Why White People find it Difficult to Talk about Race

This is part three in a series, you can read the two parts here.

The Question of Identity

As the white cop’s knee slowly squeezed the life out of George Floyd, there were people standing ten feet away, yelling and begging him to stop. To no avail; he could hear them, but his only response to them was his unrelenting desire to kill. Thus, he exemplified in microcosm the overall response of the police to the massive demonstrations against their brutality. That response has been to increase their killings and tortures. When Jacob Blake, in Kenosha, sought to mediate a fight between two women on the street in broad daylight, the only thing the cops could think to do, when they arrived, shot him seven times in the back.

The cop who killed Floyd was not a rogue cop; he was a member of a team, as was the cop who shot Rayshard Brooks in the back, as was the cop who killed Breoona Taylor with an assault rifle, as was Messerle when he shot Oscar Grant in the back. The progression of murders signifies not only that the cop who killed Floyd was not “rogue,” but was not even a “rogue” white man. He was enacting a tradition that stretches from the slave ships to 19th century KKK raids to the Tulsa riot to racial profiling to the mass incarceration program that has made the US prison population the largest in the world. Since 2015, on average, 1000 people of color have been killed by police in the US each year. It is a tradition that passes by way of Hiroshima, Vietnam, and the contemporary bombing and invasion of other lands (Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Syria).

Race, like military intervention and assault, does not occur for natural reasons. “Race” occurs by definition, just as military assault occurs by political decision. And when the concept of “race” changes from one period to another, it reflects a process of political decision-making. Specific people make those decisions. We see some of them happen on the street, when a cop makes a decision to kill. Some we only glimpse in their wake, as when a DA decides not to charge a cop for killing, or the government decides to defund affirmative action programs. They all belong to an unfolding of the structures of racialization. And as every military assault decision will be labeled self-defense, so will a cop’s political decision to kill a black person. To call it “self-defense” makes it seem like a “natural” response, rather than a political decision.

How would a white person seeking to talk about race find their way out of this labyrinth? Caught between arbitrary political decisions and a false “naturalness,” one could easily be overwhelmed by the irrationality of what one addresses.

In white people, race takes the form of identity. White racialized identity determines, rather than is determined by, the “nature” of the body it inhabits. As an identity, it too is a result of political decisions. As we have seen (in Part 2), white racialized identity is actively produced through the process of racializing black people (for instance), and not by belonging to a specific territory or language group. In that, it is different from other cultural identities, such as the French or the Senegalese. Whiteness is certainly not native to the Americas, though that is where whiteness as a racialized identity was developed (invented). Since then, it has been busy constructing racialized identities, such as Native Americans, Latinxs, Asians, etc., formed as “minorities” by white majoritarian supremacy, but using its black racialization as a model.

To be white-oriented (as a form of consciousness) means to accept one’s white racialized identity as natural, and to forget its historical origin as a cultural construction. To intentionally forget requires the substitution of something else for the remembrance. For whites, that is done precisely by defining supremacy for itself. It hides the memory of colonization, enslavement, segregation, and the arbitrary mob murder that has graced the history of racialization.

Supremacy implies replacing one’s knowledge of coloniality and enslavement with a special form of identity that demands acceptance of the color line by which that identity was created in the first place. It also demands confirmation of the sanctity of its decisions. White people may disagree over the nature of the color line, or its degree of enforcement, but most tend to give a universal rather cultural value to being white.

Forms of white identity

Suppose a white person was to look at current events and say, “ugh, I don’t want to have any part in these injustices.” Can such a person, who had originally been given their whiteness by other white people, give it back? Can one live a de-racialized life by autonomous choice? Is a disconnect from white racialized identity possible, or does one get automatically reconnected by all others as soon as one walks out into the street?

Here are a few examples of variations in white racialized identity.

1- I am white, but I have a sense of justice. If the police are killing people to the point where it engenders a movement demanding they stop, it must stop. I don’t want arbitrary murder to be a characteristic of my cultural identity.

2- I am white, and I am filled with trepidation and anxiety, thinking about how black people are treated in this society. I bemoan their fate, and wish I could help them in some way. For some reason, many of them look askance and decry my concern for them as patronizing.

3- I may be white, but I am a person, just like black people are persons. When they complain about what happens to them at the hands of white people, they are playing the victim instead of standing up for themselves, like I would. So they get no sympathy from me.

4- I didn’t ask to be white, but I am white. I understand that there were injustices in US history committed by white people against black people. But I didn’t do it. So making me feel guilty for being white is another injustice.

