"Believing They Are White" -- Talking about Ta-Nehisi Coates and Whiteness with my Students

Yesterday we started Ta-Nehisi Coates' book Between the World and Me in my first-year writing class.

We had a vigorous discussion of the following passage. At the end of the hour I felt good about the level of engagement, but perhaps also aware that not everyone in the room was convinced by Coates' scathing assertions about whiteness in particular. The key passage comes right at the beginning of the book:

Americans believe in the reality of ‘race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism—the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them—inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. In this way, racism is rendered as the innocent daughter of Mother Nature, and one is left to deplore the Middle Passage or the Trail of Tears the way one deplores an earthquake, or any other phenomenon that can be cast as beyond the handiwork of men.

But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming “the people” has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy. Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible—this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white. (7) 

There are two difficult ideas here. Let's pull them apart to try and understand them better.

1. Where did Racism come from? 

The first is a historical one (crystallized as "race is the child of racism, not the father"). After a certain amount of talking it through, my students seemed to get it. Since Coates isn't really giving us a detailed history of the emergence of scientific racism here, or talking about various kinds of tribalism and ethno-nationalism that exist outside of the Euro-American framework (i.e., with whiteness on top), I had to fill in some blanks.

To help my students get there, I suggested to them that before modern race science (modern racism), various societies certainly did have versions of tribalism in which outsiders were denigrated and contrast to "our people." Sometime in the early modern period -- probably coinciding with the inception of the transatlantic slave trade -- that changed in Europe and North America. A new, overarching theory of Race ("capital R") was invented, displacing minor tribalistic racisms with a Theory that could now be applied to all forms of cultural difference.

The new capital-R Racism Coates is talking about starts with a concept of a social hierarchy that presumes that one group must prevail over all others. The various others are "racialized" differentially. A set of racist stereotypes tended to be applied to people from Asia and the Middle East (see: "Orientalism"): they were seen as tending towards authoritarianism and despotism, as fetishizing ideas of honor and masculine pride, and an unable to think dispassionately or analytically. Another set of racist stereotypes were seen to apply to people from Africa and of African descent: among other things, they were depicted as less intelligent across the board, and tending towards pure animal ("savage") violence. These stereotypes were not understood as mere opinions or as fodder for racist cartoons and caricatures; they were institutionalized and put into academic textbooks.

It's important to indicate that all of these stereotypes were invented by the dominant group to justify their continued dominance over the others. To eradicate these stereotypes it isn't enough simply to prove that they aren't true. To really fight them, we need to change the relationship of dominance that is behind them. Ending slavery and Jim Crow -- and the turn towards full integration, Civil Rights, the Voting Rights Act, the election of a Black President -- was the starting point for this in the United States at least. But while these changes were necessary and important moves in the right direction, arguably the system of social dominance that led to the invention of capital-R Racism is still in place.

More globally, the starting point for challenging Racist (here: specifically Orientalist) stereotypes about Asians and Arabs started with formal decolonization. But to really change the dynamics between "East" and "West," developing nations need to become something other than "third world" societies in various states of dysfunction.

2. Decentering Whiteness. How Do We Get There? 

There is a second difficult idea in the Coates passage above, and that pertains to the idea of Whiteness. Some students in the class seemed to resist intensely Coates' assertion that "whiteness" is a fiction. I couldn't quite solve this for them in class, so let me take a stab at it here.

