By Kevin Rigby Jr. and Hari Ziyad
We want whiteness banished to history—to an other-space of that which is unknown and impossible. There is no way in which whiteness can move that is freeing or liberating for Black people, so there is no way for white people to free or liberate.
Whiteness is indivisible from white people. To identify as white is to claim the social structure of whiteness, is to always wade in the waters of anti-Blackness. Sociologist Anthony Giddens criticizes our general conceptualization of social structure for having “a tendency to view structure and symbols as somehow alien to the actors who produce, reproduce, and transform these structures and symbols” (The Structure of Sociological Theory, Turner 1991: 523). It is this tendency that so easily clouds our understanding of whiteness and motivates us to embrace white allyship. Black liberation would mean the destruction of whiteness, but whiteness is upheld by all white people. White people cannot escape upholding it.
Constitutive of progressive white people and spaces has always been the question; “How can I, as a white person, work affirmatively in the struggle for Black liberation?” People have engaged this question as a genuine possibility throughout history; of there being a way, however not-yet-understood, for white people to do whiteness well, and, in doing so, aid Black people in getting free. But on a very real level, Black liberation would radically necessitate the refusal of anyone knowing themselves as white. It would mean the actual end of white selves, including the well-meaning white selves seeking the answer to how they can address racism. Black liberation means that white people can only destroy their own whiteness or be destroyed with it. White people cannot exist as white and do anything to address racism, because whiteness in action is racism.
But as much as this argument is a stance against whiteness, it is also a deep affirmation of the totality of Blackness; a declaration that Blackness is enough. More than considering the place or non-place of whiteness, we are concerned with the dream-work of Black folks, that reflexive work we do and have always done trying to better know how to love and be with and in community with ourselves and each other. That work has forever been Black, has never needed whiteness, has best succeeded when we refused whiteness.
There is no answer to the question of what white people can do for Black liberation, but racism veils reality so easily and efficiently. It is anti-reality. It makes the impossible seem not only possible, but a worthwhile endeavor. It truly does keep you, as Toni Morrison said, “from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again.”
The dilemma of what white people should do to address racism has the same exhausting function of racism, because this dilemma is racism. Because for white people “to do” anything means that whiteness must be centered in a way that would perpetuate its oppressive essentiality.
There is nothing redeeming or redeemable about whiteness—by definition. Only the radical negation of it is helpful or freeing. And it is not enough for us as Black people to encourage or allow white people to try their hand at addressing racism. It is necessary instead to adopt a politic of exclusion. This is to build upon Malcolm X’s claim in The Autobiography of Malcolm X that “Where the really sincere white people have got to do their ‘proving’ of themselves is not among the black victims, but out on the battle lines of where America’s racism really is,” (X, Haley 1964: 383–384) with the vital understanding that Black victims exist everywhere whiteness does.
Therefore, white people should move comfortably in neither Black spaces nor white spaces. Even those who are well-meaning should drive themselves into the ground trying to figure out how to occupy a positive whiteness—because it is impossible. Only in this frenzy, when the sense of order that is critical to whiteness turns to chaos in every place, can the motivation to destroy it overcome the compulsion to reform it.
Contending that whiteness has no value or role in the struggle for Black liberation is an immense claim, but it is a necessary one if we are to be free. The sooner we take seriously that Black people are the best articulators, dreamers and fighters for the future in which we are liberated, the closer we are to the manifestation of freedom. Important to remember is what is made possible for Black people, is made possible for all people. There is no need to consider how whiteness can operate in this. It can’t. It shouldn’t. It won’t in any future in which we are free.
The question of “doing whiteness well” is a question which centers a discussion about Black liberation on the actions of white people. We know that white people maintain hegemonic presences in all institutional forms of power. So, to have a conversation about white people working for Black liberation is to have a conversation predicated on the need for white people to wield institutional power and influence to help Black people. In this context, white people maintain systemic power, and Black people are the recipients of their benevolence. That white people might maintain power in shaping and dreaming up Black liberation is counterrevolutionary. Black liberation must always center on the assault against and defiance of these institutions. “We do not negotiate with terrorists.”1)A favorite phrase of BYP100’s Digital Strategy Fellow, Fresco Steez, usually in explanation of her refusal to engage the electoral system.
Indeed, when we’ve seen white people try to do whiteness well, try to operate their spheres of power and influence well, we’ve also seen the martyrdom of Black women murdered by police to bring white people to reckon with their sins. We’ve seen white men starting campaigns professing the beauty of Black women, only to soon after realize it came hand in hand with the violent claiming of and sense of entitlement to Blackness and Black bodies.
