Am I proud of my "whiteness"?
I wasn’t always black. I wasn’t always white either. For the first five years of my life in fact I do not recall having a racial identity. And when I did finally get one it happened to fall outside of the usual categories.
Skin color was always interesting to me because our home had so many of them. My mother was some shade of milk chocolate, my father a more beige sort of hue. My brother and I fell somewhere in between. This fact became significant to me when I realized that most families I observed seemed to generally be colored the same. One day, I found my dad in the kitchen as he made himself a sandwich and I asked him.
“Dad, Mom is black, right?”
He paused. “Yes.”
“And you’re white, right?”
“Yes,” he responded, studying me.
“Well, if you’re white and Mom’s black…then what does that make me?”
I remember my father smiling as he turned towards me. “Well, can’t you tell?” he asked.
He knelt down and lifted my hand so that the back of it rose to my line of sight.
“You’re tan!” he answered.
I looked at my hand. Made sense. And so for the next two years of my life my self-professed racial identification to anybody who would ask was “tan.”
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but looking back on my suburban upbringing in 1990’s Los Angeles, it is clear that I grew up upon the foundation of a sort of “end of history” thesis with respect to race. Race, biological fiction though it may be, had existed as social reality in the past and, though it continued to exist as an aesthetic and something of a cultural differentiator in the present, we had reached Dr. King’s Promised Land on the question of whether or not race determined anybody’s value or treatment in society.
“End of history” theses posit that at a certain point, the social and political order of society reaches an ideal state—i.e., some form of liberal democracy, as argued by Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man—at which sustained progress is only a matter of continuing to build upon this order. Growing up half African-American and half Anglo-American with extended family from across Latin-America in the multicultural, liberal suburb of Culver City, California, I could never consciously embrace the colorblind paradigm, as it was impossible to see outside of it. Barack Obama’s election in 2008 seemed to crown my happy understanding of our social reality.
Beyond the borders of that understanding, however, from the inner-cities to the suburbs, lay a nation that was steering away from complacent acceptance of our vision of a racially well-adjusted status-quo and towards a visceral reckoning with the reality of what we call “whiteness.”
“White supremacy,” “white privilege,” and “white identity” are oft-regarded as the acute toxins perpetuating injustice and inequality in society. We can say that the problem is racism—but in the more recent anti-racist awakening of America, we are told that it is “whiteness” that animates the racist structures of America and the western world. Hence, a focus on racism must concern itself with the abolition of “white supremacy.”
But the phenomenon of “whiteness” raises profound questions that arch over history, society, psychology, and identity. Is “whiteness” a legitimate identity? Or is it just another divisive racial category that obscures the value of the individual?
The answer is complicated for a half-black, half-white man like me.
Whiteness is a reality. Or at least, the term “whiteness” points to some things that are very real, both in the currents of history and contemporary American society. I have never been satisfied with definitions of “whiteness.” To some, it is not a concept worth legitimizing with a definition. But, as a concept in the current debates over injustice and inequality, we must reckon with it, even if it might be an illusion or an obscurant. Whiteness is a category with which people identify; it is also a force to which people are opposed. Our emphasis on “whiteness” hides as much as it reveals, both about the American people and the social reality in which we live.
During the crescendo of the African slave trade, a slow and unevenly emergent pan-European identity began to emerge as a shared racial identity of “white.” In the American colonies in particular, the tying of slavery to racial identity—and the institution of the racial caste system that would continue into the founding of the United States, despite its flagrant contradiction of the idea that all men are created equal—served to protect the economic interests of the landed, Southern elite. It thereby also provided the opportunity of social status to poorer white Americans that would give them something to lose in establishing common cause with enslaved Africans.
This caste system, having entered the law to justify slavery, expanded to absorb other identity groups whose “whiteness” could be seen as further removed from the Anglo-Saxon population that first settled here. Over time these groups, including the Irish, Italians, Greeks, Slavs, and other Eastern Europeans, all came to be seen as “white,” despite their own distinct cultures, ethnicities, and identities.
Growing up in Culver City, I experienced a richly tolerant, multicultural universe in which I was treated well by kind white people who loved, respected, and saw themselves as one with people of all colors. But I was set apart, both in my circumstances and in the treatment I received, from other black kids my age because my cultural bearings were largely a product of this very culture of integration. I spoke (at my father’s insistence) “the king’s English.” Until my performative Hip-Hop phase, I dressed out of something more or less like an Old Navy catalog. I had a standard “white” name and was well-adjusted. I was easier to understand and easier to deal with then the Jamals, Hakeems, Tamikas, and Latoyas that were bused into my suburban school from the inner-city parts of L.A. that most of my relatives lived in.
