But all our phrasingârace relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacyâserves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. .Â .Â . You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.
Between the World and Me
Racism is complex and nuanced, and its manifestations are not the same for every group of color. To challenge the ideologies of racism such as individualism and color blindness, we as white people must suspend our perception of ourselves as unique and/or outside race. Exploring our collective racial identity interrupts a key privilege of dominanceâthe ability to see oneself only as an individual. We need to discuss white people as a groupâeven if doing so jars usâin order to disrupt our unracialized identities.
For people of color, the privilege of being seen (and seeing themselves) as unique individuals outside the context of race cannot be taken for granted. Talking about race and racism in general terms such as
is constructive for whites because it interrupts individualism. But racial generalization also reinforces something problematic for people of colorâthe continual focus on their group identity. Furthermore, it collapses many racial groups into one generic category, thereby denying
the specific ways that different groups experience racism. While people of color share some experiences of racism overall, there are also variations based on a specific group's history. These variations include how group members have adapted to the dominant culture, how they have been represented, how they have been positioned in relation to other groups of color, and the “role” the group has been assigned by dominant society. The messages I have internalized about people of Asian heritage, for example, are not the same as those I have internalized for Indigenous people, and a key aspect of challenging these messages is to identify their differences and how they shape my attitudes toward various groups of color. Further, there are myriad groups within these categories, and I have different attitudes here too. For example, my stereotypes about Japanese people are not the same as my stereotypes about Chinese people, and these stereotypes inform different responses.
In this chapter, I will address the uniquely anti-black sentiment integral to white identity. In doing so, I do not wish to minimize the racism that other groups of color experience. However, I believe that in the white mind, black people are the ultimate racial “other,” and we must grapple with this relationship, for it is a foundational aspect of the racial socialization underlying white fragility.
I remind my readers that I am addressing white people at the societal level. I have friends who are black and whom I love deeply. I do not have to suppress feelings of hatred and contempt as I sit with them; I see their humanity. But on the macro level, I also recognize the deep anti-black feelings that have been inculcated in me since childhood. These feelings surface immediatelyâin fact, before I can even thinkâwhen I conceptualize black people in general. The sentiments arise when I pass black strangers on the street, see stereotypical depictions of black people in the media, and hear the thinly veiled warnings and jokes passed between white people. These are the deeper feelings that I need to be willing to examine, for these feelings can and do seep out without my awareness and hurt those whom I love.
As discussed in previous chapters, we live in a culture that circulates relentless messages of white superiority. These messages exist
simultaneously with relentless messages of black inferiority. But anti-blackness goes deeper than the negative stereotypes all of us have absorbed; anti-blackness is foundational to our very identities as white people. Whiteness has always been predicated on blackness. As discussed in
, there was no concept of race or a white race before the need to justify the enslavement of Africans. Creating a separate and inferior black race simultaneously created the “superior” white race: one concept could not exist without the other. In this sense, whites need black people; blackness is essential to the creation of white identity.
Scholars have argued that whites split off from themselves and project onto black people the aspects that we don't want to own in ourselves.
For example, the white masters of enslaved Africans consistently depicted the Africans as lazy and childlike, even as they toiled at backbreaking work from sunup to sundown. Today, we depict blacks as dangerous, a portrayal that perverts the true direction of violence between whites and blacks since the founding of this country. This characterization causes aversion and hostility toward black people and feelings of superiority toward ourselves, but we cannot morally acknowledge any of these feelings. To reiterate, I am speaking here of the collective white consciousness. An individual white person may not be explicitly aware of these feelings, but I am often amazed at how quickly they surface with even the slightest challenge.
Consider the enduring white resentment about the perceived injustices of affirmative action programs. There is empirical evidence that people of color (especially black people) have been discriminated against in hiring since the ending of enslavement and into the present.
In the late 1960s, a program was instituted to help ameliorate this discrimination: affirmative action.
There is a great amount of misinformation about affirmative action, as evidenced in the idea of special rights. For example, people commonly believe that if a person of color applies for a position, he or she must be hired over a white person; that black people are given preferential treatment in hiring; and that a specific number of people of color must be hired to fill a quota.
All these beliefs are patently untrue. Affirmative action is a tool to ensure that
minority applicants are given the same employment opportunities as white people. It is a flexible programâthere are no quotas or requirements as commonly understood. Moreover,
have been the greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action, although the program did not initially include them. Corporations are more likely to favor white women and immigrants of color of elite backgrounds from outside the United States when choosing their executives.
No employer is required to hire an unqualified person of color, but companies are required to be able to articulate why they didn't hire a qualified person of color (and this requirement is rarely enforced). Additionally, affirmative action never applied to private companiesâonly to state and governmental agencies.
Still, this program has been systematically chipped away at, and several states have eliminated affirmative action programs altogether. In turn, African Americans continue to be the most underrepresented group at the organizational leadership level. In 2018, affirmative action has all but been dismantled. Yet invariably, I will encounter a white maleâbristling with umbrageâwho raises the issue of affirmative action. It seems that we white people just cannot let go of our outrage over how unfair this toothless attempt to rectify centuries of injustice has been to
And this umbrage consistently surfaces in overwhelmingly white leadership groups that have asked me to come in and help them recruit and retain more people of color.
Copious research attests to the disdain of whites for African Americans, from the school-to-prison pipeline, to mass incarceration, to white flight.
For example, on attitude surveys, most whites say they would prefer neighborhoods that are no more than 30 percent black, and more than half of whites say they would not move into a neighborhood that is 30 percent black or more. Studies of actual mobility patterns not only confirm these preferences, but also show that whites downplay them. White flight has been triggered when a formerly white neighborhood reaches 7 percent black, and in neighborhoods with more than a few
black families, white housing demand tends to disappear.
