What Does It Mean to Act White?

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

This is part four in a series, you can read the rest here.

It is possible that the question we have been chasing in these articles has been the wrong one. We have been asking how white people can overcome their psychological and social hang-ups enough to address the issues of race and racism head on – socially, politically, and culturally. But perhaps the real question should have been how white people can disentangle themselves from the knots and webs of whiteness in which they have been thrust and are caught. These webs and knots allow white people to be used by white supremacy to put black people and others of color in thrall to the needs of white racialized society. The real (liberatory) question should be how white people can stop acting white.

What does “acting white” mean? White people act white when, in social situations, they single out the race of others or give it special attention. It doesn’t matter if the white person does it in an approving or patronizing or gratuitously hostile manner. The notice and naming of a product of white racializing activity serves to nourish the process of racialization upon which white racialized identity aggrandizes itself. It preempts whatever kind of autonomous self-identification the other person might have had in mind for themselves, thus coopting (aka speaking for) the other.

Acting white very often entails acting as if one knows what the other is going to say, or what the other is thinking, and overtly relating to that alleged (self-generated) “knowledge.” Usually, such things are done without thinking. But racialized “prior” knowledge is acquired from other white people, and not from the person to whom one is speaking. It is simply a way of preempting the other.

Acting white may involve seeing people of color as a threat. To act as if one is arbitrarily threatened by the other’s presence is itself a racializing act. If a white person may find themselves outnumbered by black people, they may try to be super respectful. But it often leads one to speak in a loud voice, and thus reveal that one is scared stiff.

In general, white people regulate their actions in mixed company in accord with their awareness of other white people, present or absent. That is, they choose scripts for different situations, tactics for the purpose of psychic stability in the moment. The existence of such scripts, easily detected when in use, simply testify to the artificial nature (pretension) of racism.

Most anti-racists have been saying that white people need to recognize the racism and white supremacy in themselves, and deal with that. Well and good. For some, that means rooting out their own prejudices. For others, it means understanding how they have absorbed racist attitudes from the surrounding white supremacist culture. Different “rootings-out” involve different transformations of consciousness because related to different intersections and mutual interactions of individual and institutional (systemic) influences. There is a dialectical conjunction between those two, how the individual lives out the systemic, and how the systemic enforces role models on the individual. If “rooting-out” sunders that dialectic by being therapeutic, whether through psychological or social process (making rules, for instance, to govern anti-racist behavior), it takes on the aura of a 12-step program.

Insofar as one’s internal rectification process, or the discarding of accumulated role models, is engaged from a stance of white orientation or identification, it leaves the core problem unaddressed, namely, the un-neutralized white subject position of the verb, “to racialize.” And that ability to be a racializer is part of the privilege of whiteness.

White people generally do not see themselves as either privileged or in the subject-position of a racialization process. That subject position lies at a cultural depth below the pragmatics of privilege or the choice of script. It lies in the unthinking modes of acting white.

The issue of justice is not an “issue”

In recent months, the issue of “acting white” and the issue of justice have been brought together. The injustice of torturing and killing people of color in public has brought the concept of justice to a new level in civilian consciousness, and attached it in a new way to how white society comports itself.

This is not to say that white society is in any way uniform. The injustice of killing and torturing is seen differently from the perspective of “white nationalism,” or white jurisprudence, or white anti-racism. While the first opposes equality (the prerequisite for “justice”) between black and white people as itself an injustice, the second reduced injustice to that for which there is objective evidence, and the third tends to limit its approach to justice to a Constitutional ethics. But both the “liberal” and the prosecutor, acting within our given trial processes, succeed in reducing the fate of people of color to a conflict of wits between white people (in a courtroom). All three valorize white racialized identity in their own way, as a result of which, the very concept of justice is racialized.

In the present system, it is not that there is one justice for white people, and one for people of color. Justice on both sides of the color line is basically a relation between white people. In short, though racialized, justice is only white justice. What divides the different forms of justice is not the color line but the line of brutality (a black man who inadvertently shot a white man (a cop) in Arkansas was just sentenced on Sept. 8, 2020, to two life terms and 835 years in prison – absurdity for the sake of destructive hatred).

In its present structure, the juridical model of contending sides (people vs. defendant) may be efficient with respect to a racialized concept of justice, but it could not coexist with equity as a precondition. Equity would require the community circle and forms of restorative justice, which would replace court procedures with something more dialogical and democratic.

Here again, we encounter a circle. It is one of a positive (inclusionary) rather than negative (exclusionary) kind. Justice is the foundation for community because it is the sign that there is equality in society, and thus equal participation in decision-making, which is the foundation of (restorative) justice.

How is one to discuss whiteness if the meanings of “justice” and equality can be so divided across the line of brutality (legality on one side, racialization on the other), with equality being only a pragmatic element in both (rather than an ethical principle)? How can a white person discuss racialization if the only terms available for use are coopted by racialization itself?