5- This is a white society, which is why black people are called a “minority.” They are outside the “majority,” and thus don’t belong in the same way that white people do. Where is the injustice in that, if white people are the majority?

6- When black people say that black lives matter, they are being supremacist, and seeking to take all the power of this society for themselves. Who are they to say that they are the only ones who matter? So we have to fight for the rights of white people against this.

Each of these examples represents a different “pragmatic” position. Whether it manifests itself as prejudice, hostility, liberalism, empathy, sociological concern, patronizing or marginalizing attitudes, etc., each exemplifies the role a white person plays in the productive activity of racializing people of color. In each subject-object relation, there is a “myself” as a member of white society who speaks and judges “them.” Representing degrees of objectification of black people, they express different white hegemonic forms of subjectivity. None grant any autonomy to black people. None include a vision of a government that values human beings as such, and which can then guarantee justice. In each of these examples, white racialized identity simply becomes a “ticket to ride.”

Special mention could be made about the first one. There are many white people who, while accepting the whiteness given them, refuse to participate in the injustices that are committed in its name. Many are labeled “liberals,” and have become a whipping-boy for extremely white-oriented people, such as “white nationalists.” As liberals, they condemn racism, segregation, a government capable of murdering of its own people, and the special structures of impoverishment to which people of color, and especially black people, are subject. But their reproach is on a policy level, rather than on one of cultural ethics.

Though the liberal ethic rebukes racial injustice, it tends to focus on the resulting status of the victimized, and thus tends to see them in that generalized sense. Their empathy becomes a universalizing attitude, one which corresponds to that of white racism itself. Thus, they often defeat themselves, falling into a racialized objectification of racism’s victims.

The liberal “policy approach” is based on the centrality of the individual with respect to rights and social responsibilities. For this reason, liberal anti-racists (as opposed to those who seek a totally de-racialized society) tend look on racists as simply ignorant of the common humanity of people. Thus, they often propose education as a proper response or antidote to racism. But education occurs at the ideational level, rather than the cultural. What is hard for many to understand, in terms of their educational paradigm, is that what they see as ignorance is actually a form of “knowledge” for the white supremacist. It is a “supremacist knowledge” on which one can rely for an impunity of action against others.

How is one to talk about race if one has trouble grasping the cultural nature of white identity, or the structural nature of racialization? Many anti-racists will counterpose an ethics of law and sociological pragmatics to racist violence. But it falls on deaf ears because their ethics exist at the level of civil engagement, while racist impunity (criminality) legitimizes itself ethically on a cultural level. The anti-racist gets trapped between a desire to be proactive against racism, and an inability to do so in the absence of specific acts of discrimination. They are reduced to a practice of “watchful waiting.”

Ironically, though white nationalists and white liberals oppose each other on the terrain of racial oppression, their conflict (segregation vs. integrationism) tends to become a disagreement only on how to stabilize white hegemony and the tranquillity of its social framework. The former proposes control while the letter proposes mediation of social discontent. Both are on the same side of the color line, and both live an I-them relation to people of color. They each become a means whereby whiteness grants itself a sense of sanctity through its objectification of black people. Segregationism and liberalism are simply two instances of the way white supremacy and white racialized identity manifest themselves on a daily basis.

The paradox of white dependency on black people.

We see, in all these thumbnail sketches of white racialized identity, that there is an aspect of corruption. It is found in their sense of independence. The identity culturally given as whiteness becomes the center of a person’s consciousness of the world. Insofar as it governs one’s actions in the world, it expresses itself as an ethical structure. It promises a superior independence, but depends on racism for how it is constructed as an identity. It is also an identity that centers the thought that racism as valid. That implies that each form of white racialized identity, as it defines itself ethically, is dependent on the existence of black people. Each becomes an identity dependent on that existence. Remove that existence, and the ethical structure that determines one’s relation to the world would collapse. Without black people, each form of identity would be bereft of that for which it had been established, the very substance of its reality. Real racial equality would ultimately result in a deep traumatic identity crisis.

Richard Wright tells the story (in Black Boy) of how, when planning to go to Chicago, his main white tormentors in Mississippi begged him not to leave. They seemed to exude, on Wright’s account, a kind of panic. It couldn’t have been that they were going to run out of people to oppress. More likely, Wright’s exit bespoke an autonomy he was establishing for himself, one which would be anathema for white supremacy. It implies that if black people liberate themselves from the hold of whites, the white world would fall apart. In that sense, black autonomy as such constitutes a direct threat to white existence as white – and thus, a source of white paranoia.