(That is, the demand disappears unless white people need that housing because of unaffordable home prices in other neighborhoods. In that case, black people are pushed out as gentrification increases. Brooklyn, Harlem, Oakland, and Seattle are prime examples.)
A 2015 study by the American Sociological Foundation found that the highest level of segregation is between blacks and whites, the lowest is between Asians and whites, and the level between Latinx and whites occupies an intermediate position. A majority of whites, in both the expression of their beliefs and the practice of their lives, do not want to integrate with blacks.
We see anti-black sentiment in how quickly images of brutality toward black children (let alone black adults) are justified by the white assumption that it must have been deserved. Such beliefs would be unimaginable if we had been shown images of white teens being thrown across schoolrooms, of white kindergarteners handcuffed, of a white child shot while playing with a toy gun in the park. We see anti-black sentiment in the immediate rejoinder to Black Lives Matter that
lives matter, that
lives matter. And in the absurdly false comparison between the white nationalist and “alt-right” movement (now directly connected to the White House) with the Black Panther Party of the 1960s. We see anti-blackness in how much more harshly we criticize blacks, by every measure. We see it in the president of the United States positioning the avowed white supremacist neo-Nazis marching openly in the streetsâincluding one man who drove a car into a crowd of protestersâas equal in character to the people protesting them. As Coates notes in “The Case for Reparations”:
The early American economy was built on slave labor. The Capitol and the White House were built by slaves. President James K. Polk traded slaves from the Oval Office. The laments about “black pathology,” the criticism of black family structures by pundits and intellectuals, ring hollow in a country whose existence was predicated on the torture of
black fathers, on the rape of black mothers, on the sale of black children. An honest assessment of America's relationship to the black family reveals the country to be not its nurturer but its destroyer. And this destruction did not end with slavery.
Anti-blackness is rooted in misinformation, fables, perversions, projections, and lies. It is also rooted in a lack of historical knowledge and an inability or unwillingness to trace the effects of history into the present. But perhaps most fundamentally, anti-blackness comes from deep guilt about what we have done and continue to do; the unbearable knowledge of our complicity with the profound torture of black people from past to present. While the full trauma of this torture in its various formsâboth physically and psychologicallyâis only borne by African Americans, there is a kind of moral trauma in it for the white collective. In his revolutionary book,
My Grandmother's Hands,
social worker and therapist Resmaa Menakem refers to white supremacy as
white body supremacy
to argue that white supremacy is a form of trauma that is stored in our collective bodies: “Many African Americans know trauma intimatelyâfrom their own nervous systems, from the experiences of people they love, and, most often, from both. But African Americans are not alone in this. A different but equally real form of racialized trauma lives in the bodies of most white Americans.”
Our projections allow us to bury this trauma by dehumanizing and then blaming the victim. If blacks are not human in the same ways that we white people are human, our mistreatment of them doesn't count. We are not guilty; they are. If they are bad, it isn't unfair. In fact, it is
There is a curious satisfaction in the punishment of black people: the smiling faces of the white crowd picnicking at lynchings in the past, and the satisfied approval of white people observing mass incarceration and execution in the present. White righteousness, when inflicting pain on African Americans, is evident in the glee the white collective derives from blackface and depictions of blacks as apes and gorillas. We see it in the compassion toward white people who are addicted to opiates and the call to provide them with services versus the mandatory sentencing
perpetrated against those addicted to crack. We see it in the concern about the “forgotten” white working class so critical to the outcome of the last presidential election, with no concern for blacks, who remain on the bottom of virtually every social and economic measure. As Coates points out, “toiling blacks are in their proper state; toiling whites raise the specter of white slavery.”
Coates refers to white people as “Dreamers” in “the Dream,” falsely believing that they are actually white. I take this to mean that whites can only be white if someone is not whiteâif someone is the opposite of white. White is a false identity, an identity of false superiority. In that sense, whiteness isn't real. The dream is the “perfect world,” unpolluted by blacks. If whites are to construct this world, blacks must be separated through state violence. Yet they still must exist, for the existence of blacks provides the needed other against which whites may rise. Thus, white identity depends in particular on the projection of inferiority onto blacks and the oppression this inferior status justifies for the white collective.
To put it bluntly, I believe that the white collective fundamentally hates blackness for what it reminds us of: that we are capable and guilty of perpetrating immeasurable harm and that our gains come through the subjugation of others. We have a particular hatred for “uppity” blacks, those who dare to step out of their place and look us in the eye as equals.
The messages that circulate relentlessly across the generations reinforce the white belief that blacks are inherently undeserving (a frankly outrageous belief, given the state-sanctioned robbery of their labor). We heard this message in the narrative of “welfare cheats” and “welfare queens” in the Reagan era. We see it today when commentators slam National Football League (NFL) players who kneel during the national anthem and exercise their right to protest police brutality as “ungrateful” and when former congressman Joe Walsh declares that Stevie Wonder is “another ungrateful black multimillionaire.” We see it when Robert Jeffress, Dallas evangelical pastor and adviser to the president of the United States, claims that NFL players who protest police brutality against African Americans should thank God they don't have to worry about being shot in the head “like they would be in North
Korea.” We see it in the outrage of the crowd of white progressives who showed up to hear Bernie Sanders speak in Seattle and were asked by black activists to grant four and a half minutes of silence to honor Michael Brown, an unarmed black man shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri: “How dare you!” the crowd cried.