Class: Politics of Whiteness
Major: Psychology, Class of 2013
…And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!
—Martin Luther King, Jr.
“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” Speech
3 April 1968
To speculate on the timing of Dr. King’s vision questions the collective sight unseen of the soul wounds in the United States, of crimes against humanity that cannot be silenced even when these histories cross over into absolution. The soul—annihilated, impaled—drapes itself like an albatross across the neck of the Middle Passage. The body—stripped, paled—produces its White Death, empty like a vessel without ancestry. The cultural meanings of racial identities tremble over the spaces of racial crossing, crossing over, and the crossroads. Such meanings may be precariously destructive, for relationships formed across fictive racial identities produce real social consequences. The meanings are defined as such:
Racial crossing is the act of embodying another racial self, a type of “racial masquerading” that one performs for an audience. Whites who identify with African American culture, for example, are in danger of mediating their fantasies through commodities (i.e., engulfing black music), which is a superficial consumption of another race without understanding the social, political, and economic realities of oppression and subversion along the color lines.
Crossing over, as defined by Roediger, “repeats the language of African American spirituals, which used the term to mean the salvation and liberation to be found on the other side of the River Jordan biblically and, secularly, on the other side of the Ohio River or another boundary symbolizing freedom and escape.” If this is the case, can people of color cross over into freedom? Conversely, why do whites try to cross over?
Crossroads, derived from “Yoruba and other West African cosmologies” represent both material and metaphysical sites where paths of potentialities collide; it is through crossroads that transformative actions, imaginations, and conditions challenge the illusion of whiteness.
For many people of color, navigating the space between racial binaries requires a self-denigrating passage away from their homelands. This price of passing into whiteness is the severance from family and community—a violent rejection that people of color must enact when performing across races. As colors leak into each other, the diffusion of racial ambiguities both expands and secures the boundaries of whiteness because it redefines race, while it also threatens the existing structures of “safety, security, or certainty” for ancient ways of being protected by established circles of color. Those who desire to leave their homes, and thus rip the color from their skins, face the ultimate cost of betraying their identity. These disavowals in racial crossing “re-internalize the external scapegoat through attention to which they have sought to escape their own sense of inferiority.”
Does the consumption of whiteness, or rather the emptying of one’s body vessel—even more suffocating than embodying another racial identity outside of whiteness—fully permit us to escape the inheritance of our histories? What does this question say about whites who traverse into other racialized homes? What are they escaping from? What are whites missing? The “white racist imagination” may charge into my home and demand a dangerous intimacy, a terror, and an unwelcomed life force that empties my body. Perhaps the neo-natal drive to cling and consume testifies to the innate white desire for pleasure. Nonetheless, without first addressing their missing souls, how will whites capture their own pleasures? bell hooks attests to a hollow construction of white individuation and self-actualization through cultural appropriation as a desperate illusion:
White folks who do not see black pain never really understand the complexity of black pleasure. And it is no wonder then that when they attempt to imitate the joy in living which they see as the ‘essence’ of soul and blackness, their cultural productions may have an air of sham and falseness that may titillate and even move white audiences yet leave many black folks cold.
I see that the mediated landscape of despair, terror, and isolation proliferates in inhuman proportions within white spaces—a white desire for intimacy, unattainable. While people of color, whether explicitly or implicitly, inherit a sustained consciousness of their racial identities either constrained in the present or deprived in the collective history, the culture of whiteness leaves much to crave. What I mean by a white desire for intimacy is that, unlike those who dream of liberation from their oppression, whites as a whole have not been fed any history outside of their own illusions. But to see pain outside of one’s body enters one’s consciousness into crossroads, a multi-directional conversion of racial identities, where collision may either destroy one’s sense of stability or force into existence a destabilizing medium “where choices have to be made.” Entering the crossroads challenges the gatekeepers of whiteness, who are people within an unstable structure carrying the “burden of vigilance” to maintain the boundaries between racial identities. The transference of burdens—burden of proof, burden of witness—powerfully and awe-fully moves at the intersections of collective movements of resistance. From these crossroads, multiracial forms of resistance soak the underground with the undercurrents of global, artistic, spiritual, and communal forces of self-determination.
“We’ve got some difficult days ahead”
The elements of the crossroads converge from the earthy spaces between bones and ash, but the waterfront harbors the soul, the potential for liberation—as it is through the “multiracial waterfront” that all outcasts from a single nation of the earth can bury their bones and scatter their ashes. Transnational flows, from the Third World Liberation movement to revolutions on United States soil along Black Nationalism, greeted structures of (white) power with a “tidal wave” of resistance. However, the strategic isolation of movements into the confines of a dominant history in this country perpetuates a history of domination.
