By Quentin Lucas
It is a powerful reflex, almost a soul’s nervous tic, to wonder and worry, about what whiteness is going to think — even while knowing that whiteness doesn’t allow much room for thought. That, of course, isn’t to say I think white people are stupid. Rather, it is to say whiteness is a jealous master, holding a short leash. It commands a certain posture and understanding of the world, no matter how disconnected from reality that posture and understanding may be.
Two weeks ago, I sat down at my laptop with heated intentions, ready to chisel out angry paragraphs about whiteness electing Donald Trump. I hoped the anger would make me feel powerful. But now, eased back into my chair with one foot propped up and my head bobbing to Kendrick Lamar screaming “we gon’ be alright” through my headphones, I feel eerily calm about this latest chapter whiteness has scribbled into America’s saga. Composed, once again, while in this antagonizing land which also elected George Zimmerman’s freedom.
Nothing about this election result falls out of line with America’s tragic love affair with whiteness. It is a psychology which Toni Morrison, in a post-election essay for The New Yorker, identifies as both white America’s “conviction of … superiority” and its faded emblem, struggling to continue supplying “the comfort of being ‘naturally better than’” in a changing world.
It’s taken me a long time to believe that every white American whom I’ve ever danced with, slept with, cried with, laughed with, liked, loved, loathed and/or listened to is racist. The chief source of reconciliation is how resistant the white people in my life are to that condition of racism — as well as my own personal struggles with such a thought. To an extent, this is my current mindset because, at some point, I lost faith in the phrase “a little bit racist.” Once the proverbial sweetener for bitter interracial encounters, the saying and the thinking which produced it no longer stands as reasonable, possible, or helpful in any way with de-escalating a racially charged incident.
The phrase “a little bit racist” carries the air of one insisting that a seemingly harmless impact from racism reveals a harmless kind of racism. It presupposes that the innocence of one’s bigotry is proven by someone else’s strength in the face of that bigotry.
Still, to this day, I hate the thought of all white Americans being racist, and am eager for a substantiated counterargument. Not because I’m worried about hurting someone’s feelings but because if it is true then I’m surrounded, virtually a character on some televised zombie epic, trying to fight my way through a mindless horde, drooling for my flesh.
But the idea became easier for me to accept after hanging out with a friend who casually mentioned while we were drinking iced tea on her back porch, “Q, you’re sexist.” I can’t remember what prompted her to say this, but before I could even verbalize a response, my mental defenses kicked in, although clumsily, like hands raised to fight a hallucination.
Why are women such bad drivers?
Literally, that was the first clapback to pop up in my head, irrational and odd, but certainly not irrelevant. So, I took another sip of my iced tea, set my drink down, and replied to my friend, “Tell me more.” She then outlined how growing up here, in America, was enough. And I felt like my life was a sinking boat filling up with patriarchy, and that my survival hinged on getting more of it out than that which was coming in — while suspecting that I’d never be completely free of it.
However, what strums my heartstrings more fervently, in regard to the ways human beings can be incubators for conflicting mindsets, is the time I was diagnosed with a latent tuberculosis infection. I felt actual fear, even though I didn’t feel sick and the doctor had explained that I wasn’t infectious. But I had been betrayed by my own body. Everything about me felt healthy but, nevertheless, I had been carrying around this dangerous thing without any knowledge of it. When I asked the doctor how this could’ve happened, his answer was nearly as simple as that of my friend: Just by being in the world.
I’ve struggled with this idea that white people are racist, even the ones I like or love, all of them carrying this social infection which has been killing people like me for centuries. But it’s always been easy for me to understand that white people appear traumatized by the word racist, as if, for an instant, they become black people being traumatized by actual racists. Maybe that’s why I’ve hesitated to speak openly about this perspective despite the glaring irony: I don’t blame white Americans for being racist.
But I do hold a grudge against American whiteness, and carry a blistering desire to escape it. Because while whiteness is America’s most carefully crafted gift for a select group of people, racism is its consequence.
I imagine that the illusion of superiority which comes with American whiteness must feel like the best sexual experience of one’s life; but racism is the resulting herpes outbreak. And while whiteness — operating as a type of salvation — meant European immigrants offering a pound of flesh for a piece of the American Dream, racism meant a subsequent hunger for the flesh of those who never made that deal.