Oddly enough, we find a similar structure in the two party political system as we discern in racialized justice. In the US electoral system, only a few people are empowered (through election) to make decisions for others (whom they ostensibly represent). The system pretends to equality by affirming that all the represented have a vote. But insofar as democratic decision-making requires dialogue and participation by those who will be affected by the policy made, reduction of participation to the vote is a form of exclusion. As in racialized justice, the inequality in decision-making represents the seizure of an entire category of thought. To cover this up, the system pretends that all have an equal chance to be elected to decision-making positions, while forgetting to mention the funds required in a commodified economy.

In addition, the political system has given rise to its own form of racialization in the popular mind. People of color have come to be known as “minorities.” To have a minority character as a group or community means to be a minority prior to any election. It signifies that the people so minoritized will “naturally” be outvoted in advance.

It is time to call the existence of whiteness into question

We have spent time examining how the morass and paradox of “race” itself makes it very difficult for a white person to talk about race and racism. At the same time, we have seen that the structure of racialization stands in the way of justice and democracy. If justice and democracy are to be realized in the US, then somehow whiteness and its arrogated hegemonic position will have to be dismantled, and the concepts of justice and democracy de-racialized.

Equality however presents a decided threat to the stability of white racialized identity. We have noted that many feel seriously threatened by the possibility of abandoning it, as their intimate connection with the race they were given. It reveals a fragility in that identity (a concept allied to Robin Diangelo’s, in her book, White Fragility). The idea that the abandonment of whiteness can be considered an existential threat, as well as a questioning of membership in a socio-cultural structure, clearly signifies its original artificiality. That artificiality is what most white-oriented people are loath to admit, though the history is clear as to how it originally emerged. [Cf. Martinot, Rule of Racialization]

That artificiality has appeared often in US history, mostly as a call to allegiance to whiteness (race loyalty). The slaveholder response to the abolitionist movement, the white supremacist call to oppose and attack the Reconstruction governments, the “white citizen” response to desegregation after Brown vs. Board, and the many layered oppositions to affirmative action; all occurred in the name of “protecting” whiteness from policy.

Three central aspects of white culture were revealed in that history and its many calls to white loyalty. First, there was a need for violence against black people in order to disguise white dependence on their existence (discussed in Part 3 of this series). Second, since white racialized identity is imposed on white people by white supremacist society, a second order of internal violence is needed to enforce the white allegiance and regimentation on which violence against people of color relies. It involves social exile, ostracism, and terror.

And third, there is a blindness to the political purpose of that violence. Today, with the violence having been transformed into police brutality, the white racialized demand for allegiance has been shifted to police demands for obedience, which occurs in a myopic distance. And associated with the unending killings by police, there is the silent unacknowledged thought that the on-going killing is the real police response to the massive demand that they stop killing. As a refusal of the government to provide justice for the people who demand it, it is too big to see.

Alternatives to white identity

It would seem that anti-racist whites should have been acting strongly against police profiling as a primary way of being proactive against the structures of racialization. After all, racial profiling is a central mode of racializing people. To stop a person of color on suspicion is already racializing, but as a prelude to demanding obedience which can then be turned into punishment for disobedience, it is a tactic to arrive at violence. The fact that the person is compliant to police commands is immaterial; witness how many black people are beaten or tased after being handcuffed.

To petition police departments to cease their profiling, or to petition City Council to legislate against the policy, rarely stops the practice. It does not take account of the depth of the culture of racialization in which the police involve themselves. The legitimacy of profiling was developed out of the drug war and the opportunity it presented to stop people on suspicion. Through mass incarceration campaigns, and the inducement of crime in the streets that the increase in drug trafficking elicited, the police became the most powerful political organizations in most cities. Now, police political power hangs over people and local government, using its criminalization of people, its proclamation of a “crime problem,” to obstruct attempts to alter local policy on such things as profiling.

Unfortunately, the anti-racist movement continues to reveal a belief in the representationist system of government. People seem to feel they have nowhere else to go for the construction of policy, nor for appeal against government abuses of power. But this too doubles back on the movement. The police now rely on the way the public relies on its representationist political structures for responses to police killings. Despite demonstrator calls upon City Councils to arrest and charge the criminal cops, those Councils have been put in the position of affirming police actions in advance by the police themselves. In acceding to the independence of the police, City Councils end up obstructing rather than facilitating justice. As long as white people lock their opposition into a political non-opposition controlled by the police, George Floyd will get killed over and over again.

In a similar manner, the issue of gun control is enlisted in the process of racialization. When the police allowed the white nationalist who had just killed two demonstrators in Kenosha (protesting Jacob Blake’s killing) to leave and go home, they were not only affirming his act of racialization but were revealing the white supremacist ethic at the core of resistance to gun control. The police refusal to take him into custody implied that, for their racializing project, guns in the hands of white people are proper, necessary, and designed to be put into anti-black practice.

In other words, the Second Amendment debate is only a way to make that political goal look legitimate. The work of guaranteeing white-oriented gun ownership is to establish “mastery” over people of color. In the sense that this “mastery” always promotes itself as self-defense, it is adopting the police and their profiling as its role model, excusing potential brutality in advance as “security.” In that sense, the defeat of gun control has become an integral aspect of re-racializing US culture.