This is all to say, importantly, that whiteness cannot be done well, cannot be done without violence or without being in opposition to Blackness and Black freedom. But the extent of this lies far beyond ashy campaigns and disturbing open letters begging other white people to atone for their sins using the blood of Black women. We must critically engage the possibility that whiteness is only violent to Blackness, is only and can only ever be antithetical to Black liberation.
That we conceptualize whiteness as having a positive operation in the fight for Black liberation is perhaps the single greatest success of the normative functions of a colonialist State. That is to say, we have been successfully hoodwinked to believe that which harms us most vitally might also be able to save us.
“Rather than emerging from a scientific perspective, the notion, ‘race,’ is informed by historical, social, cultural, and political values,” writes Teresa J. Guess in The Social Construction of Whiteness: Racism by Intent, Racism by Consequence, “thus… the concept ‘race’ is based on socially constructed, but socially, and certainly scientifically, outmoded beliefs about the inherent superiority and inferiority of groups based on racial distinctions.” What this means is that race is designed as a hierarchal structure, and whiteness is constructed for no other purpose than to occupy the space of racial superiority. Therefore, to exist and act as white is to reinforce the dominance of whiteness.
Indeed, there would be no white race, no “race” as we know it, if whiteness weren’t positioned in violent dominion. That is the only thing it can do. Whiteness cannot operate in any way that does not first perpetuate white supremacy.
This, of course, is not to say that white people have not been the conduits for necessary Black liberation work. White people surely played integral roles in the freedom rides, abolition movement and the Civil Rights movement. But those roles were meticulously crafted by the toils, lives, death and suffering of Black people. The energy forced through those conduits was painstakingly produced by Black folks. To credit it as anything else is to fall prey to the same tempting veil of racism that motivates us to seek the impossible from our white allies. White people playing a role in liberation work are always merely actors, and the work done with them always done entirely in spite of their whiteness, not because of it.
All ways of addressing Black liberation for which white people are praised is always work Black people—Black poor and working class women, trans, non-binary, disabled and queer people especially—have already done and been doing and have made possible for white people to know.
Even John Brown, the white abolitionist who was executed in 1859 after leading an insurrection against pro-slavery forces, furthered the legacy of the likes of Nat Turner and other Black folks who fought and died for their own freedom before him. We must be sure in recognizing that dying for freedom did not begin with Brown, was not his legacy to create. Though perhaps in death, in a significant sacrifice of self, he and those like him have shed light on what it could mean to give up whiteness for good. When whiteness is so seeped into your being, might giving it up necessitate a threat to one’s safety and existence?
And where do white people exist in safety? In settler colonial societies, positions of power are designated and protected for whiteness. Perhaps the only action white folks can take—barring physical disappearance—in the struggle for Black liberation, for them to successfully put an end to their own whiteness, is the absolute absolving of their places and power. Their literal disappearance from the State and its institutions. It is worth exploring what this would mean for the the persistence of capitalism and the State. Is demanding the destruction of whiteness from the State to demand the destruction of the State, which was created by and has only ever known itself in service to (and in tandem with) whiteness? Which, each together, have only ever worked to maintain capitalism, anti-Blackness, and the disappearance of Indigenous people?
As John Stanfield writes in Theoretical and Ideological Barriers to the Study of Race-Making, “Racism and race-making are part and parcel of the manner by which major industrial, European-descent nation states such as the United States have originated and developed” (Stanfield 1985:161-162). This is how capitalism, anti-Indigeneity and anti-Black racism are intrinsically tied. None can exist in any way that is good for Black people. The presence of each is specifically predicated on Black subjugation.
After whiteness is obliterated, at that point, what the people who now identify as white should do is a giant theoretical exercise: what comes after whiteness? How does someone become not white? That is the legitimate and critical work of many. But our focus is always on Black folks figuring out new and better ways to get free—independent of white people and capitalism and the entirety of western empires. We are confident that our dreamings of freedom can crumble whiteness, capitalism and empire without giving deep consideration to the question of “what do we do with it”. We’re only interested in the work of building past it.
Kevin Rigby Jr. and Hari Ziyad are Black, queer, non-binary dreamers who, in some reality not yet here, are married, gendered or ungendered without colonial restriction, and free.
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|1.||↑||A favorite phrase of BYP100’s Digital Strategy Fellow, Fresco Steez, usually in explanation of her refusal to engage the electoral system.|