Clearly, white dependency on black people is paradoxical. On the one hand, black people have been subordinated and terrorized by white racism; on the other, they must be present in some way in order to fulfill their role in the construction of white identity. That role may be, for whites, as a target for imposed social exclusions. But within the racializing process, there has to have been an assumption that black existence was fully human, in order for white people to act to subordinate and mutilate it.

This implies that the white reduction of black people to subordinate status is an ongoing active process essential to the maintenance of white identity. It is not “exclusion” or “marginalization” in themselves that characterize racialization, but the continuous activity of imposing it. That unceasing process is what white racialized identity cannot do without. To grant black people their humanity in order to then abrogate it is at the core of constructing white racialized identity.

This is evident in the continued underfunding of education for children of color. Health care is skimped so their health is constantly in jeopardy. People of color are suffering infection and death at the hands of Covid-19 far beyond their population proportion. White supremacists continuously make attempts to restrict the right to vote for people of color through identity cards and new forms of poll taxes. It goes on and on.

In short, white people do not debase black people in order to feel greater and more powerful. They do it to establish themselves as white in the first place. It is a testament to the artificiality of the concept of race that the power of whiteness, as an imposed racial hierarchy, exists only if given practical dehumanizing expression, individually and systemically.

The psychotic self-degradation inherent in this never-ending process of debasing other human beings should to be enough to repel any self-respecting white person, and turn them against the culture that requires that kind of atrocity for itself. The central obstacle to white people rebelling against that white culture is the paranoia inherent in white racialized identity.

Paranoia blinds one to self-awareness in a manner similar to the way the generalization of people obstructs knowledge of those generalized. It is due to that paranoia that, for white racialized identity, equality, social equity, and the autonomy of others become a dire threat.

Living in a morass of invented threats, white racialized identity responds by desiring violence that it can then call self-defense. The confluence of paranoia, enforced solidarity, and violence is the deep structure of white racialized identity. The slave patrols, the Jim Crow laws, the mob murders and poll taxes were all designed to valorize that structure. Today, it is police brutality that fulfills that basic need for white supremacy. That “deep structure” is the dynamo that continually drives the on-going process of racialization to new atrocities.

A word of warning is needed at this juncture, for anti-racists. There is danger in standing opposed to white supremacy and its racialized identities. White supremacy will mobilize forms of violence against that opposition, as seen in practice in the recent events in Kenosha.

Yet more and more white people are concluding that seeking an alternative to whiteness has become imperative. Many have gone beyond liberalism to a critique of racism as a white cultural phenomenon. By seeing racism as the operations of a structure of racialization, it becomes possible to start acting proactively against it. One need no longer wait for incidents to use as examples. Unfortunately, many who seek to be proactive for justice also wish to do so without objectifying themselves. They think it is possible to maintain a white identity that is not racialized, and thus will not be complicit with the structure of racialization. But by now, we should be able to recognize that as an idle dream. A justice-oriented white person’s task is ultimately to tear up their “ticket to ride.”

The deep structure of identity

What does it mean that whiteness has a deep structure? For one thing, it implies that white racialized identity cannot be described psychologically. If it is given culturally, it is lived as such, like the weather. “To be lived” signifies that what happens in its relation to the world “goes without saying.” In particular, it is the racism implicit in each mode of living one’s white racialized identity (as a mode of “living race as a verb”) that “goes without saying.” It may be present in one’s sense of entitlement as white, or undertaken in an assumption of privilege. But to “go without saying” marks the unfolding of a cultural process. On the other hand, one’s opposition to racism is also how one lives the world. If one lives the world as a white person, one’s anti-racism becomes a valuation of how one lives that same white culture. One has not avoided complicity in it.

Ultimately, those who value their disdain for people of color may actually find their racism to be a comfort zone. Similarly, those who value their anti-racism may find their vision of justice and a just society to be, as well, a comfort zone. It is the racializing processes, deep in this culture, that constitute the trap for them. In demanding allegiance, it delimits how far they can go in advocating justice and equality.

To take real steps in the direction of justice and equality, one must first de-racialize one’s own white identity, and then rehumanize what that process liberates in oneself. That means establishing an autonomy, and a demand for mutual respect (given and received) that can only be achieved socially – by assuming and guaranteeing the autonomy of all others. To still be a white person living one’s racialized identity is to be locked into the narratives of dependency by which white racialized identity had originally constructed itself.

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.