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.

On American Riot

Essays, Society and Culture
“The Soiling of Old Glory” Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by Stanley Forman. Taken during Boston’s busing crisis of 1976

In moments of great turmoil historicity serves us all. Time, above all things, shows us our successes and failures, our seized and missed opportunities, to best elucidate the present state of our being, and yet we are so often woe to remember, or, if a collective amnesia is not at fault, fail to acknowledge what has led us to this very moment. As the streets of nearly every major US city and many more globally have become illuminated with the fires of revolt, it is paramount that we understand the long, grueling path that has led us to today as we begin to construct a future out of yesterday’s ashes.

The legacy of riot has a unique and influential place in American discourse. This nation was steeled in its language from its very conception, yet the racially and culturally pigmented dialects of that language have been translated quite differently. Six years before the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, riots, which often included the looting of shops, throwing of stones and mass concentrations of disgruntled colonists, were commonplace as tensions between American colonists and British loyalists continued to manifest in small, decentralized skirmishes. As recently illustrated in an article from The Atlantic one of these very riots —coming only months after a 10 year old boy was shot and killed by a shop owner in an earlier riot—resulted in the first casualty of the Revolutionary War, an Afro-Native stevedore by the name of Crispus Attucks.

“Boston Massacre” Lithograph c.1850’s. This is the first portrayal of Crispus Attucks as a central figure in the Boston Massacre.

The parallels of the legal case which followed the death of Crispus Attucks and four others during what was to become known as The Boston Massacre are harrowingly similar to those we’ve seen in recent years. John Adams, who would later become the second president of the United States, served as defense attorney for the British officers responsible for the shots which killed Attucks, all of whom were acquitted of murder charges and only two charged with the much lesser crime of manslaughter.

While the acquittal of officers charged with the death of a black and native man can be seen and felt with a mournful familiarity, it was the nature of Adams’ defense which most echoes the current shortcomings of our justice system and the depths of it’s institutionalized bigotries. The riots were initially lauded as valiantly patriotic resistance to British injustice by the likes of Paul Revere, Samual Adams and John Hancock, but John Adams constructed a defense narrative of vicious, belligerent black hostility from Attucks and his compatriots for an all white, non Bostonian jury. His description of the rioters as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes [sic], Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs,” who were “under the command of a stout molatto fellow, whose very looks, was enough to terrify any person,” played into a well established anti-black sentiment steeped in the transatlantic slave trade and shared by colonists and loyalists alike. Despite being the first man to fight and die for the American Revolution, Crispus Attucks was posthumously vilified by Adams, a man who would prosper greatly from the very actions he condemned, writing years later that “on that night the formation of American independence was laid… Not the battle of Lexington or Bunker Hill, not the surrender of Burgoyne or Cornwallis were more important events in American history than the battle of King Street on March 5th 1770.”

In the 250 years since, this pattern has continued to re-emerge on the national stage. Through slave rebellions, westward expansion, labor struggles, the civil war, reconstruction, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, stonewall, farm workers revolts and the most recent BLM uprisings we have seen these narratives replay themselves. The cumulative frustration, hope, rage and fundamental human longing which set the stage for protest, resistance and riot, no matter how warranted or legitimate, are demonized, neglected and villified when manifest and expressed in non-white bodies, while outright prejudicial violence is excused, tolerated or dismissed.

In 1834, 3 years after Nat Turner’s infamous rebellion, white anti-abolitionist rioters swarmed New York City and submerged it in violence for over a week, destroying seven black churches and over a dozen black homes in the process. The source of their anger and violence? The mere acknowledgement of black humanity. Despite this terror at the hands of over four thousand white people, the New York riots were largely understood as “…not only the denunciation of an insulted community, but the violence of an infuriated populace.”

The Greenwood District of Tulsa, OK in ruins after the massacre of 1921

In 1864, at the height of the civil war, a mixed race man named William Faulkner was falsely accused and arrested in Detroit for the molestation of a young white woman. Before this, Faulkner passed as white, voting in multiple elections years before the 15th amendment was ratified, but after his blackness was noted in the pages of local newspapers, white mobs gathered and began to attack black citizens in front of and surrounding the court house where his trial was taking place. This white ire spread throughout Detroit over the following days with assaults on black people and the arson and looting of black homes and businesses, resulting in two deaths, the complete burning of 35 buildings and over 200 black men, women and children left without shelter. In the end, Faulkner, though pardoned two years later, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The Detroit City Council refused to offer any compensation for the 200 left homeless despite being encouraged by the Michigan Legislature to do so, and opted instead to implement the city’s first full time, all white, police force.

99 years ago almost to the day, 1,250 homes were destroyed and between 150-300 people are estimated to have died when white “rioters” leveled the black Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The court proceedings following the tragedy led to an all white jury attributing the violence and destruction to the very black community that had been devastated by it, though an official report by the Oklahoma State Legislature 80 years later found that the city of Tulsa has conspired with the white mob against the black community of Greenwood. Not a single conviction was brought for all the violence, and many black residents were left to live in tents among the ashes of their former homes and businesses. Within a year the City of Tulsa began redevelopment of the once thriving black economic center, pushing any remaining black businesses and residents further out of the city. It wasn’t until this year, 2020, that Oklahoma school districts were provided with an extensive curriculum on the riot, the largest of its kind in US history.

Aftermath of Harlem Riots

These incidents of excused terror come in sharp contrast, both in nature and response, to black led uprisings and riots. The Harlem Riot of 1935 which started in response to the reported severe beating of a black Puerto Rican child by employees of a white owned five and dime is seen to be the first “modern race riot” in the us. It’s claim to modernity? The targets of violence were almost entirely property and the black and brown rioters did not target other racial groups with physical violence as white mobs routinely did. The same can be said for the Birmingham Riots of 1963, which began as a peaceful protest in response to a bombing that targeted black leaders of the Birmingham Campaign for racial justice, and only resorted to property damage after violent police intervention. The demonstrators in Birmingham were met with the force of Federal troops for the first time in history as a result.

Police violence during the Birmingham riots of 1963.

Time and again white riotous violence is met with an exclusive understanding and little to no legal recourse while black resistance and calls for justice are met with violently suppressive force and swift, legal brutality. These aforementioned examples are only shards of our complex and distant past, but we can clearly see in their reflection the events of recent decades. And we can see how, after the pressure applied by multilateral black liberation movements and other movements for social, environmental and economic justice forces the world to reckon with it’s wrongs, these struggles are co opted and white-washed into something both placating and palatable. Like Adams, the very individuals and institutions who once discredit, dehumanize and vilify black rebellion inevitably come to champion it to their own benefit. Who but the most openly vile of racists will defame the legacy of Dr. King today, though he was one of the most hated men in the country the years before he died? They will quote him and reduce the vigor of his calls for justice to something they can use against those who rise in his spirit and those of countless black resistors before and after who have suffered, struggled and died at the hands of white violence and whose names are never spoken. Those who suppress, criticize and condemn the rage of a bleeding populace can only rightfully invoke his words asserting “riot is the language of the unheard” when they truly hear, and see their complicity in the words that follow: “…in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay.”

What a long, white winter it has been.