Sunday 20 October 2019

What does it mean to be white?

What it means to be White? “It means many things, but it means not ever having to bear witness to the pain of racism on people of colour. It means not being held accountable for the pain that you cause people of colour. It means not knowing the history of this country [USA} and being able to trace that history into the present. It’s being relentlessly reinforced in superiority and then not ever being able to admit that” - Robin DiAngelo.

There is a global rise in white Nationalism and none more so than in the United States. There is a belief in some quarters non-white immigrants and refugees are "invaders" who pose an existential threat to the white race. The wide-scale attacks that resulted in killings include Muslim worshippers at mosques in Canada, Britain and New Zealand. Black Americans in church, in South Carolina; Jewish Americans in synagogues across the United States and Germany. Not spared are left-wing politicians and activists in the US, UK, Greece and Norway. Most often translated as vindictive 'whitelash' fuelled by racial hate towards people of colour or people who are different but happen to be non-white. A revolt by some restless white people asserting their dubious cultural values in whiteness, a race still undefined but is uncritically accepted. Often placed as a benchmark by which to judge the claims and define the rights of non-whites, ignoring the fact colour of the skin is only a part of human makeup not to be closed in a world of its own and deny its universality. 

For many, white domination is a cultural attribute. An armoury to shield the maligned myth their white colour is the default colour.  Where did this idea of white race come from, God, nature or human-made? If so, why, did anybody configure such an approach and for what purpose. How did the meaning of white change over the centuries? Discussions on race and ethnicity always tend to be on people of colour while whiteness remains invisible. Racism is like talking about a disease. Whiteness is just there, institutionalised, forming the structure of racial relations. I try, in this essay, to deconstruct these toxic human violations and racial fetishism. Unpack this phenomenon that mostly exists in Western Countries but has a special place in the United States of America. It is there I concentrate on to pick up my sources.  The way it is perceived in the US, and its caustic application there makes it that much more visible. Visible to people of colour but invisible among White Americans those who never have had their racial role challenged. A nation with growing diversity but remains generally dominated by white people and remains a society that is so separate and unequal by race.  

An attack at a Walmart superstore in El Paso, Texas, a majority-Hispanic city, on August 3, 2019, left 22 people dead and more than two dozen wounded. A shooting the previous weekend at a garlic festival in Gilroy, California, packed with families with young children, left three people dead and 15 wounded. A mass shooting that occurred at the Tree of Life Synagogue, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on October 27, 2018, eleven people killed and seven were injured. The alleged shooter, a 46-year-old white man, reportedly shouted: “All Jews must die!”. On June 2015 June 2015 Nine people killed during Bible study at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, US.  Also elsewhere in the world. In Christchurch, New Zealand on March 15, 2019, two consecutive terrorist attacks on two Mosques left 51 people dead. In January 2017, Six people killed during evening prayers at a mosque in Quebec City, Canada. The shooter prompted by Justin Trudeau’s tweet that refugees were welcome in Canada, and that “diversity is a strength”.  

All these attacks were perpetrated by white people gunning down others for merely being different. More often these gunmen are inspired by two ideologies. One of far-right politics or extreme nationalism emboldened by authoritarian tendencies. The other is white supremacy. 

In America, many subscribe to racist beliefs that white people considered superior, a superior race and therefore should be dominant over other races. Their white colour preserves them privilege in the same way they believe it a privilege being American.  They refuse to see people as individuals but associate them with anything negative because they are not white. A self-acquired power to sit in judgments over people's capacities and worth, what they look like, where they come from, and how they speak. A racial understanding that says unless otherwise specified Americans mean Whites. Continually fail to realise that such political polarisation is fuelled by aversion, exploitation and denigration. 

The imagery of race in the United States is hardly ever out of play. A long history of Affirmative Actions for racial fairness during Antebellum South, following the Emancipation of January 1863, the Reconstruction and since have failed to dislodge the pernicious concept of racial prejudice. 

Deconstructing Racism

To deconstruct this prejudice, it is essential to go back in history to show how it was constructed.  In the colony of Virginia, a Tobacco growing region in 1630, three indentured servants, two white and one black decided to escape but caught almost immediately. The white men were sentenced to four additional years of servitude whereas the black man was ordered to serve in perpetuity. Thus, the law came to be interpreted differently for a white person.  The judgment was a gift to wealthy landowners in a profoundly unequal society. The plantation class, Tobacco growing was labour intensive at the time, needed a reliable and consistent supply of labour force. For the first time, the slavery of black people became officially accepted. That different treatment between the black people and the advantaging of the White poor, of European descent, became ongoing. That coalition of white people encouraged an anti-black culture. 

From left to right clockwise.  Typical sailing ship slave traders used.  Hungry Sharks trailed the slave ships. Those seriously sick were thrown overboard. The Lining up of slaves for the journey across the Atlantic. Ota Benga, a human exhibit. At the primate house at the Bronx human Zoo, September 1906. 