To this day I operate culturally in a manner that yields me an appreciative ease in the attitudes of certain white individuals and institutional environments on account of that bearing. Black cultural idioms and mannerisms are etched in my personality, but a la John McWhorter, Wayne Brady, Condoleezza Rice, and many other black people, my “whiteness,” whether natural or performative, is seen as the currency by which I gain entry into the privileged treatment of American society.
To some degree at least, they are surely right. Yet while this is just a way to be—or to aspire to be—for some black people, many others see this Americanization (in its “white-cultured” sense) of blackness—and the opportunity it yields for some blacks—as a threat to their larger upward mobility.
This is the dual consciousness that both King and Ibram X. Kendi have talked about from one angle or another. Derrick Bell gives voice to the critical appraisal of the cultural integrationist side of this consciousness in Faces at the Bottom of the Well when, in illustrating a conversation between two black men from either side of this divide, he writes, “I mean no offense, but the fact is you movin-on-up black folks hurt us everyday blacks simply by being successful.” In this analysis black people like me become the unfair standard by which other black people are judged—rendering the “more authentic” black experience, culture, and struggle comfortably invisible to complacent white folks by virtue of the proximity of our own success to theirs.
In other words, blacks have achieved success in America by managing to submerge ourselves in the homogenizing stew of “whiteness,” just like the Irish and Italians before us. But unlike them, we can only ever be exceptions to the rule because whiteness is itself only real in opposition to blackness. Our success as individual black people can only ever truly come in the context of the larger marginalization of black America—whether we are Larry Elder or Barack Obama.
What I am describing is the black experience, or much of it, as it exists in interaction with, and on the other side of, whiteness. The consequences of whiteness for so many black people and other people of color therefore become the only meaningful thing defining whiteness.
Whiteness as a social construct in American history has yielded a centuries-old story of oppression, struggle, and inequality for African-Americans and other people of color that in one way or another travels right down to the present day. And yet, the story of white people is far more complicated, defined not just by moral failing but by moral progress. This progress has always been pushed by minorities willing to take up the cause of their own equality—but the story of white America is not just the story of slaveholders, the Klan, minstrel shows, police brutality, and gentrification.
The story of white America is also found in the abolitionist movement and the anti-racism of progressive liberalism. It is found in the integration of the Church and the de-whitening of Christ in the revivalist movements of the early twentieth century and the crusades of Billy Graham. It is found in the revolutionizing of Hollywood in the embrace of multiculturalism. It is found in the white allies for Civil Rights who took to the streets before the death of King and after the death of George Floyd. It is indeed found in the words of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” And—yes damn it, yes—it is found in the election of Barack Obama, where millions of white Americans from every region and both parties decided to make a man who would have been a slave at this nation’s founding the symbol of America to all the world.
So, am I proud of my “whiteness”?
I see the damage this thing we call “whiteness” has done. I see, perhaps, the damage it is still doing. One thing I know above all is that America is right to center its social energies on the uncompleted work of realizing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream; not a colorblind America so much as an America in which justice and freedom confront the ancient inequities of our racial caste system to produce a world in which we can be reconciled to each other in a beloved community of equals.
But I remain proud to be a son to my father—a white man who sees himself as such, and who raised me to be proud of who I am—and the intersection of culture and identities that makes each of us Americans.
There may come a day when whiteness is destroyed in the conceptual lexicon. We may one day return to being Anglo, Italian, Irish, or simply European Americans. More likely than not, the label of “white” will continue to be an identifier for many or most of those who have used it for 400 years, while others will try to move through the world discarding racial labels altogether, as much as the world will allow them to.
Let history take its course. What matters more is that we see beyond the construct of whiteness to the more complicated and yet more hopeful realities of the full lived experience of Americans of all backgrounds. And as far as the people we call “white” are concerned, there have always been those among us, consciously and subconsciously, who have sought to transcend that false veneer in the name of greater humanist and religious ideals.
Our numbers have—and only ever have—grown across the generations right on up to now. I am proud of that.
Check out Episode 13 of FAIR Perspectives, featuring John Wood, Jr.!
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