The Great White Myth Part 1: The Abstraction of a Simple Truth

Essays, Society and Culture
“American Prieta” by Tom Loftin Johnson, 1941

Oftentimes, when attempting to convince our white colleagues, families or peers of the horror of a particular racial injustice, we ask them to put a loved one in the victim’s place. We ask of them the impossible task of placing their white child in a park with a toy gun or walking home with Skittles and a Brisk and dying for it, or to imagine a white brother or father begging for their breath as it is stolen from them in broad daylight, on camera and replayed over and over and over again for the world to see. On its face, this seemingly innocuous exercise appears to be one of empathy, a way of approximating oneself and one’s peers to something beyond the realm of personal experience so to better understand and relate to it, but the impulse clearly illustrates how the plight of a black body cannot be seen for what it is through the deeply obscured lens of whiteness and instead must be replaced with another, one seen by the white observer as somehow more human, more worthy of dignity and thus more worthy of life. Whiteness, for all the power it has centralized, is incapable of recognizing the humanity of those who exist on or outside of the arbitrary margins it has constructed, enforced and maintained for centuries.

“Whiteness is less complex than the abstract social benefit dictum it is made out to be. It is, very simply, a refusal of the humanness, the realness, the actuality of the perceived ‘other’.”

The problem of whiteness, and race at large, presents itself to many white people as an abstraction — a layered, murky, historical web of individual power dynamics, cultural nuance and implicit bias which only really manifest in the trespasses of chattel slavery and segregation or the overt racism of the Ku Klux Klan and insular Alt-Right message boards.  As a result we excuse perceivably subtle racism, microaggressions and normalized incarnations of racist violence like police brutality, restrictive housing markets, and the school to prison pipeline as a lack of understanding or cultural awareness and thus deflect focus from the simple, mutual root coursing through every manifestation of racism and white supremacy: dehumanization, the prima metería of bigotry.  

The historic and contemporary implications of the white>other binary have become a fixture of the public discourse, but the narrative is so often a procession of straw men and scapegoats; shifting blame and pointing fingers. Education, economics, cultural differences, the sins of our ancestors, and this one, particularly abhorrent president are all held responsible for the racial disparities of the world today. We’re not wrong for recognizing the truth that may exist in these statements, but they are symptoms, real world manifestations of a deeper societal sickness. Whiteness is less complex than the abstract social benefit dictum it is made out to be. It is, very simply, a refusal of the humanness, the realness, the actuality of the perceived “other”. If it were not, accepting a black, indigenous or otherwise non white person’s lived experiences at face value would never be met with resistance, and yet, en masse and for generations, black life, in all its human variety, richness and dimension, is socially and publicly refuted as an aberration or reduced to a one dimensional caricature.

“When we reduce others, consciously or subconsciously, to a stereotype, a caricature or a trope, we lose our own complexity, our own humanity, and enter a world of monsters.”

A common and key refutation of whiteness studies is the lack of homogeneity in white identity, the assertion that not all white people are the same, that white identity is a spectrum, and thus no single attitude, philosophy, structure or culture can be rightfully applied to it.  While this is true, and the ways in which white identity has grown throughout history to incorporate ethnic groups it once excluded such as Irish, Italian and Jewish Europeans proves this, what I feel is missed by this sentiment —beyond the denial of the complex, varied identity and experience of non white people— are the ways in which whiteness has defined and influenced the concept of blackness, and all other racial, cultural and ethnic identities, by relation to itself, effectively reducing its own identity to a singular oppositional dimension.  Because whiteness has been established as the default societal standard for human experience, it’s retainers and beneficiaries —white people—  have become, willingly or not, incapable of projecting the nuance of their own experiences upon the rest of the world, and the most fundamental expressions of pain, joy, anger, reflection, creativity, love, intellect and longing have become unrecognizable in the amalgamous and imaginary other. 

The mutuality of the effects of the systematized social categorization of human beings can’t be understated. When we reduce others, consciously or subconsciously, to a stereotype, a caricature or a trope, we lose our own complexity, our own humanity, and enter a world of monsters. Whiteness itself was born from these very reductions and that is the world we find ourselves living in today, plagued by senseless violence, greed and repression. After hundreds of years of building benign societal boundaries we have lost sight of our most rudimentary sense of being, that suchness which we all, by virtue of existence, share. To try and find alternative fault, though seemingly fruitful, is futile when every incarnation of racism, no matter how large or small, extreme or mundane, shares that refutation of another’s most basic existence.

“We must challenge those assumptions and doubts that keep us from recognizing in another that which exists without question in ourselves.”

To combat this terrible truth and end white supremacy, I believe we must relearn what it means to be human and undertake the practice of a deeply radical, universal empathy. We must remember that those expressions and experiences which are most natural and common to humanity —sorrow, joy, need, hunger, affection, thirst, pride, doubt, loneliness, longing, triumph— are ubiquitously shared, regardless of melanin, geography, religion, language or culture. We must challenge those assumptions and doubts that keep us from recognizing in another that which exists without question in ourselves. When we can see that most basic humanness, the need to question the mere reality of the horror, violence and sadism we continue to see play out on television and computer screens week after week erodes. We can be honest in our demands for reform, internally and externally, and manifest true, deep and systematic change.

I believe that when the Murri activist, artist and academic Lilla Watson said “if you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together,” she was speaking to this very idea. Our humanity, and thus our liberation, are inseparable. Until whiteness comes to terms with that, we can never hope to rid ourselves of even the most benign of bigotries.

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