 In 1619 a Dutch ship brought 20 slaves to James Town brought over from Angola, specifically for that purpose. Both, hardcore chattel slavery of people of African descent and Anti-black laws distinctive and cruel soon took hold. Such cruelty showed white men could go ahead and rape a black woman and any child born to an enslaved woman will also be a slave. Further laws passed in Virginia exempted a master from gilt or liability for killing his slave. Virginia at the time was giving away land in 50-acre allotments only to Europeans.  After much debate, in 1680 The English House of Burgesses, in Virginia gave clarity to the definition of the White Man - Who will be a citizen and who has the right to own land.   Soon after in 1691 for the first time, White became a defining term bounded and defined by state laws. If any White man was "to marry a woman of colour shall be removed from this dominion and banished forever." Since the early days, White people have the right to own black people, to buy and sell as live livestock.  A totalitarian framework of slavery was born and constructed in the United States. 

Capitalism at its cruellest.  King Cotton White Gold. Virginia was renowned for Tobacco.  South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi where eventually home for the Cotton Plantocracy. Louisiana specialised in Sugar.

Skipping forward about two hundred years, to Oregon State, North of the State of Nevada. In 1844, the local government passed a law banning slavery, but at the same time required any African American to leave the State. Those Black people that remain would be flogged publicly every six months until he left. In 1857, its constitution banned black people from coming to the state, residing in the state, or holding property in the state. During this time, any white male settler could receive 650 acres of land and another 650 if he was married. This, of course, was land taken from native people who had been living there for centuries. Over the next hundred years, further laws and numerous censuses, and naturalisation act, the young US continued to deny citizenry to black people. Since argued, it was neither Bigotry nor of Right or Prejudice, but it was all about Power. Until late into the twentieth century, Race was an identity, and despite the Natural Rights laid down in the Constitution, White became written about as American national identity.  

Efforts for Social Construction following the emancipation of 1863 prompting the introduction of the Civil Rights Bill, ended in resentment, hatred and further discrimination against people of colour.  Violence became everyday life.  In 1866 a Memphis riot broke out following a collision of horse-drawn hacks.  It resulted in 46 black people dead and five black women raped. In the New Orleans massacre when Blacks were assaulted indiscriminately, and despite raising, white flags of surrender 34 Black people were shot down in cold blood. Whipping coloured men went unabated and "shot down like wild beasts", according to one witness.  A Texan individual said what many were thinking: "the destiny of the negro race can be summed up in one sentence   - subordination to the white race.  Riots and Killings were not exclusive to the South.  The New York riots of 1863 burned Asylum for Coloured Orphans and "committed acts of unimaginable cruelty upon the City's black population." according to Mattie Griffith, an eye witness. Throughout the twentieth century, racial riots were never far away.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw the Jim Crow laws mandating racial segregation in all public facilities. Later upheld by the supreme court grounding its ruling on 'separate but equal'. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson's Affirmative Action signed the Civil Rights Act, which legally ended discrimination and segregation that had institutionalised social and economic, educational, and social way of life for African Americans. Prejudices and discrimination over race still exist, albeit a little more varnished. Who gets what jobs, access to health care and education and who gets loans to buy their houses and at what interest rates all graded on the colour of people's skin. 

In the United States, more than any country, it is Race identifies the imagery of a person of colour. But a white person escapes such racial objectification and rationalisation. White people are within a system and shaped by it.  A system where the individual does not need to be conscious of intentional racial prejudice. Some in the US admit there is a black-white dichotomy in society. There are bookends. White is on one end, and black is on the other. The experience of prejudice and discrimination depends on where one is positioned on the scale. The closer you are to white, the more benefit and the closer you are to black, the least benefit and more disadvantaged. Also, racial profiling, acceptance of habits and ethnicity are scaled up and down depends on what white people value, moral code of law and the vagaries of politics.   A case in point for such haphazard interlocking is found in how the Arab people perceived pre 9/11 and the present.  

It is argued that since 1635, racism, not race has been the central force in American history and ever since the country has failed to confront and defeat it. As Richard Dyer in his 'Essays on Race and Culture' suggests that the symbolism of the colour white – e.g. purity, health, cleanliness, light, knowledge, and goodness has become part of the cultural construction of “whiteness” as a race. At the opposite end are all the negative symbols associated with 'blackness' becomes associated with black people as a race. Moreover, an individual who is a member of a “non-white” race has his or her nature defined by their race. Such as a black writer, black Doctor or Black something giving colour to a profession? Other people are raced, white are just people who are not usually racially seen.   In ordinary speech, they mention the blackness of people they know but do not mention the whiteness of the people they know.  This is not far off from saying that whites are people and people of colour are something else.  

As a visible category or signifier, whiteness is granted, ideologically and socially, a position of power. At the same time, whiteness as a racial category is invisible: whites are never marked or viewed as being determined by their race. White remains the default colour in the United States.  

 To some extent, and despite the multicultural country it has become, the US constitutional rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are not equally shared.  The hurdle as I see it, much of America has institutionalised Whiteness as a structure and a system that was established by the White settlers - “we built this country.” All those who came after are mere immigrants. Their inward prejudice of many Americans prevents them from accepting parity shunning equality with those whom they enslaved. They exercise widespread discrimination to guard on that privilege mythologising it for superiority. White supremacy granted to them by nothing else but the colour of their skin.  A constructed culture endorsing a right to privilege they would turn into the power of invisibility. It so remains mandatory for the Black Man to know white behaviour, white history, and white social behaviour and to accept, as in all cases of minorities, that privilege is never reciprocal. 

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