A first step toward social liberation from the culture of racialization would be to dismantle the police and replace it with something that values human life and can be democratically administered at the community level. Can a government agency be created that would not only respect people but guarantees their dignity and autonomy?

Political opposition to the culture of whiteness and its contemporary avatar in police violence must reposition itself on the cultural plane, where abandoning whiteness as such can be put on the table. That is, an alternative to white racialized identity would require operating outside the representationist political structure that the police and the culture of whiteness control. It would mean organizing and orchestrating a transition from whiteness to democracy, and from the structures of racialization to a cooperativist infrastructure.

The focus of white supremacist power has always been its ability to defend itself by opposing universalizing reforms (such as health care for all), and opposing gun control. Both those policies present opportunities to be proactive against the structures of racialization.

Can we speak about the abolition of whiteness?

Many of the white participants in the recent anti-racist uprisings have analyzed the culture of whiteness and white supremacy, and decided it has to be opposed. Even against their own white upbringing, a human repugnance to the anti-democratic nature of white supremacy and its dependence on injustice must lead to that logical conclusion. And that implies that white identity must be ultimately abandoned, so that all racialization can be abolished.

In the meantime, some conclude that, since “racialized whiteness” has no real existence beyond its definition and its expressions in violence, it should be possible to throw it off – or at least, since it was given by white supremacy, to give it back. But how does one give back something that is inherent in one’s culture.

This then raises the specter of futility. Though one can think something “out of existence,” in the mode of self-transformation, it doesn’t always work. One’s whiteness, in particular, will be restored by everyone upon one’s appearance in the street. Self-transformation will only partially change one’s identity. The rest, that aspect imposed by one’s culture, must be dealt with in a different way. And here, we face the practical side of that other problem of the “eye’s inability to see itself seeing.” The identity that one seeks to transform will be in charge of the process of one’s transformation. That is, the social identification that generates social identity, in overseeing one’s attempt to dissolve one’s racialized identity, will actually strengthen itself in doing so.

White racialized identity’s function is to produce racializing behavior, that is, performances that racialize others. Racism is its function. For that reason, an “anti-racist whiteness,” while not a contradiction in terms, is a practice of oxymoronic gestures. We need an additional level of social critique.

Eliminating white supremacy

More and more white people are waking up to their role in racializing the society, and to their (perhaps unwitting) affirmation of its violence and injustices, and they are turning to a different form of social virtue. They now face the need to choose between membership in humanity or membership in whiteness. It is not a choice that is devoid of danger. But there have always been political movements that advocate a form of democracy, and do so by seeking to transcend the oppressions that the structures of racialization impose on all people, though in different ways.

There are three institutional factors that function at the core of the structures of racialization in the US. One is the police, the second is the prison system, and finally, there is the two party system. [Cf. Martinot, The Machinery of Whiteness, p. 118ff] One might project that if these three institutional forms of racialization were eliminated, the power of racism would disappear. But white racialized identity would persist and reconstitute structures of racialization for itself. The ethic of allegiance and the stance of loyalty to a whiteness that exists only by definition would have to be re-humanized.

There is one more institution that underlies those three, and which is actually at the core of white supremacy. It is the fact that race emerges from a settler process. The term “settler” refers to people who degrade the world by transforming land into commodities, and by commodifying the labor “it” (the settler) controls by evicting and displacing people from that land through its commodification (the invention of trespassing). In the Americas, the settler was European. The settler calls this process “conquest,” but its purpose is an objective degradation of the social world. Whiteness and the structures of racialization are the machinery by which the settler accomplishes this. To own land, or rent it, or work on it for someone else, is to have been displaced from it (that is, from “the land,” as distinct from its “deeded land” aspect). The contemporary form this takes is the exclusion of black people from white neighborhoods with the excuse that real estate values will decline. This is not just a minor constitutional issue. It is the economic level on which the culture of whiteness is situated and sustained.

If one believes in justice and equality and democracy (which are inseparable), then one must not only refuse to act white, but dismantle one’s white-orientation, and reconstitute oneself as someone who understands the necessity of being human. Being human means to replace (as the opposite of displace) the alienation, insulation, and paranoia of whiteness with the freedom and autonomy of others (and therefore of oneself). Being human refers to how one sees others, not how one sees oneself. Alienation grows from how one sees oneself separated from people. Insularity names the condition, as a lone subject, of relating across a system of activities to others one sees as things (e.g. the verb “to racialize”). And the paranoia is the fear inherited from the supremacy of whiteness as it defines itself through the repression of those others as things. Against the strictures of racialization, one can escape only by becoming an agent of de-racialization.

Abolition is an important part of our history. It has been evoked against slavery, the prison system, the police, racism, and now race. People are now searching for how to abolish whiteness. It is in service to that project that we have analyzed the structures of racialization, the structure of race as a verb, and the structure of white racialized identity in these articles. The purpose of seeing the aspects of race and white supremacy as social structures which can be defined and described (the three major ones are named above) is to reveal to freedom-oriented consciousness that we can be proactive in opposition to those structures’ existence. We are not confined to “watchful-waiting.”

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.