First, Coates does allude immediately afterwards to various modes of identity that predated Whiteness (which, again, he believes is a product of capital-R Racism):
These new people are, like us, a modern invention. But unlike us, their new name has no real meaning divorced from the machinery of criminal power. the new people were something else before they were white--Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish-- and if all of our national hopes have any fulfillment, then they will have to be something else again.
Before they were understood as "white," Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants in the U.S. were all subject to stereotypes that foregrounded their ethnic and religious differences from the mainstream of American society (note that most Irish and Italian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were Catholics, while the U.S. is very much a Protestant-dominated society). Historians have explored this history in detail (a starting point might be a book like How the Irish Became White). I don't have space to do that here, but maybe the following cartoon from 1899 will help give an idea of how the racialization of Irishness worked:

The main point is that over time these populations did become "white" as they assimilated into the mainstream of American life. What did that assimilation into whiteness entail? It certainly didn't involve any changes in physical features or skin tone. No -- the focus was on cultural values, ways of talking, ways of being. As Irish immigrants in Philadelphia and Boston lost their accents and started becoming lawyers and doctors, over time the stereotypes about them started to drop off. They became Americans -- white Americans.

Something similar has been happening with two other populations more recently -- Latinos and Asian Americans have also in some ways been following that pattern. The first generation of immigrants might understand itself as part of a minority set apart from the mainstream of American life, but not their children or their grandchildren.

There are many Latinos in public life today who are comfortably both "Latino/a" and "White." (Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio certainly come to mind.) I have also had students from various Latin American backgrounds tell me the same thing: "I identify as Latina and White."

And while this is less common among Asians, I have met many Asian-American people who have indicated to me that in one way or another they feel more attached to the white American mainstream than they do to the communities or national identities of their ancestors. Another example along these lines from contemporary politics might be Nikki Haley, current Ambassador to the UN in the Trump Administration and former governor of South Carolina. Haley is, like me a second-generation Indian American. But on a census form in 1990 -- when the choice was either "white" or "black" (at that time, there was no option for "South Asian" or "Indian American") -- she checked "white" when describing her racial identity.

The point here is not to say that Nikki Haley shouldn't be allowed to identify as white if she feels white. As a fellow Indian-American I'm not invested in calling her out -- and one might also mention that for years Arab Americans and Iranian Americans also checked "white" on their census forms; same logic. The bigger question is why "whiteness" is seen as the inevitable destination for immigrants as they assimilate into the mainstream. Why did my Latina student -- who was on her way to pledging a 'mainstream' sorority at the time she was in my class -- feel it was important to assert her claim to whiteness?

Another version of that question: why is "mainstream" seen as synonymous with "white"? Is it possible to imagine a version of American identity in which assimilated immigrants are seen as defined in some racially unspecified way? (As the country becomes increasingly "brown," one might imagine a new mainstream "American" as "indeterminately multiracial" and/or "vaguely brown." We are still many years away from that becoming plausible, though Time Magazine did generate the following image by synthesizing facial features and averaging the complexion of a large number of immigrants together. Maybe this will be our default idea of what an "American woman" looks like:

Still, for now, there's no doubt that "whiteness" is still synonymous with "mainstream" in American life. It is the "norm"; all other groups are minorities, whose values and cultural identities deviate from that norm.

Many white-identified students at this point get confused [I have had a version of this conversation in other classes], and say some version of the following: "but I've never really thought about my whiteness as a thing. I mean, I know I'm not Asian, or black, or Latino. But my whiteness is really more a blank -- I'm actually envious of people who have more clearly defined identities. My whiteness is just there, and it's boring." Also: "I don't much mind if you want to take away the category of 'whiteness', but if we do remove it, what am I?" Finally, "if I stop being white, does that mean that Coates will stop being black? Why do minorities hold on to their racial and ethnic identities, while I'm being asked to disavow mine?"

These are all hard questions. On the last question, I think the answer is yes -- if we really stop thinking of whiteness as the image of Americanness, and thoroughly dismantle Capital R Racism (animated as it is by anti-Blackness),  we'll also dismantle other racial identities as well. (We're a long way from that, however. And I don't think Coates believes we'll ever get there.)

When a student says, "I've never really thought of myself as particularly white, and I certainly don't think I cling to whiteness," I think the response is that that lack of consideration is itself only possible because of white privilege. Whiteness as blankness, in other words, is a symptom of whiteness as central, normal, default. (We'll have to save the conversation about "white privilege" for another day, but this essay might be a good place to start.)