“Indeed, many of the older immigrants, in particular the Irish, had themselves been perceived as ‘nonwhite’ just a generation earlier. As labor historians, we are interested in the ways in which Polish, Italian, and other European artisans and peasants became American workers, but we are equally concerned with the process by which they became white … this explains a great deal of the persistent divisions … The story of Americanization is vital and compelling, but it took place in a nation also obsessed by race. For new immigrant workers the process of ‘becoming white’ and ‘becoming American’ were connected at every turn. The ‘American standard of living …’ rested on ‘white men’s wages.’” – James R. Barrett and David Roediger, How White People Became White
And whiteness is everywhere.
Like an airborne virus, even I carry a latent infection — taught to think less of my own people by American entertainment, education, politics, the economy, and every other star-spangled institution. Thus, I labor to love my people and, in due course, myself. And, ultimately, that’s why I don’t impugn white people for being racist. They never had a chance, suffering neither from being born racist nor being taught racism, but rather from being reared by a society clinging desperately to its hallucinated supremacy.
But my teeth do mash when white people revel in their whiteness, because they’ve always had a choice, an opportunity waiting by their fingertips at all times to not “do things they clearly don’t really want to be doing … abandoning their sense of human dignity,” as Morrison declares in her essay. To not curl up next to the warm coat of whiteness, as if it’s a protector and not a devourer. As if whiteness is a culture, breathing life into the soul as cultures do, when, according to Noel Ignatiev’s Race Traitor:
“Whiteness is not a culture. There is Irish culture and Italian culture and American culture — the latter a mixture of the Yankee, the Indian, and the Negro (with a pinch of ethnic salt); there is youth culture and drug culture and queer culture; but there is no such thing as white culture. Whiteness has nothing to do with culture and everything to do with social position. It is nothing but a reflection of privilege, and exists for no reason other than to defend it. Without the privileges attached to it, the white race would not exist, and the white skin would have no more social significance than big feet.” (emphasis mine).
In On Being White, James Baldwin wrote that adopting whiteness was white America’s way of choosing “safety instead of life,” and, in The Fire Next Time, that such a choice left them “trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from.” The election of Donald Trump seems to reflect Baldwin’s perspective, as do Trump’s supporters who acknowledge his use of racially charged rhetoric apathetically, because, allegedly, Trump will fix the economy.
Meanwhile, history books sit unread in libraries, teeming with stories about how “racially charged but fixes the economy” was the unofficial slogan for American slavery.
I’m not even sure if the election of Donald Trump is the most dangerous form of whiteness that my life faces. In a way, there’s an odd and, admittedly, doubtful reason for optimism: Having a black president meant eight years of contrasting Obama’s historic administration with horrifically white responses to it. So, with Trump in the White House, I’d like to think that perhaps the hunger of whiteness will be sated.
But zombies are always hungry. Truthfully, it is more likely that whiteness has merely been emboldened. Like an animal, wounded and sensing its demise in a shifting landscape. And I do not sit easily with this thought. But, ironically, as a person who badly wants to escape whiteness and all of its trappings, I think about Trump’s election and find myself grateful for already having spent so much time with whiteness.
It is a familiar enemy.
One of which I am tired, almost to the point of boredom, of contending with.
But the day Donald Trump became the president-elect was no whiter than the day before, when he wasn’t.
Thus, I am inclined to believe that Kendrick Lamar is correct: “We gon’ be alright.”
Quentin Lucas is a self-described “Army brat” — originally born in Frankfurt, Germany — who believes the trickiest part of writing comes after realizing the work is about more than the words, or even the idea. Writing is about the communication, or the “telepathy” as Stephen King would put it — taking an idea out of his head and successfully putting it in yours in a way that matters, and somehow adds value to your life. Along with working as a copywriter and professional blogger, he also runs a weekly a column at The Good Men Project which you can read here, has won the occasional poetry slam, and has also been published multiple times in both Elephant Journal and The Huffington Post. You can find a broad collection of his work, including his novel The Magnificent Adventures of QLuke, at his site www.qluke.com.