for Justice
Thomas Stephens
Apocalyptic and Revolutionary Education in Times of Pandemic
Edward Martin
Erik Olin Wright and the Anti-Capitalist Economy
March 30, 2020
Marshall Auerback
Washington Uses the Pandemic to Create a $2 Trillion Slush Fund for Its Cronies
Ron Jacobs
Going After Maduro
Justin Podur
When Economists Try to Solve Health Crises, the Results Can Often be Disastrous
Thomas Knapp
Decarceration: COVID-19 is Opportunity Knocking
Arshad Khan - Meena Miriam Yust
Dying Planet and a Virus Unleashed
William Astore
How My Dad Predicted the Decline of America
Seth Sandronsky
Reclaiming Vacant Homes in the COVID-19 Pandemic
John G. Russell
Racial Profiling Disorder: the All-American Pandemic
Vijay Prashad, Paola Estrada, Ana Maldonado, and Zoe PC
As the World Tackles the COVID-19 Pandemic, the U.S. Raises the Pressure on Venezuela
Laura Flanders
Covid-19: Our Health Crisis is Born of Bigotry
Cesar Chelala
The New World of Coronavirus
Lawrence Wittner
The World’s Major Military and Economic Powers Find Happiness Elusive
Ted Rall
My Dead French Grandfather Helped Me with COVID-19
Rob Okun
A Citizens’ Call to Invoke the Twenty-fifth Amendment
Ashar Foley
COVID-19 Proves It: We Need Medicare-for-All
Robert Koehler
The Virus is Our Teacher
Wim Laven
Are You Prepared to Needlessly Die for Your Country?
Jill Richardson
Stay Home, Stay Angry
What’s Wrong with Ranked Choice Voting
Mike Garrity
Alliance for the Wild Rockies Sues Trump’s Bureau of Reclamation for Bull Trout Fatalities in Saint Mary-Milk River Irrigation Project on the east Side of Glacier National Park
Weekend Edition
March 27, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Rob Urie
Bailouts for the Rich, the Virus for the Rest of Us
Louis Proyect
Life and Death in the Epicenter
Paul Street
“I Will Not Kill My Mother for Your Stock Portfolio”
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The Scum Also Rises
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Stimulus Bill Allows Federal Reserve to Conduct Meetings in Secret; Gives Fed $454 Billion Slush Fund for Wall Street Bailouts
Jefferson Morley
Could the Death of the National Security State be a Silver Lining of COVID-19?
Ruth Hopkins
A Message For America from Brazil’s First Indigenous Congresswoman