The new color-blind rhetoric scrubbed a history white. While the early 20th century in the United States witnessed movements along axes of class and gender, the fight for and eventual complicity to the propagation of “equal opportunity” centralized whiteness, but decentralized the dominant narrative of racism, now industrialized and immobilized. Politically produced and publicly marketed through the organization of labor unions during the New Deal, the ideology of “nonracial syndicalism” eradicated the possibilities of mass organized resistance against structures of power along color lines.
With the mortal threat of such silences, it became all the more imperative for vessels to un-silence themselves, to thrust their bodies into the crossroads. My only question of whites: Are you ready to lose your whiteness? That is, once you can witness the darkness ripping from another person’s skin, can you just as violently understand the movement of your soul? Then an alliance can be entrusted. Then you may cross over into my home. Johnny Otis realized that the possibility of losing his life, even more so than the rejection of his white identity, must be the necessary mode of integrity in resistance:
Otis shared the rage of the rioters, but when they saw his face, he would likely bear the brunt of their rage as well. As Malcom X once said, when a racial powder keg explodes, it doesn’t care who it hits. It takes the innocent along with the guilty.
Likewise, the counter-hegemonic movement of whiteness against the war on identity—war on Native American treaty rights, war on Black Liberation, war on Latina heritage recovery, war on Asian American masculinity—has become its own witness to the unfolding and perpetuating history of white violence.
Finally, I direct the questions of myself towards the darker bodies of resistance, particularly men of color, crowned heavy like Kings. How will the White Father bow his head, a reflection of God in His own humility? What kind of post-apocalyptic world could we then envision? Beyond the global united front, beyond the anti-imperialist coalitions of revolutionary and military empowerment, beyond the displacement of burning time flung into the windows of a polarized country, the storm yields more than fire and rain. When will we cross over the mountaintop?
1. Martin Luther King, Jr., “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” YouTube video, 2:38, from a speech delivered on April 3, 1968, posted by “NewsPoliticsInfo,” April 4, 2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oehry1JC9Rk.
2. On a character of multi-racial identity who resists both his white and “McCaslin blood,” Faulkner writes “Instead of being at once the battleground and victim of the two strains, he was a vessel, durable, ancestryless, non-conductive, in which the toxin and its anti stalemated one another, seetheless, unrumored in the outside air” [qtd. in Adrian Piper, “Passing for White, Passing for Black,” in Talking Visions, ed. Ella Shohat (New York: The MIT Press, 2001), 111.]
3. George Lipsitz, “Masquerades and Mixtures: The Hidden History of Passing,” in Footsteps in the Dark (Minneapolis: University of Minessota Press, 1997), 186.
4. Lipsitz, “Masquerades” 191.
5. David R. Roediger, “Elvis, Wiggers, and Crossing Over to Nonwhiteness,” in Colored White (Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2003), 232.
6. Roediger, “Elvis” 212.
7. George Lipsitz, “White Desire: Remembering Robert Johnson,” in The Possessive Investment in Whiteness (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006), 120.
8. Piper, 85.
9. Lipsitz, “Masquerades,” 202.
10. Piper, 98.
11. Lipsitz, “Masquerades,” 189.
12. Lipsitz, “White Desire,” 118.
13. bell hooks, “Madonna: Plantation Mistress or Soul Sister,” in Black on White, ed. David R. Roediger (New York: Schocken Books, 1992), 308.
14. George Lipsitz, “There’s a Riot Goin’ On,” in Midnight at the Barrelhouse: The Johnny Otis Story (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 159.
15. Piper, 109.
16. Markus Rediker, “The Outcasts of the Nations of the Earth,” in The Many Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001) 206.
17. Robin D. G. Kelley, “‘Roaring from the East’: Third World Dreaming,” in Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (Boston: Beacon Press, 2003), 63.
18. David R. Roediger, “A New Deal, an Industrial Union, and a White House: What the New Immigrant Got Into,” in Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White (New York: Basic Books, 2005) 216.
19. Roediger, “A New Deal” 212.
20. Lipsitz, “There’s a Riot” xvii.
21. George Lipsitz, “Walleye warriors and white identities: Native Americans’ treaty rights, composite identities and social movements,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 31 (2008): 109.
22. Kelley, 80.
23. Rosa Linda Fregoso, “‘Fantasy Heritage’: Tracking Latina Bloodlines,” in Mexicana Encounters: The Making of Social Identities on the Borderlands (Ewing: University of California Press, 2003) 108.
24. Robert G. Lee, “Inner Dikes and Barred Zones,” in Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999) 126.
25. Lipsitz, “Walleye warriors” 109.
26. Kelley, 95.
27. Lipsitz, “There’s a Riot” xix.